Friday, June 7, 2024

D+29,220 - Normandy 80 years on

Another D-Day anniversary has come and gone, and some random thoughts in no particular order related to how those in my feed have chosen to mark the day(1):

Operation Code Names

For those interested in the actual historical usage of the operation codenames, these were;

  • Operation OVERLORD - the invasion of Northwest Europe, or more specifically, the first phase which was the clearing of Normandy and reaching the line of the Seine River. As is well known, the phase lines drafted in advance of the landings gave D+90 as a estimate of the time it would take to get there. Some histories have inaccurately reported this as being a deadline, which it wasn't. In the event, the Allies reached the Seine on 30 August 1944, or D+85, five days in advance of this estimate. As a bonus, they didn't have to launch a combat assault across the river, which they anticipated doing and in fact some formations and units actually rehearsed for in the UK. Among these was 2 Canadian Division, for example. The Calgary Highlanders reportedly remembered their storm boat training when they reached the Walcheren Causeway in October 1944, but the terrain there prohibited them from using them.
  • Operation NEPTUNE - the sea landings on the Normandy beaches
  • Operation CHICAGO - the airborne landings in the American sector, behind UTAH Beach.
  • Operation TONGA - the airborne landings in the British sector, east of the Orne River
  • Operation DEADSTICK - the coup de main landing on the bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal, and the securing of what became Pegasus Bridge
  • Operation FORTITUDE - the deception plan, involving fake signal traffic and fictitious units including an army group under General Patton. Canadian historian Marc Milner has highlighted the involvement of Canadian signallers in this plan, and expressed his hope that future researchers would dive deeper into this involvement.(2)
These are the main ones I can think of, which is apparently enough to not be able to keep straight, without adding the many others.

Largest Amphibious Operation

OVERLORD is the largest overall invasion in history in terms of air, sea and land forces. A number of commentators keep calling it the largest amphibious operation in history, but in terms of formations involved, the naval landings on Sicily in July 1943 were larger (not included here are the airborne forces which obviously arrived by parachute and glider):



Normandy 1944 - 
  • US 4th Infantry Division
  • US 1st Infantry Division
  • US 29th Infantry Division
  • British 50th Infantry Division
  • Canadian 3rd Infantry Division
  • British 3rd Infantry Division
  • supporting units of Rangers, Commandos and armoured/tank battalions/regiments

Sicily 1943 -

  • US 3rd Infantry Division
  • US 1st Infantry Division
  • US 45th Infantry Division
  • Canadian 1st Infantry Division
  • British 51st Infantry Division
  • British 50th Infantry Division
  • British 5th Infantry Division
  • supporting units of Commandos and armoured/tank battalions/regiments

Importance of D-Day to the Second World War - Three Calamities

In a piece by Bill Kaufmann in the Calgary newspapers on June 6, Dr. John Ferris of the University of Calgary (whom I had the privilege of studying under, however briefly, as an undergrad) rightly pointed out "(Normandy) is often seen as a war-winning campaign and that wasn't the case." Kaufmann continues "D-Day's significance (Ferris) said, lay in proving the mettle of western armies and their determination to sacrifice alongside their Soviet partners...it had longer-term implications related to an impending Cold War schism between those allies...."

There is no doubt much truth to this but if the argument is that Normandy had no military significance, that is probably as much of an exaggeration as saying it was war-winning.

Three cataclysms rocked the Germans in the summer of 1944. In late May the situation in Italy, which had been stalemated for six months, changed dramatically when the Allies busted through the Gustav Line, drove down the Liri Valley, broke the siege at Anzio and captured Rome on June 4th. It should have been a more impressive victory but 5th Army commander General Mark Clark chose the prestige target instead of cutting off the Germans, which regrouped near the Apennines and held out for another winter.  The landings in Normandy began a three month campaign which saw a million German casualties, while on June 22nd the Red Army launched Operation BAGRATION on the Eastern Front, an operation which saw the destruction of Germany's Army Group Centre, and a million more German casualties. 

The areas in tan indicate German withdrawals as a result of the three cataclysms in June 1944.

These three blows, in concert with each other, meant the Germans couldn't shuffle their best divisions from front to front as they had in the past since the pressure was on in three directions. If the campaign in Northwest Europe did not win the war on its own, one has to believe it did shorten it, or put another way, prevented the Germans from prolonging it even more.

Paying Tribute

A number of of the military hobbyists and hobby groups marked the day in various ways, usually via entertainment media (wargames, video games, movies, books). For Canadians, there are slim pickings particularly as far as films.  

  • The Longest Day - still holds up despite its age and aging special effects. And while most people still know who John Wayne is, the all-star cast including Eddie Albert, Robert Wagner, Fabian, Richard Burton, Sean Connery is less likely to impress a dwindling audience that have actually heard of all these people. From the Canadian perspective, JUNO Beach is seen as the target of a German strafing run, and that's it. And the camera overruns the set so it looks like there were beach defences on just half of it.
  • Storming Juno - I'm a big enough history snob to have seen the rusted out post-war tank used for principal photography and turned my nose up at it. I've not seen the whole thing. Some of the veteran interviews I've seen in clips on YouTube look well done.
  • The Valour and the Horror - suffice to say there are still lots of people angry about this one, because of the 1960s style journalism angle on what could have been a straight-forward documentary.  And the focus isn't on D-Day but the whole Normandy campaign. Piece d'resistance is the absurd reenactment of Verrières-Ridge by the 1990s era Black Watch in a Quebec meadow which is supposed to be a hillside wheatfield in Normandy.
Wargamers don't have much for pickings either. There are plenty of strategic and operational games, but my interest has always been at the tactical level (where individual units represent single men, sections, or platoons). Rest assured Advanced Squad Leader has rules for everything from opposed parachute landings and gliders to landing craft, but even without the cumbersome procedures for all these things, the game is most often a tedious slog through the rulebook. It's possible to find custom maps representing the actual landing areas, and then deploy entire battalions in their historical landing zones, but I'm not sure I would find it at all fun.

Combat Mission automates much of this stuff, being a 3-D computer game, but the developers have been averse to introducing engineering aspects - roadblocks, clearing mines, etc. - and completely steered clear of amphibious tanks, landing craft, beach obstacles, the actual German bunker types which proved do deadly on the day, etc. Close Combat was game to try though I don't recall Canadian representation. Medal of Honor had a decent enough recreation of the OMAHA landings (or perhaps, the movie version as it seemed to ape SPR more than real life) but again, no Canadian coverage, and first person shooters aren't really meant to be taken seriously.

Canadians trying to find a medium through which the events of the day of days can be vicariously experienced will have to settle for some of the good books by Ted Barris, Mark Zuehlke and others who have written extensively and captured the words of many veterans who survived the landings.

On the Ground

I was in uniform on Juno Beach on the 75th Anniversary, as part of the national contingent sent specifically for that commemoration. There was apparently an excellent multimedia display behind us, we saw none of it as we were formed up in ranks. The PM did a cursory inspection of the guard, but did not speak to us. The CDS of the day, however, came down to the beach just before we stepped on to parade. He handed out commemorative coins and glad handed the several dozen of us, shaking hands and telling us it was good to meet us. Some might have considered it a crassly political show, but I got the sense he was feeling the same things as us in the guard - the joy and unique experience of being a Canadian soldier on foreign soil, and in a place where the Army's reputation had been enhanced by the sacrifice and accomplishments of those that trod there under fire. The Governor-General had also talked to us before an earlier parade at a military cemetery, and seemed just as sincerely interested in what was happening, and meeting fellow pilgrims on the ground it all happened. The CDS and GG came under some harsh media attention in the months following, which did not change my impression of them, or my own joy at being able to share that experience with fellow Canadians, no matter who they were.

