Testaments of Honour: Personal Histories of Canada's War Veterans
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Index
David Bennett is the national director of the Department of Workplace Health, Safety and Environment at the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa.
This collection of 24 World War II stories—edited transcripts of a
selection of recorded interviews—is splendid. The stories are mainly
those of soldiers and fliers, but commandos, a sailor, an army chaplain,
a nurse and a Women’s Naval Service cypher coder are also heard from.
Several were POWs and escapees. Adventure, bravery, and terror there
certainly were; yet equally important were the boredom, squalor, and
deprivation of wartime work and wartorn Britain. The collection is as
important for its depiction of wartime social life as for its portrayal
of the rank and file at war.
Ostensibly, the stories are those of men and women who, in Richard
Gwyn’s foreword, went out “to do their duty for their society.”
The stories, however, do not entirely bear this out. World War II began
not as a crusade against Nazi evil, but as a war defending Britain’s
national interests; there were millions who did not see it as
“Canada’s War.” It is a telling detail of the testaments that most
of the voices are those whose ancestry was British.
Many who joined up did so almost unthinkingly, as Gwyn rightly points
out, though the social morality that informed the decision was, in most
individual cases, not primarily one of civic virtue or duty to
community. A few of the contributors point to Nazi atrocities prior to
1939 and one wanted revenge for a brother killed in action. More
important were family military tradition, quest for adventure,
aspiration to fly, and the need to get a job and an income in hard
times. Most want their exploits to be recognized but few want gratitude.
Most are modest about their achievements; few talked much about their
experiences until late in life. Some acknowledge their failings; but
these failings seem to have been few. Resourcefulness and endurance are
as much a striking feature of the narratives as are nerve and bravery in
the face of fear.