October 13, 2016
It was about a year ago when I decided that I would like to visit Beaumont-Hamel on July 1st, this year to participate in the 100th anniversary and commemoration of the battle that forever altered the course of Newfoundland. The story is well-known. More than 800 young Newfoundland soldiers fought the battle and fewer than 70 would survive. Among those killed was my Great Uncle Ernest Chafe, age 25. To lend a bit of context, my Dad is his nephew, my Grandfather and Ernest were brothers. For generations after, my family would speak of Ernest with tremendous pride. So I just wanted to visit his final resting place, especially this year, to give him one last cheers before I figured this battle would fade with the end of his generation. So my wife and I made it the centerpiece of what would be a vacation to France. A few days in Paris, a day trip to Beaumont-Hamel on July 1st, take a train back to Paris, then on to the rest of our vacation. We weren’t part of a group tour. We were on our own on a very private pilgrimage.
Right before we left in late-June, I posted to my Twitter page a letter “Uncle Ern” (as Dad calls him) wrote to his mother (my Great-Grandmother) a few days before he died, along with a photo of him in uniform. I thought little of it, just doing my little bit via social media to hold up his name as my family’s personal emblem of the First World War, as the centenary approached. Well it so happened that what I thought was a benign post captivated a lot of attention, at least for that day. Just when I thought the attention had died down, a writer from The Telegram picked up on it and interviewed me by email (I was already in Paris when she contacted me). She graciously published our interview, along with a photo of Ernest and a transcript of his letter. And that was the end of that, I thought.
On July 1st, Joan and I packed a few snacks and readied for our journey of about four hours by bus and train from Paris to Beaumont-Hamel. It was pouring rain when we arrived. But within an hour, the rain stopped, the clouds moved off, the sun appeared, and the temperature soared. It was muggy, damp, a little soggy. I couldn’t help but wonder what the weather was like and how the ground felt back in the day. There were probably about two thousand other people in attendance for the ceremony. There was a part of the site, around the caribou statue, set aside for the speeches and parades – but thankfully we were all left to freely wander through the battlefield and cemetery. It was a funny feeling. I expected to be overcome with emotion, but it never happened. I felt some sadness…sorrow for his lost innocence. He likely had no clue what he was getting himself into. But I felt a sense of pride and honour being there.
Ernest is buried with numerous others in a small cemetery in a corner of the field. There’s a second soldier buried with him, W.T. O’Donnell, a Private with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. It’s believed that the reason these two Privates from different Regiments are buried together is because they were blown to smithereens and whatever body parts were found were placed together. Most likely they died right alongside each other.
Joan took my photo by his grave, I lingered there for a while to take it all in, realizing that I’ll probably never come here again. The battlefield itself is surprisingly not that big. Which made it all the more haunting for me. The trenches are deep and narrow, very distinctive, kind of haphazardly rolling into one another, one just a few feet from the next. I tried hard to imagine more than 800 Newfoundlanders, in addition to who-knows-how-many British and German soldiers all crowded into this relatively small space, hunkered down, scared out of their minds, just feet away from bombs and gunfire. All of the trenches and craters are now filled in with rich green grass. At the ceremony, kids were rolling around in the trenches, laughing and having a ball. Some people sat at the edge of trenches, munching on a sandwich, some on their smartphones. A crowd was in line at the Danger Tree replica to have their photo taken. Selfies were happening all over the place. A part of me felt offended by that at first, but then again this is the 21st century, and what did I expect? For everyone to be on their knees praying and bawling? I quickly got over myself and enjoyed some conversation with a number of people who for some reason seemed attracted to the Chafe name. The questions came at me from all directions. “What Chafe are you?” “Are you from Petty Harbour?” “My mother was a Chafe!” “Who’s your father?” I enjoyed that a lot, and recalled Dad saying a few days earlier, “Uncle Ern would never believe that he’d be remembered 100 years after his death.” And here I was surrounded by strangers trying to find out who he was.
