The day Canada declared war

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I often reflect on my family's military adventures, particularly on important anniversaries. So lately I've been wondering about the conversation that went on at the dinner table 70 years ago this month at 530 Toronto Street in Winnipeg, my dad's boyhood home.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/09/2009 (4771 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I often reflect on my family’s military adventures, particularly on important anniversaries. So lately I’ve been wondering about the conversation that went on at the dinner table 70 years ago this month at 530 Toronto Street in Winnipeg, my dad’s boyhood home.

On Sept. 10, 1939, a Sunday, Canada declared war on Germany, a decision that altered the lives of all Canadians, whether they served or not.

My grandfather joined the colours immediately. He was one of 54,844 Canadians to do so that month, the largest single enlistment of any month during the war. He was one of the first Canadians to be shipped overseas, arriving in England with the advance contingents of the First Canadian Division amid great fanfare at the end of 1939.

I’ve never been sure exactly why he enlisted and why so quickly. He didn’t have to go. He had served in the First World War as a sapper, a soldier who builds and destroys fortifications, and he was injured in a gas attack. As a kid, I remember playing with an army-green gas mask, which we assumed was from grandpa’s first war, but it could have been from the second.

I’m sure he hadn’t forgotten the horrors of the Kaiser’s war when he signed up, but, for whatever reason, it wasn’t enough to convince him to sit out Hitler’s war. He was already 50 when his second war started, which normally would have disqualified him, but he apparently fibbed about his age and managed to get in. A lot of people did that.

He had a job, a wife and four teenagers at home, but their reaction to his decision to abandon them and head off to war was never passed down to me. Were they proud, frightened, angry? I really don’t know. The wars were never much discussed and it sometimes seemed like the subject was off limits.

According to C.P. Stacey, an historian and the main author of the three-volume Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, not much is known about those first Canadians who charged off to battle.

It’s probably safe to assume, however, that they were motivated by a mix of the usual factors: patriotism, unemployment, and a thirst for adventure. It is known, however, that many of the first Canadians to arrive in England were a difficult lot. By 1941, for example, before any Canadian soldier had been involved in fighting, overseas medical boards had recommended that 2,153 men be forcibly sent home, including 453 “mental cases” and 36 described as suffering from “psychopathic personality.” Apparently, “a large proportion were mentally unstable before enlistment,” according to official sources quoted by Stacey in The Half-Million: The Canadians in Britain, 1939-1946.

Maybe they were the lucky ones. My grandfather didn’t get home until the end of 1945, even though he would have been entitled to hang up his uniform much earlier on the principle of first in, first out.

The British appreciated the arrival of the Canadians, but they were often appalled by their behaviour in those early days. The following letter is a small example of the problems that occurred. It was sent to Lester Pearson, then a diplomat in London, by a member of the editorial staff of the Daily Express.

“They are really a little extreme in their pleasures,” the letter writer said, describing an incident that had occurred in Oxford. “There were hundreds of them around the streets last night, and without exaggeration half of them were drunk. They were yelling like redskins, breaking glass and grabbing hold of the women.”

The first Canadians in Britain, according to Stacey, took a while to learn how to handle their alcohol, which most were tasting for the first time, and that the British pub was a place to enjoy yourself, not to get drunk.

My grandmother may have lost her husband to the pull of war, but at least she had her children, or so she must have thought and hoped. In May 1940, however, my dad, then 17, enlisted in the air force and headed overseas. A year later, one brother joined the navy, followed by another who joined the army. My dad’s twin sister ended up in a war factory in Thunder Bay.

My dad was a member of 413 Squadron, the only all-Canadian squadron in the Far East, based in Ceylon. His squadron commander, Leonard Birchall, was called the “Saviour of Ceylon” by Winston Churchill after he spotted a Japanese fleet on its way to attack the British base at Colombo and radioed a warning before he was shot down and taken prisoner.

My navy uncle was on the Canadian aircraft carrier, Nabob, when it was torpedoed in the North Sea.

The most difficult challenge, however, faced my poor grandmother. She was alone, left to fret and worry and eke out a miserable existence at a table set for one.

More than 1.1 million Canadians eventually put on a uniform, but every Canadian was affected deeply by the war in ways that have not been fully explored. It’s unlikely we will ever see anything like it again. In fact, it’s doubtful we would stand for the level of trauma endured by the greatest generation. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

dave.obrien@freepress.mb.ca

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