On Remembrance Day, I remember my Uncle Jack. I never actually met him. His plane was shot down over Belgium in 1944, years before I was born. My memories consist of old photos of a handsome pilot, an elegant condolence letter from King George, and most importantly, his widow and son. Much later, they became close friends and fostered in me an affection for things English.
But like many survivors, my family hardly ever spoke of the war, or what it was like for a Canadian Squadron Leader like Jack serving in the RAF. Now, Maple Leaf Empire: Canada, Britain and Two World Wars, by historian Jonathan F. Vance, fills that black and white void with colourful detail.
Vance’s book spans the period from 1871, when the British Army officially left Canada, to 1946, when the Canadian Army left England at the end of the Second World War. Vance believes Canadian soldiers created their own “Maple Leaf Empire” of military bases, hospitals, service clubs and intimate relationships inside the imperial motherland. While he describes the major battles Canadians fought in both world wars, the charm of the book lies in the anecdotes about ordinary soldiers and civilians on the home front.
Most striking from the perspective of 2011 is the prevalent imperial patriotism of Canadians right up to 1945. Canada may have been weaning itself off British control, but Vance argues that even proud Canadians saw themselves as loyal British subjects, often more British than the British. A case in point was a 1940 radio commentary by Garfield Weston, a Canadian who was also a British MP: “What an age in which to live! A second Elizabethan Era. Another Elizabeth graces the throne of England and a handful of her finest sons go forth to meet their Armada of the air ... Canadians, may your dearest dreams of childhood, in which you saw as a dazzling picture the greatness and glory of the Empire, your Empire, inspire you tonight.”
Canadians on the home front were inspired to take in thousands of English children fleeing the blitz, raise millions to build Spitfires, and set up soup kitchens in bombed-out London neighbourhoods. But it wasn’t all rosy relations. Bored and frustrated Canadians got on Britons’ nerves, especially during the years of training (and drinking!) before the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Many found Canadians boorish, overpaid, and notorious chicken thieves. Their reputation was familiar to German radio propagandist, Lord Haw Haw: “The Canadians arriving in your midst will not be of much help to your war effort. Lock up your daughters and stay off the roads. Give these men a motorcycle and a bottle of whisky and they will kill themselves.” It wasn’t until the Americans started flooding the country that the Canadians appeared “comparatively civilized.”
Canadians often complained they were overcharged in stores and unfairly treated by local police. A booklet called A Guide for Guys Like You was distributed to Canadian soldiers in 1943 as a primer on home front diplomacy: “You are going to Britain from a country where your home is still safe, food is still plentiful, and the lights are still burning. ... So stop and think before you sound off about lukewarm beer, or cold boiled potatoes, or the way English cigarettes taste.”
Canadians were known and appreciated for the Christmas parties they threw for local children. One apocryphal story had it that their first question to local kids was, “Do you have an older sister?” But for all the complaints on both sides, Canadians wound up marrying 45,000 war brides and fathering 21,000 children. Overall, Maple Leaf Empire is a very readable account of our military history, although the “Empire” theme seems dated in the Canada of multiculturalism and the Parti Quebecois. As for anyone with a family connection to the wartime era, this book will touch your heart.
Doug Grant is a freelance journalist and television producer.