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War and memory

In 11 bloody months, Canadians left an enormous mark in the campaign to liberate northwest Europe

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NORTHWEST EUROPE -- Poppies still grow in Flanders Fields, and just about everywhere in northern France, Belgium and Holland. They grow among the weeds, in ditches and grasslands, around abandoned military bunkers and farmers' fields, but no longer among the crosses row on row.

The poppy is considered a weed and its seeds germinate easily in disturbed ground, hence their tendency to sprout among the newly dug graves and simple wooden crosses in Flanders during the Great War, creating the imagery that brilliantly inspired the Canadian soldier-poet Lt.-Col. John McCrae.

Except for the soldiers who managed to survive, poppies were about the only living things in No Man's Land, which a contemporary observer described as "a sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered nature."

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day in Canada and many people are wearing poppies as a symbol of respect, but the act of remembrance will be over by 11:02 a.m. with the last mournful notes of the Last Post, which in past wars were a signal to the missing and wounded to return home.

Most people will go home and forget about it for another year.

But not here in Europe -- where the fighting occurred and the bodies are buried.

It's not that Canadians don't care. Indeed, higher attendance at Remembrance Day ceremonies and the rising number of student groups travelling to Europe on battlefield pilgrimages is evidence of a will to remember, at least once a year.

In France, Belgium  and Holland, however, the act of remembrance continues long after the bugle falls silent. In many places, it's become a way of life. Unlike Canada, the lasting effects of the wars stare Europeans in the face every day. Streets, buildings and schools are named after the soldiers, regiments and nations that liberated their countries.

The wars left a broad legacy of museums, monuments, memorials, mountains of discarded military equipment and hundreds of cemeteries across Europe.

Unlike Canada, then, the world wars are permanent historical points of reference for the Europeans. It's not just the battles, but also the Holocaust, the collaboration of many citizens with the enemy and the high civilian casualties that haunt them still. They have much more to remember, and to explain.

This account is primarily about the great victory campaign in Northwest Europe, from June 1944 until the end of war in May 1945. Yet it begins with the story of the poppy and Nov. 11 -- a date that has no relevance for the Second World War.

That's because there is no "distinct identity" in Canada for the Second World War. Its commemorators adopted the symbols, language and even the monuments of the First World War for the purposes of remembrance, historian Jonathan Vance observed in An Open Door to a Better Future, an essay that explains why the second war gets second billing.

The cemeteries for both world wars look the same, and even the Victorian-era epitaphs -- Their Name Liveth For Evermore and Known Unto God -- are identical, Vance said.

There were no grand monuments erected after the second war as there were after the Great War, when the country underwent a frenzy of remembrance, constructing thousands of cenotaphs and memorials in an effort to understand what had happened.

At the main Cenotaph in Winnipeg, a bronze plaque honouring the Second World War was merely bolted to the stone many years after the boys came home.

The dates 1939-1945 were only added to the National War Memorial in Ottawa in 1982. In contrast, the Americans have numerous museums and major memorials to the Second World War.

More about this later.

 

A vintage Second World War American Jeep passes our bus in a Norman town just as historian Stéphane Guevremont of the University of Calgary, who led a tour of Canadian battle sites last July, was explaining that battle re-enactments are a frequent sight in the area, although those playing the part of the Germans aren't appreciated.

Reconciliation with Germany is complete, but wearing the uniform of the Wehrmacht for a war game, well, that's another thing.

The mayors of some French towns have even banned the German uniform, but the "weekend Nazis" sometimes bypass the local decrees by wearing civilian clothes to their assembly areas.

The sensitivity of the French is understandable.

An estimated 20,000 civilians were killed in Normandy alone, while dozens of ancient cities were flattened and thousands of homes completely or partially destroyed.

Today, however, it is difficult to find evidence of the destruction, other than a few homes that are still scarred with bullet holes. The French, Belgians and Dutch have rebuilt many of their ancient churches, town squares and public buildings to their original character. Historians often comment that the historical recreation has made it easier to identify the locations of key battle sites and engagements.

Normandy itself looks much as it did before the war, with cheerful seaside villages, small farming hamlets, grain fields and cattle grazing on small pastures.

The terrain rises slowly inland from the coast, a topography that allowed the Germans perfect vision of the Canadians as they moved out of their beachhead and into the jaws of the 12th SS panzer division.

