Category Archives: Canada at war.

World War Two Scrapbook, Windsor, Ontario

poppy_smOn November 11th, 2013 a wonderful biographical scrapbook about persons from Essex county who served in World War Two was published on the web. The scrapbook belongs to The R.C. Diocese Of London (Ontario), specifically to Our Lady of the Rosary in Windsor, Ontario. At this point, it is not known who created it.

The scrapbook is extremely fragile, being comprised of highly acidic papers, inks and adhesives and for the same reason, light sensitive. After careful consideration, it was decided to create a digital file which could be displayed on the internet.

I can’t say enough about the generosity of the congregation of Our Lady of the Rosary in publishing this treasure. All things considered, they did the right thing by sharing digitally, instead of the old way through an exhibition which was often so damaging and which only provided limited access anyway. Because of its nature, the scrapbook is threatened by thousands of hands turning pages to seek information. This may now be avoided.

However, the publication of the scrapbook on the web has precipitated the usual cascade of truly stupid comments. Among them are rants against archives for failing to measure up against a parish church.

These critics need to imagine a space the size of the ground floor of their home, filled top to bottom with shelving containing hundreds of boxes of papers. Many of these papers will not be organized in a roughly alphabetical order (like the Scrapbook). Nor will it be obvious what much of the papers are actually about. The records await the archivist to sort them out and make a finding aid. But wait! The archivist must spend five out of six hours a day helping the general public with enquiries and other duties.

Yes, it is true that every Ontario archive has some trusted volunteers willing to pitch in. However, these people have their own research interests and lives outside of the archives. Faced by the reality of how long it actually takes to do a good job on a foot of original records they usually finish the assignment and then say, “There you go, but no more of that please. Let me do something else.”

I for one am tired of being cast as a villain. Our archives are choc-a-bloc with wonderful collections. If Ontarians want to see these things up online like the Our Lady of the Rosary Scrapbook, then we need to lobby governments to provide help to get the professionals out of the reading room and into the storage to arrange, catalogue and digitize as they are educated to do.

The World War Two Scrapbook belonging to Our Lady of the Rosary can be viewed at

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Filed under Archives, Canada at war., History, Ontario

June 6th, 1944 and Operation Overlord

Station at Falaise

Canadians clear snipers from the railway station at Falaise

Each June, many of us still commemorate D-Day, June 6th, 1944, the attack which altered the course of World War Two. The Allied Offensive which they called “Operation Overlord” began with the beach landings on June 6 and continued with the advance into France. The many actions fought are known collectively as the Battle of Normandy.

One of the most desperate engagements, the battle of the Falaise Pocket also known as Falaise Gap, was fought from 12-21 August 1944, and was the decisive engagement of the Battle of Normandy. Because Hitler would not permit his forces to withdraw and regroup, a large part of the German army and the famous Fifth and Seventh Panzer Divisions were trapped at Falaise. The Germans were trying desperately to keep the route through Falaise open in order to permit the escape of their retreating soldiers. A ferocious battle followed which resulted in the destruction of most of the German forces west of the Seine. The way was then cleared for the Allies to move on to Paris, and ultimately, to Germany.

A tremendous amount of the vigorous fighting was done by the fragments of the Polish Army. They were assisted by the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, which included many men from Lennox and Addington county, Ontario. The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions and 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade were also involved. The 3rd Canadian Infantry were among the first to approach Falaise and paid with heavy casualties. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division were the
first to actually enter the town.

It was my privilege to meet several of the gunners from Lennox and Addington who served in the 4th or other Armoured Divisions and who remembered the railway station in Falaise very well. Snipers, they said, were everywhere. The tense postures of the advancing Canadians in this press photographs show the danger.

Next year, many Canadian events will focus on the War of 1812-1814. It has occurred to me that the War of 1812 would have had a definite “presence” in the psychology of the new Canada formed in 1867. It would have been both as recent and as distant as Operation Overlord is to us today.

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Filed under Archives, Canada at war., Photography, Uncategorized

Archival Appraisal for Acquisition

The Usefulness of Press Photographs

Acquisition of images which will both fit the mission of the archives and offer maximum usefulness to numerous archive clients is a challenge.

