War can subject nations and their peoples to immense strain, and the dangers both tear societies apart and transform attitudes at a great pace. J.L. Granatstein’s new book Canada at War examines the impact of both world wars on Canada and Canadians by examining conscription, foreign policy, and politics, with William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, acting as the book’s central figure.
In this post, we share an excerpt from chapter sixteen of the book.
A Half-Century On: The Veterans’ Experience
Thanks to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, I had the good fortune to be able to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations of D-Day in Normandy and in London in June 1994 and the 50th anniversary commemoration of VE-Day in Apeldoorn and London in May 1995. These were both astonishing events, at once of supreme interest to a historian of Canada’s part in World War II and also deeply, wrenchingly emotional. As I think back on them, it seems to me that I spent both trips in tears most of the time. To watch the old men once young march through the streets of Courseulles and St. Aubin and Apeldoorn, Amsterdam, Groningen and fifty small Dutch towns was at once to realize how quickly time passes, how soon we all become old. The two trips, the two commemorative events, also made me aware again how little, in contrast to many Western Europeans, Canadians know of what their soldiers did a half century ago.
To be sure, London paid very little attention to the Canadians or to other Commonwealth and Allied troops who had helped Britain survive and triumph in World War II. The focus in the huge celebrations and superbly staged ceremonies in 1994 and 1995 was on the Battle of Britain, on surviving the Blitz, on the long, hard road back from defeat in 1940, on the role of British troops, and on the songs and travails of wartime daily life. Perhaps the monochromatic focus was justified, but I could not help thinking that, just as Britain no longer means very much to Canadians, so too do Canada and the Commonwealth matter not a whit to the United Kingdom.
Then there was France. The French, in truth, did not seem particularly grateful for their 1944 liberation, although fifty years later they clearly appreciated the surge in business brought by the thousands of celebrants who poured into Normandy in June 1994. World War II was a time of shame and glory for France, a time of collaboration as much as it was a time of resistance, and the memories of the collapse of May and June 1940 seem to be alive still (and to lead to such vainglory as President Chirac’s nuclear tests which aim to prove that France remains a great power with its own independent nuclear deterrent and global policy).
It was utterly different in May 1995 in the Netherlands, the one country in the world where Canadians are universally hailed as liberators. Every house was decorated in the colours of the House of Orange and with Canadian flags, and home-made banners, most obviously erected by ordinary citizens or neighbourhood associations and not by the state or municipalities, seemed to stretch across every street. The theme of gratitude, written in English on one banner I saw in Apeldoorn, was everywhere clear: “Bless You, Boys.”
The Dutch remember the war. They remember the brutality of the Nazi occupation, the starvation winter of 1944–45, the executions of resistance fighters that went on into May 1945, and the collaboration of many of their men and women with the oppressors. They remember, but no longer hate the Germans, with whom, for example, they willingly cooperate in a combined German-Dutch corps in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They remember, above all, those who fought and died to liberate them, those men of the First Canadian Army who came from afar to drive the Germans out of Holland, those Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) pilots who supported the armies and who dropped food to them in the hungry days just before liberation, and the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) sailors who cleared mines and ferried supplies.
You could see their acts of remembrance in the Canadian war cemeteries at Groesbeek and Holten, both of which are supremely beautiful places – if one can say such a thing of graveyards where thousands of your countrymen are buried so far from home. When I went to Holten, several days before VE-Day, there were perhaps a hundred ordinary Dutch families wandering among the endless rows of headstones that, beneath a carved maple leaf, list the rank, name, dates of birth and death, regiment or corps, and sometimes a message from parents, wives, or children. Small children looked solemn as their parents talked to them – I could not understand what they were saying, but I had no doubt of the message that was being conveyed. These men, these boys – and so many of them were boys who had the demographic bad luck to be born in the 1920s and to grow up knowing little else but depression and war – had died to free their nation from oppression a half century before. Do not forget what they did for your country. Remember that you are free because of them.