I had been to the Juno Beach Centre on an earlier trip, and found it slightly underwhelming, so there was not much disappointment when we were told the centre was off limits to us. The PM's staff had booked the site for an interview on CBC. I still felt bad for the others for whom the trip may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

On a personal level it was a memorable event in many ways, drilling and practicing with soldiers (and sailors and "aviators" - the gender neutral word for "airmen" these days despite the fact none of our "aviators" were actually pilots) from across the country, and going deep into the drill manual to learn, or re-learn, such things as About Turn on the March, and the feu-de-joie which we performed well. It was slightly marred after the march off when one of our reservist master-corporals discharged their rifle which still had a blank cartridge in it. It had been a treat to be on parade with several soldiers of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, who trace their lineage to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. Their special uniforms drew much positive attention from us, and the fact they were as challenged by the unique foot drill as the rest of us was interesting, but not surprising - these are the guys that 'do war' for a living and train to expert levels in weapons and fieldcraft, so no surprise they didn't spend as much time on drill as perhaps a reservist whose unit calendar involves several ceremonial parades every year. The undisguised disgust shown by the CSOR contingent at the unfortunate master corporal reservist that had lost control of their weapon seems all the more reasonable in that regard. It was a minor blemish on a job well done, and thankfully had occurred outside the public's eye.

DND had seen fit to send some of our best historians to help us interpret the wartime events, with battlefield tours and lectures, and I eagerly listened to Steven Harris and Mike Bechthold share their knowledge with us.

My favourite memory, however, will always be an off-hours adventure, when my sergeant invited me along to visit a Calvados distillery, which had a very good tour and museum set up, along with tasting bar and fully stocked gift shop. The 20 year old vintages can't be described - and were a far cry from the raw, barely fermented stuff our Canadian troops guzzled down in the summer of 1944. I had such a good time I forgot to take any photos. An excuse, perhaps, to go back some day.

My Final Word

None of this really captures the importance of the day, that has been done in all the television and social media coverage of the last 24 hours, to which I can add nothing. D-Day is one of those events that speaks for itself. I am glad, however, that we continue to honour the memory of it though just like Vimy Ridge in the First World War, there were other far more impressive Canadian victories among our battle honours. At the end of the day - in this case, June 6, 1944 - a very well rehearsed but inexperienced division cut through a pretty thin defensive screen made up of war weary conscripts bolstered by "volunteers" from Eastern Europe. No one doubts the bravery of Canadian troops that day, and I wouldn't call it "easy", but compared to some of the very tough fighting in the Scheldt and Rhineland later on, it seems like comparisons can be not unfairly made as to which was harder to do.


Notes 

  1. I started this blog with the mandate of using it to comment on current news events which would benefit from some clarifying points of a historical nature. I don't know if I've crossed the line into a "personal blog" with this entry, but if so - mea culpa.
  2. Milner's book STOPPING THE PANZERS is a must-read for his research into what exactly the role of 3 Cdn Div was in the overall invasion. When he presented on his book at The Military Museums in Calgary during the book's launch several years ago, he took a few minutes to discuss FORTITUDE and his hope that the Canadian aspect would be fleshed out

Friday, May 3, 2024

Fort Calgary's New Name - Reconciliation or Just Good History?

It seems like just yesterday that the City of Calgary announced it had spent 4.8 million dollars to come up with a new brand. In actuality, it was just over two weeks ago that citizens were informed "Be Part of the Energy" was going away, and we were now the Blue Sky City. 

Calgary re-branded as the 'Blue Sky City' | CBC News

I won't record my own response here but safe to say public reaction was "mixed." Certainly the Premier of Alberta was less than enthusiastic about changing from the older motto, though her public comments stopped short of commenting directly on the relative merits of the new one.

Bell: Danielle Smith's thumbs-down to Calgary's Blue Sky City brand | Calgary Herald

Calgarians are used to expressing their anger over public works, and recent contretemps include among others the Calatrava bridge (some commentators have felt that the official name of Peace Bridge was a crass attempt to curry favour with a hostile electorate, I will make no such claim here myself.) The infamous blue ring was another, and there was the Poop Palace which displayed in LED lights the flow of wastewater through our sewage system. 


So the social media response to the latest 'blue sky' idea should be no surprise in a city where the default reaction to public works announcements is anger first, reflection later, maybe. Yesterday, 2 May 2024, the city teased a big announcement at Fort Calgary on morning radio shows, and then on cue announced that the site of Fort Calgary was now rebranded to become The Confluence: Historic Site and Parkland.

Fort Calgary rebranded to represent landmark's multiple histories | CBC News

What to make of this?

Backlash against this goes beyond mere concern for the public purse, of course. Canadians of European ancestry have begun to either feel or sense a rising discomfort with their own history, if not among themselves then certainly among a vocal minority of .... well, minorities. Wikipedia has a whole list of statues that have been removed in recent years, all of them of explorers or public figures either British or of British ancestry. It would be impossible to recount the entire history of European settlement/colonization and its attendant issues of First Nations relations, residential schools, and the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, among others. I won't pass judgement on what I think the "correct" view of all this history is, other than to generally agree with whomever said "history should make you uncomfortable." That is to say, if you're making an honest attempt to understand it rather than judge past figures by the standards of today.

I feel much more comfortable giving an opinion from a purely military history point of view, which would also be much more in line with the stated focus of this blog. And through that lens, the renaming of the Fort Calgary site makes some sense to me. One fears that the actual history of the site, which one hopes informed the site's decision to rebrand, may be forgotten as sides ramp up to fight another battle in the culture war. A review of what actually happened there might be instructive and perhaps even help avoid such a fight altogether.

Fortress on the Bow

The North-West Mounted Police stood up in 1874 and marched west from what became Manitoba in order to ensure peace, order and good government met the waves of European settlers that the new nation of Canada expected to populate what would become their western provinces. Fort Macleod was established a little too far from the trading post at Edmonton and "F" Troop set out from the once thriving town of Tail Creek (near what today are Red Deer and Stettler) to create an intermediate station. In August 1875 the troop travelled toward what became the Ghost Dam, and then along the Bow River to where it met the Elbow - or, as many histories written by authors well conversant in the English language usually say, at the "confluence" of the two waters.

Wooden palisades went up before Christmas, Inspector Brisebois tried to name the place after himself but failed, and his boss, Superintendent James Macleod named it for a castle in Scotland he had once summered at with family. 

Relations with the First Nations were good. Fort Calgary lay on the traditional lands of the Blackfoot, Nakoda, Sarcee (now Tsuut'ina) and Métis, and by 1878 treaties had paved the way for European settlement and peaceful co-existence. In 1882 the palisades came down, just seven years after they had gone up, with expanded barracks going up in their place. In 1884, the rail link to Winnipeg was complete and the small collection of civilian dwellings in and about the former site of the fort became the Town of Calgary. Ten years later, Calgary was a City.

Ever since that beginning, the only serious threat of invasion by an armed enemy that Calgary ever faced was in 1885 and the Northwest Rebellion. Unfortunately for the citizens of Calgary, not only was the fort gone, but most of the mounties had ridden off as part of the Alberta Field Force. James Walker stood up a home guard of a hundred armed cowboys and paraded daily to show the local First Nations that Calgarians would fight for their homes if need be. The First Nations for their part gave the citizens no trouble, and the fighting took place in far off places like Batoche and Duck Lake.

