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Newfoundland at Armageddon

Descendants of Newfoundland soldiers who fought in Beaumont Hamel participated in training and recreated the battle in Makinsons for documentary, “Newfoundland at Armageddon.”
Descendants of Newfoundland soldiers who fought in Beaumont Hamel participated in training and recreated the battle in Makinsons for documentary, “Newfoundland at Armageddon.”

Cpl. Charles James Renouf, Royal Newfoundland Regiment No. 147, was one of the lucky ones at Beaumont Hamel, maybe. Maybe not so lucky, if you consider the things he endured and witnessed.

Twenty-five years old with a wife and two children at home, he received a grave gunshot wound to the shoulder during the Battle of the Somme. He spent three days lying on the battlefield before he could get to allied lines, and eventually made it back to Newfoundland.

Sent to hospital in St. John’s where he was expected to die, Cpl. Renouf didn’t — with legs full of shrapnel and unable to walk at first, he recovered with the help of his wife, and went on to become an accountant. He passed away at age 62, before his grandson, Tony, was born.

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‘Where Once They Stood’ tells the story of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment

The First World War, first hand

A captain with St. John’s Regional Fire Department, the younger Renouf had always heard stories about his grandfather’s time in the infamous and deadly battle, which saw some 700-odd men killed and wounded within less than half an hour. Last summer, he got to experience it for himself.

Twenty-five years old with a wife and two children at home, he received a grave gunshot wound to the shoulder during the Battle of the Somme. He spent three days lying on the battlefield before he could get to allied lines, and eventually made it back to Newfoundland.

Sent to hospital in St. John’s where he was expected to die, Cpl. Renouf didn’t — with legs full of shrapnel and unable to walk at first, he recovered with the help of his wife, and went on to become an accountant. He passed away at age 62, before his grandson, Tony, was born.

Related stories:

‘Where Once They Stood’ tells the story of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment

The First World War, first hand

A captain with St. John’s Regional Fire Department, the younger Renouf had always heard stories about his grandfather’s time in the infamous and deadly battle, which saw some 700-odd men killed and wounded within less than half an hour. Last summer, he got to experience it for himself.

Renouf was one of 21 descendants of soldiers who fought on the battlegrounds at Beaumont Hamel in “Newfoundland at Armageddon,” a documentary by filmmakers Barbara Doran and Brian McKenna, with co-writing by Michael Crummey.

The recruits, who came from across the province, Ontario, Western Canada and the United States, spent three days together reliving their relatives’ lives during the war by wearing similar uniforms, sleeping in similar tents, eating similar rations, preparing the trenches and serving in a mock battle. The two-hour film, which will premiere during a private screening at Memorial University tonight, will air on CBC June 30.

No CGI effects were used in the recreation of the Battle of the Somme for the film "Newfoundland at Armageddon;" instead, recruits used bombs and guns (all blanks, of course).

“They were trained as soldiers,” explains Doran. “If they had long hair, their hair was cut. You see them doing their training and then we recreated the night raids and of course the battle itself. A lot of the recruits had knowledge of their ancestor who died or was wounded, but they only had bits and pieces. They were removed from it. By reliving it as closely as we could recreate it as possible, it really brought it home to them and it was quite emotional.”

An open call was made for male and female descendants of soldiers to enlist for the production, and the filmmakers received more than 100 applications. They whittled the list down to 21, and they filmed in Makinsons last July. The battle scene was created in real-life and not digitally, with bombs and bullets (blanks, of course).

The filmmakers brought four of the recruits to Europe, first to England, then Scotland, where the troops were stationed at Edinburgh Castle, then to Beaumont Hamel in France for an especially poignant moment.

Tony Renouf says he enlisted to participate in the film because of his sense of pride for his grandfather. He comes from a long military history: his father served in the Second World War, while he and his son were both part of the Reserves.

“It’s almost like it’s in our blood,” he says of his family’s draw towards the uniform.

Renouf talks of filming in poor weather, eating corned beef hash and stew and bread, and shaving with basic period-type razors.

“The wool uniforms they wore,” he laments. “They were itchy plus heavy when they got wet and dirty and you were trying to keep them clean. When we started doing the battlefields, we tried to mimic it the best way we could. The water line was actually above our trench bottom. We had water and mud in the bottom of our trenches so we had to rig the trenches pretty much the exact same way they did it (in the war). We had to put pallets down and line the trench to keep our feet from getting wet.”

Twenty-one descendants of Royal Newfoundland Regiment soldiers enlisted to be part of "Newfoundland at Armageddon," a new documentary film. The recruits underwent military training, ate rations, slept in tents and recreated the Battle of the Somme, gaining an understanding of what their ancestors' went through.

Renouf built up a camaraderie with his fellow recruits over the three days of filming, and wondered what it was like for his grandfather, who would have been with his comrades for almost two years before being sent to battle.

“The hardship he must have went through,” he says. “The friendships they must have built up and then that morning, within an hour, to lose almost 800 people. It must have been horrendous.

My grandfather was number 147 and there was a guy (participating in the filming whose relative) was number 151. Maybe they were best buds when they joined up. Maybe his buddy never survived. Maybe the three days lying on that battlefield, my grandfather used his buddy as a means of protection against the shrapnel and bullets flying overhead. Who knows?”

Doran said she was intent on showcasing a side of the Battle of the Somme that is less explored: the role of women, not only those who served as nurses and ambulance drivers, but those who were left home to fish, chop and haul wood and take care of livestock and vegetable gardens.

 “In addition to that, we recreated a scene at Government House, thanks to the lieutenant governor and Mrs. Fagan, who opened it up just as Lt.-Gov. Davidson had done for the Women’s Patriotic Association in the day,” she says. “We recruited a couple dozen knitters as volunteers and dressed them in period costumes and recreated that scene where the women would gather to knit and sew and prepare bandages. Apart from that, they held a fundraising campaign that went right across the province, and they raised today’s equivalent of $20 million through collecting money, bake sales, selling bags of potatoes and whatever they could, because the Newfoundland government could not afford to supply the whole regiment and other demands of the First World War.

“The women’s contribution, I have always felt, has not been given the credit it’s due, and we wanted to do that.”

In addition to stunning re-enactments, the film includes family stories like Renouf’s, shared through photos and letters. Narrated by Alan Doyle, “Newfoundland at Armageddon” will be screening privately at MUN’s Bruneau Centre tonight, and will then air on CBC TV on Thursday, June 30 — in honour of the 100th anniversary of Beaumont Hamel — at 8:30 p.m. Newfoundland time.

Doran hopes viewers will be as touched by the documentary as the participants and filmmakers are.

“When you think of the sacrifice and the suffering, and when you think of the long-term effect Beaumont Hamel had on this province, it’s staggering,” she says. “There were times when we were in tears filming this. It was a difficult story to tell because you just ask the question why. The men who went over that morning, they knew they were walking to their own deaths because they had seen so many wiped out before them, so why was the order given for them to go over?

“Those questions still burn in our hearts.”

 

tbradbury@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

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