Before 1949, Newfoundland was an independent British Dominion, and proud of it. As “Britain’s Oldest Colony,” the people of Newfoundland and Labrador proudly showcased their distinctiveness. The Newfoundland experience of the Great War would exemplify that pride and distinction, as would the commemoration that followed.
Newfoundland and Labrador were swept into the Great War, as with the other British Dominions, in August of 1914. Eager to loyally serve King and Country, the Newfoundland Government, under Sir Edward Morris of the Newfoundland People’s Party, agreed to outfit a regiment. This was considered ambitious given the island’s relatively sparse population of fewer than 250’000 people. More ambitious still, the task of recruiting and outfitting the First Newfoundland Regiment was to be done by an independent association, though funded by the government. It was believed that by keeping the organisation separate from the government, the patriotism of potential recruits would not be hindered by partisanship.
The Newfoundlanders served with distinction at the battle of Gallipoli before being sent to the Somme. There, on July 1st, 1916 under the Danger Tree of Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundlanders were nearly wiped out. As part of the second wave, they went over the top at 9:15 a.m. and, in less than half an hour, were obliterated. Of 801 men to go over the top, only 68 returned the next day for roll call—a grim 92% casualty rate. The First Newfoundland Regiment fought on, however. Their regiment was brought up to strength and they continued to participate, even returning to the Somme offensive at Guedecourt in October 1916. Another battle of note was the Newfoundlander defense of Monchy, during the battle of Arras, where ten soldiers—nine Newfoundlanders and one from the Essex Regiment—held off 200 Germans for nine hours until reinforcements could arrive. By the end of 1917, the Newfoundlanders had so distinguished themselves that King George V bestowed the ‘Royal’ title to the Regiment, the only British regiment to earn such a distinction in World War One. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment went on to occupy the Rhine river in Germany, in 1919, before returning home.
Beyond the Army, Newfoundland and Labrador made notable contributions to the marine merchant fleet during the war, in which they suffered 20% casualties, as well as in the Navy Reserves and in the Forestry Reserve. At least 21 Newfoundlanders even defended the skies above France and England. In all, Newfoundland contributed $35 million of its wealth and 11’988 individuals to the war effort, a tremendous contribution given the size and poverty of the island. This immense sacrifice was not without consequence. The instability wrought by the political, economic, and demographic contribution to the conflict, combined with the economic instability of subsequent decades led Newfoundland in a downward spiral that resulted in its loss of independence in 1949.
As can be imagined, July 1st is a day of mixed emotions for Newfoundland. Typically, memorial services are held in the morning with Canada Day celebrations taking over in the evening. While the people of Newfoundland and Labrador proudly wear the poppy on November 11th, with the rest of Canada, for July 1st they reserve their own distinct floral commemoration. Beginning with the 1917 commemoration, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador began wearing the forget-me-not flower every July 1st in memory of the unique sacrifice that their Dominion made during the Great War.
The bright blue forget-me-not, as the name would imply, has served as a commemorative symbol for centuries, some say starting in Germany. In Newfoundland, it has taken on renewed significance as not only a commemoration of the fallen but as a marker of distinction and uniqueness for the people of Newfoundland. Within the context of the centennial celebrations, mining companies have produced commemorative forget-me-not pendants out of Newfoundland gold, the Royal Legion has given permission to Newfoundland members to wear their forget-me-nots on their lapels, and a variety of folk songs have been released featuring the symbol. For example, legendary Newfoundland folk singer Bud Davidge, in 2010, released the song “Little Blue Forget-Me-Not” featuring the lyrics:
Forget-me-not, blue tiny blossom,
Long may you grow on soldiers’ graves;
And with the scarlet of the poppy,
Remind us of the loyal and brave,
Lest we forget the price they paid.
Lyrics that highlight the duality of July 1st in the Newfoundland imagination, as both a day unique to them and shared with all of Canada.
Newfoundland’s history of the Great War is distinct from that of the rest of Canada. The people of Newfoundland have worked hard to preserve that distinction even as they’ve integrated into the broader Canadian project. They commemorate the broader sacrifices made since World War One every November 11th, sporting the red poppy with the rest of Canada. However, they reserve for themselves a few quiet moments during the mornings of July 1st to remember their unique sacrifices and tragedies, and their unique disrupted destiny, with their unique forget-me-not bloom.
 For a great overview of Newfoundland and Labrador’s contribution to the First World War with a few primary sources to boot, see Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador’s great website at: “NL in the First World War,” accessed December 10, 2019, https://www.heritage.nf.ca/first-world-war/index.php#articles.
A.G. Racey, “Newfoundland ‘Saws Wood and Says Nothing’” illustration in The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, UM Digital Collections, http://hdl.handle.net/10719/1598947 (accessed December 14, 2019).
Robert Hand, Forget-Me-Not, ca. 2016, acrylic 24×36 canvas, Newfoundland Art Gallery, Mt. Pearl, accessed December 14, 2019, https://www.newfoundlandshop.ca/RodHandGallery.htm?fbclid=IwAR1Pyjt1NIsXPKb2o3b1CXOLnzh-P983GoSfA41w34jE0naW0G6yF89h_fA.
Thomas F. Nangle, “1.25.010 Danger Tree” photograph in Thomas F. Nangle, Coll-308, Memorial University of Newfoundland Libraries and Special Collections, http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/ref/collection/archives/id/5894 (accessed December 14, 2019).