T.S. Eliot did not write for Newfoundlanders. April is not the cruelest month. For us, it’s July. Both the first and second day of July are marked indelibly in the province’s common memory, the first perhaps the saddest day in the historic calendar, the second as the day of the most fundamental change in the essential makeup of the province.
The greatest tragedy in Newfoundland’s history occurred on July 1, 1916 the opening day of the Battle of the Somne, when nearly 800 men from the 1st Newfoundland Regiment went “over the top” at Beaumont Hammel, only to suffer close to 700 casualties within less than half an hour. It was a virtual annihilation of the entire Regiment. The shockwaves from Beaumont Hammel went through every town and village, city and outport of the time. There was not a place unmarked with grief. To this day, the memory of Beaumont Hammel commands deep respect and notice.
A different kind of event, one not drawn from conflict or war, marks the second day of the month. Just 20 years ago, for the very first time since the late 15th century and the arrival of the Europeans and John Cabot to the fish-crowded waters off Newfoundland, catching cod-fish was declared illegal. The fishery, that great and traditional fishery of Newfoundland, was shut down for the first time in nearly 500 years.