This year the marking of Remembrance Day will mostly be virtual. But it’s not the pandemic situation alone that makes Remembrance Day 2020 different. It’s 75 years since the end of the Second World War and there are fewer veterans left to talk about what that war was like, in its horror and what happened to them.
Fight to the Finish (Wednesday, History, 9 p.m.) is highly aware of that fact. The elderly men and women featured are among the last living witnesses to battles, to destruction, to the failures and triumphs. We need to, and we must, hang on their every word. Preoccupied as we are by current events and our personal circumstance, we must pay attention.
The power and beauty of the one-hour special (made by Barry Stevens) is its plain, uncluttered style. Made with naturalistic verve, it allows more than 50 Canadian veterans to share their memories and thoughts There is no punditry, no fussy over-explanation of context. The veterans talk and there is footage of the war itself, much of it in colour.
The tack taken is simple. It opens with a brief portrait of life in Canada in 1939 and then some veterans talk about joining the armed forces. Some joined up because everyone was doing it, others joined and faced the wrath of angry parents. One man says, well, “It was a uniform to impress the girls.” Another man notes that many of those who joined up first were “fishermen, miners, farmers” and thus, they were tough already.
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A thread that is woven through the hour concerns a group of inexperienced soldiers sent off to defend Hong Kong, then a British colony. “We didn’t know where we were going,” one man says. And then, “We didn’t actually have any idea why we were there.” They were there a short time and the Japanese war planes came. Some 80,000 Japanese troops were part of that operation and their actions were brutal. One veteran remembers with remarkable calm when the enemy invaded a hospital for wounded soldiers: “They killed the doctors, raped and murdered the nurses and then killed all the injured soldiers.” A total of 1,689 Canadian soldiers became prisoners of war. Some starved to death as prisoners.
The war in Europe is followed step by step, from Canada supplying Britain with necessities through the convoys heading across the Atlantic, trying to avoid German submarines. Those acts are not diminished as something less than fierce fighting. As Navy officer Doug Meredith says now, “If we hadn’t gotten the convoys through, in 1942 or 1943, the war would have been over.” Dieppe is remembered for its horror; “It was a slaughterhouse.” Métis veteran Paul Delorme says, simply, “It was the darkest day for Canadians.”
Then comes the Canadian involvement in bombing missions over Germany. Air Force fighter Duff Couillard says, he understood this was a war against German civilians. “I think that bothered me more than anything.” The invasion of Sicily and the long brutal battle through Italy are presented starkly; it was often a street-to-street, house-to-house struggle. “The Jerries were hidden in the rubble with machine guns,” a veteran says quietly. “The tanks, the machine guns, the fire. It was hell.”
There is the triumph of Canadian forces liberating the Netherlands and those scenes of jubilation are in bleak contrast to what some Canadian forces found as they pushed into Germany: the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. The grim footage is unforgettable and heart-scalding, and Shoah survivor Pinchas Gutter says, “I cannot believe I lived through such heinous times.”
At the end acknowledgment is given to those who came home traumatized, racked by PTSD, which was unrecognized then. One veteran says, “I dragged too many damn things along with me when I got home to really enjoy it as I should have.” Another is asked one of the rare questions that are heard from the interviewer, “In the end what does it mean?” A hesitant answer is, “It means humanity has flaws.”
It is truly remarkable to hear these veterans speak, some losing their composure, the tears coming as they try to remain calm and recollect coolly what was a horrifying experience. Fight to the Finish is essential viewing, an exceptional and profoundly meaningful hour of plain talk about that war.
Remembrance Day ceremonies from the National War Memorial in Ottawa will be carried at 11 a.m. by CBC, CTV 2, Global and the Canadian all-news channels.
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