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Newfoundland soldier who died in the First World War laid to rest at home

Hundreds of people gathered in Newfoundland and Labrador's capital city this morning to pay their respects to a soldier who has finally returned home from the battlefields of France after more than 100 years. The remains of an unknown Newfoundland soldier lie in state at the Confederation Building in St. John's on Friday, June 28, 2024.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Hundreds of people filled the downtown streets in Newfoundland and Labrador's capital city on Monday to pay their respects to a soldier from the First World War who died on the battlefields of France and has finally returned home.

The unknown Newfoundland soldier was lowered into a black granite tomb at around 11 a.m. local time at the National War Memorial in St. John's. N.L. The morning was grey and wet, but the rain stopped for the soldier's reinterment, which was proceeded by a powerful performance of the "Ode to Newfoundland."

As members of the Royal Canadian Armed Forces gently lay a temporary cover over the soldier's final resting place, more than 100 years after he was killed, the skies opened up again.

"We therefore commit this body to the ground," Canadian Armed Forces chaplain Lt.-Col. Shawn Samson recited while standing at the head of the soldier's tomb before a crowd that included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gov. Gen. Mary Simon. "Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust."

July 1 dawns first in Canada's easternmost province and is honoured as Memorial Day, not Canada Day, as in the rest of the country. It's a time to remember those from Newfoundland and Labrador who have been killed in battle, with a particular focus on the hundreds of young men from the Newfoundland Regiment who died during the disastrous fight at Beaumont-Hamel, in northern France, during the First World War.

About 800 members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment charged over the top of the trenches on the morning of July 1, 1916, armed with only rifles and bayonets, toward the Germans' machine-gun fire, and only 68 made it to roll call the next morning. The rest were killed, wounded or declared missing.

Approximately 12,000 men from Newfoundland enlisted to fight in the First World War, and more than 3,500 were wounded or killed, according to Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador.

The island was not yet a part of Canada then and it was home to some 240,000 people. With such a small population, the staggering number of casualties was felt across Newfoundland — and it is still felt today.

For some who watched Monday's ceremony, whether in person in St. John's or on television in smaller communities further away, the Unknown Soldier may have stood in the trenches beside their grandfathers or great uncles.

Monday's ceremony laying the Unknown Soldier to rest in their homeland coincided with the 100th anniversary of the unveiling of the National War Memorial in St. John's. The soldier's tomb will represent deceased Newfoundlanders and Labradorians from all branches of service who have no known grave, and thus the soldier's identity will not be investigated.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey is acting as the unknown soldier's next of kin, and he walked behind the casket as it was carried up the steps toward the national monument, which features a statue of a woman holding a flaming torch high into the sky with her left hand and a sword pointed toward the ground in her right.

Before the temporary cover was placed over the Unknown Soldier's tomb, it was sprinkled with 820 blue forget-me-nots, representing the 820 Newfoundland soldiers who fought in the First World War and have no known grave.

“Today we welcome home one of ours," said veteran Perry Grandy, who co-led Monday's ceremony.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 1, 2024.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2024
The Canadian Press

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