Owen William Steele, salesman, soldier and officer (born 28 April 1887 in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador; died 8 July 1916 near Englebelmer, France). Owen Steele was an officer in the Newfoundland Regiment who served during the First World War. The regiment suffered horrendous losses in July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme (see The Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel). Steele is best known for the detailed journal he kept from his enlistment to his death in France in July 1916. His journal and letters from the front provide insight into the experiences and impressions of Newfoundland soldiers during the war.
Owen Steele was an officer in the Newfoundland Regiment and served during the First World War; he died in France in July 1916.
(courtesy The Rooms Archives and Museum/Veterans Affairs Canada)
Early Life and Career
Owen Steele was born on 28 April 1887 in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. His father, Samuel, left the United Kingdom in the 1880s and came to Newfoundland, where he married Sarah Blanche Harris, the niece of a local hardware merchant. Samuel and Sarah had 10 children, including Owen.
Steele grew up in St. John’s and enrolled in Bishop Feild College. In school, he took a keen interest in athletics, excelling at race walking. He eventually won the 21-mile race walk at the Highland Games organized by the St. Andrew’s Club. After graduating in 1902, Steele began working for the family business, selling crockery. He also joined the Newfoundland Highlanders, a local paramilitary group established by the Presbyterian Church in St. John’s.
On 13 September 1914, about six weeks after Britain declared war on Germany, Owen Steele enlisted with the Newfoundland Regiment and began training at Pleasantville in St. John’s. He quickly impressed the leadership of the regiment, earning a promotion to sergeant on 21 September. On 3 October, Steele and the other soldiers of the “first five hundred” boarded the SS Florizel in St. John’s. They sailed to the United Kingdom for additional training before being deployed to the front line. Steele was promoted again to colour sergeant while aboard the SS Florizel. In early 1915, he was joined by his younger brother James, who also enlisted with the Newfoundland Regiment.
Owen Steele excelled at the training he received in England and Scotland. In Scotland, he was appointed to provost sergeant and was responsible for maintaining the soldiers’ discipline in and out of barracks. In April 1915, he received his commission to second lieutenant with the Newfoundland Regiment. On 20 August 1915, the First Battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment left England, bound for the Gallipoli Peninsula.
The Newfoundland Regiment arrived at the beaches of the Dardanelles on 20 September 1915. Like all soldiers in the regiment, Owen Steele’s time in Gallipoli was characterized by boredom, discomfort, illness and constant danger. The horrendous conditions at Gallipoli took a toll on the Newfoundland Regiment. By 18 October, only some 760 of the 1,070 Newfoundlanders who landed at Gallipoli remained in the trenches. Steele’s platoon had shrunk from over 50 to 23 men. Steele, too, was affected by the cold and damp conditions. In late October, he suffered from dysentery and sore throat. Despite this, he refused to go to sick parade, fearing that he would be removed from the front line and sent to the field hospital.
Things got worse for Steele on 26 November, when a rainstorm flooded the regiment’s trenches, destroying dugouts, washing away equipment and soaking the soldiers. The following day, a dramatic drop in temperatures resulted in several inches of ice on top of the standing water in the trenches. Following the flood, the commanding officer (CO) of “A” Company went missing. Second Lieutenant Steele was appointed acting CO, a position usually held by a captain. One hundred and fifty soldiers of the regiment were sent to hospital, mostly for frost burn. Steele credited the lack of fatalities to the inherent “hardiness” of the Newfoundland soldiers.
The Allies began to evacuate Gallipoli in December 1915. Steele was put in charge of a contingent that would help cover the evacuation of the remaining soldiers from the beaches. On 8–9 January, Steele and his men were among the very last to leave. While waiting to board the ship, Major General F.S. Maude and a group of soldiers returned to another beach to retrieve Maude’s valise. When they failed to return, Steele was ordered to find them. It was only 30 minutes before the British magazines were rigged for demolition. Steele found Maude and his men, who had been caught in some barbed wire, and got them back to the boat mere minutes before the magazine detonated. Before they had a chance to depart, the magazine exploded, showering them with debris.
Map of the Battle of the Somme, 1916, during the First World War.
(courtesy U.S. Army/Wikimedia CC)
Battle of the Somme
Following the evacuation of Gallipoli, the Newfoundland Regiment was sent to Marseille and eventually to the Battle of the Somme. On 1 July, the Newfoundland Regiment went over the top at Beaumont-Hamel. Within 30 minutes, the Regiment was all but wiped out. Of the approximately 800 soldiers who participated in the battle, 710 were killed, wounded, or missing. Owen Steele did not participate in the battle, as he had been assigned to the 10 percent reserve kept in billets. Despite this, Steele was grievously wounded on 7 July by shrapnel from a stray German shell. He was evacuated to a field hospital but died the following day during an operation to amputate his leg. His brother James was seriously wounded during the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel but survived the war and returned to St. John’s, Newfoundland.