CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 10. . . . January, 2003
I saw my husband, Bill Cross, at a show in Germany. I knew he was overseas and he knew I was, but we couldn't say so in letters. One night there was a commotion in the theatre in Oldenberg where we were doing a special show for General Foulkes, who was going home. The noise was from two MPs bringing Bill up to the stage. They didn't believe that Bill's wife was up on the stage. What a reunion! He caught up with me again in Almelo, Holland, where I was staying with some civilians. They allowed him to stay, too. Bette Milner did a movie called Where the Boys Are. In it her husband showed up backstage when she was performing overseas. I said, "They must have read my diary!" (p. 5)
I was startled to hear the bosun's chair crash to the ground as my ground man dropped the rope and ran for cover. There was the scream of aircraft engines in a dive, together with cannon and machine-gun fire. As I turned to look, there was a Messerschmitt 109G slightly below the level of the platform throttled back from his dive, and about twenty feet away! I could see his blond, straight hair, no helmet or goggles, just a headset on his ears." (p. 28)
Living History Chronicles represents yet another wave in the remarkable surge of war memoirs that have appeared in recent years (in this case, the memoirs focusing on the Second World War and the Korean War). As a genre, these memoirs have proven to be of variable literary merit; but all have a certain intrinsic value, deriving from their individual uniqueness, and from the realization that the storytellers themselves are themselves rapidly departing the realm of mortal conflict. This latter realization is implicit in the book's title, and refers to a project undertaken, through a Toronto-based branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, to bring the stories of Canada's war veterans to the contemporary public. Through this volume, an attempt is made to have the work of the Living History Speakers Bureau made more permanent (" to help ensure in some small way that our efforts are not forgotten. Oral accounts of our experiences die with us, but the written word lasts forever). To this end, the accounts of thirty-three individual veterans are presented. The veterans themselves represent the full range of service: "navy, air force, army (including paratroopers, infantry, signals, artillery, armoured corps, service corps, and other support units), the WRNS, and the Women's Division RCAF. There are also former prisoners of war, London Blitz evacuees, and armed forces CWAC entertainer, and members of the Polish Army, which was an integral part of the Canadian campaigns in northwest Europe." This range provides a rich and engaging variety of experiences: many of the vignettes deal with battle, but others give accounts of the other dimensions of wartime life training, social activities, and travelling and living in unforeseen settings.
Because of their number, the individual accounts are necessarily brief most ranging from about three to six pages. According, we are given episodes in the lives of the protagonists, with no attempt being made (reasonably enough) to provide an explanation of how these episodes fit into either the full story of the background wars. One approaches these accounts, therefore, for a intriguing kaleidoscope of glimpses into the individual war-time experiences of "ordinary" people not for a comprehensive overview of the two conflicts which provide the backdrop to the events. Each of the accounts is, however, accompanied by a brief biography of the author, as well as by "before and after" photographs one in uniform, one current. In addition, the book is nicely illustrated with photographs, sketches and maps, which help explain and bring alive the text of the individual entries.
The only significant criticism to be made has to do more with structure than content. An unexplained editorial decision was apparently made to present the stories alphabetically (that is, by the authors' names). With this strategy, the reader is moved, from entry to entry, randomly and sometimes a bit disjointedly among the various services and wars. An approach that grouped services or wars or types of activity would perhaps have allowed the reader to discern patterns and themes in a more systematic way.
In balance, though, the collection of stories accomplishes its goal admirably leaving us with a very human and wide-ranging set of the personal stories of "ordinary people" caught in the unique circumstances of war. The collection will be of obvious interest to anyone interested in the two wars; but it will read with profit by anyone curious about what it means for such ordinary people to be swept up in such circumstances. As the Living History Speakers Bureau intended, this will now indeed become part of the permanent record.
Alexander Gregor is a former professor of educational history at the University of Manitoba.
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