Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Danger Tree

July 1st is Canada Day which is a celebration of the anniversary of the formation of the union of the British North America provinces in a federation under the name of Canada.

In Newfoundland, while still Canada Day, at least since 1949, July 1st is commemorated for a different reason. It is Memorial Day. The 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. On July 1st, 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, the Newfoundland Regiment fought its first engagement in France, its costliest of the whole war. At Beaumont-Hamel, the 1st Battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment, part of the 29th British Division, lost two-thirds of its entire strength in about an hour's exposure to German artillery and machine guns.

At the end of June, 1916, the 1st Battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment comprised slightly more than 1,000 all ranks. On July 1, 1916, 798 all ranks deployed into the trenches (excluding 33 others detached to Mortar and Machine Gun Companies) and 22 officers and about 758 other ranks were sent forward against the enemy (approximately 10% of a battalion was held in reserve during any attack). Of these, all the officers and slightly under 658 other ranks became casualties. Only around 110 remained unscathed.

And the Danger Tree? The Danger Tree is an infamous memorial to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who went into battle on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in World War 1, 1st July 1916. It is merely a replica of the remains of a tree trunk, but it marks the spot where the casualties were highest. The Danger Tree was used as the spot where the Newfoundlanders were ordered to gather once they got into No-Man's Land. From there they would receive a new plan of action. However, nobody had realised that the Germans could easily see the tree and concentrated their fire there, thus killing the troops who reached that spot. It is rumoured that nobody made it past the tree alive on the first day of the Somme campaign.

Nowadays, a cluster of small trees grow next to the bare trunk of the Danger Tree, and they are believed to have grown from the same root system as the original Tree.

Kevin Major wrote No-Man's Land. Set in France during World War I, it pulls the reader into the lives of the young men of the Newfoundland Regiment at rest in the village of Louvencourt, preparing to set out for the trenches and what will come to be known as the Battle of the Somme.

An exerpt:

Of the countries he had sailed to after his training, only now, for France, did he feel much attraction. The grain rippling with the wind made him think of the lakes where he went as a boy to fish. The colours were stronger, especially the red of the wild poppies along the roadside, but the solitude was the same. He had come to fields such as this when they first arrived, with thick flakes of snow flying in the air, and he was reminded of the times he had gone with his uncle across the Topsail barrens to hunt partridge.

Even now, with concentration, he could ignore the artillery, as the villagers did. From his tunic pocket he took a pen and the paper he had been saving explicitly for writing a letter home. He unfolded the paper and placed it against his field notebook. He rubbed out the creases as best he could, then in neat, handsome script, he began.

The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial was dedicated to the memory of those Newfoundlanders who served during the First World War and specifically commemorates those who died and who have no known grave. The memorial site was opened June 7, 1925, by Earl Haig.

Writing about this made me think of the role of artists in war. Every country had its own official war artists and Canada was no exception. One of the better known was Alex Colville. During a long and extremely productive career ranging from the 1940s to the present, Alex Colville has made some of the most powerful and instantly recognizable works in Canadian art history. Colville’s work is often mistakenly termed "magic realism" in reference to American artists of the same period, such as Andrew Wyeth.

But Colville’s work is so personal as to defy an easy categorization, consisting of a huge body of intricate, symbolically rich paintings that document and comment on the human condition. A war artist during World War II who sketched what he saw in some of the Holocaust death camps, he brought back with him to Canada a somewhat darkened sensibility that is visible in his works. His early works were typically taken from family and regional subjects, while his later works are more varied in both subject and symbolism. Inspired more by Quattrocento artists than by artists of his own time, Colville succeeds in creating a virtual world in each of his paintings. Some of the strength of his paintings is due to their careful structure. His works are designed using proportional systems such as root rectangles and other geometrical organizing principles, and are carefully executed over a long time. And while not known primarily for his paintings of animals, he has nevertheless represented among the most memorable and monumental depictions of crows, dogs, horses, and other animals.

Colville himself remarked in 1983 concerning his life and work: "I do have a fear of chaos and a strong sense of the fragility of civilization." The National Gallery of Canada website observes: "Precise. Meticulous. Crisp. The work of Alex Colville is austere in its stark realism. The immediacy of a moment, the intensity of the present, and the impermanence of life – translated through the eyes of the artist into a controlled, frozen scene."

The sketch today is Newfoundland Memorial Park in Beaumont Hamel, France, showing the remains of the trenches in the field from 90 years ago. Done in a sketchbook, graphitint pencils and wash with pen and ink.

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1 comment:

Impression EMEDIA said...

So much of history..Great writing! thanks ;)