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Legion Magazine – May/June 2000 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – May/June 2000

As my mobility dwindles, I find I am reading a lot more, especially while ranging the Internet. But as grand as the Internet is for locating information on a variety of topics, my main source continues to be books, especially those about politics, war and social history. Among the ones I cherish are the war novels by two British authors: Alexander Baron and Patrick O’Brian.

Baron died late last year after half a century of writing. He was 82. Baron first won praise in 1948 with a shrewd, gritty novel about an infantry unit that fought in Normandy during WW II. The name of the book is From The City, From The Plough. Baron went on to write plays as well as movie and television scripts. He also wrote adaptations of classics, including Jane Eyre for the BBC.

Radical as a youth, Baron was shocked by Stalin’s deal on Poland with Hitler, and so he enlisted in the British Army and fought in often savage and disheartening circumstances in Italy and France. From The City, From The Plough was also the first part of a trilogy. The second was There’s No Home and the third was The Human Kind. There’s No Home was about an outfit out of the line in Italy. Human Kind, published in 1953, was autobiographical, moving imaginatively through an ordinary soldier’s wartime experiences and thoughts.

I was reminded of Baron’s trilogy when I finished reading George G. Blackburn’s trilogy, which included the books The Guns Of Normandy and The Guns Of Victory. Comparing fiction with non-fiction is often bootless, but both Baron and Blackburn have the craft and recall to present credible description of soldiers going into and through battle.

I read Baron’s From The City three years after my service in the Canadian Army and it accurately portrayed the sharp edge of battle. It was satirical, but not vicious in portraying the British class system and the gulf in sophistication and innocence between East End barrow boys and Devon farm lads. The only WW II novels I have re-read more than From The City are Earle Birney’s Turvey and Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead.

O’Brian was three years older than Baron, but high success in sales came much later to him than it did to Baron, even though his first book was published in 1930 when he was 15 years old. After that initial offering, he wrote several others, including translations of noted French works. He was 53 when he initiated his nautical novel series that caught on, particularly in the United States and France. In consequence, his heirs will be very wealthy, given the latter-day best-seller status of his 20 novels about a brave, lucky officer of the Royal Navy named Jack Aubrey, and his close friend, a navel surgeon, spy and natural scientist named Stephen Maturin.

The Aubrey-Maturin series ran through a war-filled era, roughly from the American War of Independence to the aftermath of Napoleon’s final defeat and exile, somewhat parallel to another successful, but much shorter series, the Captain Hornblower books by another splendid novelist, C.S. Forester. The O’Brian series has been so popular and so technically thorough on sailing ships and guns that an American publisher, Henry Holt, brought out A Sea Of Words: A Lexicon And Companion Of Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales.

Just before last Christmas, copies of O’Brian’s book Blue At The Mizzen came on sale in Canada. I concluded that it was too slow in action and its denouement too vague, but the compensation was in its historical and geographical lore about revolutions in South America, rounding the Horn and the currents, climate, landscape, bird and animal life of Africa, the Chilean coast and the Andes. In short, O’Brian novels are far more than great stories about sea warfare and the range and imperial utility of the Royal Navy.
I will turn now to four recent Canadian books.

The first is This Soldier’s Story: 1939-45 by George S. MacDonell, published by O’Keefe Publishing Inc. for the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association, 164, 1 Stafford Rd., Nepean, ON, K2H 1B9.

The author was a keen, big, powerful sergeant in the Royal Rifles of Canada. He was not yet 21 when the Japanese invaded and took the British colony in short order in December 1941. The fall of Hong Kong opened up four years of deprivation and abuse for many, including George MacDonell, and his short memoir is a model for clarity, conciseness, layout, good prose and lucid descriptions of life as a PoW under the cruel victors. It concludes with firm judgments on both Japanese cruelty and the culpability of those in authority in Canada and Britain who sent the two raw Canadian regiments into a hopeless situation without battle training, transport or full weaponry.