The famous hedgerows -- nearly impenetrable hedges of shrubs and trees that separated farm fields and served as defensive barriers for the Germans -- are still standing in some locations, but many have been cut down or removed in other places to make way for modern farm machinery.

Some villages have wider streets and newer subdivisions and homes as a result of postwar growth.

The major difference between Normandy now and before the war is the ubiquitous detritus of combat -- bunkers, tanks, artillery, monuments, cemeteries -- that reminds visitors this was an enormous killing ground.

Belgium suffered less damage during the Second World War, but the Dutch endured a difficult Nazi occupation. Most of their Jews were deported and murdered, many of their young men sent into slave labour (some Dutch joined the Waffen SS), and a winter of starvation killed thousands. Low-lying land was flooded and towns and villages destroyed.

Like the French, the Dutch rebuilt their historic places and their famous dykes.

After the war, thousands of collaborators faced denunciation, recrimination and execution. Women who befriended Germans were shamed by having their hair shaved. In Belgium, anyone who helped the enemy was forever denied the right to vote. Local knowledge of these events is still strong and they are more than memories for those with a personal stain, or black mark on the family name. The Belgiums, in fact, are still fighting today over many of these issues, including whether the Dutch-speaking Flemish were bigger collaborators than the French-speaking Walloons.

This kind of remembrance has not been easy, particularly for the French, who exaggerated the resistance and understated their complicity and co-operation with the Nazis.

 

While the Europeans haven't forgotten the sacrifices of those who came to their rescue, particularly the Americans, British and Canadians, memories and commemoration are uneven.

The Americans and British are far better memorialized, for example, partly because their contributions were larger, but also because they have made bigger efforts than Canadians at marking their places in history and on the battlefields. Juno Beach, for example, is sometimes referred to as "the forgotten beach."

Indeed, some museums we visited showed only two battlegroups landing in Normandy -- American and British. That's technically correct because Canada's troops were part of a British army until the First Canadian Army became operational in July 1944, but it ignores Canada's enormous contribution on D-Day and in the great battles that followed.

A documentary film in one museum congratulates the British for liberating the French city of Caen, ignoring the vital role Canadians played in the operation.

Canadians are respected and remembered here, but it's a matter of scale, except, perhaps, in Holland, which Canadians liberated.

And as historian Matt Symes explains in The Personality of Memory, the building of battle monuments in Europe was driven "less by the historical record than by personalities and relationships" that developed after the war between regiments and the local population.

 

That's why some battalions, such as Toronto's Queen's Own Rifles, have more monuments, plaques and special places than others, even though every regiment suffered enormously. Casualty rates of 100 per cent were the norm for most of the Canadian units that fought in the three-month Battle of Normandy,

Some units simply had members who after the war were more determined, and who had more resources, to mark their places in history. But it is a distorted record because it amplifies the roles of some regiments while diminishing others, Symes says.

The French, Belgians and Dutch have allowed thousands of markers to go up on their beaches, towns and farmland, but they relied on initiatives from regimental groups, rather than seeking out the historical record to determine if some regiments were getting their fair share. Ottawa played no role in this process.

There are nine monuments or plaques to the Royal Winnipeg Rifles in France, plus another six shared with other regiments. There are two in Holland.

By comparison, there are 12 sites of memory exclusively for the Queen's Own Rifles between the Normandy beaches and Caen, making it the most visible Canadian regiment in Normandy, a distortion of the actual historical record.

As far as official remembrance was concerned, the Canadian government didn't unveil a marker in Europe until 1999, when a simple plaque honouring the soldiers who landed on D-Day was erected at Bernières-sur Mer, where the Queen's Own Rifles landed.

Beyond that, Ottawa has done very little to memorialize the Second World War. There is no Vimy Ridge or dedicated monument for Canada's role in the Second World War -- not in Europe nor in Canada.

History and memory have been less kind to the Polish soldiers who fought under the command of the First Canadian Army, an administrative organization that included several divisions and soldiers from many nations.

"The Poles are forgotten everywhere," said Iris Van Landschoot of the Canada-Polish Museum in Belgium.