The war, such as it was, took up the better part of the spring but was over relatively quickly. It was enough to scare Calgarians, who clamoured for a military unit of their own. They had to wait until after the Boer War had begun to get one. A squadron of the Canadian Mounted Rifles stood up in 1901, followed by the creation of other support units and finally an infantry regiment in April 1910 called the 103rd Regiment, Calgary Rifles. The growing military clamoured for storage and drill space, and again, war intervened in their plans. Mewata Armoury was built after delays caused by the First World War. It put the original Fort Calgary to shame, built in Tudor Gothic style from brick and sandstone, with heavy steel bars on the windows, towers and ramparts reminiscent of a medieval castle. Threats of war, with either the First Nations or the United States, were largely a thing of the past. In fact, First Nations men joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force to fight for Canada in large numbers, even though things like veterans benefits and voting privileges would not be granted until years or even decades in the future.

Confluence

Of all the military installations that have come and gone from Calgary, from Currie and Harvey Barracks to the now dimly remembered Northeast Armouries, few could claim a shorter active service life than the original Fort Calgary. The importance of the fort to Calgary's history cannot be determined solely from that service life, which, it may be pointed out, managed to avoid falling in the period of any major Canadian military conflicts. It's importance was as a meeting place where relationships between the old world and the new were fostered. A little too well, perhaps, for as the story goes Inspector Ephrem Brisebois, the original commander, had the only wood-burning stove in camp and kept it in his personal quarters to facilitate liaisons with local First Nations women, something which engendered very little affection from his men who subsequently developed a reputation for poor discipline. 

It would be wrong, in my opinion, to assign much importance to the wooden palisades that stood for a paltry seven years, a relative blink of the eye in our continuing civic history. It was an important first chapter, but Calgary's legacy is a largely peaceful one, where we've had the luxury of fighting our battles on foreign soil. Fort Calgary deserves to be remembered, but for what it was - a very small part of the entirely peaceful history of a city forged by people of a great diversity of backgrounds. As such, the name "Confluence" seems to nicely encapsulate that idea, a meeting not only of two rivers, essential to sustain life, but of great peoples who managed to live more or less harmoniously with each other from the very beginning. Those beginnings are worth remembering as Canada struggles with its self-assigned task of Reconciliation. 


For More

I will confess to having recently researched some aspects of the early military history of Calgary for the recently published book Calgary's Infantry Regiment: A Pictorial History of The Calgary Highlanders

Calgary's Infantry Regiment: A Pictorial History of The Calgary Highlanders

The book can be ordered from Amazon.ca at the link above.


Final Word

My friend Patrick Yeates gave me a tour of his Winnipeg hometown a few years ago and "The Forks" stood out to me in memory just as much as both statues of Louis Riel. It was an effective branding, for that reason alone, and another reason I think "Confluence" may have some legs as far as helping with tourism. I took a neighbour's son to the Fort Calgary interpretive centre and found it enjoyable, but of course, there was so much more in the galleries than just the fort, and the same can be said of the entire area where the rivers meet. The Hunt House, Calgary's oldest building, fascinated us both and like the displays of automobiles or newspaper typesetters inside the interpretive centre, really had not a lot to do with the fort itself and everything to do with a wider civic history. The new name will reflect that, too.

Michael A. Dorosh

Monday, September 25, 2023

Controversial Tribute by Canada's Speaker of the House to Ukrainian Veteran Reveals State of Modern Journalism

 


Canadian news sources - as well as international ones - are now broadcasting the fact that the Speaker of the House rose in Canada's House of Commons and paid tribute to a 98-year old veteran of the 1st Ukrainian Division of the Ukrainian National Army. It's former identity as the 14th Division of the Waffen-SS is a matter of fact and has drawn condemnation for which the speaker has apologized. But some other matters of fact seem to loom large as well.

The Soviet Union starved millions of ethnic Ukrainians in the 1930s in an attempted genocide now known as the Holodomor.

When German soldiers arrived in the Ukraine, still part of the Soviet Union, in the summer of 1941, they were treated as liberators. The Germans were not so quick to adopt them as allies, but did find allies and willing participants to their own genocide, the Holocaust of the European Jews. In fact, the majority of killings in the Holocaust occurred in open-air shootings throughout eastern Europe, and not in the death camps in Poland. Anti-Semitism was rife throughout the East - for that matter, in North America as well - and locals often enthusiastically volunteered to assist the killing apparatus of the Germans who employed Einsatzgruppen (Special Detachments) for the job of mass killings.

The Soviet Union became an ally of Canada in 1941, though more by circumstance than design. As Britain's Prime Minister famously said at the time of their unlikely alliance - if Hitler had invaded Hell itself, he would at the very least rise and give favourable mention to Satan in the House of Commons. War makes strange bedfellows.

Ukraine and the Soviet Union fought a civil war for years after war with Germany ended in 1945. There was no more Waffen-SS, but there was indeed the victorious Soviet Union, on a clear trajectory to being an adversary of Canada under Stalin. While the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) was largely destroyed by 1948, active fighting continued until 1955. By this time the Cold War was in full swing.

Soviet weapons were used by North Korea in active combat against Canadians. For what it is worth, the Chinese army, fresh from its victory in its own civil war, bore much of the burden of the fighting against United Nations forces of which Canadians were a part.

All of these are facts, and some of them are being used to greater effect than others to stoke the outrage machine. In my own experience, I find those with a deep knowledge and understanding of history generally have little time for outrage at failed political stunts (something the Speaker's actions surely were). History is far too complicated and nuanced for that. It used to be that journalists would know that. If the Speaker can't be forgiven for being unaware of the complicated history of the Ukraine, halfway around the world, neither should journalists be forgiven for broadcasting only those elements of that history that make their chosen side of the debate look bad.

The controversy is a bad look for everyone involved, none of whom had the complicated choice of whom to fight for in the Second World War when caught between two genocidal regimes.


Saturday, July 2, 2022

Canada's own symbol of excellence and diversity is now a hate symbol

In reaction to the latest news that the federal government may consider the historic Red Ensign a hate symbol, perhaps it is time to examine the historical context of that flag.

There has been confusion over the years about the status of the Red Ensign and what exactly it meant to Canadians. As a Dominion of the British Empire, Canada's national flag was the Union Flag (more commonly known as the Union Jack).


Even after Canada gained autonomy over its foreign policy with the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the Union Flag continued to be the official state flag. From almost the time of Confederation in 1867, the Red Ensign was also used as an unofficial national flag. It bore the Union Flag in the upper corner, with the shields of the individual provinces in the field, all on a royal scarlet background. The shield changed over time as new provinces joined Confederation. 



In 1921, the shield was changed to the Canadian coat of arms, which represented the nations which had founded Canada - England, Scotland, Ireland, and France, with a sprig of Canadian maple leaves. 


In June 1944, red ensign flags were distributed to military forces in the United Kingdom preparing for the invasion of France. For the first time in history, an entire Canadian Army was to be activated as a field command in a theatre of war. When First Canadian Army headquarters was activated in Normandy shortly after D-Day, the red ensign was flown overhead. 

The ensign was changed to its final form in 1957 by some minor aesthetic changes. The maple leaves became red, an official colour of Canada, and the imagery of a woman with bare breasts depicted on the Irish harp was removed. 


In 1965, Canada adopted the current red and white maple leaf flag as a distinct representation of Canada's sovereignty. 



The Red Ensign comes down for the last time at Fort Henry, West Germany, by Canadian soldiers on 15 February 1965, in favour of the new red and white maple leaf flag.
The Red Ensign comes down for the last time at Fort Henry, West Germany, by Canadian soldiers on 15 February 1965, in favour of the new red and white maple leaf flag.


While the red ensign had not been an official national flag, its use, particularly in military settings, had been emblematic of Canadian patriotism. Just as Canadian soldiers in both world wars had adopted maple-leaf badges and CANADA shoulder titles to display their national pride, the red ensign too had become a symbol of Canadian unity as early as the battle of Vimy Ridge when the flag was proudly displayed after the successful capture of the feature. 

