Remembering War

New studies turn the clock back 50 years

John Bemrose,ILENNY GLYNN November 13 1989

Remembering War

New studies turn the clock back 50 years

John Bemrose,ILENNY GLYNN November 13 1989

Remembering War


New studies turn the clock back 50 years

It was a global frenzy of destruction, and its shock waves are still being felt. The Second World War took 53 million lives while dividing the world into two ideological camps that are only now beginning to resolve their differences. Over the decades, the War has generated a formidable stream of books—a flow that, in the 50th-anniversary year of its beginning, has become a flood. The country’s bookstores have been inundated with

new accounts of the conflict, from personal memoirs to exhaustive studies of the War’s many campaigns. In most of the books, it is obvious that the passage of half a century has balanced patriotism with a more objective view. The Axis powers, particularly Germany and Japan, will always bear chief responsibility for the War and its horrors. But, as historians sift the evidence, it is also possible to glimpse the failings of politicians and generals on both sides. Such accounts can make unsettling reading—but they are still welcome.

Some of the most absorbing new studies are from Britain, where there has been a deep, continuing fascination with what Winston

Churchill called his country’s “finest hour.” Fine it certainly was, and yet the immediate prewar years were anything but a British triumph. Both How War Came (General, 736 pages, $50), by Donald Cameron Watt, and The Road to War(Stoddart, 364 pages, $29.95), by Richard Overy with Andrew Wheatcroft, focus on the 1930s, when the British and their French allies tried with apparent clumsiness to stave off war. The two books document how

both countries were slow to recognize that Hitler was a power-hungry man with no loyalty to civilized standards of international relations. They kept hoping that he would quiet down after realizing certain territorial ambitions. And so Britain and France followed the nowinfamous policy of appeasement, allowing Hitler’s armies to march unopposed into the Rhineland, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Of the two books, Watt’s is the more detailed, absorbing and gracefully written. The historian has done a masterful job of reconstructing how Europe found itself being dragged towards war. Watt is particularly good at showing how personality figured in the flow

of events. He presents an especially fascinating study of Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, a vain jingoist who apparently lusted for war and did everything in his power to make it happen. Watt writes: “Historians have suggested that the war of 1939 should be called Ribbentrop’s War because he, more than anyone else, did his best to bring it about.”

Watt’s book concentrates primarily on the year immediately preceding the War. Academics Overy and Wheatcroft take a longer view in The Road to War, which looks back as far as the First World War in its search for causes. It focuses on seven countries—Germany, Britain, France, Italy, the Soviet Union, Japan and the United States—showing how each pursued its own national interests to the detriment of the international situation. The book was published as a companion to a BBC TV series but is a substantial study in its own right.

The Road to War is strikingly original in its

treatment of the relationship between Hitler and the British prime minister of the late 1930s, Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain’s reputation has suffered severely since the War. One of the chief originators of the policy of appeasement, he is widely regarded as a weak, vacillating man who lacked the courage to stand up to Hitler. But that view is much too simple, the authors argue. “His strength of purpose,” they write, “belied the wispy, almost feeble appearance and the bleating voice.” The whole time Chamberlain was negotiating for peace in Europe—a worthy aim, as Overy and Wheatcroft point out—he was simultaneously building up Britain’s weak armed forces. The

policy of appeasement bought vital time for those preparations to be completed. When Germany invaded Poland in early September, Chamberlain led his country into war.

The conflict that filled the next six years was vast—so vast that few historians have dared to embrace it all. Now, British historian Martin Gilbert has tackled the epic struggle in Second World War (Stoddart, 800 pages, $39.95). Few of those now churning out 50th-anniversary volumes on the conflict have passed as demanding an apprenticeship as Gilbert. The author of most of an eight-volume official

biography of Churchill and of three books on the Jewish Holocaust, Gilbert spent more than two decades researching Second World War.

An epic of unflagging storytelling, the book is arguably the best one-volume account of the War yet written. His focus is on both the human cost of the battles and the role of hundreds who risked or lost their lives. Indeed, Gilbert’s work amounts to a vast act of remembrance. Among those he cites are the Earl of Suffolk, his secretary, “Miss Morden,” and his chauffeur, Fred Hards, who formed a bomb-disposal unit known as the Holy Trinity. On May 12, 1941, they were killed while defusing their 35th German bomb in a London suburb.