Those Canadians who assume that the liberation of Holland was a cakewalk against a beaten Wehrmacht would be disabused of that notion by the thousands buried in these war cemeteries. I was especially struck at Holten by the twenty men of the Cape Breton Highlanders whose headstones reveal that they were killed in action on 1 May 1945 in liberating the little port of Delfzijl, a battle that the history of their regiment calls its hardest fight of the war. On 1 May – with Hitler already a suicide and the war inexorably drawing to its close! The Dutch families at Holten that day understood what their liberation had cost.
The same public display of memory was evident for all to see in the single most extraordinary event I have ever been privileged to attend, the amazing Victory parade of Canadians through Apeldoorn, a few days before the VE-Day anniversary. Apeldoorn is a pleasant town of about 100,000 people in central Holland, quiet, staid in the reserved Dutch way. But that day, just as fifty years before when the Canadian Shermans rolled into their towns, the Dutch were far from staid. In May 1995, Apeldoorn’s streets were lined by at least a half million men and women, children and babes in arms. The 15,000 or so Canadian vets who marched through the streets were mobbed, showered with kisses, handed drinks, smokes, and flags in the most sincere and astonishing outpouring of love, affection, and gratitude I have ever seen. The parade, scheduled to run for about two hours, lasted for eight, so slow was the triumphal progress through the happy crowds. That the vets lasted that long was a tribute to the power of exhilaration to overcome the aches and pains inherent to seventy-five-year-old bodies.
I will never forget the sight of young mothers in their twenties, weeping and cheering simultaneously while holding their babies up to get a sobbing veteran’s kiss. Nor will I forget the Dutch mothers telling astonished and typically blasé Canadian reporters that they were doing this because they wanted their children to be able to say that they had been touched by one of the men who liberated the Netherlands a half century before.
Obviously, the Dutch remember. They teach their children about the war in their schools; they teach that freedom is everything and that, if not defended, freedom can be lost. They take whole schools to the Canadian cemeteries each year to lay flowers on the graves and to make the point that the preservation of freedom has a price. And all of this attention to the past showed during that moving, wonderful, amazing day in Apeldoorn.
How different it is here in Canada today. World War II was a time of supreme national effort for Canadians who produced a military, industrial, and agricultural contribution to victory that was frankly astonishing. Ten per cent of the population was in uniform; our war production, starting from effectively nothing, became large enough that we could give away billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and foodstuffs to our Allies on a proportionate scale greater than that of the United States. There was scarcely a family in the land that did not have someone in the service, either as a volunteer, as were the vast majority, or as a conscript.
We all know that every ethnic group has the data, carefully massaged, to demonstrate that its sons enlisted in disproportionate numbers. The Toronto Globe and Mail noted on 5 October 1995, for example, that French Canadians had enlisted in “huge” numbers. A letter in the same newspaper a few weeks before argued that Ukrainian- Canadians had enlisted in numbers above their proportionate share, and Jewish groups make the same claim, as do other ethnic organizations. I do not believe these filiopietistic interpretations, I am afraid, and I continue to suspect that World War II was largely fought by Canadians of British extraction. The gravestones at Holten and Groesbeek certainly suggest this.
Let me personalize this sweeping generalization. My own immediate family’s contribution to the war was lamentably small – one cousin in the RCAF who did not leave Canada and one uncle who saw action in North-West Europe with the United States Army. No one from my father’s side was in the Canadian Forces. This was a source of enormous and continuing shame for me as I grew up in postwar Canada. I believed then, and continue to do so, that the sons of Eastern European Jewish immigrants should have had a special urgency to help defeat Hitler, but neither my father nor his two brothers who were of appropriate age volunteered or were called up for service. I am sure the Granatsteins would have been dreadful soldiers, but they ought to have enlisted nonetheless in what was unquestionably a just and necessary war, and especially so for Jews. The result of my embarrassment at their lack of the voluntary spirit was a succession of family arguments, followed by my going into the army when I was seventeen years old – to expiate my family shame and, as teenagers are wont to do, to act in the way most certain to infuriate my parents. I suspect that I was a lousy soldier too – but that is a question for another day.
