The “Trail of the Caribou” is one of the most interesting and poignant memorials of the Great War. Designed to trace the path of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment** through its engagements in the First World War, the trail consists of six large caribou statues cast in bronze. Each caribou, the symbol of the regiment and the province (then-dominion), stands facing the enemy line with its head thrown back in defiance, a symbol of Newfoundlanders’ bravery and fortitude in battle.
The original monument, unveiled by Field Marshal Earl Haig on 7 June 1925, is at Beaumont-Hamel, the site of Newfoundland’s famous sacrifice at the Somme, where the regiment suffered 90% casualties within the first twenty minutes of leaving St John’s Road trench. This number was the second highest tally among the British forces on the day that saw the greatest amount of casualties in the empire’s history for a single day of battle. Famously, of the 780 men who had gone over the top on 1 July 1916, only 68 answered roll call the next morning.
A replica of the Beaumont-Hamel caribou is in St John’s Bowring Park. The other four caribou in Europe are at Gueudecourt, Monchy-le-Preux, Masnieres and Courtrai, all sites where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment fought with noted skill and valour for king and empire.
However, one sight is missing: Gallipoli.
This is a glaring omission, given that the Newfoundland Regiment first saw action in the war at Suvla Bay in the autumn of 1915 and won their first battle honour for their November capture of the aptly named “Caribou Hill” from the Turks. Like many Canadians (I assume), I first heard of Newfoundland’s participation at Gallipoli in the lyrics of Great Big Sea’s “The Recruiting Sergeant”:
So it’s over the mountain and over the sea
Come brave Newfoundlanders and join the Blue Puttees
You’ll fight the Hun at Flanders and at Gallipoli
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me
In fact, Newfoundlanders were among the most active and far-reaching of all imperial troops in the First World War, seeing service in England, Scotland, the Mediterranean, Egypt, Turkey, France, and Belgium. The Newfoundland Regiment remained on the Gallipoli peninsula through the final evacuations in December 1915 and January 1916, before their eventual reposting to the Western Front.
The lack of any formal commemoration for the Newfoundlanders at Gallipoli is an enduring mystery in the historiography of the Great War’s commemoration. The man tasked with deciding the form and locations of the caribou was Lieutenant Colonel Tom Nangle, the chaplain for the Newfoundland Regiment throughout the war. It is clear from the available sources, including letters from Newfoundland Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires in 1919, that Nangle was given a free hand in deciding the level of commemoration and which sites should be honoured. Nangle received permission for caribou monuments at the five European sites at a cost of £ 1,000 sterling each; further monuments were also approved, specifically “a cross of rough-hewn granite…for Gallipoli” as well as Brockwood, Ayr and Winchester, for a maximum amount of £ 100 sterling.***
Browne and McGrath contend that Caribou Hill was one of the six memorial sites recommended by Nangle in 1919 and was accepted by the Battle Exploits Memorial Committee, at which time Nangle created the name of the “Trail of the Caribou.” However, no one yet has been able to discover why Nangle’s recommendation for a Gallipoli caribou was rejected; if anything, Caribou Hill would be the most obvious spot for such a commemorative object, after Beaumont-Hamel.
Nangle was also given full authority on behalf of the Dominion government to confer with the Imperial War Graves Commission and other authorities regarding the specific graves of the fallen Newfoundland soldiers and sailors. This aspect of commemoration did occur; when I was at Gallipoli this past May, just after ANZAC Day, all of the forty-three known Newfoundland graves were decorated with the flags of Canada and the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The granite cross, however, was not erected and the caribou which designated Newfoundland’s presence along the Western Front still has no home in the Mediterranean theatre of the war.
The cross’s absence is perhaps more explicable than that of the caribou. The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission went to great pains not to offend the Muslim population of Turkey with an abundance of Christian symbolism in the battlefield’s various cemeteries. Instead of the row on row of white crosses which are so familiar on the Western Front, imperial graves in Turkey are denoted with small raised headstones, upon which a cross, Star of David, or other symbol can be engraved. The crosses which do exist in large form in each cemetery are, similarly, in bas-relief shape, as opposed to free-standing.
The caribou is a different matter. One could, perhaps, argue that Turkey was not in a position to focus on memorializing the Great War at the time in the mid-1920s when Western theatres of the war were free to do so; however, the fundamental aspects of Kemalism – Ataturk’s abolition of the caliphate in 1924 and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey as a modern, secular, westernized state – were not an obstacle for his famously stirring tribute to the fallen ANZACs in 1934:
Heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country, therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side, here in this country of ours…. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.
These words were set in stone at Anzac Cove by the Turkish Government in 1985, the seventieth anniversary of the battle. Other monuments to the Allied soldiers have been raised in the past quarter-century, including one to the 10th (Irish) Division at Green Hill, Suvla Bay, as recently as March 2010. But there has been no mention (yet) of any official attempt to erect the seventh and final caribou statue on site at Caribou Hill.
1 July 1867 marked the dawn of the Dominion of Canada, a cluster of four colonial provinces who lashed themselves together to fight the spectres of debt, imperial disinterest, political deadlock, Fenian invasions, and American Manifest Destiny. While some provinces struggled initially against Confederation (Joseph Howe, I’m looking at you!), the country eventually prospered and, for many, became a true nation after successful storming Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
The same date in 1916 marked the virtual annihilation of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel during the first morning of the Battle of the Somme. The Memorial Park at Beaumont-Hamel pays tribute to the hundreds of Newfoundlanders who gave their lives in the Great War. As G. W. L. Nicholson noted, the first of July is now an odd holiday in Canada; since Newfoundland’s entrance into Confederation in 1949, light-hearted celebrations toasting the successful birth of one dominion occur on the same day as the annual mourning for the destruction of the sons of another.
The “Trail of the Caribou” is a beautiful and extremely emotional incarnation of the travails faced by the Newfoundland Regiment during the Great War; however, until the final caribou statue finds a home atop Caribou Hill at Suvla Bay, some ghosts of Newfoundland’s military past will never be a part of that cultural touchstone. Next month will be the ninety-sixth anniversary of the Newfoundland Regiment’s capture of Caribou Hill at Suvla Bay, which means we have four years to correct this oversight prior to the centenary of Gallipoli.
Something must be done.
*Tuktu is Inuktitut for “caribou.” The language is spoken north of the tree line in Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, and the northern territories.
** The Newfoundland Regiment was renamed the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in January 1918 by order of George V. It was the only regiment to receive such recognition during the war years. In his report to the War Office asking for the new title to be given to the Newfoundlanders, Field Marshal Earl Haig particularly noted their recent combat at Ypres and Cambrai as reasons for the battle honour, as well as the overall conduct and behaviour of the men. When discussing Newfoundland’s actions at Gallipoli and the Somme, I use the regiment’s contemporary name which omits the later “Royal” honour.
See, NA, WO32/5012, Application for the title ‘Royal’ to be granted to the Newfoundland Regiment, 1917-18.
*** The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, GN 2.5, Box 78, File 464, Prime Minister to Major Nangle, 31 December 1919 [letter], Office of the Colonial Secretary fonds.
Gary Browne and Darrin McGrath, Soldier Priest in the Killing Fields of Europe (2006); Richard Cramm, The First Five Hundred (1921); David R. Facey-Crowther, ed., Lieutenant Owen William Steele of the Newfoundland Regiment (2002); John Gallishaw, Trenching at Gallipoli: The Personal Narrative of a Newfoundlander with the Ill-Fated Dardanelles Expedition (1916); G. W. L. Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander (1964).
For more information on the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, please visit:
Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.