“The Food Sucked and We Were Cold”: Bryan Manning on Re-enacting the Footsteps of Relatives in Beaumont-Hamel

The documentary will air on CBC TV on Thursday, June 30, the night before the centennial anniversary of the deadly battle.

Bryan Manning is back from battle. Fortunately, there were no casualties. Limbs weren’t blown off and men weren’t killed on the front line. Manning fought in Newfoundland at Armageddon, a documentary re-creation of the Great War.

He enlisted as a descendent, reliving the tragic footsteps of his great uncle, Private Andrew Yetman, regimental #43 of Bryant’s Cove. The battle Manning fought wasn’t real but, the one Private Yetman and hundreds of other men in the Newfoundland Regiment fought, was very real.

On July 1, 1916 more than 300 men were killed and more than 400 were wounded in the battle at Beaumont-Hamel. Families were torn apart and Newfoundland would never be the same.

To mark the 100th anniversary of that fateful day, filmmakers re-created the battlefield and went to war. They recruited 21 Newfoundlanders who are descendents of those who fought.

They trained the men as soldiers, dug trenches in an empty field in Makinsons, and reenacted the attack. Bryan Manning was on that battlefield last spring. He says while they were filming the documentary, he learned to live the life of a soldier from 1916.

“Eat like them, march like them, fight like them, and drink like them.  We made good on that one night when the Newfoundland descendants were denied our evening rum ration. We banded together and threatened to tip over the camper trailer the 2 sergeants were resting in. They were from the mainland and got the point pretty quickly.  By the end of the night a couple of bottles of black rum were empty and all hands feeling no pain,” Manning remembers.

Getting into the role was fun. After all, these men weren’t really facing war. But, life in the trenches in Makinsons wasn’t easy. “The food sucked and we were cold and uncomfortable in the uniforms and cumbersome gear,” says Manning.

“Plus we had to take orders and march all over the country pointlessly it seemed.  Later we understood the maneuvers were necessary to build discipline and camaraderie.”

Re-enacting the biggest allied assault of the Great War was grueling. Manning says life in the trenches was tough and the battle scenes were realistic.  “I tucked my head into my shoulders at times marching into the recreated shelling and machine gun fire.”

It was an emotional experience for the actors. As they laid in the wet, muddy trenches in Makinsons, it was hard not to think of the real soldiers who rested in similar trenches in Beaumont Hamel one hundred years ago.

The young men had no idea they were about to face massive annihilation as they went over the hill to face German defenders with machine guns ready. Manning says reliving the battle was a poignant experience.

“Sadness mostly mixed with pride and disbelief. Sadness at the death and misery. Pride in the courage and bravery shown by our ancestors to have gone over the top at Beaumont-Hamel.  Disbelief that those bastards in the higher ranks knew the German barb wire hadn’t been cut by the allied shelling but still sent our men to an almost certain death.”

The journey was all-encompassing. Some of the descendents who acted in the film retraced the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s steps in Scotland and France as part of the documentary.

“We gained access to some pretty wild and rare spots well off the beaten track,” Manning says. For example Old German bunkers and billeting stables used by the allied soldiers, mostly British and the Newfoundlanders.”

Retracing the soldiers footsteps was a humbling experience for the descendents who had only heard and read about their ancestors’ roles in the war.

“In a dank stable in Louvencourt myself and the three other descendants found a number of names etched on the walls. They were names of NL regiment members billeted there June 30th, 1916, the eve of Beaumont Hamel.  Most died the next day,” Manning says.

“To the best of our knowledge this is the first time those etchings have been recorded.”

Newfoundland at Armageddon is the creative work of award-winning Canadian filmmaker, Brian McKenna. McKenna is known for his prize-winning, provocative depictions of Canadian history and the world at war. He directed and co-wrote the documentary with local author Michael Crummey. Alan Doyle narrates the documentary. The film is a Galafilm and Morag Loves Company co-production.

The documentary will air on CBC TV on Thursday, June 30, the night before the centennial anniversary of the deadly battle.

Manning says it’s important for people to watch the film and understand what happened 100 years ago. “A loss of innocence occurred when the soldiers and family members back home realized the absolute horror of this new kind of warfare,” Manning says.

“It defined and distinguished us from other colonies and brought us the respect and recognition we deserved.  Tragically we paid the ultimate price for those honours.  Lastly, the common men and women of the island played a major role Newfoundland’s experience in WWI.  Surnames not attached to wealthy merchants or political dynasties should be given their dues and remembered for their sacrifice.”

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