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New play by Jeff Pitcher tells the stories of 17 Northern Peninsula men who served in the First World War

Submitted photo
Jeff Pitcher, left, has written a new play "17 Men" about the men from around the Cow Head area who served in the First World War. He's seen here with Colin Furlong, Marquita Walsh, Stephanie Payne, Claire Hewlett and Adam Brake in a picture from the Gros Morne Theatre Festival's 2016 Memorial Day Show.
Submitted photo Jeff Pitcher, left, has written a new play

Luke Payne knows that his grandfather James Payne served in the First World War, but he doesn’t know a lot about what he experienced.

“He never spoke much about it,” said the 78-year-old Cow Head man on Saturday.

Payne also had another family member serve in the war, his great-uncle and grandfather’s brother, Naaman Payne.

Naaman Payne never made it back from the war, but Payne remembers the story his grandmother once told him of how his six-foot-six great-uncle was killed after he accidently jumped into the wrong trench.

The brothers are among 17 men who are the focus of a new play that will premiere at Theatre Newfoundland Labrador’s Gros Morne Theatre Festival in Cow Head on July 20.

Aptly named “17 Men,” the play was written by TNL’s artistic director Jeff Pitcher. 

Payne said photos of his grandfather and great-uncle have hung in his family home for as long as he can remember.

His grandfather returned home to Parsons Pond after the war and later settled in Cow Head.

Payne was about 23 when his grandfather died. What he knows of his war experience is that he travelled a lot.

Samuel Payne served in the navy on a British man-of-war (ship). The sailors were responsible for a variety of jobs and one of his jobs was the rum mixer, in the days of daily rum rations.

And then there is the story of how he was injured.

There was an accident while he was working as an oiler in the engine room and something got in his eyes.

He was discharged because of the damage done to his eyes.

“Life wasn’t all that easy. Back then everybody was pretty poor,” said Payne.

He said the men who enlisted took a chance that they might make it back and get a pension or some other compensation.

“They went away, a lot of them, through desperation. And that’s the way it was,” he said.

“But Newfoundland always did their part of the mother country.”

He’s not so sure the Newfoundlanders were treated all that well.

That’s part of the reason he feels the stories of his family and the other men who served should be told.

The play will ensure that many others remember them and learn of their stories.

For Pitcher “17 Men” is the culmination of five years of research. But the docu-drama really got its start not long after he joined TNL and the festival in 2000.

Pitcher started a Memorial Day show in the festival’s Warehouse Theatre that quickly got the attention of locals.

Later the church asked about adding a church service to the program and the event grew to a church service followed by a parade to the theatre and the show.

Then the community came together to raise money to erect a war memorial for the soldiers.

The men listed on it came from Cow Head, St. Paul’s, Parsons Pond and Sally’s Cove. Each year the show includes a bit about four of them — when they joined, where they went, what happened to them and the families they are connected with.

“It’s a real observance of the arts and community working together. It’s art reflecting life back to the community,” said Pitcher of what has evolved.

And somewhere in the middle of all that Pitcher thought it would be great to make a play out of it.

“When you’re writing a play, it’s not a history book,” he said. “You’re telling a story. It’s not just pure research.”

He had to create a context and a story that would allow the audience to get to know the characters and to figure out how to get them together so they could tell their stories.

“And so, to do that I put them at the Pearly Gates, on their way to heaven.”

Pitcher said it’s there that they remember together.

“It really just gives a human face to who these young men were,” he said of their stories. “It really is making these guys into the heroes that they were.”

Not only will the play tell their stories, but Pitcher said the festival is making sure it has an impact on the community by providing the play and all the research gathered to the local school and the library.

Who were the 17 Men?

Douglas Walsh

Enos Verge

James S. Payne

Arthur House

Job Gilley

Harvey Hull

Rueben Perry

Art Gill

Naaman Payne

Bill Knott

John A. Brake

Charles Skanes

Garland Payne

Emanuel House

Luke House

Jesse House

Thomas Prosper

Some of their stories

Douglas Walsh was the first one to join up on Sept. 9, 1914 at the age of 16. Mr. Walsh joined the Newfoundland Navy and was lost at sea.

Naaman Payne signed up on Jan. 19, 1917 at the age of 19. He died on April 13, 1918. Mr. Payne was killed in a retreat with the Newfoundland Regiment. The six-foot-six man accidentally jumped in the wrong trench. A German soldier found his body and dog tag and took off the tag and gave it to his superior officer, who entered his name into the German army that they found his body. That information was sent to the British army. Mr. Payne served at least three times before his death. Determined to stay in there through the whole thing, he re-enlisted after being sent home injured.

Ruben Perry enlisted on Sept. 16, 1916 at 19. He died on Christmas Eve 1917 in a field hospital in the north of France.

Job Gilley enlisted on April 10, 1916. He died a prisoner of war on May 22, 1917. He was 19. He got shot in the back in April 2017 and was picked up by the Germans and brought back to one of their camps.

Harvey Hull enlisted in June 1916 at the age of 28. He died in 1978 and has been remembered in Cow Head as a gruff man who bragged about being in the war. There were some who doubted his stories. He was in and out three times, had been buried in a muddy field in Belgium and suffered shell shock.

Job Gilley is one of 17 men from around Cow Head who served in the First World War. His and the story of the others is being told in "17 Men," a new play by Jeff Pitcher which will premiere at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival in July.
Job Gilley is one of 17 men from around Cow Head who served in the First World War. His and the story of the others is being told in "17 Men," a new play by Jeff Pitcher which will premiere at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival in July.

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