Polish general Stanislaw Maczek, who led an armoured division under Canadian control, was not allowed to return home to Soviet-dominated Poland after the war and he was denied a pension by the British and Canadians, forcing him to do menial jobs, Van Landschoot said.

Poland apologized in 1989 and he died a few years later, age 102, a forgotten hero who had fought side by side with Canadians all the way from Normandy to the Netherlands and Germany.

The Poles were some of the war's toughest and bravest fighters, but there's precious little to remember their contribution.

In 1999, then-prime minister Jean Chrétien travelled to Poland with a Canadian rock that was placed next to a Polish rock, forming a monument to commemorate the Polish-Canadian bond during the war.

It was, however, a gesture that almost no one in Canada remembers today, if they were ever aware of it at all.

The Polish story, then, is more evidence of the fickle nature of war and memory.

When the British liberated Antwerp in the fall of 1944, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery staged a victory celebration, but "forgot to invite the Canadians," Van Landschoot, a member of the European branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, said. Canadian troops opened the door to Antwerp for the British and were responsible for liberating the city's critical port facilities, which the allies desperately needed.

"The problem with the Canadians," she said, "is you are too modest. The war stories are always about the British and the Americans and the Battle of the Bulge or a Bridge too Far."

 

It's not as if Canadians didn't pay their dues.

From D-Day on June 6, 1944, until the end of the war on May 8, 1945, the Canadian army suffered 44,339 casualties, including more than 11,000 killed. In the week of Aug. 30, 1944 alone, Canadians suffered 4,574 casualties, including killed, wounded, missing, sick or taken out of battle because of exhaustion.

The three-month Normandy campaign was the bloodiest (more than 5,000 killed), but Canadians have forgotten the enormous challenges and suffering soldiers faced during the rest of the war, all for $1.30 a day.

Few Canadians, for example, travel beyond Juno Beach in search of Canada's war record, said Guevremont, who has made several trips to the region and is an expert on the battles.

Canadian memory seems to begin and end with D-Day, an iconic moment to be sure, but it was only Day 1 (359 killed) in an incredibly difficult journey that got much more violent with time. By comparison, Canadians suffered nearly 3,000 casualties between June 7 and June 12 in the battles to hold and break out of Juno Beach.

If Canadian visitors take a brief side trip south from Juno Beach to l'Abbaye d'Ardenne and a few other locations in the vicinity west of Caen, they would find the murder scenes for 156 Canadian soldiers, including 58 from Winnipeg, who were slaughtered after they had surrendered to the teenagers of the 12th SS (Hitler Youth) Panzer Division.

Some Canadian dead were mutilated when the SS placed their bodies on a street and drove over them with their tanks. (The site of the Winnipeg murders was not included in the tour.)

These stories are very well-remembered here.

The town of Authie, for example, named a public square after 37 Canadians the SS murdered.

You have to go a little farther south to discover the all-but-forgotten story of Maj. David Currie, a machinist before the war, who led a small group of soldiers in an attack that destroyed seven enemy tanks, 12 artillery pieces and 40 vehicles, killing 300 Germans, wounding 500 and capturing 2,100. His actions helped seal the famous Falaise Gap, which marked the end of German army operations in northern France.

The Allies believed the battle might end the war, but the Germans regrouped to fight another day.

(Our Polish friends, by the way, were among the heroes in this violent battle, one of the worst cauldrons in Normandy.)

Currie won the Victoria Cross, but Guevremont lamented the fact "no one has ever heard of him," even though he was one of the great heroes of the Second World War.

The invasion began in Normandy, but it didn't end there.

Canadians continued to suffer horrific casualties to the end of the war (nearly 6,000 more dead), including some 1,500 killed from March 23 to May 5, 1945, a period of conflict rarely discussed and barely known outside a small circle of academics.

In the first five days of May, when the war was effectively over, Canada still suffered 114 soldiers killed. On May 12, seven days after Canadian war operations ceased, the army reported 1,588 casualties, including 130 killed, presumably from wounds or in accidents or other causes.

The only major account in English on the last six weeks of the war was written by Mark Zuehlke in On to Victory. It's a period of the war that has been largely forgotten, even by the official historians in the Directorate of Heritage and History, a department of National Defence, he said.

The last weeks of the war for Canadians were far more complicated and bloody than previously believed. The conditions were so awful even veterans are reluctant to discuss their experiences, Zuehlke found.

