There is no predicting how you will feel when you walk onto the battlefield in Beaumont-Hamel, France.
Your feet are on the same ground. Your eyes frame the same vista of land and sky.
David Mercer, a member of the Church Lads’ Brigade regimental band and a staff member in Information Services, Queen Elizabeth II Library, recently completed a Tour of Honour, and the experience left him changed in ways he wasn’t expecting. Here, he speaks about his experience.
KP: Tell me about the CLB Tour of Honour. What is it, exactly?
DM: The Tour of Honour was an opportunity for us, the CLB or Church Lads’ Brigade, to commemorate those who served during the First World War. There were more than 500 members of the organization who enlisted to serve during the First World War, and 136 who never came home. So, this being the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, particularly Beaumont-Hamel, we thought it was a good opportunity to go and commemorate their sacrifice. We had planned to visit each one of Newfoundland’s memorials, so the five Caribou sites, and the monument to Thomas Ricketts, who was also a CLB member, at the farm where he won the Victoria Cross. In addition, there were other sites we visited, like Vimy Ridge. We also participated in the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres. It’s a ceremony that has taken place every night since 1928 and to be part of that ceremony meant we had to apply about three years ago. The Menin Gate is a monument to the missing soldiers who fought in and around Ypres during the First World War. Every night at 8 p.m. they shut down the roadway and buglers from the local fire brigade will come out and sound Last Post and people lay wreaths.
KP: How long have you been a member of the CLB?
DM: I’ve been a member of the CLB for 35 years. My father had been a member for 70 years and my grandfather was also a member. I had a great uncle who was a member of the Newfoundland Regiment. He fought at Beaumont-Hamel and he survived the war and came back.
KP: When did you start the planning?
DM: We started planning for this about three years ago. We had some initial contact with Arlene King who is the manager of the site at Beaumont-Hamel. We had talked about going there and taking part in the commemorations there. It is pretty expensive to take a group that big over to France and to move around musical instruments. It was quite an extensive effort to raise the money to get the people over there.
KP: How many of you went?
DM: There were 29 members of the band, and we had a group of 13 youth members, and five officers who were chaperones for the youth members.
KP: Tell me why it was important to mark that milestone anniversary?
DM: The CLB was one of the founding groups that they called on to initially form the Newfoundland Regiment. At the start of the war there was no standing army in Newfoundland, but these youth organizations, of which the CLB was one, there was the Catholic Cadet Corps, the Methodist Guards and the Newfoundland Highlanders, each one was affiliated with one of the local churches and these members had some form of military or military-type training that suited what they needed to establish a military presence in Newfoundland. So, it was the members from these groups that went on to form the Newfoundland Regiment. In the first 500, there were 108 members of the CLB who had volunteered and over the course of the war, 500 who served. We wanted to commemorate their sacrifice and that was what led to the initial planning.
KP: Were you thinking about those things when you were on the tour?
DM: I was thinking about the members, even though I am a bit older than they would have been. It might seem like a bit of a stretch, but it felt almost like we are who they were when we went over to commemorate. When you try to put yourself in their position and you ask yourself if it had been our turn, would we go, would we answer the call, and when you see the sights and the places where they fought, you wonder.
KP: What was it like standing at Beaumont-Hamel? What was it like to be there?
DM: It was pretty overwhelming. It’s not just a piece of land. You think about what happened there and the enormity of the sacrifice and knowing that these soldiers knew what they were facing when they went into the attack, that it was almost certain death for them and they advanced without question. It’s pretty overwhelming. When we first went onto the site, we were located pretty close to the St. John’s Road trench where the Newfoundlanders were that morning and as we moved forward toward the front line, you could almost picture what the terrain would have been like because even though it is pretty much a park now it has changed very little from what it would have been 100 years ago. You try and picture what they would have been facing and at what point would they have realized this wasn’t going to work.
KP: Has this experience changed you?
DM: I think it has. It has caused me to reflect a little more on what they did, on the sacrifice itself. Before going over, I had a chance to work with some maps and to have a look of the topography and think about the tactics and more of the warfare itself. But after visiting the site, you think more about the people. We had an opportunity to visit the Y Ravine Cemetery and when you look at all of these gravestones and the markers that are just laid out side-by-side, you see the names, some of the headstones just say “Newfoundland Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God,” it really causes you to think more about the person and what they went through and the horrors they experienced, and the fact that they are lying there and no one knows who they are. It’s pretty hard to deal with.
KP: Was there a sense of something bigger than you? Words like “sacrifice” and “honour” get used during times of commemoration. How did you feel?
DM: You think about the sacrifice and sometimes it is just a word. When you get to these sites, you see the cemeteries and you realize each one of these markers was a person. It seems like everywhere you look, there are cemeteries and all of these soldiers who would have been buried where they fell in battle and its then that you realize the scale of it all, that their lives were taken and they died far too young.
KP: Do you think about war differently now?
DM: Definitely. You think more about the human side of it. The loss. You forget about the tactics and the machinery. I think of the people. I have some friends who served in Afghanistan and some that were wounded and some that were killed. I think about them. For my friend that never came back, I think about his family.
KP: For those who couldn’t be there, what would you want them to know about your experience?
DM: It’s difficult to describe. You have to experience it yourself to fully appreciate it. At different points, everyone is going to have a moment when they connect with it and it is difficult to know what is going to trigger that and when that will come. For me, it was walking across the site that I felt different. It was when we got to the cemetery and you see the markers with all the names and some that don’t have names. For me, it was a lot of personal reflection. Because you think about things, and I’ve always had a general interest in history. It takes it to a whole new level. It has become real. It’s not just stories that you read and facts and figures. The reality of it struck me.
Funding for Mr. Mercer’s participation in the Tour of Honour and for a number of other Memorial University employees was provided by the Living Memorial Commemoration Fund. For more information about the fund, please visit here.