Soon after all of this, and yet again just when I thought all the attention would subside, I received an email from a complete stranger, Laura Martin. She was moved not just by the interview she read in the Telegram, but by the coincidence that her son, Owen, a grade-12 student, had recently received a prestigious scholarship awarded to a select few young people from across Canada. The scholarship recipients would come together as a group and embark on a tour to France to document the legacy of the First World War. As part of the project, the teens would be asked to select a soldier and honour his life in some way, Owen had coincidentally selected Ernest Chafe. But Owen and his family were wondering where to begin. Ideally, they wanted to contact living relatives but didn’t know how to locate them. Then my Telegram interview appeared and they tracked me down. This was no ordinary school project. Upon discovering Ernest’s grave on his trip to France in August, a month after I was there, Owen left mementos at the site, wrote a poem dedicated to Ernest, and prepared a graphite rubbing of the grave. His Mom and I stayed in regular contact over the summer and fall. Our back-and-forth emails were so informative and inviting, that we decided we needed to meet at the end of this leg of Owen’s project (He will be furthering his work next year on Vimy).
So last night, I had the tremendous pleasure of finally meeting Owen and his parents in person. It was his Mom’s perfect idea that we meet at The Rooms, in the section commemorating the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel. It was one of those rare experiences of meeting a stranger yet feeling like we’d known each other for years. It was wonderful. Owen greeted me with a big smile and firm handshake, and his parents were there, all of us all smiles and so excited that we were finally meeting. Owen was carrying an envelope containing a copy of the poem, the graphite rubbing of Ernest’s grave stone, and some hard-to-come-by commemorative pins he set aside for me. I wandered with his family through the exhibit, then invited Owen to read the poem to me. I don’t have the words to describe how I felt, having a 17-old-high school student present with pride and dignity his extraordinary heartfelt work on a member of my family. He and I were complete strangers. I’m probably older than his father. Yet he was so comfortable walking with me and sharing his journey with me.
Those feelings I had when visiting the cemetery earlier this summer, that the significance of Beaumont-Hamel would naturally fade with time, were instantly erased as I sat listening to Owen recite his poem. He told me that over the coming year or more, he would like to visit schools to speak to kids his age and younger about why it’s important for his and future generations to hold up the legacies of our earlier generations. As we were leaving the exhibit, I asked him about his future study or work interest. He said he hasn’t yet decided between studying History, English or Engineering. I told him there’s no reason he couldn’t do all three. Whatever he ends up doing for the rest of his life, I feel confident in saying that if Owen represents our future generations, then we are in excellent hands.
I want to close with the words of the two young men central to this wonderful meeting and as a dedication to my new friends, the Martin Family. First is my Great Uncle Ernest’s letter to his mother, composed June 28th, 2016 when he was 25. It was found among his remains after his death and sent home. It is followed by a poem, a letter to Ernest, written in 2016 by Owen Martin, an unassuming, big-hearted, selfless, giving young man of great character who has discovered an unexpected and lasting link to my family and whose goal it is to give our past a voice. Thank you, Owen.
Ernest Leslie Chafe
No. 709 C Company
1st Royal Newfoundland Regiment
Somewhere in France
June 28th, 1916
My Darling Mother
As this is our battle eve, I thought I would write you a few lines of farewell in case anything should happen to me.
Our regiment tomorrow will be engaged in one of the greatest battles of modern times. I hope and trust that our Battalion won’t be cut up very much and that we will keep up the honour of our country. As for myself, I will do my very best, but if it is willed that I am to go under, I will go with the full consciousness that I died in a good cause. I am in the best of health, and that is a good thing.
I think the Germans will get it hot this time. I feel sure that this battle will go a great way to end this war.
I am only writing this letter, mother dear, in case I am knocked out, but if I survive the battle I will tear it up. I will put it in my pocket enclosed with a few directions as to who to send it to, etc.
I am far from thinking, mother dear, that I will be killed for I am not built that way. But then, as we cannot see the future, fortunately, it teaches us not to be too sure.
So now, mother dear, I will close with love to Father, Jack, Nell, Isabel, Dot and all the bunch; also all uncles and aunts, and hoping to see your dear sweet face again in the near future, and with a boundless faith in Christ’s mercy and salvation.
Ever your loving son,
St. John’s, Newfoundland
From a Newfoundlander to a Newfoundlander
I walk the length of Casey Street arriving at your home,
it stands unassuming, dormant
giving no inclination of the tragedy that rocked its walls
an impact not unlike the shells that rained incessantly around you
it is difficult to absorb the last words you ever wrote,
an innocent letter to your mother
heavy with love, devoid of trepidation
despite your written optimism you would never see her dear face again
never return to Casey Street
or taste the salt stained air of our humble city
for which you made the ultimate sacrifice a century ago
Your service number, 709 is our provincial area code
A sort of coincidental commemoration
For standing in the face of adversity
For Protecting my future as well as that of the free world