With the passing in February of John Babcock, Canada's last known First World War veteran, the poppy of Flanders has found its way to Hong Kong. Acknowledging the special onus on all of us to ensure the sacrifices of the Great War are never forgotten, it is fitting this Remembrance Day to reflect as well on Canada's first land battle of the Second World War. It is a story not only about the bravery of Canadian and British soldiers in the face of the excessive cruelty of the Japanese enemy, but also about the stain left on the reputation of Canadian soldiers by self-serving allegations made by their own, British, commander.
With his new book, The Damned, historian Nathan M. Greenfield has cast new light on the defeat of the vastly outgunned garrison of Hong Kong following a fierce Japanese attack. Amid the horrors and heroism of other battles, the Battle of Hong Kong has too often been overlooked.
That is no longer the case. Dr. Greenfield has brought to life the hellish conditions faced by the 2,000 members of the Royal Rifles and Winnipeg Grenadiers during a 17-day battle that ended catastrophically for the defenders: nearly half the Canadians killed or wounded, the rest captured. He has also evoked the war crimes and near-genocidal conditions the surviving Canadians and British faced in Japanese POW camps, and their subsequent use as slave labour. The real sting, however, is found in the pages of Brigadier Cedric Wallis's war diary.
Wallis' scathing condemnation of the performance of the Royal Rifles betrays a reprehensible chauvinism directed at the Canadians who had fought with such courage, against appalling odds. He criticizes their training, their physical condition, their clothing, their discipline, their leadership, and writes: "I cannot forget or forgive their failures to overcome their fears - their complete loss of morale and attempt to force Stanley Force to surrender on 24 Dec. 1941." What is remarkable is the extent to which the diary is refuted by the testimony of others, Canadians - and British - who were there and would know. The diary stands not as an artifact of war, then, but as a curiosity of human expediency, its sole apparent purpose being to cover the brigadier's own hindquarters.
Having built a compelling rebuttal of Wallis, Dr. Greenfield has now started a petition on Facebook calling on the Canadian government to request that the British government "disown The War Diary of Brigadier Cedric Wallis" concerning the Royal Rifles of Canada in the Battle of Hong Kong. But his own research makes such an official disavowal unnecessary. Just as valour is a part of war, so too are duplicity and moral cowardice. Dr. Greenfield makes clear that whatever the Canadians' failings - and there were some - Wallis was burdened with plenty of his own.
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