But Gilbert’s narrative method has a drawback—it stints severely on both economic and military analysis, as well as historical background. He begins his account not with the rise of Hitler or Japan’s imperial march in Asia, but with the first death of the War in Europe, an unknown concentration-camp prisoner murdered by the Nazi ss. Still, Gilbert succeeds powerfully in what appears to be his chief aim—evoking the sheer human horror of the War. Leaving the events themselves to speak their moral, Gilbert details the seemingly endless sequence of burnings, drownings, bombings, hangings, gassings and other massacres that the Nazis and Japanese unleashed. His

almost matter-of-fact tone has the effect of heightening the horror. “On Feb. 16, on the coast of Malaya, 65 Australian Army nurses, and 25 English soldiers, surrendered to the Japanese,” he writes. “The soldiers were taken to the beach, bayoneted and shot; only two survived. The nursing sisters were ordered to march into the sea; once in the water, they were fired on by Japanese machine-gunners.” That the Allies sometimes matched such atrocities, particularly in their so-called precision bombings, of Dresden, Hiroshima, Hamburg and Tokyo, scarcely detracts from Gil-

bert’s clear moral condemnation of the Axis. By chronicling in detail the mass killings carried out by the Nazis over six years, Gilbert powerfully conveys the determined ferocity of racism gone mad. Of the Eastern Front in 1942, he writes, “German losses in battle, though averaging 2,000 a day, were nevertheless far lower than the daily murder of civilians by Germans.”

Like Gilbert, American critic and essayist Paul Fussell in Wartime-. Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (Oxford, 330 pages, $24.95) is concerned with the suffering of war. But Fussell, whose The Great War and Modern Memory illuminated the harsh, alienating impact of the First World War on British and American culture, takes a sharp scalpel to the cosmetic glory that still surrounds the Allied war effort. “For the past 50 years,” he writes, “the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant,

and the bloodthirsty. I have tried to balance the


That he does, with a series of bitter, biting chapters on bloody military blunders, the ineptitude of many officers, the spit-and-polish trivia that so angers and dehumanizes soldiers before battle, and the human capacity for such vile and cowardly behavior as robbing corpses—a common occurrence during the London Blitz, a time that now glows in the legends of Royal Air Force heroism and Londoners’ solidarity in subway stations.

Although he barely mentions his own combat experience—Fussell fought in the U.S. infantry and was seriously wounded in 1945— Wartime is, in essence, a cry of the heart from a front-line soldier. Combat, he practically screams, is incomprehensibly worse than its depiction in most Second World War books and films. Soldiers routinely wet their pants under fire, he writes, and insanity after prolonged combat is “inevitable.”

In one passage, he describes a horrific scene in Okinawa. “The artillery shellings uncovered scores of half-buried marine and Japanese bodies, making the position ‘a stinking compost heap,’ ” he writes, conveying one veteran’s recollection. “ ‘If a marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way... only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings and the like.’ ” Among the new Canadian books on the War, a few also probe the darker side of the Allies. James Bacque’s Other Losses (Stoddart, 248 pages, $26.95) is an investigation into the treatment of German troops who surendered to American and French armies and were held captive in European camps. Toronto-based Bacque claims that up to one million German veterans—as well as many civilians— may have died of exposure, dysentery, starvation and other illnesses in the dark days of 1945. Such claims have created international shock waves (page 75).

Bacque argues that those “other losses,” an American military euphemism for dead or escaped prisoners, were the victims of deliberate policy at the highest levels of the Allied command. In a foreword, U.S. Col. Ernest F. Fisher, who assisted Bacque in his research, concurs that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “fierce and obsessive hatred not only of the Nazi regime, but of all things German . . . passed through the lens of a complacent military bureaucracy [and] produced the horror of death camps unequalled by anything in American military history.” According to Bacque, most of the deaths occurred after the Germans’

surrender and after Eisenhower stripped captives of POW status—and Geneva Convention protection—by redesignating them as “detained enemy forces.”

Bacque argues that the scale of deaths in the vast open-air camps was either concealed at the time—by calculated miscounting—or covered up in the Cold War 1950s to prevent erosion of the new West Germany’s commitment to the NATO alliance. German prisoners, Bacque charges, were denied adequate food and water, medical care and shelter. That treatment produced murderous squalor in U.S. camps. “Nagging hunger and agonizing thirst were their companions,” one German prisoner recounts, “and they died of dysentery. A cruel heaven pelted them... with streams of rain. Amputees slithered like amphibians through the mud, soaking and freezing.” Those conditions left as much as a third of the prisoners, handed over to French authorities as reparations-labor, too weak to work. And, in French camps, a further

167.000 to 300,000 died by 1946, Bacque charges. In stark contrast, German casualties were minor among troops captured by the British, the Canadians, or even by Gen. Mark Clark’s largely American forces in Italy.

