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Playing honours

Memorial’s musical connection to Somme commemorations

special feature: Commemoration

Part of a special feature marking the centenary of the First World War and highlighting Memorial’s status as a living memorial that in freedom of learning their cause and sacrifice might not be forgotten.” This feature supports WW100, Memorial’s Commemoration Program.    


By Kelly Foss

On July 1, when most Canadians are gearing up for Canada Day celebrations, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will be marking a more somber event–the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

Three Memorial University staff members and a student will be among those gathering for commemoration events at the Newfoundland Memorial in Beaumont-Hamel, France.

From left, Nathalie Vanasse and Matt Keels in the Arts and Administration building.
From left, Nathalie Vanasse and Matt Keels in the Arts and Administration building.
Photo: Chris Hammond

David Mercer, Queen Elizabeth II Library; Nathalie Vanasse, Department of Chemistry; Ruth Leake, Centre for Institutional Analysis and Planning; and business student Matt Keels are members of the Church Lads Brigade (CLB) Regimental Band. For the past three years, the organization has been fundraising for a tour of honour, which would take them through the battlefields of France to honour the sacrifice of Newfoundlanders who died during the First World War.

“We’ll be travelling to France, Belgium and England in the next couple of weeks, leaving on June 27 and returning on July 7,” said Ms. Vanasse. “In that time, we will be playing at all five of the Caribou monuments to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in Beaumont-Hamel, Gueudecourt, Monchy-le-Preux, Masnieres and Courtrai.

“We’ll also be doing the sunset ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ieper-Yepres, a concert at the Tower of London and a church service at Hugglescote, Leicester, among other things,” she added. “It’s going to be very busy.”

‘Relentless’ fundraising

The CLB will be sending 26 musicians, plus a number of spouses and other supporters from the CLB Band auxiliary and a contingent of youth and their officers, approximately 70 people in all. Memorial University’s Living Memorial Commemoration Fund awarded four grants worth a total of $10,000 to Mr. Mercer, Ms. Vanasse, Ms. Leake and Mr. Keels to assist with their travel to Beaumont-Hamel for the historic event.

“It takes a lot of money to move a band,” said Ms. Vanasse. “The fundraising has been relentless and we really appreciate all the support we’ve been given. We’ve sold tea, chocolate and played services where we were given honorariums. We even have another one scheduled at The Rooms after we return, on July 24, at 2:30 p.m. in the Fortis Ampitheater, which opens on July 1, 2016. So the tour, in essence, continues. We will never stop commemorating.”

Full circle

Ms. Vanasse, who plays flute and piccolo with the band, did a degree at Memorial before becoming an employee. As a sea cadet for four years, and later a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Band for another 10 before joining the CLB, she says she’s been listening to the story of the regiment’s contribution to the First World War since she was 14.

“It’s the pinnacle of many things I’ve done in my life to get to go to Beaumont-Hamel and stand there and remember.” –Nathalie Vanasse

“There has been so much interest lately because of the upcoming anniversary, even at Memorial University, the place where I grew up, which was raised as a living memorial to that sacrifice,” she said. “So it has all come full circle for me. It’s the pinnacle of many things I’ve done in my life to get to go to Beaumont-Hamel and stand there and remember.”

While she’s been warned that she’ll start crying the second she walks into the Great War battleground, Ms. Vanasse believes there’s another reason why she may feel so emotional.

“I’m a mom and my son is also travelling to Beaumont-Hamel with his cadet corps,” she said. “They are affiliated with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, so he will be wearing wear a RNR cap badge. To look at him wearing that and realize, he’s 16 and there are boys who died at Beaumont-Hamel not much older than him, and some who lied about their ages and were actually younger than him. On many levels it’s going to be an incredibly emotional experience.”

Family legacy

Mr. Keels, a trombonist with the CLB Band, is carrying on a family legacy by travelling to the battlefields of France.

Two of his uncles and and an aunt have also played in commemorative ceremonies at Beaumont-Hamel. His aunt Mary, a trombonist, and uncles Tim and Dan all went while members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Band. Tim Keels, a tuba player, went on to a career with the Canadian Armed Forces band system and is currently with the Royal Canadian Navy’s Naden Band, in Victoria, B.C. Dan Keels, also a trombonist, is currently with the Royal Canadian Artillery Band. The latter will also be at Beaumont-Hamel this July 1 at the same time as his nephew.

“Right now I’m excited, but I think once I get there it will be different.” –Matt Keels

“It’s a brass family,” said Mr. Keels. “The trombone I play is actually Uncle Dan’s. He left it for me when I was little and that’s how I started playing the trombone. This is my first time getting to go to Beaumont-Hamel, but they’ve all been there before. It’s kind of interesting that we’ve all gone through music. It’s cool how it all worked out.”

Mr. Keels joined the CLB Band a year ago. While he’s looking forward to the trip, he anticipates a somber and jam-packed schedule.

“It’s hard to think about just how much of an emotional day it will be,” he said. “Right now I’m excited, but I think once I get there it will be different. I’m 20, and knowing there would have been people fighting there younger than me, younger than my little sister … it’s hard to wrap your mind around it.”

Sharing the experience

All four will be keeping a journal of their experiences during the trip and hope to work on a joint article when they return. Ms. Vanasse will also share her experiences via social media using the hashtag #MUN_LivingMemorial.

“We’re going to pick interesting things that would relate back to the Living Memorial,” said Mr. Keels. “Even though we’re going to the same places, we’re all going to have different experiences.”


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