If I am correct that Canada’s war was largely fought by those of British origins, then this may partly explain the curious way we study the war in our schools. In this new multicultural Canada, the history of the world wars is seen as a divisive force, something that is almost too dangerous to teach in primary and secondary schools. What might a child of German or Slovakian or Croatian origin think, how might the or she feel, if World War II were discussed? Better to say nothing – which is the case in most public and high schools – or to look at the war only in its economic impact on women munitions plant workers or to stress the cruel and unjust way Canada treated its Japanese Canadians or barred Jewish refugees from Hitler – which is the case in most university courses and the newest textbooks on Canadian history. The pride that Canadians should feel over their very substantial role in the war, the lessons that its events should hold for us, are brushed aside by the efforts to create a history that suits the misguided ideas of contemporary Canada held by successive federal and provincial ministers of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism and Education and by far too many academics who, unlike the cabinet ministers, might at least be expected to know better.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” as a once popular song put it, and certainly that is how Canadian schools and universities treat it in their scanting of our war history. But the song is dead wrong; freedom is the word for that which is most precious, for that which cannot be lost, a word and a concept for which so many Canadians fought and died. The children and grandchildren of the Dutch who lived through the war and brutal occupation understand this and remember what can happen if freedom is lost; pathetically, terribly, the children and grandchildren of those who liberated them do not.
Our veterans still remember, however. They have become inured to public indifference, to sincere, well-meaning, but largely unattended ceremonies on Remembrance Day (a public service holiday, of course), and to the small crowds that, the valiant and underfunded efforts of “Canada Remembers” notwithstanding, celebrated the events of a half-century ago. Still, the celebrations of the milestones of the war – the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic, the D-Day invasion and VE-Day (the Italian campaign was largely neglected, just as it was during the war!) that have now come to their end – were critically important to the vets. All now old men and women with their memories becoming ever more important, the 50th anniversaries were their swansong. How fortunate that the Dutch knew how to sing their praises, even if most Canadians did not.
Why are we so ignorant, so diffident? The lamentable failure of our schools, as I have suggested, is a large part of it, but it may also have something to do with the subject of this book. It is almost as if the national effort to provide the Veterans Charter during the war excused Canadians from having to do anything for veterans after it.
Certainly the Veterans Charter was a great accomplishment, the best package of veterans legislation put together by any of the belligerents, and a model of wartime generosity, gratitude, and compassion that stands in marked contrast to the mean-spirited approach that seemed to dominate the legislative mind in the years after 1918.
Perhaps that is why the veterans after World War II played a lesser part in politics than their fathers after the Great War. We all know of the government’s panic in 1919 that the returned men might side with the strikers at Winnipeg and elsewhere if the general strike spread. We remember the political efforts of the Great War Veterans’ Association for better benefits and bigger pensions. We recall the efforts of the Canadian Legion and the Canadian Corps Association to demand conscription in World War II. And we know that two World War I veterans – John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson – became prime minister.
It was much different after 1945. The demobilization of the armies went smoothly, and the reconstruction period was handled with great skill. There was scarcely anything for which the veterans could ask that was not given to them. There was a large packet of crisp notes, a suit of clothes, money for a farm or schooling or a house, cash to start a business and to learn a trade, care for the wounded in body and mind, and a system of pensions that, while inevitably bureaucratic, was generous and tax-free.
Of course, there were veterans in politics. Some, like Davie Fulton, George Hees, Cecil Merritt, Ernest Sansom, George Pearkes, Walter Harris and Ernest Halpenny came home from the war in uniform to run for Parliament in 1945. Some got elected; some did not. But no World War II veteran became prime minister. King and St Laurent, neither a veteran, passed power to Diefenbaker and Pearson, Great War vets, and the torch then was handed on to Trudeau who, while of an age to be a participant in World War II, was not. Clark, Turner, Mulroney, Campbell, and Chrétien all were either too young for war service or born after the war.
