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Blue Puttees honoured in recreated March of the First 500

10/06/2014 06:58 EDT | Updated 12/06/2014 05:59 EST
Residents of St. John's lined the city's streets Sunday as a military parade recreated the march of the first Newfoundland soldiers who shipped off to Europe to fight in the First World War.

The Blue Puttees — so named because of the colour of the distinctive leg wrappings they wore — left St. John's harbour 100 years ago on the passenger liner SS Florizel.

Hundreds of people lined streets in St. John's, echoing the actual send-off a century ago.

Some, including Vincent Hibbs, had family connections to those members of the Newfoundland Regiment.

"I was honoured to come out and pay my respect and honour all those men that sailed over there because they did a great deed for our province and for our country." said Hibbs, who held a photograph of his grandfather, James Francis Hibbs.

Hibbs said his grandfather survived the war and lived until 1979, but never spoke about what he saw in combat.

Devastated at Beaumont-Hamel

The early recruits had been told they would be home by Christmas. To the contrary, the war lasted for four years, and many of them were sent to the devastating Battle of the Somme in 1916.

On July 1 that year, at Beaumont-Hamel in France, the Newfoundland Regiment — the royal designation it now enjoys would be given years later — was cut to pieces.

Only 68 of the 780 soldiers who went into battle were able to report for roll call the next day, with the others either shot or severely wounded.

Edward Shortall, who watched the recreation of what's known as the March of the First 500, said he thought about how prepared the actual soldiers were for the horrors that awaited them.

"A lot of them were very young. Most of them had never been outside of Newfoundland and some of them had not been very far from their settlement, [including] small communities along the coast,” Shortall said.

"So I'm sure they saw it as a great adventure, as you would. You know, a young lad of 18, 19 or 20."

Elizabeth Murphy, who watched the procession, said the loss of so many young soldiers had a profound effect on Newfoundland, which at the time was a dominion within the British Empire.

"That was a lot of men for such a small place and to have such a catastrophe happen to them so early on — I guess that was heartbreaking," she said.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government is sponsoring several events to mark the centennial of the First World War, as well as the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel itself.

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