By Trevor Busch
As Canadians progressed through the heart of the pandemic lockdown in early 2020, many were quite rightly fixated on fears for their own health and those of loved ones, for the preservation of livelihoods, for the survival of the economy and future prosperity of businesses and communities.
So it is not without justification that a pivotal anniversary in the history of our nation passed this year without much of the fanfare or celebration that had originally been planned had 2020 been any other year. And so Canadians can perhaps be forgiven for not giving this anniversary the thought and reflection it probably deserved; human nature being what it is many of us just simply had other things on our minds, not that it excuses the oversight. On May 8, 2020, Canadians marked 75 years since the conclusion of WWII in Europe — Victory in Europe Day — followed closely by the semisesquicentennial of Victory Over Japan Day on Aug. 15, effectively bringing to an end the most destructive conflict in human history.
Still purposefully honoured by our local Legion with small pandemic-friendly ceremonies on both occasions at Cenotaph Park, at the same time it was hard to dispel a sense of anti-climax considering the scale of the local celebrations that had originally been planned to go along with these important milestones. Even the celebrations this Remembrance Day will be a significant departure from the past in Taber with the indoor ceremony cancelled. And while Nov. 11 is always about pausing to reflect upon the meaning of history, this year it is even more important that Canadians recognize those many thousands who laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
WWII was the largest and deadliest conflict humans had ever witnessed, fought on almost every continent and ocean. Roughly 70 million military personnel were involved on both sides, and estimates of military and civilian casualties have now reached 75 million. Staring backwards from the cold light of the present day, it can be hard to conceptualize such numbers, to try to put names and faces and stories to such abstract cruelty and suffering, to innumerable victims.
Helping to do just that has been Canadian military historian Mark Zuehlke, who through his renowned Canadian Battle Series has been analyzing the Canadian military experience at a microcosmic level through previous works like Ortona: Canada’s Epic World War II Battle (1999), Juno Beach: Canada’s D-Day Victory – June 6, 1944 (2004), or On to Victory: The Canadian Liberation of the Netherlands – March 23 – May 5, 1945 (2010). One of Canada’s leading authors of popular military history, Zuehlke has won numerous awards for his research and writing, and hails from Victoria, B.C.
In one of Zuehlke’s more recent works, Forgotten Victory: First Canadian Army and the Cruel Winter of 1944-45 (2014), he details the recklessly desperate, sometimes futile, and always incredibly deadly campaign that First Canadian Army would wage to penetrate the Rhineland and drive deep into the heart of Hitler’s Reich during the winter of 1944-45.
After a series of short, sharp and costly skirmishes and engagements to secure small patches of contested ground, the unexpected wildcard of the Battle of the Bulge postponed the campaign until the spring thaw, at which point the Germans broke dams and dikes to inundate the low-lying Rhine floodplain, turning the surrounding countryside into a nightmarishly muddy morass where tank support would be largely nonexistent. Launched as Operation Veritable on Feb. 8, 1945, British and Canadian troops marched into a brutal slug-fest along the Rhine that lasted 38 days and enshrined names like Moyland Wood and the Hochwald Gap into Canada’s bloody battle diary.
Extremely detailed and descriptive down to platoon-level engagements and incorporating numerous first-person accounts from officers and enlisted men alike, Zuehlke’s style leaves almost nothing to complain about for purists of military history and those more interested in comprehensive expositions of Canada’s military experience down to the foxhole level, or by those eyes who witnessed it from the cockpit or tank turret. However, for the more passing scholar of Canadian military history who might be more interested in the higher-level decision making involved, or receiving a political and historical overview of the events leading up to Operation Veritable, they might be better served looking elsewhere. Zuehlke touches on these themes to set the scene for the reader, but it’s clear his main interest is in delivering a highly detailed, ground level military account.
Popular military history is a genre that has often been open to significant criticism, both from those who desire purely military accounts to those who wish to incorporate the geopolitical, from those who feel these works to be too colloquial or pedestrian to be regarded as historically significant, or from others who believe that brushing over the details of some historical events while focusing on others represents a crime against the past. In reading Forgotten Victory, it was hard not to be reminded of author Cornelius Ryan’s trilogy of popular WWII history, which included The Longest Day (1959), The Last Battle (1966) and A Bridge Too Far (1974).
Exhaustively researched through first-person interviews with veterans, witnesses and civilians, Ryan’s works are similar in scope to Zuehlke’s, but with one major difference: written with almost prose-like description, Ryan attempted to put you inside the heads of the prominent military lead- ers and those on the ground with a story-like narrative that has parts of his books read almost like a novel rather than a work of history. One suspects this style of semi-historical writing would be open to a lot of criticism today; Ryan takes a fair degree of liberty and license in trying to impart state of mind. That being said, they are still hugely entertaining to read, even today. While we shouldn’t fault Zuehlke for this, so-called popular military history might be well served in the 21st century if a few authors tried to tell the account of a battle more as a novel than a work of history.
Zuehlke’s theatre-style, blow-by-blow account sets the atmosphere and drags the reader into claustrophobic descriptions of engagements with the enemy where one can almost feel the concussion of artillery and hear bullets whistling overhead, or the grind of strained engines bogged down in the mud. On this front, Forgotten Victory clearly delivers.