What a Newfoundland Soldier Wrote About the War.

From the files of The Gazette October 05, 1995.

In Memory of Walter A. Tobin (1898-1995).

Owen William Steele was born in St. John's, on April 28, 1887, the oldest son of Samuel Owen Steele and Sarah Blanche Harris. He received his formal education at Bishop Feild College, the Church of England-operated boys' school in St. John's, graduating in 1902. He participated in athletics while at school, particularly in race walking. This interest continued after he graduated and in 1909 he was winner of the Newfoundland Walking Championship, completing a 21-mile course in three hours, 13 minutes, 37 seconds. Steele also joined the Newfoundland Highlanders, an organization dedicated to instilling discipline, patriotism and manliness through military training.

After leaving school, Steele went to work with his father's business, a wholesale and retail crockery, dishes and kitchen-ware enterprise, S. O. Steele Ltd., located at 100 Water St. He was employed there when war was declared in Europe. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, Steele volunteered for service. He enlisted on Sept. 2, 1914, making him one of the First Five Hundred (Regimental #326). He was made a corporal on Sept. 16 and promoted to sergeant on Sept. 21, a very meteoric rise through the ranks. On Oct. 4, 1914, he left St. John's for England aboard the SS Florizel, the flagship of the New York, Newfoundland and Halifax Steamship Company operated by Bowring Brothers, which had been commissioned to take the First Five Hundred to Europe.

After only two days at sea, Steele was promoted to color sergeant (sergeant major) for E Company of the Regiment. During the voyage over he organized a concert which was staged on Oct. 12. It consisted of 25 acts, mostly vocal, but also some instrumental numbers and recitations. Steele also participated in the concert as one of the eight-member Florizel Glee Singers, which performed renditions of Old Black Joe and My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. The Florizel arrived in Plymouth, England on Oct. 14, but the Regiment did not disembark until the 20th.

The Newfoundland Regiment spent two months at Plymouth before being transferred to Fort George, Scotland in early December. Shortly after the transfer, on Dec. 14, Steele was appointed provost sergeant for his company; as such, he was the person responsible for order in the barracks: a sort of a police sergeant, he had several constables working with him. In mid-February, the regiment was transferred to Edinburgh. While there, on April 22, 1915, Steele was commissioned as second lieutenant making him an officer in the Regiment.

The Regiment remained in Scotland until August when it shipped out aboard the SS Megantic for the front. The front turned out to be the eastern Mediterranean; the members disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt on Aug. 31 and then travelled overland to Cairo where they set up camp outside the city at Abbassia. Later in September the Regiment was shipped to Suvla Bay, Turkey, where on Sept. 20 they first encountered enemy fire. Steele, who was promoted to lieutenant on Oct. 15, and the Newfoundland Regiment remained in Turkey as part of the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force until mid-January 1916 when they were shipped back to Egypt. There they were bivouacked at Suez until mid-March. On March 16 they left Port Said for parts unknown.

Owen William Steele
Owen William Steele
Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections (Coll - 179), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

After crossing the Mediterranean, the Newfoundland Regiment finally reached Marseilles, France; from there it travelled by train to Port Remy in northern France arriving in late March. April, May and June were spent in this area near the mouth of the Somme River preparing for a major allied offensive planned for late June or early July. This offensive, the Battle of the Somme, began on the morning of July 1, 1916. It resulted in catastrophic losses for the allies, with almost 20,000 killed and almost 40,000 wounded. The Newfoundland Regiment, part of the 29th Division, was responsible for the assault on an area near the French village of Beaumont Hamel. It was at that battle on that morning that the ranks of the Newfoundland Regiment were decimated. Of the 778 members of the regiment who took part in the assault, only 68 answered roll call at the end of the day: 233 men were killed; 386 were injured and 91 were missing.

Owen Steele was one of the few members of the Newfoundland Regiment to survive the attack at Beaumont Hamel on July 1. But in one of the many ironies of that engagement, on July 7 he was standing outside D Company's billets when a German shell exploded near him; he died from his injuries the next day. At the time he was second-in-command of D Company. His brother, James, was also a member of the regiment; he survived the war.

In 1981, Dr. John Steele, son of Owen Steele's brother, Victor, presented Memorial University with a red, leather-bound typescript volume entitled Diary of the late Lieutenant Owen W. Steele of the First Newfoundland Regiment whilst on Active Service. This diary was created by Owen Steele's youngest sister, Ella, sometime between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II. It is comprised of excerpts from letters he wrote to his family from Europe and entries from his actual diary. The letters were edited so that only those parts which concerned the war were printed. Six copies were made: Ella kept these in her possession until the 1970s when they were given to family members.

The diary contains the experiences and attitudes of a Newfoundland soldier in World War I. The entries begin on Oct. 3, 1914, while he is in a regimental training camp at Pleasantville, near St. John's. It ends with an entry on June 30, 1916, the night before the Battle of the Somme (Beaumont Hamel) in which Steele took part. It is a first-hand account, one which provides valuable personal insight into the tragedies and the triumphs, the living and the dying, and the force of character needed to survive on the battlefields of Europe in World War I.

Owen Steele's final letter home ended with the following lines:

I believe the climax of our troubles will be reached within the next few days, (after which the day of peace will quickly draw near), though they will undoubtedly bring trouble to many. Jim and I are in the best of health and spirits, and I trust we may remain so. -- This will be my last letter for a short while.

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