The most useful pictures are those which illustrate activities, events or specific locations. Original press photographs may be appropriate and useful additions to the photograph holdings, but press photographs have a poor reputation amongst archivists. Many repositories have had recent copies thrust upon them, minus the original documentation. Sometimes, these copies have been made from the many digitized image sources available online, and the original is the proud property of another archive. Not all archivists are skilled at separating silver prints from dye and plastic. Nor does every institution have staff time to check the provenance of each image. Once embarrassed by being caught serving a photograph with a really bad donor-imposed caption, the archivist cannot be blamed for being nervous about accepting more.

We wish that family photographs were richer in documented views and vignettes of activities. However, what are most commonly offered by donors are portraits. Portraits of accomplished persons are of wider use, particularly if they are not represented in another accessible collection and are not restricted by copyright or donor agreements. However, the sad truth is that portraits of average citizens will have limited appeal (mostly to the occasional descendants who are thrilled to finally see great-uncle Fred). If the portrait is both identified AND dated, there may be useful details such as costume or hair style which will serve the clients at the archive. The archivist might ponder, however, just how many clients researching the history of hairdressing arrive each year. A quick glance at the photograph index will prove that, outside of portraits, the major subject groups are family activities such as picnics, weddings and cute grandkids. Being part of the family fonds these are kept. The topics are useful, but they not the important themes which give the archive status and win public support.

In my opinion, the small local archives in particular must be proactive with image collections. There is a danger of becoming a substitute shoebox for guilty families who no longer want grandma’s photos. Although lovely, many family photo fonds lack sufficient image “oomph” to be widely useful and desirable to patrons.

Below is an example of a press photograph which enhances a collection of portraits of World War Two soldiers.

Many Lennox and Addington veterans served in the Canadian Artillery in World War Two, and were part of the Canadian First Army in 1945, which was a multi-national force commanded by Canadian General Harry Crerar. In February 1945, they were advancing into Germany along the Nijmegen-Cleve road. A ridge of land held by the German 84th Division was a major impediment. The Allies called this ridge, “The Nutterden Feature”. The airforce was to bomb the ridge on February 8th, but bad weather and the proximity of the Canadians delayed the attack. Instead, the artillery was used, consisting of the British Worcestershire Regiment and the Canadians. On February 9th through February 10th, following the bombardment, the allies advanced on the ridge. This assault was actually commanded by General Brian Horrocks. The weather was grey, cold and generally miserable. After a struggle with the very determined enemy, the Nutterden Feature was won, opening up the Cleve Road. This action was part of “Operation Veritable” (Battle of the Rhineland).

This photograph (British Newspaper Pool No. 390213/4) shows British troops and Canadians advancing into the German trenches on the Nutterden feature. It conveys more quickly then words the military significance of the ridge and the size of the bombardment necessary to win it.

Allied troops in the German trenches of Nutterden Feature, 1945

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Filed under Archives, Canada at war., Photographica, Photography

Burma Star still shining, but for how long?

Burma Star

The remaining members of the Burma Star Association at Kingston, Ontario have laid up their colours. With numbers dwindling, they will continue to be active but will no longer parade as a group.

When I was young, Second World War Veterans were everywhere. Every second chap over a certain age, and some of the women, too, had military pasts. At social gatherings, no one became excited to meet a fellow veteran. One became excited when one met a fellow veteran from the same unit, who served in the same theatre. There were so many Second War veterans then: so few remain.

And now, they are leaving us.

Holders of the Burma Star served in Burma (Myanmar), Bengal, Assam or off the coasts of Sumatra, Sunda and Malacca or in the Bay of Bengal between December 11, 1941 and September 2nd, 1945. Burma is the land of the infamous Irrawaddy River, and this is the campaign of “Bridge on the River Kwai” fame: the campaign of the Burma Road.

The Burma Road linked Myanmar to China and was used by the British to supply Chinese loyalists under Chiang Kai-Shek. The road was lost to the British when the Japanese over-ran Burma in 1942. After Pearl Harbour, the U.S. became our partner in battling the Axis. They absolutely insisted that the British should find a way to re-open the Burma supply route to China as part of the Commonwealth contribution to the fight with Japan. The Americans were no doubt thinking that the Commonwealth had more jungly wallahs and owned the expertise about Burma, but as it happened it was an American officer, the famous “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who recaptured northern Burma and built a new road there, the Ledo Road.

