July 12, 2020

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Canadian soldiers' Italian plight probed

The best part of a war, surely, is the reunion that follows it.

But a grim number of young Canadians never got to theirs because they died helping drive the Germans from Italy in the Second World War.

The River Battles is the important saga of the final five months of Canada’s 20-month Italian campaign from 1943-45 and the courage and skill of her 93,000 soldiers and tankers who took more ground from the enemy in Italy than any other Allied unit of British and Americans, and did it "while braving the worst of fighting conditions and extreme German opposition."

These last battles are well-told by Victoria author Mark Zuehlke, a prolific, well-established veteran writer of our war history.

This is the final volume of his Canadian Battle Series, which also includes 2006’s Holding Juno and 2015’s Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds.

Canada suffered 26,000 casualties (nearly three out of every 10 combatants) in her entire Italian campaign, including nearly 6,000 killed. The last engagements described here were particularly brutal and deadly, the enemy unrelenting. But the Canadians, exhausted by mud and soaked in flooded ground, drove each other on in desperation.

As Zuehlke explains, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

When 1 Canadian Corps stood before the Emilia-Romagna Plain, they thought crossing it would be a walk in the park for their tanks: a wide open and pleasant Sunday stroll reminiscent of a back-home picnic.

But when they entered the plain they found a topographic nightmare: a land brimming with rivers, canals and ditches, and all the bridges destroyed. On top of that, rain had turned the land into a quagmire in which the Canadians thought not of the victory they imagined when they first saw the plain, but only of survival when they got down into it.

To make matters even worse, the plain provided the enemy with excellent defensive positions. It took five bone-chilling, never-dry, mud-stuck bitter months of death and drudgery to boot out the Germans. (Seaforth Highlander Pte. Smokey Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross for his efforts in the campaign.)

Zuehlke quotes the historian of the Royal Canadian Dragoons to describe the hazards of the infantry: "‘It was not much fun… That took courage — to get up out of a ditch and dash over a field as flat and clear of shelter as a billiard table, straight at a house that may pour fire from every window. Sometimes whole patrols were lost in this (kind of) charge.’"

Surprisingly, in the midst of all this suffering, a hilarious incident happened which Zuehlke must delight in telling (and at which the Canadian rank and file must have irreverently laughed their heads off.) It’s about two generals whose named are spelled differently but pronounced much the same.

A Canadian general named Foulkes is to fly to the front and take over from another Canadian general named Vokes. An honour guard, band, marshalled troops, a small army of brass, all the pomp of a military hand-over from General Vokes to General Foulkes is at the airport waiting.

Gen. Foulkes is flown in by a USAF Mitchell bomber. Instead of at the airport, it lands on a small road, dumps him and his baggage and takes off. The general, lost and alone, walks to a nearby hanger where Canadian soldiers are working on a vehicle. Foulkes gives the senior corporal his name and announces he’s the corps commander. But the corporal says he knows General Vokes well and he (Foulkes) is certainly not Vokes. Dismissed by the corporal, Foulkes ends up having to walk to the main highway and hitch a ride on a Provost Corps jeep. They don’t believe him either.

When Gen. Foulkes finally gets to where he’s supposed to be, all that greets him is an empty parade-ground. All the pomp has stood down.

Meanwhile, the lost and lonely General Foulkes is livid they didn’t send somebody out to find him.

Where’s a Vokeswagon when you need one?

Barry Craig is a retired journalist.

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