The first World War was particularly devastating to the population of the Canadian province of Newfoundland, in which it has been said that every family on the island suffered a loss in the conflict. Prior to 1949, Newfoundland was a colony of the British Empire and during the first World War, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment fought alongside British soldiers at the disastrous first Battle of the Somme near the French village of Beaumont Hamel on July 1st 1916. Of the more than 700 members of the RNR who fought on that day, nearly 80% were killed.
My Great Uncle was a new recruit of the Regiment and the Somme offensive was his first battle. He had enlisted in early 1916, just after his 16th birthday and had trained with the regiment for months in preparation for the battle. As they sat entrenched in the camps near the Somme, they wrote letters home, sang, joked and were convinced that this battle would be a major success and a turning point in the war. It was a terrible disaster, many of the soldiers barely making it to the halfway point of the open battlefield where one lone apple tree was standing. Nicknamed the “Danger Tree,” it was the point where they would be out of range of enemy mortar fire but within range of machine guns.
My uncle was hit and fell unconscious. When he awoke, he was sitting upright under the Danger Tree – clear, beautiful sunny skies, birds singing and no gunfire or any sounds of war. He thought – “I have died and this is paradise” – but then he could feel his injuries and looked further around to see the devastation of the battle – so many friends who would not be returning to camp, or home to families in Newfoundland.
Through the use of two melodies – the patriotic anthem of the province: “The Ode to Newfoundland” (heard first on the media accompaniment as depicted on an old phonograph recording) and the rollicking shanty “The Ryan and the Pittmans,” the first line of which is “We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true Newfoundlanders”- the piece depicts the journey of the brave men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in 1916 from the beautiful shores of Newfoundland to the devastation at the Danger Tree. Lest we forget. — Bruce Bonnell
Download the score: Danger Tree