Nfld. & Labrador

A letter from London: Remembrance Day, 2015

Ted Blades writes on the connection that has formed between English schoolchildren and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

How children at an English elementary school came to care for 18 Newfoundland graves

Poppies clustered around the flag pole at Burntwood school are dedicated to the memory of Newfoundlanders who died at a former hospital. (Ted Blades/CBC)

The names of Newfoundland soldiers, dead almost a century now, were spoken aloud this morning in the Great Hall at Burntwood, a girls-only high school in Wandsworth, South London.

About 1,500 students, their teachers and I were crammed into the hall to watch a presentation by the year 6 students from nearby Beatrix Potter Elementary.

They tell the older students the story of the 17 soldiers and one nurse who lie buried in the cemetery across the street from their school. They were casualties of the First World War, who perished not on the front but in a less-discussed place: the hospital that cared for wounded soldiers. 

Students from Beatrix Potter Elementary in a performance Wednesday inspired by Newfoundland Regiment soldiers. (Ted Blades/CBC)

They read out the names of their home towns — Ochre Pit Cove, Leading Tickles, St. John's.

They act out the nervous preparations on the morning of July 1, 1916.

They read excerpts from letters home as the soldiers faces flash by on the screen behind them.

Burntwood student Rebecca Howe played The Last Post as Beatrix Potter Elementary students planted poppies for Newfoundlanders around Burntwood's flagpole. (Ted Blades/CBC)

Twenty-four hours earlier, I walked across Magdalen Road with the Year 2 students as they went to place poppies on the graves of these Newfoundlanders, who all died during the Great War. 

This annual observance is something that began by accident 12 years ago when — on an outing to collect conkers in the cemetery — one of the students wondered why the graves in one particular plot had no poppies on them.

The hundreds of other military graves had had a poppy placed on them that Remembrance Day, but not these ones.

In response, her teacher asked, "Why don't we find out?", and thus began what has become a profound and moving kinship between the school and the Newfoundlanders across the way.

'It's important to remember their names'

To say that the school has adopted them is no exaggeration. Images of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment's caribou emblem are everywhere. On one wall hangs a collection of photos from a recent school trip to Beaumont-Hamel where five of "our soldiers were wounded".

Nearby are individual scrapbooks — one for each of them — filled with the information and photos of the students have gathered over the years. 

Students from Beatrix Potter Elementary in London brought poppies to the graves of Newfoundland Regiment soldiers who died at hospital. (Ted Blades/CBC)

As 10-year-old Rose Keusch, one of the presenters, told me, "It's important to remember their names. They were real people who gave their lives to help us."

'A very personal relationship with these Newfoundlanders'

Beatrix Potter's headmaster, Steph Neale, tells me that while this started out as a learning opportunity, "a chance to teach the kids about history, and geography and politics," has grown into "what feels like a very personal relationship with these Newfoundlanders."

Wandsworth Cemetery is easy to spot on the map, or from the air.

It's a large green triangle that cuts through the district of Earlsfield, about a mile south of the Thames (they still use miles and yards in England, as they did a century ago).

The cemetery dates from 1878 and though there are thousands of civilian plots here, a great portion is given over to the military graves, some 600 in total, 475 of them from the First World War.

Most of those belong to people who died in the 3rd General London Hospital, which was once nearby.

The old 3rd London General Hospital cared for wounded members of the Newfoundland Regiment. (Dundee City Archives)

If you died in battle during the Great War, they buried you over there, in France or Belgium or wherever you fell.

The ill and wounded were shipped back through the lines and across the English Channel to one of the many hospitals which were opened here in London on the eve of the war, in anticipation of the slaughter to come.

Wounded soldiers got fresh air and met visitors on the lawn of the 3rd London General Hospital. (The Rooms Provincial Archives)

The 3rd London General was one of four Territorial Hospitals set up to tend to the colonial wounded.

Thousands treated in hospital's wards

Over the four years of the war, roughly 62,000 patients — Newfoundlanders, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and even a few Canadians — were treated in its wards.

Those who got better and were declared fit for duty were sent back to the front. Those deemed incapable of further service but fit to travel were shipped home.

The ones who died in hospital are buried here, in Wandsworth.

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment plot sits near the heart of the cemetery, not far from the Australians and the New Zealanders.

The Newfoundland Regiment plot at Wandsworth Cemetery. (Ted Blades/CBC)

Seventeen young men and one woman from Newfoundland lie buried here. Her name is Bertha Bartlett. She was from Brigus.

A nurse serving in the Voluntary Aid Detachment, tending to the soldiers at Bermondsey Military Hospital in south London, she caught the Spanish flu and on Nov. 3, 1918, eight days before they called an end to the war and 11 shy of her 24th birthday, she died. 

Bertha Bartlett, seen in the back row, is the only woman to be buried in the Newfoundland Regiment plot at Wandsworth Cemetery. (Collection of Pat Bayne)

That puts Bertha near the middle of the pack in the regiment's plot.

The soldiers who lie around her range in age from 19 to 26, including five wounded on the morning of July 1, 1916, on the first day of The Somme.

There`s Edward Peckford, described in the war records as a labourer from Gander Bay, Fogo District. He signed up at 18 and was dead a year and a day later.

Robert LeBuff, one of the members of the Newfoundland Regiment buried in London. (The Rooms Provincial Archives)

There's John Charles Edwards, dead at 22, a house painter from Pennywell Road in St. John's, Silas Edgecombe, a fisherman from Ochre Pit Cove, who was 23 or 24 when he died, as was Stanley Gordon Pike, an office clerk from St. John's.

