Into the Blizzard

Into the Blizzard follows the Blue Puttees over the top

On October 4th, 1918, a seventeen-year-old boy named Tommy Ricketts ran across a field in Belgium under an immense amount of fire from German forces. He managed to retrieve ammunition for a Lewis gun that was engaged in an outflanking maneuver, turning the tide of the battle and saving many Allied lives. For his bravery he was awarded the Victoria Cross. He met the King of England and returned home a hero.

For Ricketts, Seal Cove, Newfoundland was home: a small community where he might have lived out his remaining years as a fisherman who could not read. Instead, his nation paid for his education and he set up a pharmacy in Saint John’s. Things were expected of him. Ricketts’ son said that although Tommy returned from the war, “He was captured by the people of Saint John’s … Tommy Ricketts couldn’t return to his life.”

Ricketts’s tale, which is recounted in Michael Winter’s new book, Into The Blizzard: Walking The Fields Of The Newfoundland Dead, reminds me of the famous Canadian war correspondent, Matthew Halton. Halton spent the end of World War Two in Paris, drinking champagne, having an affair with a beautiful, machine gun wielding Frenchwoman named Christiane de Sandfort and making eloquent political speeches. Halton himself recognized the over-the-top, Hollywood-style nature of his experience, but that didn’t make it any easier to come down from the high. It was said of Halton that he “won the war, but lost the peace.”

That’s the phrase that goes through my head when I think about Newfoundland after the First World War. Winter points out that the Newfoundland Regiment was composed purely of volunteers expecting travel, adventure, and a steady paycheck; a chance to see the world and return home in a year, no problem. Instead, a young nation lost a generation of strong, ambitious men.

Modern war is a numbers game; you have to spend thousands to play. For France, Germany, Russia, and England, punches could be taken, punches could be dished out. And sure it hurt, but at the end of the war you still had something resembling a nation— less so for Newfoundland. The Newfoundland Regiment amounted to a mere thousandth of the British army in the Great War. Still, what represented a tiny loss in a massive, multi-continental war was an inconceivable loss for an obscure island-nation off the coast of Canada.

Reading Into the Blizzard, I got a sense that the men of Newfoundland’s lost regiment could have turned the island into a tough, independent country had they not gone to war. While this may be an oversimplification, it’s still easy to think of the people of Newfoundland slowly retreating west into the arms of Canada after seeing their male population swallowed up in Europe. The post-war years were brutal. If those young soldiers had made it back, or better yet, never left at all, the island might have had a drastically different history.

In the final year of the war, influenza spread fast and worked its way through the streets of Saint John’s. After the war, the Dominion of Newfoundland suffered crippling debt from the cost of supporting the regiment and from maintaining an inter-island railroad system. Then fish prices collapsed. In 1933, Newfoundland’s legislature voted itself out of existence. The following year, a commission directly subordinate to the British government was sworn in. In 1949, Newfoundland ceded independence under heavy influence from Britain. Again, Tommy Ricketts, the “captured” soldier comes to mind: a young man from a small village who might’ve just wanted to be left alone, but instead was pushed into public life by circumstances beyond his control.

The Great War was a big mess, and if one thing can be said in praise of Winter’s book, it’s that it mirrors the messiness of its subject. Winter jumps around in the chronology of Newfoundland’s infamous Blue Puttee regiment, drawing parallels between their journey and his own and generally denouncing war. Winter strikes the tone of a protective family man. He is reverent of men who go to war but angry at the institutions that facilitate their deaths. He imagines his young son growing up and joining the military, and it fills him with dread.

Into the Blizzard

Into the Blizzard questions WWI and Newfoundland’s independence

Into The Blizzard is partly a travelogue in which Winter departs from his cozy domestic life in Toronto and roams around England and the Western Front via train and bicycle, kicking soccer balls with locals, attending memorial ceremonies at monuments, drinking wine in graveyards, and weeping. He reveals his aversion for formal memorial ceremonies with a fantastic line: “We should all have been lying in shallow graves telling filthy jokes.”

Despite the fascinating subject matter and Winter’s unique perspective, the disjointed nature of Into The Blizzard often makes it a nuisance to read. Winter has intentionally eschewed a coherent narrative in an attempt to convey the randomness and futility of isolated tragedies of war. By adopting this problematic approach, he’s rendered his book difficult to appreciate. Telling a compelling story and making a valid anti-war argument are not mutually exclusive exercises, but Winter writes as though they are.

At the centre of Into The Blizzard is a catastrophic event that is typical of the First World War: a village of men slaughtered needlessly due to incompetence in the command and the horrific power of 20th century weaponry. On July 1st, 1916, the Blue Puttees were ordered over the top to attack a German position at Beaumont-Hamel in the north of France. The advanced shelling from the British army (Winter estimates forty-five thousand tons of artillery) had failed to weaken the well-fortified German defenses and nearly the entire regiment was killed by machine gun fire. Of the 778 Blue Puttees that went into battle, only 68 showed up at roll call the following morning.