 

Canadians liberated two-thirds of the Netherlands, for which the Dutch are eternally grateful. The streets of new subdivisions were named after Canadian regiments, soldiers and streets. More than 30,000 maple trees were planted in Liberation Forest in Gronigen on behalf of Canada.

In Arnhem and other villages nearby, the streets were named after Canadian cities -- Winnipeg Straat, Toronto Straat and Vancouver Straat. There's a Canada Park, Canada School, and so on.

Children still lay flowers at thousands of Canadian graves and hold candlelight vigils at Christmas. In Holland, remembering the Canadian sacrifice is a public duty taken very seriously.

Remembrance is an official government policy in the Netherlands, which has published several major documents on the country's obligations to victims, survivors and liberators.

 

The country has also published many books on Canada's war effort that are unavailable in Canada, including one on the wartime exploits of 6 Canadian Field Regiment, a Manitoba-based artillery unit.

After the war, 1,886 Canadians married Dutch women. The men left behind 6,000 children, including 1,500 with women who were already married. The high number of young pregnant women caused little resentment among a people grateful to be free. One woman married the first Canadian she met.

When it came to the sometimes unruly behaviour of Canadians, the Dutch had a saying: "They can break a pot of mine anytime."

The Dutch even dubbed the Canadians the "loverboys," but for some reason every story on war brides focuses exclusively on the British wives who came to Canada after the war.

The Belgians haven't forgotten, either, even though most of the country was liberated within a few weeks, except for southern portions of the country that became engulfed in the Battle of the Bulge.

In the medieval city of Brugge, which was liberated by Canadians, two bison sculptures guard a bridge -- Canada Bridge -- that the Manitoba Dragoons, a reconnaissance regiment, crossed on their way to free the city. The bison were the logo for the Dragoons, which was disbanded after the war and promptly forgotten.

 

The ability of Canadian soldiers has also been underestimated and even denigrated, both by the British and the Americans, during and after the war. Even Canadian historians have criticized the combat ability of the troops who fought in Northwest Europe.

But according to new research conducted over the last 20 years, the ordinary Canadian soldier was very good at his job, although a shortage of trained replacements later in the war was a problem.

In Holland's Scheldt Estuary in fall 1944, Canadians advanced and won in "terrain that was unparalleled in its unsuitability to military operations," Mark Zuehlke wrote in First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary Campaign.

They were wet and cold, so wet, in fact, they were known as "water-rats." Even the British considered them "weatherproof" as men and equipment "sank into the soaking earth" in flooded and rain-soaked Holland.

These operations have been brushed aside in the popular imagination, almost as if they were unimportant sideshows.

Some historians, including Robert Engen in Canadians Under Fire and Terry Copp in Fields of Fire and Cinderalla Army, say German war-fighting skills in Northwest Europe have been exaggerated, while those of Canadians have been wrongly diminished.

Historians such as Copp, who has influenced a new generation of Canadian military historians, are trying to create a new Canadian narrative, but old memories and misconceptions are hard to reverse.

(Canadian military history was not even taught in universities until the 1990s.)

Copp says Canadians should remember, but don't, that our soldiers displayed skill and bravery everywhere, that they beat the Germans by virtue of superior fighting ability and not because of a preponderance of strength or brute force. Not every historian agrees with this assessment, demonstrating that the last word on the subject has yet to be written.

Historians do agree, however, Canadians were known as the Cinderella Army because they got the dirtiest jobs with little support or respect, without adequate air support and under a shortage of trained infantry replacements.

As in Antwerp, where the British held a party for a victory they did not win alone, Canadians rarely attended the ball.

 

The tributes to Canada and other Allied nations have largely been the work of grateful survivors and their children, so it's reasonable to ask if the love affair will continue with the grandchildren and their descendants.

There seems no doubt it will, at least in Europe, for reasons that have nothing to do with remembrance, although, as previously mentioned, the Dutch are particularly serious about preserving memory as a matter of principle.

Over the last 30 or 40 years, it has become increasingly evident the traumas of the past have massive business potential.

A booming war-tourism industry has exploded, and many towns and villages now depend on the revenue from the millions of visitors who come to this part of Europe to visit the battle sites.

