War Connections

September 1, 2001 by Legion Magazine


by Don Smith

 

I was 12 when I heard the news of the Allied victory in August 1945. The war was finally over and like a lot of people I greeted that major development with a wild cheer. Most of us understood that many, many people had fought and died in the war, but we had no way of knowing how the fighting had really affected the men and women who served.

Several members of my family, including my father, volunteered to serve. I remember being heartbroken when Dad was assigned to spend long periods of time away from our home in Winnipeg. He served with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps and was stationed mostly at Camp Borden in Ontario. Fortunately for us, Dad did not have to go overseas and this also meant we could see him once in a while.

I also remember the persistent and very effective war message that prevailed throughout our school. The walls in our classrooms held posters illustrating our evil enemies in a wide range of sadistic postures. The artwork strongly encouraged us to purchase war savings stamps through which we could help sink an enemy ship, blow up an enemy factory or shoot down an enemy plane. War movies and cartoons were similarly focused.

Like many of my classmates in Winnipeg it never occurred to me that we could possibly lose the war. We just figured that good would always triumph over evil. After all, God was presumed to be on our side.

As I grew older my limited knowledge about those years expanded and with that came the realization of what had really taken place between 1939 and 1945. The more I read and heard, the more I shuddered to think that the final outcome was never as predictable as we thought.

I have also come to realize that bravery and conviction were not exclusively owned by the Allied forces. I was struck, too, by the fact that many enemy soldiers and their families prayed to God just like we prayed to God, yet I cannot believe this when I think about the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Nazis.

I remember talking to my uncle, Gordon Mactavish, who served with The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada at Dieppe, France. He was 18 when he went overseas, and through him I was exposed to some new insights into the war.

Surprised by his initial hesitation to talk about it, I remained respectful, but steadfast in my search for information. Eventually, after pondering for some time, he reluctantly began to speak.

His usual communicative and outgoing nature was quickly replaced by a sombre mood. Rather than emphasize the glory of battle and ultimate victory–so often depicted in cinema–he recounted the absolute gut-wrenching terror he and his companions felt. The nausea, the tears and the loss of control over bodily functions were commonplace and often inevitable. The horrible damage inflicted upon human flesh by the tools of war was another recurring message.

He recalled the friends who had not survived, and he even spoke somewhat respectfully of the vanquished foe when he made reference to the war’s terrible waste of human life. I was deeply moved by his honesty, humility and forthright descriptions.

Surprisingly, my wife’s older brother, James Clarke, spoke of similar situations when he described his time with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. He recalled his personal feelings of terror, anguish and helplessness, and said these same emotions were felt by most of his comrades during the unforgettable carnage in Italy.

After talking to both former soldiers I continued to be amazed by how similar their attitudes were about the war. Both contributed greatly to the outcome of the hostilities, and I am extremely grateful to them for their sacrifice and commitment to a cause that eventually lead to the war’s end 56 years ago. I am also indebted to them for providing me with a better understanding of the war, one that is based on personal experience and reflection.

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