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Memories of war still very real

Ronald Dunn in uniform
Ronald Dunn in uniform

This is a story about the First World War first published in The Packet in 1987. 

Ronald Dunn went to war at 18. Drafted from Bonavista, Dunn was a Gunner in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. He survived the battle of Beaumont Hamel while others fell around him.

Remembrance Day is a time to remember and understand what went on in the World Wars, and why this destruction and devastation had to take place. Many Newfoundlanders were lost or crippled as a result of war.

The people who really remember are the veterans. No matter how many years have passed, the reality of war burns fiercely in their minds. The scars will never disappear.

Respect and a high degree of understanding is the most that can be expected from the young. What youth need to realize is that those marching souls of a forgotten war were also young at one time. To them, youth was precious, as it is now, but the difference is that in their time, youth was expendable.

Today is the day that we should honour those who served, those who gave their all for freedom; men such as Ronald Dunn of Bonavista. Dunn was living history of one of the bloodiest battles the world has ever known.

Drafted when he was 18 years old, Dunn served in "D" company of the famed Royal Newfoundland Regiment of the 29th division.

The Newfoundland Regiment was involved in a number of battles during the First World War and again and again proved their courage and ability, so as to earn them the title of 'Royal'.

Dunn was a Lewis Gunner in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. A Lewis gun could fire rapidly and take out a large number of men in a very short time. Dunn toted the gun as he took part in one of the bloodiest and most devastating battle the world has ever known.

The day was July 1, 1916 and the place was the valley of the River Somme in Northern France. The Newfoundland Regiment was involved in the battle of Beaumont Hamel. A name that will forever linger in the hearts of Newfoundlanders.

For many years after the war, as it was with many veterans, Dunn would not talk much about his experience. Now it seems he's able to talk about it more freely. Dunn recalls first when the Newfoundland Regiment was sent to the Dardanelles to take part in the Gallipoli operation at Sulva Bay he had his first experience with the misery of trench warfare.

"We had a hard time, no question about it. You had to be iron to stand it."

In the trenches were millions of black flies and crawlers swarming over the bodies. There was very little to eat. Towards the latter part of November the rain came and filled the trenches. Following this fell the snow and came the freezing temperatures.

"You could walk on the ice in the trenches said Dunn. A lot of our boys got their hands and legs frozen. Our clothes were wet you see."

The men suffered from dysentery, diarrhea and lice. Some men died while others had to be taken from service to recuperate. These are the things the men had to face, besides fighting the Turks. Dunn recalls putting jam on a biscuit. "Before you got it to your mouth it would be black with flies. You'd have to eat it. There wasn't much you could do.

"Movement in the trenches had to be made with caution for fear of Turk snipers. They were a crack shot. One fellow," recalls Dunn, "Raised his helmet on his rifle, and there was a bullet shot right through the crown of it. Our fellows, many of them were a crack shot too, that's the way it was on both sides."

Even at night the men had to be alert because the darkness gave the snipers a chance to move around.

"We were out of the trenches one night and one of our boys got hit. I was pulling him in when I saw two men crawling towards us. I thought they were a couple of our boys at first. They were Turks. One of them said to me, 'wounded mate?' and I said 'yes.' 'Okay, go ahead,' he said… They could have killed both of us."

After evacuation of the Gallipoli operation, the 29th division were assigned to France. In the early hours of July 1, 1916, Dunn was preparing to attack the German front line near Beaumont Hamel. The 29th division, which contained three brigades, of which the 88th contained the Newfoundland Regiment, was part of a major offensive by the British Empire. That morning, nearly 100,000 British troops left their trenches and at day's end, their casualties were 57,470, nearly half of the troops engaged, including almost 20,000 killed. That day, no regiment suffered more than the Newfoundland Regiment.

Slowly and solemnly, Dunn reveals his story as happened on that bloody day in 1916.

"We waited and waited for the time to come. I got to say, we had a fine bunch of boys. Anyway, the time came to go over the top. There were seven of us who carried Lewis guns and one was shot in the head as we left the trench."

The men coming out of the trenches that morning faced the Germans who were well prepared for the attack. Advancing troops were simply mowed down by the German machine guns.