The book describes the overall site and scenario of the Hong Kong campaign and the bloody, costly actions of MacDonell’s company and platoon. The platoon leader recounts in detail two initially successful and punishing attacks against strong Japanese positions. The second was witnessed by a British officer who afterwards wrote: “We saw the last glorious charge of the Canadians, up through the graveyard and into the windows of the bungalows at the top. We saw the Japanese escaping through the back of houses and their return with grenades, which they lobbed amongst the Canadians in occupation. Very few Canadians survived that gallant charge.”

In tagging the sergeant’s memoir a model, I have in mind high school students of present and future generations because somehow this book is full of recall by a young Canadian, not an old man. The book is a straightforward, modest, inspiring tale. It is also a plain, but sharp lesson in cause and effect.

The next book I want to draw your attention to is Four Years Till Tomorrow: Despair And Hope In Wartime Dutch East Indies. This is a collection of 26 eye-
witness accounts by members of the August 15th, 1945 Foundation. The book is published by Vanderheide Publishing Co., Box 9033, Surrey, BC, V3T 4X3.

This substantial volume of material is thorough and it radiates a communal sense of memorial. Most of the recall is by those who were daughters and sons of white colonial businessmen and administrators in the Dutch East Indies and interned early in 1942. Of the 25 accounts, some 18 come from internees who spent much of their later lives in Canada.

The book features a splendid photo album section, line sketches of camp life and lots of maps. A thorough, chronological, historical setting supports the accounts, leaving me as a reader grateful to the August 15, 1945, Foundation.

The third book is entitled Only This: A War Retrospect, 1917-1918 by James H. Pedley, MC, Lieutenant, 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion. The book is published by CEF Books, Box 40083, Ottawa, ON, K1V 0W8.

The author was a son of a prominent Canadian clergyman and before his enlistment at the age of 25, he had studied history at the University of Toronto and then worked as a newspaperman. His education and work shows in a wide, but easy vocabulary and good control over a very personal and largely chronological narrative. The writer puts his critical opinions pungently, and though obviously a social, gregarious man he was also a keen observer with an eye to weather, terrain, air warfare, weapons, the big guns, battle plans, trench warfare practices, casualties, medical service, food, drink, scrounging and recreation. He also recognized incompetence—lots of incompetence.

The author came as a reinforcement officer to one of the battle-tested battalions of the 1st Cdn. Division. His reportage on his superiors, colleagues and non-commissioned officers is graphic and quite judgmental.

Pedley got on with it and “it” was surviving and understanding what was going on. He is much better than most combatants at describing trench life and close combat when on attack. He was wounded in one of the big Canadian engagements as the final victory was emerging—the battle of Amiens in 1918. In it he was severely, but not ruinously wounded.

Carrying On: Reaching Beyond 100 is an autobiography by Tom Spear with Monte Stewart. It is published by Falcon Press of 12 Shawinigan Way, S.W. Calgary, AB, T2Y 2A1. Born in 1896, Spear was an ordinary soldier in WW I and a Royal Canadian Air Force officer from 1941-46. The book is about a man who went to work for the CPR at a small prairie station in 1913 and then retired from its headquarters in Montreal 50 years later. It is also about a man who decided early in life that he would take a positive approach to life and to whatever tribulations it held for him.

“World War I affected my whole life,” he writes. “It educated my body and soul—my being, my attitude, my outlook, my drive. You got used to practically everything in the army, and quickly forgot, but each experience lived with you forever.”

His story is a most optimistic hurrah for lengthy living; something one attains through a caring family, lots of friends, active citizenship and a challenging line of work.
Spear enlisted in 1916 and became a signaller and wireless operator. He got his fill of shellfire and excitement while with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France in the last five months of the war. His unit was in the battle of Amiens where James Pedley was wounded. Spear’s long experience in railway communications gave him a commission and eventual rank as a wing commander in WW II.

The autobiography is probably the cheeriest I’ve ever read, and the wisdom in it is probably too late for the future direction of veterans of WW II like myself. Nonetheless, it is a spare, but clear run over a long, fruitful life with much in family, community and occupational history, and to this reader—who has moved beyond 80—the book kept reminding me of just how vital the mundane has been to most of us.