The absence of veterans from the highest office is in itself striking. (Compare the United States, where Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson (after a fashion), Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan (in his own mind if not in reality) and Bush served.) Even more striking is that veterans as a class played almost no part in politics in this country after the war. The only great issue on which the Canadian Legion spoke out with force, the only issue that I can remember and the only time that I believed the vets should remember why they fought the war, was not the “Valour and the Horror” controversy, but the struggle over the new Canadian flag that occupied the early years of Mike Pearson’s Liberal administration. When an early three-leaf design was shown to the Canadian Legion convention by Pearson in 1964, the vets booed and then campaigned as hard as they could to retain the Union Jack and the Red Ensign as Canada’s flags. It was as if they hadn’t worn maple leaves in their cap badges, as many did, or served under First Canadian Army’s flag or the RCAF’s, both of which had maple leaves on them, or sailed in RCN ships with a maple leaf on the funnel; it was as if none had wandered through the cemeteries where every headstone had the maple leaf front and centre. The veterans were wrong in 1964–65, and they discredited themselves – not least because they seemed to have interpreted a distinctive Canadian flag as pandering to Quebec, and Quebec, in veterans’ eyes, had not carried its share of the war’s burdens.
Still, that sole example of political intervention is a relatively minor one, the exception that proves the rule. The political influence of veterans as a class was markedly less after 1945 than after 1919, and I suspect this was because Mackenzie King, so much wiser than Robert Borden, gave the nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen – and, as Peter Neary and Shaun Brown have pointed out, the members of its women’s units – a Veterans Charter that generously fulfilled the promises that were made when the armies went overseas.
There is now no chance that veterans have the capacity to affect the great public issues of our time. The rollback of social services our politicians and bankers are forcing on us might be one such area where the elderly veterans could exercise some influence, but no government has dared to tamper very much with veterans benefits, and the Royal Canadian Legion has largely remained silent.
All the veterans now care about is the rectification of past injustices. They have campaigned successfully for a Dieppe and Hong Kong bar to wear on their medals; the Merchant Navy veterans still try, less successfully, to secure the full veterans benefits they certainly merit; and the Hong Kong survivors continue to seek in vain for government support for their efforts to secure their due compensation from Japan for their endless years of suffering in PoW cages during the war.
There is very little bitterness left towards the Germans against whom our armies fought. The German government has accepted responsibility for the monstrous actions of the Nazis, and today’s Germans overwhelmingly understand and do not condone the sins of their grandfathers. But the Japanese, as I have suggested, have neither offered totally sincere apologies nor appropriate compensation; nor have they educated their citizens about Japan’s expansionist war. When the Queen spoke at the V-J Day commemoration in London in mid-August 1995, she mentioned the reconciliation that had been achieved with Germany and pointedly did not refer to any such reconciliation with Japan. Her remarks were, for all practical purposes, a statement of British government policy – and certainly they reflect the bitterness that still lives in the minds of the few Canadian survivors of Hong Kong.
Well, what now do we owe the veterans who won World War II? We owe them, most importantly, our freedom, our right to live as we wish in a nation, however troubled, however divided at times, that was and still remains God’s country. Beyond some fine-tuning, we do not owe them new programs, so complete were the Veterans Charter and the other programs that came into operation after the war. We do owe the half million surviving veterans continuing care and compassion. Above all, for putting their lives on the line to protect their country, we owe them gratitude and remembrance, and regrettably, these are the two things their countrymen have not given them in the last generation.
I think back to that banner that hung over the street in Apeldoorn in May 1995, and I wish that even one such a banner had flown over just one street in one city or town in this country. In Apeldoorn, “Bless You, Boys” seemed to me to be a particularly appropriate phrase. It seems to me still to be precisely what all Canadians should say. So, “Bless You, Boys.” Some of us have not forgotten what you did; some of us will always remember.
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