"The six of us went on and one by one we began to drop until there was only me and another fellow. We went on, and he got killed. I didn't go far from where he was killed until I got it. I got two bullets in the leg. One went right through and the other smashed the bone and went out the same hole, on the back of my leg, as the first went out. There were two holes on the front of my leg and one on the back. I lay down, and when I looked there was a shell hole there. It was a bit deep. So I got in that one and my legs were up, but my head and body were down."

Wounded and dead lay everywhere and were so dense they hindered the movement of the soldiers still advancing. But with the walls of hot lead and bullets coming at them, the Newfoundlanders advanced, steadily, dropping left and right, until they could advance no further. Inside 20 minutes or so, the Newfoundland Regiment had been wiped out.

"The blood was coming out of my leg. The holes in my leg were big; I could put my finger in them. We carried a bandage with us but it was only good for one bullet. I stayed there in that little hole. The sun was pouring down and the shells flying made it even hotter. I made up my mind that I'd crawl in when it got dark.

While lying in the hole, Dunn could not move, for the slightest movement caught the eye of some German gunner.

"I moved around a bit a couple of times, and they saw me. They fired and the bullets came pretty close to my head."

Even while bullets passed directly over his head, the spirit of this man remained high. His thoughts were for his fellow men who lay all over the ground near him.

"I bawled at the men on the ground because if the Germans saw me moved in the hole then they would see them for sure. Anyway, I knew then it was no good."

It seems impossible that anyone could stand in the overpowering German gunfire for long. The Newfoundland soldiers carried 60 or more pounds of gear and had to maneuver through selected gaps in their own wire, and then on across a thousand yards of what was known as 'No Man's Land', then to the German wire and trenches; open all the time to the blistering German gunfire. Few men made it that far.

When darkness came that night, Dunn got to his knees and tried to crawl in.

"There was wire whichever way I went. I tore my chest and my back trying to get through, so I went back and got into the hole and stayed there all Saturday night. Sunday morning came and I was feeling sick. A piece of shell came and struck me in the chest. It bounced off and I put my hand on it. It was warm. If it was hot, it would have went through my chest. It didn't hurt me."

Dunn stayed in the hole while his mouth cracked for lack of water. He admitted he felt as if he wasn't going to make it.

"I felt I would see home no more. I was there all day and when the sun went down, I went down too."

He knew no more, only bits and pieces, until he awoke in the hospital days later.

Among the ranks, he was listed as missing at first, later as wounded.

The Newfoundland Regiment had gone into action 801 strong. When the role call was taken the next day, only 68 answered their names. The final figures of the battalion were: 233 killed or died of wounds, 386 wounded, and 91 missing.

While Dunn was in hospital in Bristol, England, King George V visited and issued a letter of get well wishes, and of thanks for faithful service to all wounded soldiers there. Being the only Newfoundlander at the hospital, at that time, Dunn figures he is the only Newfoundlander with such a note.

After being discharged from the hospital, still with a painfully crippled leg, Dunn was sent home. Back in Newfoundland he attended school in St. John's for nine months, then took a job with the Customs Department.

Times were hard and after being home a short while Dunn noticed a friend without proper pants to wear. Dunn took the pants from his uniform, one of his most precious items, and gave it to the friend.

This man of courage and bravery, who survived the hot steel and lead of the enemy, and who fired back to kill the enemy in the line of his duty, really has a heart of gold when it comes to his fellow man. Why then, did men like this have to try and tear each other apart in war?

The battle of Somme was a disaster felt in every home in Newfoundland. Many say Beaumont Hamel need not have happened. The bravery, dedication and courage of these Newfoundlanders to face an impossible situation, almost certain death, and still advance until they could no more is a true tribute to Newfoundland and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment; for those men gave all for their freedom.

Research into Dunn's World War years has been a rewarding and educational experience. It was indeed a honour and privilege to have an opportunity to talk with and write about such an admirable man. It has been an unforgettable experience.

One cannot totally comprehend in this day and age, what men or boys at the time, like Dunn went through; what war was really about. But these men and what they did should always be remembered and respected.

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