More recently the flag has become a symbol of controversy as ideologues on the far reaches of both the progressive and conservative side of Canada's political spectrum have sought to co-opt the symbol for their own purposes. The flag itself however should best be remembered as a symbol of pride by a nation growing out of its dependence on its mother country. Canadian feats of arms such as Hill 70, Amiens, Ortona and the landings on Juno Beach were propelled by brave soldiers believing that Canadians were a unique people from a special country. Thirsty for their own identity, the red ensign symbolized the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice of men and women from diverse backgrounds that went into making a country. 

 If any criticism can be applied to the Red Ensign, it is that it under-tells the true story of Canadian diversity, overlooking the part that the First Nations and immigrants from China, Europe and around the world played in forging an independent, world-class nation. Today the red and white maple leaf flag symbolizes all of that, and so much more. But it would be wrong to forget what the red ensign meant to those who looked to it as their own powerful symbol of independence and Canadian excellence.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Lobbying for the Canadian Victoria Cross is a Legacy of a Very Imperfect Honours System

Four countries in the Commonwealth of Nations include the Victoria Cross as their highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy. The United Kingdom established the award in 1856 and generously shared it throughout the British Empire. As nations of the Empire earned their political independence they also developed their own systems of recognizing military bravery and leadership. The Canadian Honours system was developed for the nation's centennial year in 1967. The Victoria Cross was retained as its pre-eminent award, and in 1993 the Victoria Cross (Canada) superceded the Imperial version. Canada's VC is nearly identical, with the English inscription FOR VALOUR changed to Latin, so as to be appropriate for both anglophone and francophone recipients. Australia and New Zealand adopted their own VC medals in 1991 and 1999, and have awarded five and one respectively.

Canada has never awarded its own Victoria Cross. While Canadian soldiers have fought, and died, in a number of military battles and campaigns since the end of the Second World War (most notably the Korean War and the War in Afghanistan), the last award of a Victoria Cross to a Canadian was in 1945.

The efficiency, loyalty and bravery of Canadian soldiers has been their hallmark since the first overseas deployment of Canadian soldiers in 1884-5 during the Nile River expedition. Battle honours - and Victoria Crosses - were earned by Canadian units and individuals in the Boer War, First World War and Second World War. British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers currently hold the supreme award and on the face of it, an injustice has occurred. There have therefore been attempts in the past few years to lobby for certain individuals to receive the Canadian VC. 

War in Afghanistan Candidates

Master Corporal Paul Franklin has been put forth as one such deserving soldier.(1) Severely injured in a car bombing in Afghanistan on 15 January 2006, he put a tourniquet on the stump of his left leg and then gave life-saving first aid to two injured comrades. Diplomat Glyn Berry and two civilians were unfortunately killed in the blast. Others began to lobby for the award of the Victoria Cross to Franklin, citing the extreme devotion to duty and comrades that drove him despite the pain and shock of losing his own leg, actions so astonishing and worthy of recognition it is almost a disservice to reduce them to mere letters on a page. Franklin, however, disagreed.

"His official stance on the matter," says Edmonton friend Greg Scratchley, "is that since he was well beyond incapacitated during the event, any suggestion of actions 'heroic' or 'valourous' are likely unsupported -- or unsubstantiated.

"He does not believe that the event warrants such consideration as their mission to protect Glyn Berry was ultimately unsuccessful."(2)

 

Master Corporal Paul Franklin

This year, in time for Remembrance Day, a private citizen's petition has been made to the Canadian Parliament asking that the Victoria Cross be awarded to Private Jess Larochelle for actions in Afghanistan. The citation of his Star of Military Valour makes it clear his actions were undeniably worthy of some form of recognition:

On October 14, 2006, Private Larochelle of the 1st Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group was manning an observation post when it was destroyed by an enemy rocket in Pashmul, Afghanistan. Although he was alone, severely injured, and under sustained enemy fire in his exposed position at the ruined observation post, he aggressively provided covering fire over the otherwise undefended flank of his company’s position. While two members of the personnel were killed and three others were wounded in the initial attack, Private Larochelle’s heroic actions permitted the remainder of the company to defend their battle positions and to successfully fend off the sustained attack of more than 20 insurgents. His valiant conduct saved the lives of many members of his company.(3)

A Facebook group is lobbying not just for Larochelle, but nine other Canadians to be considered for the award of the Victoria Cross.  The group cites "missing information" in the case of Larochelle as a justification for the review of his case:

What (the medal citation) doesn’t say (is) that his injuries were a broken back, detached retina, deaf in his right ear, and firing all the rockets caused shoulder problems. 2 years later shrapnel was still pushing itself out of his body. Imagine coming too with all these injuries and fighting off a sustained attack. It also doesn’t mention that the two LAVs on that flank had weapon stoppages meaning he was the only sustained fire on that flank. And by his own testimony he says he volunteered to go to the OP despite the fact that the platoon was short handed and undermanned. With knowledge that an attack was imminent he went down to the OP with 2 C6 machine guns meaning you would have needed 4 people to properly man that position because the C6 is a 2 man weapon. This information is missing from his citation and because of this we are calling for a review.(4)

The response to the call for a petition has been understandably emotional. How could such a brave soldier go unrewarded? The short answer is that he didn't, and while we will get to that further on, it may be worth covering some historical ground. The canadiansoldiers.com website is devoted to sharing information about the Canadian Army in the 20th Century, and this blog was started specifically to, in part, be able to add historical context to current events.

Development of Military Honours 1914-18

Canada, originally called British North America, became a semi-autonomous nation in 1867 but only slowly developed into its own nationhood. The federal government of Canada, for example, was powerless to institute its own foreign policy until the Statute of Westminster in 1931 and Canada didn't issue its own passports until 1947 when residents were finally recognized as Canadian citizens rather than British subjects.

Canada did not officially have an army, or at least didn't call it that, until 1940. The Militia was a small, mostly amateur force which was able to assemble "expeditionary forces" for British conflicts in Africa and Europe. The British system of awards was considered appropriate to recognize bravery and merit.

In 1914, the British system of honours was severely stressed as the major nations of the world threw their military forces at each other in an unprecedented prolonged, industrialized conflict. About 7,000 Canadians had served in the Boer War, that number was eclipsed in the opening weeks of the First World War, and nearly that many Canadians were killed or wounded in the first major Canadian battle at Ypres in April 1915. All told over 600,000 Canadians would join the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Recognizing their bravery was difficult. In 1914 there were only three awards available to the rank and file: the Victoria Cross, a medal of great prestige, the Distinguished Conduct Medal, or a mention in dispatches. The DCM was only awarded to deserving non-commissioned soldiers (including warrant officers) and not commissioned officers. By 1916 so many DCM had been awarded that there were fears its value was being diluted, and an additional, lesser, award for bravery called the Military Medal was minted, also for award to non-commissioned soldiers only.

Recognizing that no award existed for junior officers, the Military Cross was instituted as a bravery award in 1914, for warrant officers and junior commissioned officers (lieutenants or captains). Officers ranked major or higher were eligible for the Distinguished Service Order.

Patchwork System

The system of recognition, in other words, was not a single, smoothly thought out system of awards, but a patchwork to which additional pieces were continually added. There were a number of notable issues with the system.