Europeans have built countless museums of every sort, size and shape (most of them privately owned), as well as monuments, memorial walls, markers, plaques, interpretive boards and wayfaring signposts leading tourists from one important historical location to another. In some places, you can use your smartphone or other appropriate device to dial in for a narrative about the battles.

There's even a growing business in war-related comic books for children, although the heroes are usually British or American.

The French call it tourisme de memoire.

France is the world's leading destination for war tourism and the country is building more and more museums to exploit its reputation. It reportedly receives about 20 million war tourists a year. About four million tourists visited the D-Day sites last year alone, and the government of Lower Normandy has applied to the United Nations to have its battle zones declared a world heritage site.

France recently built a new First World War museum near Paris, which hopes to capture business from a nearby Disneyland, a battle that pits Mickey Mouse against the heroic poilus, or French soldier.

As with the French, the Belgians and the Dutch are working to improve their reputations as destinations for war tourism. Belgium has lots to offer on the First World War -- it's the home of Flanders Fields -- and several major attractions from the Second World War.

The Memorial Museum at Passchendaele in Belgium has even added something called the Platoon Experience, where students dress as Australian soldiers, complete with weapons and all the gear, and follow a battle route used during the conflict. It's billed as an educational experience.

There's also a company that offers an opportunity to see battlefields on a vintage Royal Enfield motorcycle, which the British used in both world wars.

The Dutch have rich resources, too, including some remarkable museums, Anne Frank House and several concentration camps, including the one from which Anne was dispatched to her death, some coastal bunkers and numerous cemeteries. It has also developed tourist programs for the story of Operation Market Garden, made famous by the book and movie, A Bridge Too Far.

The advertising and capital budgets for these attractions are likely to increase over the next two years as Europeans prepare for the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014 and the end of the war in 2015. Much fanfare will also mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War in two years.

Canada should be preparing for these events, too, and it might start by completing an official history of the First World War, a yawning gap in the historiography of the war to end all wars. Only one volume of what was to be a seven-volume series was completed.

Finally, a competition should be held for a monument to the men and women who served in the Second World War, as well as one for the great victory campaign in northwest Europe.

 

The Second World War has for too long been treated as the second act of a 30-year war that started in 1914 and ended in 1945. It's true more Canadians died in the first war, but the liberation of western Europe in the second conflict truly saved civilization and countless millions of lives.

But instead of building memorials after 1945, the names of battles were simply added to existing cenotaphs. A few arenas, community centres and schools were named after people and events from the Second World War, but not a single monument worthy of the sacrifice was built in Canada, or in Europe. Even after 1945, there were more public places named after the heroes of the first war than the second war, according to historian Jonathan Vance of the University of Western Ontario.

There are many reasons for the neglect of the Second World War, but Vance says one factor was the way veterans of the First World War continued to control the narrative of remembrance until the late 1960s, when their numbers began to dwindle. They ensured their stories, their misery, were remembered and eulogized, even while their sons were fighting and dying overseas.

The ambiguous ending of the First World War through an armistice and the troubles at home that followed also contributed to a nostalgia for the past that did not emerge after 1945.

When the troops came home in 1919, they faced unemployment, poverty and social upheaval. "It was difficult," Vance says, "to point to a single tangible gain" that emerged from the war. For that and other reasons, people tended to idealize the past and the purpose of the war. The war had not really solved anything, but there was no consolation in the truth.

"So a complex myth emerged (after the first war) that provided a balm to grieving Canadians at the same time as it explained the importance of the intangibles for which their loved ones had fought and died," Vance says. "In this myth, the elevated rhetoric of the past provided the consolation that so many people sought and became a refuge from a disappointing peace."

Hitler's war, however, provided a clearer reason for the sacrifice than the first war, where the stakes for humanity and freedom seemed less clear, even if the war was shrouded in a nobility of cause. After 1945, times were good, everyone was optimistic about the future, and no one saw any need to make sense of it all, much less to dwell on the past or erect yet more piles of rocks in honour of the dead,

After the Second World War, veterans were content to get on with their lives, but their great achievements and sacrifices have been bypassed by a collective memory of war that still focuses on the symbols and language of the First World War.

dave.obrien@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 A1

History

Updated on Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 8:20 AM CST: adds photos

6:24 PM: added byline

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