The oldest of the five was Robert LeBuff, a Canadian-born lumberman from Springdale, who was 25.

All five of these men, cut down when they went over the top at Beaumont-Hamel, succumbed to their wounds before the end of August.

Just over there are three soldiers wounded at the battle of Monchy-le-Preux the following April. Lance-Cpl. Thomas Carter, from Stephenville Crossing, who was 22 or 23 when he died, Pte. Philip Gilett, from Leading Tickles, dead at 22, and Pte. Arthur John Abbott, a fisherman from Charlottetown in Bonavista Bay, who was 21 when he died of infection five months after being shot in "the hip and buttocks."

Alfred Reid, a young blacksmith from St. John's, died from measles and tuberculosis. (The Rooms Provincial Archives)

I move from grave to grave, as the children make their rounds. Here's Alfred Reid, a 21-year-old blacksmith, and Frederick Donald Bastow, 22, a labourer.

Both lived on Cook Street in St. John's and I can't help but wonder if they knew each other before they signed up.

Pte. Reid died in August 1916 of the measles and tuberculosis.

His brother, Sgt. Charles Reid, had been killed less than seven weeks earlier at Beaumont-Hamel. He's buried in France.

Pte. Bastow died of his wounds and of meningitis, the hospital records tell us, in October of that year.

Deaths would be preventable today

What struck me about these deaths, not as I stand here looking at their markers, but while reading their war records before I flew to London, is that most of them would be preventable today.

In addition to the ones I've already mentioned, consider Pte. Adolphus Garrett Heath, a 20-year-old fisherman from Long Island, Green Bay, who was wounded at the Battle of Gueudecourt in northern France, in October 1916.

He was hit by artillery fire in his left leg, and his femur was fractured. He was evacuated to the 3rd London General.

He would get the best of care but six months later he would die "from infection in the fractured neck of the femur," because the best of care in 1916 did not include the drugs and treatments we have now.

Heber John Miles, 21, lost his life to rheumatic fever. (The Rooms Provincial Archives)

Or Augustus Quinton, a 19-year-old fisherman from "Red Cliff, Bonavista District" when he signed up.

Wounded in the back by an exploding shell in Belgium, in September 1916, Pte. Quinton endured several operations on his spine before dying of of his wounds two months later.

Then there's Pte. Patrick Joseph Brown, a 19-year-old clerk from St. John's, who landed in Suvla Bay in September 1915, and came down with dysentery less than three weeks later. He was shipped out first to Cairo, then London, but he contracted tuberculosis on the voyage and died  "of illness" six months later, not yet 20.

Pte. Heber John Miles, a 21-year-old schoolteacher from Bonavista, died of rheumatic fever in March 1916.  

Chesley Mercer died not of bullet wounds but of a cancer that physicians discovered while treating him. (The Rooms Provincial Archives)

The story of everyone lying in the Newfoundland plot is much the same.

Consider James Patrick Houlahan, shot in the right leg and left thigh at Beaumont Hamel, hospitalized for six months and then reassigned to desk duty in London before being readmitted with "war trauma" and the first signs of tuberculosis.

Cpl. Houlahan was never discharged again. He died of TB in 1925.

Or Pte. Chesley Mercer, shot the day he stepped off the boat on Suvla beach. The bullet didn't kill him though. He died of a cancer, lymphadenoma, which doctors discovered while they were treating his wounds at the 3rd London General.

Completing the list

I've named all the Newfoundlanders but one now, so let me complete the list. William Rex Cook. a "tasker cook" from Forest Road in St. John's, was 19 when he signed up in the fall of 1914.

He got frostbite at Gallipoli in the winter of 1915, was shipped back to England, brought back to health at Wandsworth and redeployed a year later.

He caught malaria, survived that, and was re-assigned to his unit.

He fought for two months before getting shot in the shoulder in April 1918 .

He was evacuated again to Wandsworth, and died here 12 days later.

The Empire they fought and died for is gone, as is their country, which is part of Canada now.

Yet here they lie, these 18 young men and women from Newfoundland, under the grass in far-off England, as young feet softly tread above them. Young hands touch their tombstones and trace the letters of their names with tiny fingers. Young voices fill the air, "There's William Cook. He's the Blue Puttee boy!"

As Burntwood student Rebecca Howe told me after the elementary students' presentation, "What they did was really brave and really important to our history."

She continued, "My older sister is 18. The thought of her going off to war … is ridiculous. She's only just learning to drive. It's crazy, but that's what makes it so commendable. And we have to remember them for that."

'The least we can do'

On the walk back to Beatrix Potter, I leave the students for a few minutes to return, alone, to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment plot.

The poppies the Year 2s put there yesterday are beginning to blow away in the brisk November wind.

But there will be new poppies next year, and the year after that. I reach into my pocket and pull out a small stone I brought with me from Newfoundland.

I bury it next to Bertha Bartlett's headstone. It seems important to do so, to bring them a little piece of home, to think of the lives they never got to live but also about the enduring impact of their sacrifice.

As I take a few last photos, a white van from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission pulls up.

It's a groundskeeper come to weed the plot, not that it needs much weeding as far as I can tell.

"It's well looked after," I say.

Without a moment's hesitation, he replies, "It's the least we can do for these lot."

Lest we forget.

Postscript

Ted Blades will have more on his visit to Wandsworth Cemetery on Wednesday afternoon's edition of On The Go. He's also preparing a CBC Radio documentary special about the students from Beatrix Potter Elementary who tend the Newfoundland graves. It is set to to air in the spring of 2016.

About the Author

Ted Blades

On The Go

Ted Blades hosts CBC Radio's On The Go weekday afternoons in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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