"It's very easy to be patriotic when you can afford it."
How true that is. It's spoken by a historian in the remarkable and must-see Newfoundland at Armageddon (Thursday, CBC, 8 p.m.). It's a two-hour documentary made to mark the 100th anniversary of a First World War battle. In that July 1 battle at Beaumont-Hamel, about 800 soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment were sent into action and most were immediately killed by German machine-gun fire. It was a massacre.
The battle is not merely part of Newfoundland lore. It was a key event in its history and development. The reverberations were felt by several succeeding generations and changed the course of Newfoundland history. As we approach Canada Day and the country begins to celebrate and enjoy our Canadianness, it is important to understand that in Newfoundland, the date is a solemn occasion. It is about remembrance of the slaughtered, those left behind, and the long, long impact of mere hours in a war that was pointless.
At the heart of the doc, made by Brian McKenna, is an elaborate exercise in recreating the experience of those young Newfoundlanders who volunteered to fight – 21 descendants of soldiers who joined the Newfoundland Regiment were recruited for the project and relived part of what their ancestors went through. Everything from the uniforms to guns and trenches were part of the exercise. Four people went to Europe to experience their ancestors' journey from arrival in England to training in Scotland and tramping the route into battle in France.
Such recreations are always fraught in documentary films. They can smack of the gimmicks of reality TV dressed up as educational. Here, that is not the case. A visceral sense of the experience is delivered to people who only knew stories or had knowledge from school textbooks. At times, what those involved in the recreation have to say about the matter is banal. But that's largely because language is beggared by the enormity of the horror.
Mind you, the true strength of Newfoundland at Armageddon is in the picture we're given of the island in 1914, at the outbreak of the war; one painted by historians and other experts.
At the time, Newfoundland was not part of Canada and the island lacked its own infantry. But in the spirit of the day and fuelled by the sort of patriotism which emerges in isolated places, hundreds of soldiers were recruited. That meant money. And indeed, the cost of Newfoundland's contribution to the war effort was devastating. It bankrupted the place and, it is emphasized, eventually led to Newfoundland's entry into Canada.
The domino effect of a single brutal battle is stated often and well, and is a necessary education for Canadians unfamiliar with the intricate history of Newfoundland and Labrador. An outsider will look at this remarkable documentary (narrated by Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea) and feel that Newfoundland has an uneasy relationship with the past. There is a vague sense of nostalgia for the past, the pre-First World War island. Life was simple, family bonds were strong and the values were easily understood. What happened at Beaumont-Hamel was a seismic shock that, in some ways, isn't fully understood today. The recreations and the reminders of the harsh reality of the trench wars of 1916 only go so far in plumbing the depths of the shock.
It is to the great credit of the documentary that it emphasizes the sacrifices made by women, many of whom were volunteer nurses in Britain and continental Europe and, of course, women at home were burdened with the work of the men who had left for the war. The complex portrait of Newfoundland should not be overshadowed by the attention-getting operation of having the descendants experience some of the reality of the war.
The program, epic in scale, is very much a Newfoundland production. Much of what is spoken by Alan Doyle is written by poet and novelist Michael Crummey, and one gets a strong sense of the doc as a vital narrative to add to the collective understanding of what happened in 1916.
On Friday there is a lot of celebratory programming for Canada Day, as usual, but it's necessary to put all of that in the context of what Canada Day means in Newfoundland on this, the 100th anniversary of what is rightly called Armageddon.
All times ET. Check local listings.