Winter points out that the sheer impact of quoting those numbers has become a grim and dull cliché—especially to an individual, such as himself, who grew up in Newfoundland—but it seems impossible to address the subject without having the numbers in front of you to consider. Winter gives us his sentiments on the remaining 68 men:

How I would love to read that sixty-eight men refused roll call and turned and walked away, not as a group, but individually, throwing down their rifles, each taking a route personal and unfathomable by all in command, their disdain clear for the betrayal of a group who were volunteers, who were only meant to be consolidating a position, who were not meant to invade. Not a shot was fired by a Newfoundlander that morning.

Between the Beaumont-Hamel incident, the Blue Puttees’ training in the U.K., their exploits at Gallipoli (one of the most interesting battles of the Great War) and from their involvement in many battles on the western front (post Beaumont-Hamel, when they had been strengthened by reinforcements like Tommy Ricketts), one could string together a coherent narrative. Instead, we get bits and pieces of these events as Winter describes his travels, hops from one soldier’s story to another, shares stories from his own past and spins a disorienting web of free-association. To his credit, when he is on-point, Winter’s writing is sharp and inventive, and Into the Blizzard contains flashes of staggering insight. The historical details and anecdotes are also well-curated. Winter employs a patchwork of historical information that at times eloquently conveys a sense of life, loss, and sorrow. He writes of the morning Newfoundland learns that Britain has declared war:

Germany was the chief market for lobster. Lobster, usually sold at twenty-three dollars per case, now couldn’t fetch ten dollars; war risks were not covered for cargo, and no fish buyer would risk a cargo on the North Atlantic.

A few months later, the Blue Puttees are aboard the Florizel, on their way to England in a convoy: “nine miles long and three abreast, a forest of ships, ditching dead horses as they ploughed through the sea.”

Winter effectively chronicles the Newfoundlanders’ rowdiness, bravery and their greater contributions to the war effort as they arrive in Europe. A group of Puttees famously hop a biplane back to base from a dance in Inverness in order to make curfew. Some men in the regiment take Scottish wives who end up leaving them when they realize that Newfoundland is thousands of miles away and not a nearby British Isle. Cluny Macpherson, a doctor from St. John’s, designs what will become the standard gas mask, using a special type of cellulose film.

At Gallipoli, forty-seven Blue Puttees are killed, the first of whom is Hugh McWhirter. Winter writes of his death:

The fibrous meat and organs of Hugh McWhirter had remained hidden under the character and soul of the man, as they should be. But here, in an instant, the sack of his nature was obliterated by an overwhelming force. Men were no different now than seals, or caribou or rabbits or fish. Their vulnerability to extreme forces had been exposed.

The animal imagery is a reminder that these men were accustomed to delivering death, not receiving it. Back on their treacherous island they embarked on perilous seal hunts, shot caribou and birds for sport and dinner. These were men who’d been in tough spots, who’d battled the elements and lost relatives to the sea, but against machine gun fire and shelling, even the bravest, most hardened men don’t stand a chance.

From Gallipoli, it only gets worse. Owen Steele, a Blue Puttee with a strong conviction that fighting in the war is a great and noble thing, writes on the eve of Beaumont-Hamel that the war will soon be won. He is one of the few survivors on July 1st, but dies a few days later from an injury to his thigh. The war—which none of the Newfoundlanders thought would last more than a calendar year—is nowhere near over.

Edward Joy is a unique specimen. He fights hard and lives through everything: Gallipoli, Beaumont-Hamel, Gueudecourt, Monchy, clear through to where the end of the war is actually visible. When an officer is killed, Joy takes command of his platoon in the midst of a battle. On leave in Saint John’s, he catches a cold and then dies of influenza back in England. Once the violence has stopped, the aggressive pandemic that killed Joy carries on devastating the world.

Into the Blizzard contains within it a curious, detailed account of Newfoundland’s involvement in the Great War. It’s an interesting story, but it’s presented in a messy, poetic haze. The manner in which Winter jumps haphazardly from past to present, from one topic to the next, renders the journey flat, without tension or urgency. Sometimes it seems as though Winter is withholding explicit details from the battles in question because that’s not the kind of book he wants to write. Which is fine, except that I don’t think he ever figured out what kind of book he wanted to write. He spends many precious paragraphs meditating on this question:

The battle narrative has already been written; many books have explained the war and Newfoundland’s role in it. But I wanted to talk about something else. How war and the past creep into everyday life.

Unfortunately I don’t know that Into the Blizzard achieves this objective. I learned a great deal about The Blue Puttee Regiment and I learned a lot about Michael Winter’s life and travels, but they felt like disconnected narratives, interwoven only in a very loose and abstract way. Into the Blizzard lacks a through-line; instead, it presents a chaotic buffet of information and impressions. The reader is mostly left to draw their own conclusions. Personally, I was left with the notion of a fragile island that helped win a distant war at the cost of independence. Tommy Ricketts was captured. Owen Steele died from shrapnel. Edward Joy won the war and died before he even had a chance to lose the peace. The Dominion of Newfoundland never recovered.

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