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'He did the best he could ... He survived'


There are those who talk, and those who don't.

John Fox, a soldier and officer who survived the carnage that seemed to single out Newfoundlanders more than any other group in the First World War, was one who did not.

"Never," said his grandson, Fraser Carlyle. "I wish he had."

Mr. Fox's daughter, Maude Carlyle, recalled only one experience her father ever mentioned about his four wartime years with the storied Newfoundland Regiment.

"When we were kids, if there were a lot of flies around and we complained, he would say, 'Flies? You don't know what flies are. In Gallipoli, if we put out a piece of bread, it was immediately covered black with flies.' Other than that, he never ever talked about it."

Despite his reticence, however, Mr. Fox did not relinquish all traces of his distinguished - and somewhat charmed - service in the Great War. Prominent in his family's archives is a special picture of him and nine fellow regimental officers.

It wouldn't be much of a memento if it weren't for the portrait's setting, as far from the soldiers' fog-enshrouded, rocky homeland as can be imagined. Sweltering in the hot desert sun, astride single-humped camels, the group poses - in shorts and pith helmets - in front of the great Sphinx on Egypt's Giza Plateau.

The remarkable photograph, likely taken in early September, 1915, freezes in time a carefree moment before the Newfoundlanders had fired even a single shot at the enemy and more than nine months before the terrible catastrophe that was to overtake them later. Lieutenant Fox, as he was then, is the fellow perched on a kneeling camel in the front row, on the left.

"At least I think that's him," Ms. Carlyle said with a laugh. "They all look the same."

The group is part of "The First Five Hundred," as the initial Newfoundland volunteers who signed up in a frantic outburst of early patriotism came to be known. John Fox, a Rhodes Scholar and skilled hockey player recently returned from Oxford, enlisted on Sept. 4, 1914. He was 23.

By the time the high-spirited Newfoundlanders made it to the British Isles for their final training, their only worry was that someone might lump them in with the Canadians. The island still had 35 years to go as a British colony, and the Fox family was one of those who never truly accepted the islanders' decision to become part of Canada in 1949.

In August, 1915, the Newfoundland Regiment, much to its delight, became part of the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force and was sent to join the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign, which had already bogged down in a series of military disasters at Gallipoli. The camel joyride in Egypt took place during a brief training stop before the Newfoundlanders headed there.

While the others in the picture are unknown to Maude, few probably survived the war. The casualty rate of the Newfoundland Regiment was awful. One-quarter of the more than 6,000 men who saw action overseas were killed. Overall, the total of dead, wounded and missing was more than 70 per cent.

Nothing matched the toll of the massacre at Beaumont-Hamel on the western front on July 1, 1916. About 800 Newfoundlanders charged out of their trenches into the teeth of German machine-gun fire.

They had been told that the Germans would be weakened by intense bombardment, that the lethal strings of thick barbed wire strewn across no man's land would be gone and that another regiment would join them. None of it was true. The next morning, only 68 members of the regiment answered the roll call.

One eyewitness said the Newfoundlanders advanced into the hail of bullets with their chins tucked into their neck, as they might weather an ocean storm back home. In Newfoundland to this day, July 1 is not Canada Day, nor was it ever Dominion Day. It is a day of sombre remembrance, Memorial Day.

John Fox, however, missed the slaughter, as he did much of the action by the Newfoundland Regiment against the Turks at Gallipoli. He was one of many struck down by illness in the grim trenches there and sent to England to recuperate. Later, after rejoining the regiment in France, he became sick again. This time, he spent six months in hospital, including the time of the campaign at Beaumont-Hamel.

He finished the war with his regiment, promoted to captain for its final two years. Afterward, he became a successful Montreal businessman. But when the Second World War began, he joined up for the fight once more - this time as a diplomat. He spent three years as a Washington-based liaison officer between the governments of the United States and Britain before moving to New York, where he served as an executive with the British Treasury. He died in 1977, on Sept. 22.

Years later, his grandson said that he is just now beginning to realize what was lost with the passing of his stern but gentle, "always with a mustache" grandfather. The innocence of the Sphinx picture has triggered a wealth of regret.

"I always remembered that picture being in the family, but I never found out anything about it. Now, I'm more curious," Mr. Carlyle said. "Until he passed away, I never really thought about the values he had.

"I've started going to Armistice Day services and I get this deep appreciation. My God, what these people gave us, what they sacrificed. I'd like to find out more. Maybe people who see the picture can tell us something more about it. I'd like to find out what drove my grandfather, what made him special, and what part of him might be part of me."

As for his oldest daughter, she has an idea why her father kept the war out of conversation: The memories were too dreadful. Although he didn't tell them why, Mr. Fox took his entire family to France in 1926 to pay respects to the memorial at Beaumont-Hamel.

"I still remember seeing the bronze caribou," Maude Carlyle said. "I don't know what my father was thinking when we were at Beaumont-Hamel. Maybe he was feeling guilty for missing it. But he did the best thing he could in the war. He survived."

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