  • Only the VC and the Mention in Dispatches could be awarded posthumously. If a soldier died, his bravery could only be recognized by one, the other, or nothing. Since by 1917 the VC was a singular honour standing atop a whole hierarchy of awards, it often meant otherwise deserving soldiers who would have been recognized by some form of award had they lived were denied any award at all.
  • The Mention in Dispatches had no insignia until after the war when a bronze oakleaf device was issued for wear on the ribbon of service medals minted after 1918.
  • There were no established standards for the bestowal of any of these awards. A VC could be awarded to a soldier who had never received a valour award, and likewise a soldier might be awarded the Military Medal three separate times (each additional award signified by a rosette on the ribbon) instead of receiving progressively higher awards. The criteria were entirely subjective, and varied from service to service, or unit to unit. Historian Hugh Halliday has devoted an entire book to discussing this issue with regards to the VC.(5)

The patchwork system led to frustrations.

Frederick Philip Griffin
Acting C.O., 1st Bn The Black Watch (RHR) of Canada
Killed in Action 25 July 1944

Major Phil Griffin of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada famously led his battalion up Verrières Ridge during Operation SPRING in July 1944. Of 325 men to cross the start line, 307 became casualties and Griffin died at the head of his men in what became the worst single day of the war for the Canadian Army after Dieppe.(6) His brigade commander faced the same conundrum many commanders did: how to recognize a dead hero given the inability to posthumously award most of the available decorations. Convinced that Griffin would have received a DSO had he lived, Brigadier Bill Megill felt he had no choice but to award a Mention in Dispatches instead, the only other option being the Victoria Cross which Megill did not, apparently, feel the action merited. 

The family of Phil Griffin were not satisfied that justice had been done by the award of a Mention in Despatches. They embarked on a 20 year campaign to have the Victoria Cross awarded retroactively instead. Griffin's older brother refused the award of the Canada Centennial Medal in 1967, 22 years later, as a protest against what he felt was an unfair awards system that had denied his dead brother the proper recognition for his valour in Normandy.(7)

In other words, lobbying for the Victoria Cross is nothing new. For as long as Canada has awarded the VC, there have been people convinced it has not been awarded often enough.

Downgrading

Naturally, the nomination for a soldier to receive the Victoria Cross was no guarantee that he would receive it and awards had to be approved up the chain of command. In the Second World War, this went up as far as army group level. When Clarence "Ken" Crockett of The Calgary Highlanders forged a bridgehead over the Albert Canal with a ten-man patrol in September 1944, opening the way for his entire brigade to cross the obstacle, his nomination for the VC was submitted by his unit and approved by the brigade commander, division commander, corps commander and army commander before the army group commander, Field Marshal Montgomery, downgraded it to a Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Clarence "Ken" Crockett, DCM

The list of unsuccessful nominees for the VC is extensive, though there is no official record of such. They usually include men who were granted lesser awards in place of the VC, either because of differing criteria (Crockett's battalion commander apparently interpreted the prerequisites for award of the VC different than his army group commander) or as noted above the inability to bestow appropriate awards posthumously.

Among the first such nominee was Lance Corporal George William Allan of the 10th Battalion, CEF, who received the DCM for actions at St. Julien in 1915. Allan was awarded the DCM posthumously, which was technically possible only when an intended recipient died after the award was approved but before it could be officially presented. The 10th Battalion also nominated Captain Charles Costigan for the VC in November 1915 for leading a successful trench raid. He lived, but received the DSO instead. 

There is no official listing of how many battalions submitted unsuccessful Victoria Cross nominations in the same way, but no shortage of references in unit histories. Sergeant John Sturley of the 46th Battalion received the DCM for charging a machine gun, instead of the requested VC. Lieutenant James Dunwoody of the Fort Garry Horse was nominated for a VC and instead received the DSO for leading his troop of horse cavalry against enemy machine guns in October 1918.

It is well known that the Dieppe Raid resulted in two Canadian VC awards (and one British), but at least three other nominations were made, including Lance Sergeant J.P. Beauvais of Les Fusilier Mont-Royal (who was killed and thus eligible only for the Mention in Dispatches after his VC nomination was denied), Corporal H.C. Keyes of The South Saskatchewan Regiment, and Lieutenant William Wedd of The Royal Regiment of Canada, who was also killed and Mentioned in Dispatches following an unsuccessful VC nomination.

Daniel Dancocks recounted the following in his history of the Italian Campaign:

Late in the afternoon (of 22 Jul 1943), "A" Company (of the PPCLI) launched an attack on a hill to the left of Leonforte, but the Patricias were soon pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire. Reinforcements arrived, in the form of a non-commissioned officer and two privates, with a Bren light machine-gun. This trio was ordered to knock out a German machine-gun post, but the NCO and one private were shot down within twenty-five feet of the objective. While the men of A Company watched in disbelief, the survivor, Private S.J. Cousins, picked up the Bren gun and, firing it from the hip, charged the enemy. Miraculously unscathed, he leaped among the Germans and killed all five of them. Reloading, he repeated the performance, charging another machine-gun post and wiping it out. In the face of Cousin's courageous attack, German resistance collapsed.

Private Cousins should have won the Victoria Cross...He was recommended for it, but for some reason it did not go through. The Patricias themselves might be at fault, for not promoting it properly, and, as former staff officer George Kitching points out, "I don't think we thought of VCs in the Sicily days." Unfortunately, Cousins was killed a short time later (by an errant Canadian artillery shell); because the lesser medals for which he qualified as a private could not be awarded posthumously, his only recognition came in the form of a mention in despatches.(8)

The list of men recommended for the Victoria Cross and whose nominations were denied, usually to be replaced with a lower award, goes on:

  • Lance Corporal Gerard Gagnon (Royal 22e Régiment)
  • Private John Low (The Loyal Edmonton Regiment)
  • Sapper Milton McNaughton (Royal Canadian Engineers)
  • Lieutenant Norman Ballard (The 48th Highlanders of Canada)
  • Lieutenant Edward Perkins (Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians))
  • Captain Ian Grant (The Three Rivers Regiment)
  • Corporal Frank Weitzel (The Highland Light Infantry of Canada) 
  • Captain Jack Birnie Smith (The Royal Canadian Regiment)
  • Sergeant Yvon Piuze (Royal 22e Régiment)
  • Private Gordon Crozier (The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders)
  • Captain Robert Marsh (CANLOAN serving with 6th Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers)
  • Sergeant Norman Tuttle (The Highland Light Infantry of Canada)
  • Private Joseph Albert Bray (The 48th Highlanders of Canada)
  • Major David Rogers (The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada)
  • Major Jake Powell (1st Hussars)
The Korean War also produced at least one VC nominee, Lance Corporal E.W. Poole, a medic attached to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, who received a DCM after an unsuccessful nomination for the VC.

Establishing Criteria - 2nd Canadian Corps

The criteria for the various awards is generally clear but individual commanders always had different interpretations of appropriateness, and these interpretations often varied from their commanders. In February 1944, Lieutenant-General Guy G. Simonds, commanding 2nd Canadian Corps, turned his attention to the matter of awards and attempted to clarify matters for all his subordinates training for the invasion of Northwest Europe. He made it clear to all commanders that, as the approving authority for all nominations in the Canadian formations, he would be scrutinizing them according to his own interpretation of the award criteria. In a document dated 26 Feb 1944 (over three months before D-Day in Normandy), he emphasized his thinking on a "proper allocation of honours and awards" as thus:
  • recognition should be given to exceptional acts or duties conducted (over time) with outstanding ability and/or under difficult conditions
  • aggressiveness and skill should be encouraged
  • foolhardiness and "medal hunting" was to be discouraged, along with useless risk of loss of life and equipment
  • recognition should be given to "acts of such outstanding gallantry that they are an example to the Army for all time."
He went on to specifically outline his vision of the criteria for the VC, DSO, MC, DCM and MM. Actions that directly made or contributed to an "effective blow against the enemy" and a direct contribution to the success of a battle, were considered the standard. It was not enough, except "in most extraordinary circumstances" to rescue friendly personnel, salvage equipment, extricate a neighbouring unit from a predicament, etc.  The actions also had to be in the line of duty, and Simonds gave the example of an artillery observer who, seized by lust for battle, left his post and joined an infantry unit. No matter how gallantly he behaved, Simonds considered that officer foolhardy for leaving his duties in which he could have offered support to the infantry instead.

