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'Battle Of The Somme' Centenary Symbolizes Great Loss For Newfoundlanders

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Ceremonies will take place in Canada and in France next Friday marking the 100th anniversary of one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the First World War, the Battle of the Somme. On July 1, 1916, almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed, even more wounded. In the French village of Beaumont-Hamel, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment fought and sustained heavy losses, more than 680 casualties. Nearly the entire regiment was wiped out in one day.

Maureen Power is a historian and a Newfoundlander. She joins us from The Rooms Provincial Museum in St. John's, Newfoundland, to talk about that day 100 years ago. Hello, welcome.

MAUREEN POWER: Hello.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we think of Newfoundland and Labrador as integral parts of Canada. But that was not the case in 1916, I understand. Could you explain?

POWER: Yes. Well, in 1916, Newfoundland was a dominion of Great Britain. So we were really our own - we feel like we were our own country. So we joined as our own regiment, which are also known as the Blue Puttees because of the blue puttees they wore when they were training in Newfoundland.

WERTHEIMER: Puttees are those things that cover their boots, right?

POWER: Yeah, they're the wrappings that go right from the ankle to the knee to protect the shins from - yeah, from when they're in battle. So we have a great pride and we have a great history here with the Blue Puttees.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this anniversary is a very big deal to people where you are, as I understand it.

POWER: Oh, yes.

WERTHEIMER: This is sort of like Gallipoli to the Australians or maybe even Gettysburg to the Americans. Why do you suppose it is that we're so invested in battles where maybe the cause was advanced and maybe it wasn't but very many people died?

POWER: For us, it was such a great loss. It stayed in our psyche after the war. We ended up basically going bankrupt and having to give up our own country. We lost the best of the best in the young men that would have led Newfoundland into maintaining its own country, not having to join Canada, that - what we had to do in 1949.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you spent three years putting together an exhibit at the museum. You asked people to tell you war stories they'd heard from their parents and grandparents. What stood out?

POWER: We actually ended up traveling to 14 towns all across Newfoundland and Labrador for people to come in and tell us the stories and bring us in their artifacts and share with us. And this woman walked in and she had the - a leg on her lap. And one of the girls that we were with, Heather, she was like, there's a leg. Look at her leg. And we're all like what is she talking about? And it was her great grandfather's wooden leg that he brought home from the war after he lost it.

Wherever we went, we had these stories come up about how people were affected. And, like, one of the girls that I work with, Angela Noseworthy, who's the interpretive planner on the exhibit, her great-grandfather went over the top and was one of the 68 to report back the next day.

WERTHEIMER: Over the top meaning out of the trench. Out of the...

POWER: Out of the trench and into the battle. If he hadn't survived, she wouldn't be here. And this exhibit would look completely different.

WERTHEIMER: Newfoundlanders from around the globe will be convening at Beaumont-Hamel on Friday to honor the dead. Why do you think they still come? I mean, there's no one living that - you know, they surely don't even remember any of the people who remember any of the people.

POWER: Yeah, they still come 'cause it's just so integral to our lives. I mean, so many Newfoundlanders fought in the First World War that every single community in Newfoundland was affected. It's something that I'm constantly reminded of as a child growing up that that was a moment where we lost a generation. And it led up to us losing our country.

WERTHEIMER: Maureen Powers, the curator of history at The Rooms Provincial Museum in St. John's, Newfoundland. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

POWER: Oh, you're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.