View Full Version : Words of Valediction and Remembrance : Book Review

27th December 2007, 22:56
I have lately been asked to review a book, and since the membership of this Forum probably does not greatly overlap that of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (whose Journal is the intended venue of publication) I herewith share some (though not all) of my review. Needless to say, I recommend the book. Notwithstanding its Canadian focus, it should have very wide appeal:

WORDS OF VALEDICTION AND REMEMBRANCE: CANADIAN EPITAPHS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Eric McGeer (Vanwell Publishing, St. Catharines, 2007, ISBN 1-55125-095-0 (312 pages, $ 35.000)

reviewed by Hugh A. Halliday

Anyone who can read this book without tears regularly welling up is dead at heart. Those who has read headstone inscriptions in a military cemetery will know what I mean. At the first page of the introduction we read the epitaph for Rifleman Donald Darby, Regina Rifles, killed 28 September 1944 near Calais - "He was one in a million, but he was mine. Ever Remembered by Mother". What follows is an emotional pummeling that every Canadian should experience. Indeed, this book could be read and appreciated in Australia, Britain, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States, countries with which we have shared so much history.

The cemeteries established by the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission in the First World War and continued into the present day almost defy description. Journalist Greg Clark, writing to his wife of their son's grave, began thus, "He sleeps in a garden" (page 112); the full text of the letter is utterly compelling. The Commission invited next-of-kin to provide an inscription, not exceeding 66 characters. Many were bland, even trite, but others were gems of compressed composition.

This is not a book of military history as normally understood, but as this is reviewed for a historical publication one should note its historical shortcomings. There are minor errors of fact. Flight Lieutenant Stewart W. Little's rank is incorrectly given as Flight Sergeant. Captain John Douglas Gall was not killed by a V-2 rocket (18 June 1944) but by a V-1 flying bomb. In the interpretation of Bomber Command operations, McGeer admits to controversy but favours the persistent orthodoxy which claims "a strong case for the crippling effect on German armaments, industry and morale caused by the bombing campaign" (page 119) - when the campaign was really a costly failure in terms of its own objectives. The author often draws parallels and contrasts between the First and Second World Wars. CAHS readers will especially appreciate his observation, "The head of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, has become the Douglas Haig of the Second World War, a commander vilified for his single-mindedness, inflexible aim to grind down the enemy with seemingly little concern for the losses sustained by his own forces." (page 118) Haig, at least, has lately been rehabilitated by historians like John Terraine. Harris, on the other hand, shrinks with every reassessment.

These are minor details when set against the broader scope and purpose of the book. It is a study of how the war dead were memorialized by their contemporaries and remembered by succeeding generations. McGeer groups epitaphs sharing common themes, then writes splendid little essays explaining the linkages, be they of literary inspiration, religion, patriotism, despair, hope, or the pain of separation. He compares the causes espoused - "For King and Empire" was a common theme in the First World War, but "For King and Canada" or, simply, Canada in the Second World War. Why men enlisted is often boiled down to perfect brevity, such as that given for Gunner Ivan Nilsson ("There was a job to do, and I did my best".) There are words of hope ("Towards a Better World", Sergeant James R.A. Ruthven), defiance ("Who Has Not Dared, Lives Not", Lieutenant Hugh M. Walker) and inspiration ("The fittest place where man can die is where he dies for man", Gunner Craig Thomas).

The theme of the "distant dead" - sorrow that so much geography stood between cemeteries and survivors - makes me regret one omission (although its inclusion may well have exceeded the terms of the book). A short chapter might have reminded us of the 1,188 Second World War dead buried in Canada - members of the Commonwealth air forces who were killed training here. Military burial areas literally from sea to sea constitute miniature CWGC sites within our borders.

Aviation historians will appreciate the aptness of Flight Lieutenant Orville R. Waterbury's inscription - "Truly a Pathfinder", for he was a navigator with No.83 Squadron when killed in action. The poem High Flight may not have reached iconic status when some men died, but it had certainly become so by the time families composed their little masterpieces. John Gillespie Magee's own tombstone uses the first nine and last ten words of the poem, and author McGeer immediately cites four other inscriptions that drew directly on High Flight - followed by other epitaphs inspired by flight though taken from different sources. These even include an ironic twist on official communiques - "One of Our Pilots is Safe. Rest in Peace" (Flying Officer Charles E. Tindall).

The inscriptions give voices to dead statistics. McGeer does not attempt to transcribe every Canadian epitaph, but he has published well over 2,500 and listed them all in a .superb index. He and Vanwell Press have taken great pains to produce a moving book.