Lieutenant-General G.G. Simonds
General Officer Commanding 2nd Canadian Corps
1944-45

Simonds was adamant that the actions had to have been done under enemy fire. To merit the Military Cross, for example, a nominee had to have performed actions that ensured the success of at least his entire battalion and possibly an entire brigade. 

In the case of the VC the act must be so outstanding as to provide an example to the Army for all time and its effect in damage to the enemy and furtherance of operations must be marked beyond question and of first importance. Whenever a case is considered for a recommendation for the VC, as far as operational circumstances permit, the Brigade Commander concerned should visit the ground accompanies by the eye-witnesses of the act. Each eye-witness should be called forward, out of hearing of others, and describe to the Brigadier, on the ground, exactly what he saw. These accounts should be taken down at the time and eventually attached to the recommendation.(9)

Simonds talks at length in the document about rationale. For example rewarding a unit by giving a medal to its commander was legitimate, as "there would be no question as to who would bear the responsibility if it did badly." He was also sensitive to the bestowal of "bad" (i.e. undeserved) awards. The litmus test for this was how the troops reacted, and Simonds told his formation commanders (those leading divisions and brigades) to ask themselves the question "would the frontline soldier, if he knew the facts, consider this well deserved?"

Despite the publication of this 12-paragraph document, the list above of failed VC nominations suggests there was no consensus on what was, or wasn't, worthy of the Victoria Cross. Hugh Halliday, whose book Valour Reconsidered was referenced above, concluded after lengthy research that "defining a 'VC standard' practically defies description." Many commanders, in giving their approval or disapproval, often reference that the action was (or wasn't) "up to standard" but surviving notes almost never go into detail as to what that standard was, or why it was or wasn't met.(10)

The German Example

The ability to clearly define which honours were or were not appropriate was probably not aided by the way the honours system developed. The Germans in the Second World War had what on the surface appears to be a much cleaner and easier system to navigate. The Iron Cross 2nd Class was bestowed for either acts of valour or meritorious service. The medal was freely distributed and as many as 25% of the Wehrmacht received it. For additional acts of either valour or merit, the Iron Cross 1st Class was awarded. A holder of the 1st Class award was thus eligible for the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. A series of additional awards were recognized by, in order, an oak leaf device, a oak leaf with swords, a golden oak leaf with swords, and a golden oak leaf with swords and diamonds. 

Each level of award had all the previous levels as a prerequisite so there was no confusion about which level might be more appropriate. While some awards could be made concurrently with lower grades, this was rare at the higher levels. Posthumous awards were possible, and rank was not necessarily a barrier as there were a number of highly experienced NCOs who received the swords.  The very highest levels were generally worn only by formation commanders and fighter pilots who amassed large numbers of enemy aircraft kills. The highest grade was awarded just once, to a dive bomber/fighter pilot who flew 2,500 sorties in the course of his wartime career. There was a "bridge" award instituted during the war, the German Cross in Gold, and other exceptions. Those interested can see my video on YouTube which discusses the entire system of combat awards and the role they played in German military culture.



Common Combat Awards of the German Army 1939-1945

One would not expect to find many lobbyists for awards in a repressive fascist regime such as Nazi Germany, but there was probably less reason to feel that the system was unjust. Indeed, their system of awards was clearly laid out in a logical, progressive manner with clear prerequisites and while nominations and approvals were probably just as contentious on occasion as in the other nations, the system was generally well thought out and well-regarded by the troops (as the reader will recall, one of Simonds' main criteria approving awards was a "sniff test" of how popular the award would be with the frontline soldiers). Despite Hollywood portrayals to the contrary, German soldiers felt the Iron Cross (or lack thereof) was a true measure of a soldier's worth.(11)

Reforming the Systems of Honours

The British, and Canadians, were aware of the shortcomings of their shared honours system. Canada was also desirous of having its own national awards, and had been from the very year it became a nation in 1867 when it proposed its own order of knighthood and a year later began discussing an entirely Canadian suite of awards. Canada's first national service medal was created in 1934 for members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Canadian Forces Decoration was minted after the Second World War. Shortly after Canada celebrated its 100th anniversary as a country in 1967, a larger national system of honours and awards was instituted, including the Order of Canada and a number of military bravery awards to replace the DSO, DCM, MC, MM etc. while retaining the Victoria Cross.

In the 1990s the British also reformed their system of honours. The DCM and MM were replaced, with a new Conspicuous Gallantry Cross as second only to the VC. The Military Cross was opened up to all service personnel regardless of rank. 

The Canadian and British reforms both removed rank requirements from decorations and allowed for a greater number of major awards to be given posthumously, hopefully eliminating many of the frustrations of past commanders in finding an appropriate level of award.

What Do I Have To Do?


The Star of Military Valour currently sits second to the Victoria Cross in the Canadian system of honours, though because the VC has not been awarded since 1945, may be said in fact to reside at the top. Only 18 awards of the SMV have been made since its adoption in 1993, since it can only be awarded in war time for acts of valour in the presence of an armed enemy.

The first award was made to Sergeant Patrick Tower of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in 2006. The citation reads:

Sergeant Tower is recognized for valiant actions taken on August 3, 2006, in the Pashmul region of Afghanistan. Following an enemy strike against an outlying friendly position that resulted in numerous casualties, Sergeant Tower assembled the platoon medic and a third soldier and led them across 150 metres of open terrain, under heavy enemy fire, to render assistance. On learning that the acting platoon commander had perished, Sergeant Tower assumed command and led the successful extraction of the force under continuous small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Sergeant Tower’s courage and selfless devotion to duty contributed directly to the survival of the remaining platoon members.(12)

 

Pat Tower, SMV, CD

There can be no doubt it was a fitting action for bestowal of the very first SMV, though a narrow reading of Lieutenant-General Simonds' proposed criteria suggest it might not have approved in 1944. However, many of the Victoria Crosses bestowed by other Commonwealth nations since 1945 may well not have qualified for a VC under Simonds' stingy criteria that they somehow contribute materially to the destruction of the enemy (rather than preserve friendly life and equipment). 

The only recipient to date of New Zealand's VC, Willie Apiata, was recognized for carrying a wounded comrade out of action while under fire. 

In total disregard of his own safety, Lance Corporal Apiata stood up and lifted his comrade bodily. He then carried him across the seventy metres of broken, rocky and fire swept ground, fully exposed in the glare of battle to heavy enemy fire and into the face of returning fire from the main Troop position. That neither he nor his colleague were hit is scarcely possible. Having delivered his wounded companion to relative shelter with the remainder of the patrol, Lance Corporal Apiata re-armed himself and rejoined the fight in counter-attack.

Willie Apiata, VC

The first British award of a Victoria Cross to a living recipient in the years after the Falklands War of 1982 occured in 2005 when Private Johnson Beharry was invested by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with the supreme award. Like Apiata, his award was given for rescuing comrades under fire, rather than what Simonds might have described as striking "an effective blow against the enemy." 

Johnson Beharry, VC

Of course, Simonds' opinion was only one opinion. It should be noted that a Canadian, too, was awarded a VC in 1945 for rescuing comrades under fire rather than destroying the enemy - though at the time, he was not under Simonds' command. Frederick G. Topham was a medic with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, under command of the British 6th Airborne Division, which did not report to Simonds.