The author invites other scholars to carry on his research, flesh out gaps and verify errors— without fearing, as some warned Bacque, that to do so would justify Nazi crimes or spur neoNazi movements. Although Bacque’s figures may be off—many surrendered Germans could already have been close to starvation—it is difficult to argue with his conclusion that at least some American and French commanders were “sinking toward the evil which we had all supposed we were fighting.”

Another new Canadian study, John Bryden’s Deadly Allies: Canada’s Secret War 19371947 (McClelland and Stewart, 314 pages, $28.95), unearths a great deal of unsettling information about chemical and germ warfare. According to Bryden, an editor at The Toronto Star, in 1944 Churchill seriously considered drenching Germany with poison gas. The author writes that the British prime minister also wanted to stockpile 500,000 bombs filled with anthrax, a disease of livestock fatal to humans. But Churchill’s generals restrained him from using those weapons, which were potentially as destructive as the atomic bomb. It was fortunate that they did: Hitler possessed at least

12.000 tons of nerve gas in bombs and shells.

Using government files that had remained in

obscurity since the War, Bryden reveals that much of the Allies’ pioneering work in such weapons was done in Canada. At secret sites, including Grosse Isle in the St. Lawrence and Suffield, Alta., scientists worked to develop evermore lethal forms of chemical and biological warfare. At Suffield, more than 1,000 Canadian soldiers were deliberately exposed to mustard gas to measure its effects. Bryden reports that they were told, falsely, that the gas was not likely to injure them.

Bryden argues that falsehood and secrecy characterized Canadian chemicaland germwarfare preparations long after the War. In 1970, Canada told a UN conference that the

country did not possess any chemical or biological weapons. But, according to Bryden, Canada had stocks of both. A superb piece of work, Deadly Allies creates a healthy distrust of excessive secrecy in government.

Other new titles examine the War and its battles from a distinctively Canadian perspective. A Nation Forged in Fire{Lester & Orpen Dennys, 287 pages, $35), by Toronto scholars J. L. Granatstein and Desmond Morton, is a solid, readable account of Canada’s involvement in the conflict and how that affected the growth of the nation. In 1939, the authors argue, Canada was almost comically ill-prepared for the struggle. The army, they write, had “four anti-aircraft guns, five mortars, 82 Vickers machine-guns, 10 Bren guns and two light tanks.” While Britain was desperately rearming to meet the threat of Hitler, Canada, under Prime Minister Mackenzie King, was putting its full trust in appeasement and the defensive potential of the Atlantic. Still, wartime production of such equipment soared— and Canada entered an unprecedented economic boom. Blue-collar workers who were making an average of $975 a year in 1939 were pulling in $1,516 by the end of the War.

Granatstein and Morton contend that such increases, which came at a time of massive government intervention in the economy, helped develop the Canadian taste for a mild form of socialism. Fearing a return to the laissez-faire capitalism of the Depression, many Canadians hoped that government con-

trol of the economic picture would continue after the War.

Another Canadian book, Rhineland (Stoddart, 422 pages, $29.95), details the struggle of the Allies—including the Canadians—to drive the Germans back across the Rhine River in the winter of 1944-1945. The Oakville, Ont., writing team of Denis and Shelagh Whitaker, authors of the 1984 best-seller Tug of War: the Canadian Victory that Opened Antwerp, describe how that great offensive was in serious danger of bogging down. The morale of the Germans was still high as they crouched behind the defences of their Siegfried Line. And the Allied command was split among feuding generals, whom the Supreme Allied Commander, Eisenhower, seemed unable to control.

The Whitakers paint a fascinating picture of the quarrel, which pitted the British general, Bernard Montgomery, against his American counterparts. Ascetic by nature,

Montgomery lived in a simple trailer at the front—while the American generals and their staffs enjoyed a life of luxury behind the lines. Montgomery created immense ill will by pub-


licly berating the Americans for their failures—a tactic that led Hitler to prophesy the imminent disintegration of the Allied alliance.

Still, the great offensive towards the Rhine plowed forward. The Whitakers’ description of the campaign contains so much detail about tactics and manoeuvres that only a committed military buff will want to read every word of it. But they have also peppered their story with examples of the valor of individual soldiers. Their tale of how a Canadian major, Fred Tilston, won the Victoria Cross sounds like the stuff of Hollywood legend. With his 100-man company reduced to 27, he still managed to hold off a powerful German counterattack. Tilston lost both of his legs as a result of the battle, but kept up his men’s morale with such quips as: “Keep going, Alf. All they’ve got is rifles and machine-guns.” Those anecdotes give Rhineland its emotional punch—and are a reminder that, amid the death and destruction of the Second World War, human courage and camaraderie were often cast in bold relief.