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'You can literally see the sculptor's handwork': Memorial restored as Newfoundlanders reflect on First World War's toll

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Historic monuments adorning the National War Memorial in downtown St. John’s, N.L. are being restored to their full glory this week ahead of Memorial Day ceremonies.

The last bits of a weathered, green patina that have long covered the 100-year-old statues are being cleaned and replaced -- one of the final steps in a redevelopment project that will culminate in the entombment of an unknown Newfoundland soldier on July 1.

St. John’s sculptor Morgan MacDonald and his group have won the contract — and the honour — of completing the job.

“This is an example to me of that kind of supreme kind of craftsmanship that existed in an era gone by,” MacDonald said.

He’s been working up close and personal with the monument’s four statues for the past two weeks.

“You can literally see the sculptor's handwork and the sculpting tools and the brushwork,” he said. “There’s a really intimate kind of experience there that you’re kind of retracing the steps.”

July 1 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the unveiling of those statues, and the National War Memorial, which was commissioned after the First World War to commemorate Newfoundland and Labrador’s losses.

More than 1,700 soldiers from Newfoundland and Labrador died in war — from a small Dominion that numbered just 241,000.

“Newfoundland had this massive effort that other places didn’t see,” said Maureen Peters, a curator at The Rooms, a provincial museum in St. John’s.

“We always say, ‘Someone from every community enlisted in the war.’”

Stories live on

For MacDonald — like for so many other Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, there is a deep personal tie to the province’s war history.

His great-grandfather, Joseph Babstock, was a veteran of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who was injured in fighting and was taken as a prisoner of war by German forces.

He returned to Newfoundland following the war, and although MacDonald never met him, his story lived on through family memories and his great-grandmother.

“His photo in the Regiment uniform always hung in her kitchen over the kitchen table,” he said. “As a young child… it’s always been there.”

Ceremonies this year, for the hundredth anniversary of the unveiling of the memorial, include the repatriation of an unknown soldier from France.

Delicate blue Forget-me-nots, also known as Myosotis. (Mark Mansur / Pexels)

MacDonald has created bronze recreations of Forget-me-nots – small blue flowers that were adopted in the 1920s in Newfoundland as symbols of remembrance. They are still worn on lapels on Memorial Day and Remembrance Day, similar to a poppy.

His sculpture will go on top of the sarcophagus that will hold the unknown soldier.

An official handover ceremony was held last month in Beaumont-Hamel, the site of a devastating chapter of Newfoundland history, when hundreds of young men were killed and injured in mere minutes.

Forget-me-nots, small blue flowers that were adopted in the 1920s in Newfoundland as symbols of remembrance, are seen here cast in metal. (Garrett Barry, CTV News)

British commanders who had ordered the attack had ignored previous warnings that their artillery was not damaging German front lines and that the day’s advance would not go as planned.

Within mere minutes of being ordered over the top, 324 men were killed and 386 were injured.

On May 25, reservists with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment took the unknown soldier into their care at Beaumont-Hamel, and transported him from France back to St. John’s.

Princess Anne, the colonel-in-chief of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, is set to be in attendance for the July 1 ceremony that will see him entombed in St. John’s.

“Her Royal Highness’s presence will be especially symbolic,” Premier Andrew Furey said in a statement last week. 

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