Frederick G. Topham, VC
1st Canadian Parachute Battalion

The Case for a Canadian VC

Had Private Larochelle been awarded the VC instead of the SMV at the time of the investment, it is hard to believe anyone would have reacted negatively. The citation shows bravery and a clear devotion to duty, and by securing an otherwise empty flank would have met even Simonds' narrower definition of a VC-worthy action in which the nominee contributed materially to the success of his unit. How do the other SMV's compare (if it is possible to do such a thing)? I leave it to the reader to judge:

Major William Hilton Fletcher

As officer commanding C Company, Task Force Afghanistan, from January to August 2006, Major Fletcher repeatedly demonstrated extraordinary bravery by exposing himself to intense fire while leading his forces, on foot, to assault heavily defended enemy positions. On two occasions, the soldiers at his side were struck by enemy fire. He immediately rendered first aid and then continued to head the subsequent assaults. On these occasions and in ensuing combat actions, his selfless courage, tactical acumen and effective command were pivotal to the success of his company in defeating a determined opponent.(13)

 Corporal Sean Teal 

On 03 September 2006, during Operation MEDUSA, the light utility vehicle driven by Corporal Teal, a member of 7 Platoon Charles Company, was hit and destroyed by enemy rocket-propelled grenade fire. Despite being wounded, Corporal Teal assessed the situation and under heavy enemy fire, moved to report the situation and bring assistance. He then returned twice to the vehicle to provide treatment to his severely wounded comrades, including the platoon medic, and to evacuate all personnel injured of killed. His brave and professional actions saved lives and allowed the orderly withdrawal of his platoon under heavy fire.”

Captain Jonathan Snyder SMV (posthumous)
Master-Corporal J. Donovan Ball SMV

Corporals Baker, Ball and Bancarz, and Captains Peel and Snyder were deployed to Afghanistan to serve as mentors to an Afghan company, when they were ambushed by Taliban insurgents on 04 June 2008. With little chance of survival, they exposed themselves to great peril and retaliated against the enemy while encouraging the Afghan soldiers to do the same. Captain Snyder seized control of the situation and ensured that the Afghan soldiers retrieved their wounded comrades. Corporal Ball led a two-man team across broken terrain to secure an extraction route that allowed for the execution of a fighting withdrawal by Captain Peel and corporals Bancarz and Baker. Because of their dedication, leadership and valour, many Afghan and Canadian lives were saved.

Master Corporal Jeremy Pinchin

On November 16, 2008, Master Corporal Pinchin’s small sniper detachment was on an isolated rooftop, in Zhari District, Afghanistan, protecting the southern flank of a joint Canadian-Afghan patrol. As they were advancing on an enemy position, they were attacked and outnumbered by a well-coordinated group of insurgents. When a fellow soldier sustained a life-threatening wound, Master Corporal Pinchin immediately administered first aid and shielded him, thus exposing himself to great risk. Fortunately, his protective armour bore the brunt of several enemy strikes as he aided his comrade. Master Corporal Pinchin’s selfless act of heroism saved the life of a fellow soldier.

Caporal Jean-François Roger Donald Belzil

On April 9, 2011, upon intercepting enemy radio transmissions, 3 Platoon, A Company, awaited an attack on the security cordon established to the north of Zangabad, Afghanistan. When the first insurgent shot rang out, Corporal Belzil and Corporal Cousineau moved in that direction with their anti-tank gun, coming across a Canadian section and its Afghan counterpart pinned down under enemy fire, as well as a seriously wounded Afghan soldier lying out in the open. Thanks to Corporal Cousineau’s effective covering fire, and despite heavy enemy fire, Corporal Belzil succeeded in destroying the stronghold from which the deadly insurgent shots originated. They both then pulled the wounded soldier to cover and administered first aid. Corporal Belzil and Corporal Cousineau’s composure and disregard for personal danger helped to push back the enemy attack and save the life of an Afghan soldier.

Politics

Aside from the difficult task of determining specific criteria for which the Victoria Cross should be awarded, politics has not been an uncommon factor in the history of the award. When the award was promulgated during the Crimean War, there was nothing else like it, and so prestige automatically attached to it. As the suite of awards grew in size, that prestige never faded. And from the outset, as Halliday describes in his book, units began to covet the award. The 55th Regiment of Foot is said to have submitted 32 nominations for individuals of that regiment serving in Crimea (two were approved). The 57th and 77th Regiments of Foot nominated 31 and 38 men respectively, and they also received two each.

And in the early days, there was confusion about just what the medal should be awarded for. A member of the Rifle Brigade received the VC in 1857 for extinguishing a fire aboard an ammunition train. It was not done in the "presence of the enemy" but that had not yet been made a requirement, and the regiment was so pleased with the award that they nominated another man who rescued a child from a burning building. That time, the answer was a polite no.

By the time of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the number of VCs a unit had received was an unofficial measure of that unit's prestige. Lobbying for the award was subtle and, according to Halliday, difficult to document up to and including the Second World War. That is no longer the case.

The development of modern communications, including television...and...the internet, has put tools at the disposal of lobbyists that have enabled many groups...to argue for their rights and champions to ever broader audiences.(14)

Some lobbies have been more righteous than others. Sir Sam Hughes, the bellicose Minister of Militia and Defence in the First World War, had actually been a pretty brave soldier in South Africa. Unfortunately, he had the self-confidence to not just boast about it, but to actually request the Victoria Cross. To lobby for others, particularly a comrade in your regiment, was one thing, to lobby for yourself was simply not done.(15)

Retroactive Awards: Changing the Past

Halliday has an entire chapter about retroactively awarding the Victoria Cross (for what it is worth, titled Righting Wrongs or Settling Scores?) which is fascinating reading. Even by the time of the First World War, when it was firmly established that the VC would be used to reward valour on the battlefield, under fire, as the most senior of a suite of awards, there have been ongoing campaigns to "redress" cases where soldiers were denied the VC or never nominated. But the most intense debates followed the creation of the national VCs (Australian, New Zealand, Canadian).

Why?

Halliday argues that a sense of grievance is pushing the modern day lobbyists. Among these grievances are the (coincidental) reality that Canadian awards were pursued in a largely British system (recall, above, the Crockett VC nomination which was approved by every Canadian in the chain of command until the first Britisher in the chain laid pen to paper and degraded it to a DCM.)

Halliday warns, moreover, that going back and reclassifying awards such as the DSO, DCM, MM as VC based on such grievances would create a new class of VC which would cheapen the award and make it "less honourable even to future nominees."

That is one opinion. The United States has been (retro-)actively pursuing Medal of Honor awards for decades, in many cases recognizing soldiers of visible minority groups who received lesser awards, notably the Japanese-American Nisei and black soldiers who served in racially segregated units in the Second World War.

As Halliday says, where do you stop? If a number of DSO and DCM (and we may now include the SMV though none had been awarded at the time he wrote his book) are regraded as Victoria Crosses, does that mean other awards should be re-examined?

Halliday's conclusion: "The past happened. Get used to it."

Modern Politics - Medals

Even if one felt that a grave injustice had been done to Private Larochelle, it is hard to imagine a worse way to achieve redress than by a public lobbying campaign. 

From a purely practical standpoint, the current government doesn't seem to care about medals. Canada has issued a robust series of commemorative medals (to citizens and service personnel alike), such as the Centennial Medal in 1967, and the Canada 125 medal 25 years later, both in honour of the anniversary of Confederation. The commemoratives not only mark significant events, but are a means for organizations (and military units) to reward individuals for service to their communities.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was personally delighted to be a recipient of the Alberta Centennial Medal in 2005. It did not come with a citation, other than "for outstanding service to the province of Alberta" but when I realized several others in my military unit had also received the award, and that they were all men whose enthusiasm and work ethic I had long admired, I was humbled to feel that others had felt me worthy of being associated with that distinguished company.

