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Show, don’t tell

Story of Newfoundland in the First World War told with archival materials

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 Mandy Cook

Jenny Higgins’ latest book, Newfoundland in the First World War, was a natural progression from her first published work, Perished, about the 1914 Newfoundland sealing disaster. Here, Ms. Higgins, who is a researcher with Memorial’s Maritime History Archive and the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Website, talks about using reproductions of period photographs, letters and newspaper clippings as storytelling tools—and how there are always more stories to tell.

MC: This is your second book, both of which are styled like archival repositories. Was the experience different this time? If yes, how so?

JH: Going into it, I knew more what to expect, because this book is very similar to Perished stylistically—it has pullout facsimile documents and a lot of space devoted to photos and other images. So this time I had a better idea of how many words long each chapter should be in order to leave enough space on the page to showcase the beautiful visuals. I also had a better idea of how many photos could appear in each chapter. Having said that, I still did write too much in some cases, which meant that in the design phase we had to decide between getting rid of some of the text or leaving out one or two images.

1/ Pte. William Earle

Pte. William Earle of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Pte. Earle spent about two months on the front lines at Gallipoli before an illness sent him to hospital. This may have saved his life, because he did not return to the trenches in time to fight with the Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel. Pte. Earle survived the war and was demobilized at St. John's in March 1919.

Photo: The Rooms Provincial Archives

2/ Worst fears confirmed

A telegram addressed to Mrs. Neal Ryegate confirming the death of Capt. Eric Ayre during the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916.

Photo: Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library

3/ A handwritten note

Emilie Florence Knight’s letter to her son William, a sergeant in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, on July 18, 1916. The letter was eventually returned to Emilie, with “Dead” written on the outside of the envelope in red ink. Will, 23, had died less than three weeks before she sent the note, killed at Beaumont-Hamel.

Photo: Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library

4/ Faces and names

Some archival photograph examples. At top left, Cpl. A. Rice of Pelly's Island, Pte. George Mullett of Wesleyville and Pte. Newman Gough of Elliston can be seen, left to right.

Photo: Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library

MC: You are a writer/researcher working with archival materials all the time. Can you describe what it’s like to be constantly immersed in the past for your work and in your off hours?

JH: The research has really deepened my sense of place. I first started to write professionally about our history in 2006, when I began working with the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site. I remember being struck by how a greater understanding of the past heightened my relationship with my surroundings. I had lived in St. John’s all my life, but suddenly the same buildings and landmarks and fields I’d seen for years took on new and richer meaning. Just walking down a street and knowing that soldiers marched there 100 years ago is special. About a decade after that, came the suffragists, marching through the same streets with their petitions to demand the vote. Then the 1930s brought the rioters, angry with the government and the pain of the Great Depression. And of course, before all of that were the flames of the Great Fire of 1892, tearing their way through these same streets. Layers and layers of stories and histories that have made this place what it is. And it never ends, because our stories today are helping to shape tomorrow. Maybe it’s like looking at a tree you’ve loved all your life, and all of a sudden you can see the roots—equally beautiful—curling their way beneath the earth.

“It’s important to me that the soldiers’ faces and their words are remembered. Not just the numbers of the dead or the dates of the battles.”

MC: Can you describe the emotional journey you’ve been on for the last 3-4 years, closely researching the countless stories of tragedy and bravery stemming from the First World War?

JH: Reading the histories and government documents is one thing, but then when you sit down in the quiet and look at the photographs, or read a handwritten letter, it elevates the emotional experience. The Regiment was an army of civilians, not professional soldiers. They were quickly trained and thrust into what became a brutal and drawn-out war. Some of those soldiers were so young. Too young to understand what they were getting into. No government should have the right to put people like that on a battlefield. It’s important to me that the soldiers’ faces and their words are remembered. Not just the numbers of the dead or the dates of the battles.

MC: You said that you weren’t able to include all the stories you wanted to. Which story that you left out comes to mind?

JH: In the chapter about Prisoners of War, I removed a story about a soldier named Austin Pardy. He was captured in 1917 and there’s a section in his military papers where he describes his treatment in the prisoner of war camp. He describes how he worked on a railroad and then at a farm. He said that he was treated badly, often going a day or two without food. He survived the experience, though, and after he was released in 1918, he went to England where he fell in love with a woman named Betty Whittle. She served as a truck driver for the Royal Air Force during the war. The two got married in 1919 and moved to Labrador. That’s not in the book, but I managed to tell that story in one of my videos for the Heritage Web Site. So, there’s always a way to sneak in the stories you really want to tell. You just have to be persistent. And never throw out your notes.

“I want it to impart a sense of wonder and appreciation for our past.”

MC: What has the response/impact of the release of your book been like, considering the First World War commemorations taking place at Memorial and in the province right now?

JH: The response has been good. People are especially moved by the facsimile documents, which makes me happy, because it’s the archival documents that inspired my writing in the first place. I’ve also heard about parents and grandparents who have been sharing the book with their kids and grandkids. I love hearing about that, because I want this to be a book for people of all ages. I want it to impart a sense of wonder and appreciation for our past.

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