Book Talk: Lest we forget: Canadian stories of war

Books reveal the true stories of Canadian soldiers and battles in First and Second World Wars.

On Remembrance Day we pay homage to the fallen. But many of us may find it difficult to put the ceremony into context—we simply do not know what happened or what our soldiers faced on the fields of battle.

If Canadians know anything about the First World War, they most likely have heard about the Battle of Vimy Ridge – a meticulously planned battle fought almost a century ago that certainly helped forge our national identity and shape the nation we know today.

Most people do not know that in strategic terms the Battle of Vimy Ridge accomplished little, especially compared to what the Canadian Corps did in the last hundred days of the war. This is the only time in Canadian history when the contribution of this country truly proved decisive on the battlefield.

The Greatest Victory (2014), by eminent Canadian historian J.L. Granatstein, is a remarkably concise and insightful account of the hundred days that led to the end of the war, the real story of Canadian military success and sacrifice in the First World War.

During this time the Canadians fought a mobile war that revolutionized warfare and influenced the course of subsequent fighting, particularly in the Second World War.

The Canadian Corps launched a series of attacks that took Amiens, crossed the Canal du Nord, smashed the Hindenberg Line, took Cambrai and Valenciennes and defeated a quarter of the Germany army in the field. But the Canadian Corps paid a terrible price, with 45,000 casualties in three months – almost a quarter of all Canadian casualties during the whole four years of war.

Peril On the Sea (2003), by Donald Graves, is another story of a forgotten fighting force – the Royal Canadian Navy. During the Second World War the RCN expanded from a tiny force of 10 warships in 1939 to the third largest navy by 1945. It primarily served as a convoy escort in the North Atlantic, one of the most merciless theatres of war where the weather often proved almost as dangerous as the U-boats.

The personal accounts of numerous eyewitnesses – Canadian, British and German – drives this fascinating saga authored by one of this country’s foremost historians. The words leap off the page with compelling alacrity to tell a grim tale of courageous struggle and the integral role the Canadian navy played in winning the Battle of the Atlantic, the most crucial battle of the Second World War.

The Damned (2010), by Nathan Greenfield, tells the largely unknown story of Canada’s first land battle of the Second World War – waged in the hills and valleys of Hong Kong in December 1941 – and the terrible years the survivors of this bitter battle spent toiling as slave labourers for the Empire of Japan.

In the fall of 1941, almost 2,000 members of the Royal Rifles and Winnipeg Grenadiers disembarked at Hong Kong to reinforce the British garrison defending the colony.

A few weeks later, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched a fierce attack on the colony and pounded the Canadians for 17 brutal days. The Canadians suffered grievously, with 927 men killed or wounded and 1,185 soldiers and two nursing sisters captured – an astounding casualty rate of 100 per cent.

And the horror did not end in the hills and valleys of Hong Kong. The survivors spent the next three years living in horrid conditions in Japanese POW camps. Many of them died, either from malnutrition or disease, some from excruciating torture and others from the toll of serving as brute slave labour in factories, shipyards and coal mines. But what elevates this volume is that despite the desperate circumstances, the young Canadians remained unbowed and unbroken.

These three titles, and many more about Canadians on the fields of war, are available at your Okanagan Regional Library.

Peter Critchley is a reference librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library.