In 2017, Canada did not follow up with the issue of a Canada 150 Medal. Some 42,000 of the Canada 125 Medal had been awarded in 1992, 45,000 Queen's Gold Jubilee Medals in 2002 and 60,000 Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medals in 2012. A working group set out to reduce the number of Canada 150 Medals and in the end, the project was cancelled entirely. Asked to explain why, the federal minister responsible responded that a different program would recognize important "ambassadors" but provided no details. Journalist Colin Kenny noted what a lost opportunity it was at the time, a rare occasion in which rank and file Canadians might be given a tangible reward for community achievements.(16)

The proposed Canada 150 Medal.
(Postmedia)

Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly scrapped
plans for the award of the Canada 150 Medal

The government - the same government that is now being petitioned about the Victoria Cross - had no interest in rewarding thousands of Canadians in a very inexpensive yet tangible way.

Appeals to Emotion

Then again, the current government seems far more comfortable dealing with issues emotionally than logically. The national flag was lowered in commemoration of newly rediscovered graves of indigenous children who died in residential schools. And then not raised again for months. The permanently dipped flags seem to symbolize more a willingness to look like it is doing the right thing, than taking the actual actions to get there. So perhaps an appeal to emotion to the federal powers that be will get proponents of the Canadian Victoria Cross the resolution they are seeking.

I personally have no stake in the discussion, other than a belief that justice for one may not be justice for all. Halliday is correct that retroactively upgrading awards runs the risk of cheapening the Victoria Cross. I think that risk is extremely low given the number of SMV that could realistically be expected to be affected, and the case of Private Derochelle seems to be the strongest if one keeps criteria like Simonds' in mind.

The question needs to be considered, however, what would the status of the SMV become? Right now 18 recipients can be said to have been awarded Canada's highest held decoration for valour in the face of the enemy. Changing just one of them to a Victoria Cross would immediately impact the other 17 recipients.

I wonder if anyone has asked any of them (the surviving recipients) what they think?

Pat Tower shares a Facebook account with his wife, and I include that account in my list of contacts (friends, as Facebook calls them). They are acquaintances, I spoke briefly with Tower when he was regimental support staff for my reserve unit, and his wife was a long serving member of our sister unit in the local armouries. I am both ashamed and proud to say that while he served in my unit, I had no idea he had been awarded the SMV (I am not proud at all to admit as well that I had no idea at that time what an SMV even is). The rumour - and if I am speaking out of turn I regret it, but I had it from source I consider reliable - was that Tower didn't want to be trotted out to regimental functions as a "token hero" and requested to come to us in order to be able to concentrate on soldiering without a lot of distractions or focus on himself. From the brief conversations I had with him, I believe it. Canadians (everyone, I think, really) like their heroes humble and my interactions with him proved him to be so. Tower's comments minutes after receiving the medal cement it in my mind:

"You know, the award's a great honour and although it's an individual recognition...I see it more as....the whole platoon contributed that day, and I saw so many...privates and corporals in my platoon...stepping up to the next level that day. Corporals acting as section commanders,...due to other soldiers being wounded, and their leaders being wounded...Every member of Nine Platoon and the reconnaissance platoon that was attached to us...deserves a bit of the medal...and deserves the recognition for what happened that day."

For what it is worth, my reserve unit sent more soldiers to Afghanistan, as a percentage of unit strength, than any other unit, and of the dozens who deployed, only one was decorated for bravery under fire, with a mention in dispatches (some also received various commander's commendations). Should they, too, start lobbying for medals?

Having a Canadian like Private Derochelle in possession of the Victoria Cross would be a "neat" thing to have, like when the local sports team wins a national championship. I doubt very much that is an appropriate reason for doing it.

And if it means diminishing 17 other heroes, perhaps it is best to leave well enough alone.

If on the other hand, men like Sergeant Tower who hold the SMV and have been decorated for bravery under fire had come forth to lobby for this, who among the rest of us could possibly dare question their judgement?

My Final Word

I have no doubt those who are advocating for the retroactive upgrading of Private Derochelle's SMV to a Victoria Cross - including General Rick Hillier - have their hearts in the right place. My own operational experience in the military is limited to a day and a half long deployment, passing sandbags during the 2013 Alberta Flood. I have no doubt General Hillier, and the other veterans who are visibly supporting this initiative, are better placed to judge than I am. 

But I'm still leery of signing the petition. History - only a tiny fraction of which has been shared above - has shown the whole question of awards in general and the VC in particular to be an incredibly complex question which is best resolved not by appeals to emotion and knee-jerk reactions, but by laying a firm groundwork for the future, as this question will undoubtedly come up again in future conflicts.

The answer - I think - should lie in education. Perhaps we can start by educating people who are ignorant (like I was 15 years ago) of what an SMV is and what brave soldiers have to do to get it. Maybe then we wouldn't be so keen on pursuing the VC, as if an SMV or MMV (or mention in dispatches) are something to sneeze at. 

Whatever is decided with regards to Private Derochelle, let it be for sound reasons, taking into account the rich history of the award itself, and let those reasons be clearly articulated to the public. 

And as an absolute final thought - let's hope that respect and support for our Canadian military veterans, whether they served in Afghanistan or elsewhere, will not be predicated on which medals they have, but simply on the fact that they served.

Notes

1. “You can’t regret life” - Legion Magazine

2. Toronto Sun, 27 Jan 2006, accessed at http://torontosun.canoe.ca/News/Canada/2006/01/27/1414186-sun.html

3.https://www.blatherwick.net/documents/Current%20Canadian%20Honours/07a%20SMV%20Star%20of%20Military%20Valour.pdf

4. "Valour in the Presence of the Enemy", https://www.facebook.com/Valour-in-the-Presence-of-the-Enemy-115919716985560/about/?ref=page_internal 


5. Hugh Halliday's book Valour Reconsidered is highly recommended reading, which discusses the Victoria Cross in particular and Canadian award policies in general. https://www.amazon.ca/Valour-Reconsidered-Inquiries-Victoria-Extreme/dp/1896941478

6. Copp, Terry. The Brigade pp.81-82 https://www.amazon.ca/Brigade-Fifth-Canadian-Infantry-World/dp/0811734226/

7. Halliday, Ibid, pp.38-39

8. Dancocks, Daniel G. D-Day Dodgers: The Canadians in Italy 1943-45 https://www.amazon.ca/D-Day-Dodgers-Canadians-Italy-1943-1945/dp/0771025440

9. A transcription of the entire document appears in Terry Copp's Guy Simonds and the Art of Command. https://www.amazon.ca/Guy-Simonds-Command-Terry-Copp/dp/0662445880

10. Halliday, Ibid, p.39

11. An excellent discussion of how German soldiers felt about their awards can be found in Neitzel and Welzer's Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying https://www.amazon.ca/Soldaten-Fighting-Killing-Sonke-Neitzel/dp/1849839492

12. Accessed online at https://www.blatherwick.net/documents/Current%20Canadian%20Honours/07a%20SMV%20Star%20of%20Military%20Valour.pdf

13. Citations from the website of the Governor General. https://www.gg.ca/en/honours/recipients/142-8

14. Halliday, Ibid, p.162

15. Cook, Tim. The Madman and the Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie (Penguin Books Ltd, London, UK, 2010)  pp.8-28

16. https://torontosun.com/2017/01/05/why-no-medals-for-everyday-canadians