In his monumental work, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), American literary historian Paul Fussell sought to situate how the men of the First World War gave meaning to their painful and life-changing experiences. But it wasn’t just a meaningful exercise for veterans of the First World War, for the book had been written at an opportune time about 60 years after the outbreak of war in 1914 and just 30 years after the end of Fussell’s war in 1945. Fussell had become interested in previous experiences not unlike his own—he sought to explore these experiences across time and space.
These “memory booms,” as historian Jay Winter calls them, are common to most major events. As we have seen with Canada’s curious attention to the War of 1812, anniversaries of events, battles, and wars can be useful for political leverage—and can seem as if governments have an unfeigned interest in Canada’s history, the budget cuts to Library and Archives Canada notwithstanding.
The anniversary of the Allied invasion of France beginning on 6 June 1944 left an indelible mark on European and world history. However, until the 1980s commemorative events were isolated to veterans’ associations and interest groups—members of the broader public paid scarce attention to D-Day anniversaries. Helping to popularize D-Day was U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, gave a compelling speech at the U.S. Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc. Among other things, Reagan spoke of liberating Europe, halting tyranny, all of which was articulated in covenantal terms. In some ways, Reagan speech about the efforts of the West against Nazi Germany resonated with his then-current battle against the Soviets. Movies, like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan helped bring D-Day to life in 1998.
As the number of veterans who experienced D-Day first hand is withering, attention to veterans who had experienced the Second World War has become the greatest form of commemoration. Remembrance Day ceremonies and D-Day observances have become days for veterans.
However, this begs an important question, one which we have already asked in previous posts: what role do historians have in educating the public about these seminal events? For example, I was underwhelmed this weekend to read the Toronto Star. The front-page story, written by journalist Paul Hunter, featured 92-year old veteran Jack Ford and some of the photographs he took as part of his service with RCAF Squadron 414’s Photo Unit. On page 8, reporter Katie Daubs wrote on Canada’s role in northern France during the Great War. This piece is part of a series of stories carried by the Toronto Star as the author walks the Western Front. Tucked away in the “Insight & Books” section of the paper is the only story, to my knowledge, to be written by a professional historian. In this story, historian David Borys presents three personal stories from D-Day designed to show that D-Day wasn’t just about storming beaches, but involved battles across land, air, and sea. It would seem, based on media attention the 70th anniversary of D-Day has received already, that news agencies aren’t drawing on easily accessible resources to provide well-written and accurate content.
In most historical events covered by journalists, the contexts in which people and groups operate are almost non-existent. For example, Operation Overlord—or D-Day—was launched on 6 June 1944, but it was just one part of ongoing operations and planning to defeat Nazi Germany in Europe. After all, First Canadian Division had been fighting Italian and German armies in Sicily since July 1943, almost an entire year before the Allied invasion of France, while the Soviet Union, whose casualties dwarfed the Allies by comparison, had been fighting vicious battles across most of Eastern Europe since 1941. Perhaps it’s the rapidity of the Allied advance through France after 6 June that leads many to generate heroic images of liberation. That D-Day included all services of Allied armies and was launched amphibiously might also contribute to its legendary status.
The commemorative initiatives associated with D-Day belie what came after it. Although they advanced quickly through Normandy and central France, liberating Paris by 25 August 1944, there was still much heavy fighting to go. In autumn 1944, Canadian and British armies took part in extremely complex and no-less important battles in northern Belgium and the southern Netherlands. The battles took place on flat, flooded out terrain in which the German armed forces inflicted great casualties on Canadian, British, and Polish troops. The Battle for the Schelde (October-November 1944) also involved integrated operations, making use of air and naval power. Canadian Lt.-Gen. Guy Simonds commanded a multi-national force of Belgians, Poles, Dutch, British, and Canadians to invade amphibiously small islands that lay below sea-level. In the end, Canada paid a high price in this battle.
Yet, in October and November of this year, we will likely see no attention given to such an important historical event. There will probably be no 70th anniversary to remember the liberations of Belgium and the southern Netherlands. As the history of memory has shown, topography and the aesthetic of geography have often influenced what type of meaning we attach to the past. Rather than visualizing Canadians running across an open plain to face incessant German machine-gun fire, images of 3rd Canadian Infantry Division storming the beaches of Normandy will always be more appealing to later generations. We have seen how the imposing stature of Vimy Ridge has played into commemoration for the First World War—would the achievement have received greater attention without the challenge of topography? Perhaps this might explain the lack of appreciation shown to Canada’s role in the so-called “100 Days” to defeat Imperial German troops in 1918.