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Giving and receiving

Fighting for each other: Descendants of the Regiment complete the circle

Campus and Community

By Dave Penney

Meagan Ryan breaks into a smile talking about what comes next.

“I finish up my program this year,” she says. “I’ve got a few different options in front of me.”

Megan Ryan
Megan Ryan received the War Veterans Family Award in 2014.
Photo: Chris Hammond

With a bachelor’s degree completed and a master of science in experimental psychology underway, it’s now about discovery and creating opportunities.

The young Memorial University graduate has gotten to this point with a lot of hard work — good grades and dedication that have been rewarded by scholarships along the way. One of those scholarships is the War Veterans Family Award.

“I received that award in 2014, and it was renewable for the last three years of my undergraduate degree, so it was an incredible help to me,” said Ms. Ryan. “The award is specifically for Canadian and Newfoundland war veterans or a spouse, child, grandchild or dependent of a veteran. In my case, my dad spent his military career in the Navy.”

Her connection to the military runs even deeper.

Ms. Ryan is also the great-granddaughter of Cpl. Matthew Brazil, a highly decorated member of the Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War. Cpl. Brazil enlisted in 1915 and served for the duration of the war, surviving multiple gunshot wounds and other injuries in various battles and engagements.

At Beaumont-Hamel, Cpl. Brazil suffered wounds to his leg and face, barely able to crawl back across No Man’s Land. He was alongside Pte. Thomas Ricketts at Ledgehem, Belgium, on Oct. 14, 1918, as part of the legendary dash to outflank the enemy when their platoon was pinned down under heavy fire.

While Cpl. Brazil received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his heroics that day, many believed he should have received the Victoria Cross along with Pte. Ricketts.

Completing the circle

The relationship between Ms. Ryan and Memorial University’s history and founding is clear.

Yet, there is another element to this story that completes the circle of what it means to give and receive.

Owen W. and James R. Steele of St. John’s were two brothers who also enlisted with the Newfoundland Regiment. Owen W. was one of the First Five Hundred, and his younger brother James R. joined him a few months later in the early winter of 1915.

1/ James R. Steele

James R. Steele is shown here in uniform, c. 1916. His son, James H. Steele, donated a broad range of items to Memorial's Archives and Special Collections division, Queen Elizabeth II Library, which includes artifacts, soldier’s personal effects, medals, photographs, diaries, letters and more.

Photo: James R. Steele collection, Archives and Special Collections, QEII Library

2/ Building reserve dugouts, Gallipoli

Members of the Newfoundland Regiment building reserve dugouts, one of their first assignments at Gallipoli.

Photo: James R. Steele collection, Archives and Special Collections, QEII Library

3/ Diary, Owen W. Steele

Pages from Owen W. Steele’s personal diary, written during wartime.

Photo: James R. Steele collection, Archives and Special Collections, QEII Library

4/ Leaving Gallipoli

Newfoundland Regiment en route to Mudros, after their evacuation from Gallipoli.

Photo: James R. Steele collection, Archives and Special Collections, QEII Library

5/ Owen W. Steele

Owen W. Steele, c. 1914

Photo: James R. Steele collection, Archives and Special Collections, QEII Library

Both Steele brothers would find themselves in the middle of heavy fighting from the outset.

At Beaumont-Hamel, James R. suffered a bullet wound to the head, yet managed to drag himself back to safety. Owen W. was held back as part of the reserve force on July 1, but killed a few days later by a German shell.

James R. survived the rest of the war and returned to St. John’s to work alongside his father, Samuel, and brother, Victor, at S.O. Steele, the family business located on Water Street in St. John’s. Victor was the youngest of the five Steele brothers; despite enlisting to go to war, he never went.

After the death and severe injuries to Owen W. and James. R, their father successfully appealed to the local enlistment office for a reprieve.

Living history

James R. recovered well enough from the injuries he suffered during the war to have a successful career in the family business.

He married and had three children, daughter Isabelle and two sons, Owen S. and James H. — named after their uncle and father. Like their namesakes, these two brothers also grew up as close friends.

At 92 years old, James H. continues to skillfully relay the family history.

James H. Steele
James H. Steele at his home in St. John’s.
Photo: David Penney

“My first strong memory of how my father (James R.) was affected by the war was during a Remembrance Day ceremony at our church on Queen’s Road,” he said in an interview with the Gazette.

“I remember sitting in the pew with him and they mentioned Uncle Owen’s name during the service . . . and my father broke down. I was only a teenager at that time. I’d never seen my father like that, so it really left an impression on me.”

Military service

Owen S. and James H. would carry on the family history of military service, both as veterans of the Second World War.

Owen S. was an engineer serving on minesweepers in the Navy and James H. was a heavy artillery soldier in the Army.

When he returned from Europe, James H. stayed on with the family business like his father before him, the timing of economy and responsibilities to the shop playing into his decision not to pursue post-secondary education himself. He was the managing director of S.O. Steele and Sons until his retirement in 1989.

“I felt strongly (my family’s war artifacts) needed to be somewhere that people can share it and learn from it.” — James H. Steele

In the years since then, James H. and Owen S. conferred many times about what to do with the many papers, photographs and artifacts that documented the military and business history of the family.

Both felt that the Archives and Special Collections at Memorial’s Queen Elizabeth II Library would ultimately be the best home for the historical items.

In addition, a few years before his death in 2012, Owen S. made a generous donation to Memorial and created the War Veterans Family Award, the very scholarship Ms. Ryan received in 2014.

“The decision to give the information, the medals and artifacts to Memorial, was because I felt strongly it needed to be somewhere that people can share it and learn from it,” said James H.

“My fear was that all these items would wind up in someone’s attic or basement and in 20 years could be forgotten or thrown out. So, I thought I’d give the collection to the university and it would be there forever.”

Opportunities for the next generation

James H. noted that this same idea, learning and creating opportunities for the next generation, was a big part of his brother’s motivation to create a scholarship at Memorial.

“Owen graduated from Memorial himself in 1942 and was always a big believer in education, and I feel that way too. I think he would have been delighted to hear that this young woman Meagan Ryan received the scholarship and how well she’s done.”

Over the scarred and bloody battlefields of the First World War, James R. and Owen W. Steele fought alongside Matthew Brazil. They were fighting for each other and their loved ones back home, to ensure something better was ahead for the generations to follow.

More than 100 years later, the ties that bind continue to hold fast and grow stronger, through children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who honour them.

Ms. Ryan stands as a testament to their sacrifice.

“I’m excited about the future,” she said.

“The academic work that I’ve done at Memorial has been rewarding, but I’ve also had amazing opportunities to volunteer with leadership and mentorship programs, and through that I’ve learned a lot about social justice issues and had a chance to better my own skills in many ways. I’ve been rewarded a lot and I feel humbled. I’m looking forward to the next challenge.”


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