Some of my first and most precious memories as a child were spent in Bowring Park. For those of you who don’t know, Bowring Park is a park located in St. John’s Newfoundland, Canada. My home sweet home.
In 1911 the land of the park was purchased and donated to the city by Sir Edgar Rennie Bowring on behalf of Bowring Brothers Ltd. It was officially opened as a park on July 15th, 1914. Since that time the park has served as a favorite family spot and a historic reminder of many of Newfoundland’s war efforts and struggles.
My father grew up along the bank of the park so as a child I frequented it often as it was so close to my grandparent’s house and also my school. I remember ogling over the giant trees and hidden pathways, the flowers and playgrounds, the duck ponds and fountains, statues of peter pan dancing and graceful white swans. It was and still is a magical place.
Despite all, it’s treasures no trip to the park was complete without visiting its crowning jewel, the mighty, watchful and proud caribou.
Although it was not until I was much older that I understood its true significance, I did know from my father’s explanations that the caribou was a noble symbol of Newfoundland and something he was very proud of and in turn so was I.
That was all I ever needed to know.
Until I began planning my trip to Belgium. Slowly the true story and history of this park monument unraveled itself before me.
I learned that this caribou had brothers. Brothers and a twin all located in Europe.
During WWI Newfoundland was an independent country, a small Brittish colony that showed huge support during the war effort, and like many countries paid a high price.
On the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, the Newfoundland soldiers (The Royal Newfoundland Regiment aka The Blue Puttees) endured the biggest tragedy in our history when they went into action 753 strong and only 68 answered the roll call the next day. Hundreds of young Newfoundland men lost in a manner on moments.
Growing up, the battle of Beaumont Hamel was often described as the greatest act of bravery and tragedy in our province’s history, or at the very least a focal point of our comradery as a united people.
While planning our trip to Belgium it was this history that was uncovered along with many other lost to me facts and truths.
After the war ended, Reverend Thomas Nangle who was a Newfoundland cleric, military chaplain of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment during World War I, began work on erecting a memorial for those brave men of Newfoundland lost. It was his dream and hard work along with others that brought about the construction of 5 caribou monuments. The Government of Newfoundland acquired the land on which to build the memorials from grateful France and Belgium. Making Newfoundland the only Brittish colony to purchase and preserve one of its battle sites in its original condition – Beaumont-Hamel.
Each caribou was built overlooking the enemy line and all situated near or in a place where there was a significant battle involving the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
Back to my own journey…
My boyfriend and I decided that it was important for us to visit at least one caribou while in Europe. So we decided on visiting the Kortrijk monument, a little over a half an hour away from the city of Ghent where we were staying.
Our trip was a deeply gratifying one that brought us more than just sightseeing and Belgium beer. We traveled through Dutch, Canadian and Newfoundland history. We visited the Flanders museum in Ypres and the St. Julien Canadian Memorial situated there. We were touched by stories, images and the discovery of a profound connection that our own families had to this now beautiful and peaceful country.
On a Sunday evening after a few days of exploring Belgium, we decided to set out in search for the mighty Belgium caribou. When we arrived in the town of Kortrijk we were met by a lively atmosphere of live music and clusters of people gathered in the streets. It seemed there was a festival underway. Circling through crowds, medieval buildings, and ancient cobbled streets we quickly became… lost.
Then, the heavens opened up and the rain began to fall. What could we expect? We were in Belgium after all.
Wet, lost and losing daylight I became disheartened. Would we ever meet the Belgium caribou?
It was at a moment of pure frustration that a couple walking with their baby spotted us and must have overheard our dilemma. They kindly pointed us on the right path. We walked for what seemed like close to an hour. A map and maybe some internet would have come in handy at that moment. My good mood was fading and my jeans were successfully soaked.
We began discussing a revisit or taking another route. It was during that time that we stopped alongside a busy road so that my boyfriend could use a gas station restroom. As I waited outside in the rain something caught my eye across the street. Two bronze objects were protruding through the tall trees.
Antlers? I began to laugh to myself.
We had found him.
I will never forget the feeling I had as we approached it. I don’t know if it was the anticipation, the relive or the comfort of home but as we walked towards the mighty brother of my childhood friend I felt something I had only felt a few times before in my life, and never quite like this.
Nestled between huge trees was the towering caribou, guarding Belgium against our long departed enemy.
It was beautiful.
We stayed for a long time until it was almost dark. Tucked beneath the dry shade of the trees and seated on a ledge behind the caribou we listened to the sound of the nesting jackdaws screeching and calling from above us.
We talked about the impact of this moment and what it meant to us. Talked about how funny it was that we almost missed it. About the men who were buried in unmarked graves close to where we sat freely. We sang old Newfoundland Irish songs (terribly I may add) and the ode to Newfoundland.
I could have stayed there for hours. It felt for a little while like I was back at home in some strange way.
When we decided to leave I felt regretful that I had not brought flowers to leave behind. All I had was my camera, a few euros and my baggage lock and key tinkling in my pocket.
My boyfriend had a photo of his grandfather who fought in the second world war near where we stood. He decided to leave it behind with the guardian caribou.
I determined that all I had to leave was the lock and key. I took the lock and buried it beneath the majestic caribou.
Back home in Newfoundland I buried the key at the feet of the caribou in Bowring Park. My own personal gesture linking the past and present, Europe and Newfoundland, the dead and alive. My own secret to remember, the smallest most insignificant thing I could do.
I can’t tell you how much this visit has changed my view on my province, my history, and my freedoms. But I can say this…
Visit the monuments in your hometowns and pursue their stories, uncover their secrets, and pay your respects.
It has been 100 years since the battle of Beaumont Hamel and it is more important than ever to remember what our grandfathers and grandmothers endured. And respect the freedoms they fought for. Time heals all but as time slips by so does our memories. Please do not let their suffering and bravery be forgotten.
Today I remember. Lest we forget.