70th D-Day anniversary edition of The Expositor one of the most interesting

To the Expositor:

Re: D-Day remembrance honours our Great Generation

Your editorial in the June 4, 2014 edition indicates that some people at the Expositor were skeptical about so much coverage being devoted to the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. I suspect, however, that I echo the sentiments of a large number of your readers when I say I found that edition one of the more interesting in some time.

Canada has a proud martial heritage, whether those who believe in what controversial Canadian, Conrad Black, refers to as “the fairy tale of peacekeeping,” want to admit it or not. Our country’s participation in the great crusade to free Europe from the jack boot of Nazi tyranny is just one example of this.

There is an unfortunate tendency in our school curriculum—especially at the university level—to downplay or ignore the importance that warfare has had as a moving force in human history. That is absurd. Who can deny the role that armed conflict has played in shaping the world as we know it today? Napoleon Bonaparte, in one of his many dictums, once described war as the “midwife” of history. Leon Trotsky—good Bolshevik that he was—gave it a twentieth century twist. Trotsky called warfare the “locomotive” of human history. To admit as much does not amount to condoning violence or militarism. It just amounts to accepting one unfortunate reality of the human experience.

I was particularly touched by scenes on our television news this spring, leading up to the anniversary of D-Day, showing Canadian students on school field trips to Juno Beach, and some nearby battlefields in Normandy. Our young people need more of this.

That Canada played a key role in the Battle of Normandy is not in doubt. Until his death in 2012, John Keegan was arguably the best military historian in the English speaking world. Although he taught studies in warfare as a professor at the British military academy at Sandhurst for most of his life, he had a rare talent for being able to look at war from a humanist point of view. Still one of my favourite books on the Normandy campaign is Keegan’s opus, “Six Armies in Normandy,” in which he counts Canada’s army as one. In the chapter, “Canada To The South Shore,” he sings praises for Canadian military formations “with names that sounded as if they had rolled off the pen of Tennyson.”

Consider: The Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), Lord Strathcona’s horse, The Seaforth Highlanders. The list goes on.

Canada’s participation in the struggle was not made easier by having General Harry Crerar’s First Canadian Army assigned to fight under the umbrella of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. This British war hero had one of the most irascible personalities of all time. Montgomery hated everybody—he wasn’t prejudiced.

He insultingly referred to the Canadian troops under his command as “the colonials.” He refused to believe there was any real difference between Canadians and Americans—whom he also despised. Field Marshall Montgomery once sarcastically commented that, “If you take the word ‘f_’ and the words ‘left flank’ out of the english language, the whole Canadian Army will be left speechless and motionless.”

Canada’s military achievements in the Normandy campaign are not without controversy.

John English was a distinguished professor of history at the University of Waterloo for many years. In his excellent book, “The Canadian Army And The Normandy Campaign: A Study Of Failure In High Command,” he points out that our senior generals were just not up to the standards of their British and American counterparts. Lack of good leadership at higher levels adversely affected how military operations were planned and executed, and may have caused the unnecessary additional loss of Canadian soldiers’ lives.

For instance, the Canadians were right in the thick of it at the Battle of the Falaise Pocket in late August that year, as the Normandy campaign reached its climax. But when the north jaw of the pincer wouldn’t snap shut, the Canadian troops ought to have been pulled out of the line, and replaced with better led, and more battle experienced American or British soldiers. In the event, large parts of the German Army escaped eastward out of the trap—hence “The Falaise Gap”—to fight another day. Such are the vagaries of coalition warfare.

It has been 70 years now since the Normandy campaign (the summer of ‘44), when so many of the much dreaded telegrams began to be delivered to grief stricken Canadian families by the Department of National Defense. Coincidentally, this summer also marks the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. What lessons should we teach our young people about D-Day, or about armed conflict in general?

Surely it should be that while war is a terrible evil, there are even greater evils that will plague the earth from time to time, and to which the forces of civilization must respond.

Brad Middleton