Berkley Lawrence has been to plenty of Remembrance Day events over the years, but 2018 already feels like something different for the Carbonear resident, who is also president of the Royal Canadian Legion’s provincial command.
He spent 33 years with the Canadian Armed Forces in military communications before retiring in 2004 with the rank of master warrant officer.
Nov. 11, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice, an event that ended fighting between Allied Forces and the German army. This also ended a war Berkley’s family was a part of. His grandfather, Stephen Lawrence of Bay L’Argent on the Burin Peninsula, was a private with the 1st battalion of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
“He always suffered from the wounds of war and losing all his buddies, I guess he never ever spoke of it from what my uncles have told me and my father,” Berkley told The Compass.
Pte. Lawrence was wounded during the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel but managed to survive, and was wounded twice more that same year in combat. The last wound (the same shoulder he was wounded in at Beaumont-Hamel) caused nerve damage to his left arm and hand and kept him in an army hospital in England for several months. Pte. Lawrence was sent back to Newfoundland upon his release.
“It is really, really different for me,” Berkley said when asked about Remembrance Day 2018. His grandfather’s story was not well known within the family, and only really became clearer once Berkley decided to visit The Rooms in St. John’s and go through its extensive archives.
“I wonder about my grandfather. You know, he’s sitting back in Bay L’Argent and word finally comes that the armistice is signed, and I always think, ‘What was he thinking that day?’ I would imagine he was happy that the war was over finally, but he lost buddies from Bay L’Argent. There was half-a-dozen of them that joined up. Him and his best buddy (Roy Stanley) Grandy both came back. But some didn’t … I’d love to talk to him and just get his thoughts.”
He’ll be thinking of Stephen when the Bells of Peace ring at sunset on Nov. 11. This gesture will honour the moment from 100 years ago when bells rang in communities across the British Commonwealth to acknowledge the war was over. During wartime, those bells had remained silent and were reserved for warnings of trouble.
“When I speak to schools and people now, I say, ‘Think about what that meant back in 1918. What kind of relief did the whole country, the whole world feel that this was finally, finally over?’ Let’s everybody celebrate. If you can’t get out to a ceremony and listen to a church bell ring, stand in your living room or kitchen and ring a dinner bell. Ring something just to celebrate.”
Military service runs deep in Berkley’s family — it’s now four-generations strong. His father, Berkley Lawrence Sr., served in the Second World War with the Newfoundland Regiment’s field artillery. Still alive today, he’s also from Bay L’Argent and moved to St. John’s after the war to start a family.
Berkley’s son David followed his dad’s footsteps into communications with the Canadian Armed Forces, and Berkley’s brother, also named Stephen, spent 36 years in the Navy. Stephen’s son also served with the Navy for a few years.
Berkley’s wife Sarah is also retired from the military, having served 25 years.
Surprisingly, father and grandfather’s service didn’t really factor into Berkley’s decision to sign up with the military. When a high school buddy mentioned he was looking at signing up for the Army, Berkley decided it sounded like a good option for him as well.
“So I went down and joined up, never thinking that I’d be there for 33 years,” he said.
His experiences with the military took Berkley to a lot of different places, including bases across Canada, a four-year stint with NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in Germany and some time in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“It was a steady, steady job. My job as a communicator at all the bases I worked at was a 24-7 job. You could be on day shift, evening shift, midnight shift — you weren’t just sitting around all day … We were busy supplying secure communications for the military.”
As for his son, an electrical technician for military communications, Berkley was not totally surprised by David’s decision to join up, given his involvement in the Air Cadet program as a youth.
“He was 23 or 24, a little bit older than when I joined … but now he’s been in 15 years and doing well.”