The Burma campaign is poorly documented in Canadian institutions, largely because young historians fail to see much of a direct Canadian connection. Of course many British immigrants to Canada after the War were Burma veterans and later became Canadian citizens. However, we also supplied Canadian-born doctors, pilots and radio operators. The pilots and radio operators were taken on strength by the R.A.F. and so disappeared from our radar (that’s a joke, son). Canadians with Japanese language skills served in the famous “Force 136” with British Intelligence. (Many of these brave men were Japanese-Canadians, which is a story for another day.) Astonishingly, the Veterans Guard of Canada were involved in the Burma Campaign, bringing in mules to supply local operations.

Because there is no Canadian unit tactical involvement, the contribution of our Burma Star veterans is often overlooked. Even the dealers in militaria sometimes obviscate the Canadian aspects by describing the Star as having been awarded to the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, which fails to explain the medals turning up across small-town Canada in the way that they do.

Unfortunately, the Burma Star is one of many decorations which are not inscribed with the name of the recipient. It is heart-breaking to see so many Burma Stars now on the militaria market, with the connection to the original brave owners and their colourful stories now completely lost. If we really care about the contribution given to us by our fighting forces, we should insist that no future decorations be awarded unengraved. It is a matter of national pride, as well as history.

The Burma Star may be recognized from a distance by the distictive ribbon. The center stripe is red, and stands for all the forces of the Commonwealth who were involved in the campaign. On either side are orange stripes, which represent the hot, jungle sun.

I am not among those who believe that sending high school students to interview veterans is a way of capturing our past. Or even university students, for that matter. Although this may be useful from in a social sense because it encourages respect and awareness from another generation, these interviews simply do not capture the special stories and the details which would otherwise be forgotten. I cite my years of transcribing oral histories as evidence of my authority in this regard. The kids simply don’t know the right questions to ask or when to shut up. They certainly don’t recognize when a veteran has something to tell which is not documented elsewhere. They interrupt at the darndest times.

Our veterans should be interviewed by adults with a background and a passion for the conflict or theatre concerned. Our veterans should preferably be interviewed when they are still hearty. If the job were properly done we should have no need to torment the few survivors in their twilight years.

The Kingston Branch of the Burma Star Association withdrew from the order of battle on July 2nd, 2010. Other Second War cohorts of heroes are slipping away. And we never said good-bye.


Medal illustration from Veterans Affairs Canada.


Filed under Canada at war., Material culture

Where is a Les Callan when you need him?

A Saskatchewan soldier under fire awaits his chance to vote.

A Saskatchewan soldier under fire awaits his chance to vote.

Once upon a time, Canadians were able to find humour in war.  Nothing could demonstrate better how much the world has changed in sixty years then the astonishment which greets me today when I show the young the wonderful cartoons of the late Les Callan (1905-1986).

“I don’t understand the drawing,” said one young woman, “But I can see it is supposed to be funny.  But it must have offended a lot of soldiers.”

The cartoons did not offend our soldiers, who were glad to find coping techniques to help them survive the unspeakable, which was Western Europe in 1944-45.  Mr. Callan was with our artillery, including the men I knew from Lennox and Addington county, during the invasion called  D-Day which began on June 6th, 1944.     He remained with them during the advance through France and Belgium.  Life for the soldiers was usually pretty nasty and often a nightmare, but they were able to find comedy and continued to laugh at certain episodes fifty years later — like the time that a French farmer begged them for help.  From his hysteria, they thought that the Gestapo were in his parlour, but it turned out that a cow was stuck on the farmhouse staircase.  A light moment during dark days.

On June 15th, 1944, the Province of Saskatchewan had an election.  Every effort was made to bring in the votes from the men serving in Europe.  The RCA had, by then, just reached the Leopold Canal, where they met very forceful resistence from seasoned German troops.    The above cartoon was Mr. Callan’s report.

Our troops are enduring horror and danger at present in Afghanistan, but I see no evidence that there is any humour to lighten the load.   In fact, I suspect that it is politically incorrect to laugh about any aspect of the present conflict, which is a pity.


Filed under Archives, Canada at war., Material culture