Bill McAndrew joined the army at age 17, was commissioned the following year and served the next eleven years as an infantry officer in Canada, Korea, Germany and Ghana. On leaving the army, a high school dropout, he attended Glendon College, York University as a mature student and gained his doctorate at the University of British Columbia. McAndrew taught at the University of Maine at Orono and directed that university’s Canadian Studies programme before joining the Directorate of History in Ottawa from which he retired in 1996. His particular interest has been in the battlefield behaviour of soldiers.
This is Part V of an excerpt from an article which originally appeared in Canadian Military History, Autumn 2013 issue and is reprinted with permission of the author.
Part V – Leaving the Army, Back to School, and Directorate of History
Glendon was a fortuitous choice with small classes and an eclectic inter-disciplinary array of courses. Open access to a library was sheer luxury. I was somewhat an anomaly among my decade-younger fellow students coming from a culture where short hair assumed an unlikely importance to one where its opposite was similarly overemphasized. This was the sixties, after all. Having learned later about RCMP recruitment of informers of supposedly radical ideas in universities I imagine that some students viewed me skeptically. Ironically, other than culturally, I was likely more radical than most of them. My only army connection happened when I invited General Guy Simonds to speak to our weekly residence lecture group. He graciously agreed and told us about the pressures of command, especially during the sea approach to Sicily when as divisional commander he had had to modify his landing plans as updated intelligence trickled in.
I had to adjust to university life in other ways as well. All incoming students had to present a book review on arrival. I was blown away with an A+ mark but then was taken down a peg or six with my next one, a C-. My problem was that I didn’t know what made for the difference until a very understanding John Conway, who had lost a hand in the Liri Valley with the Seaforths, kindly explained the vagaries of academic writing. I did well over the next four years, was on the short list for Woodrow Wilson and Commonwealth fellowships as well as an H.R. MacMillan for UBC which I chose for my doctorate, in which I tried to explain the political and economic contexts of why Canada did not have a New Deal like that of Franklin Roosevelt down south in response to the Great Depression. I completed it a couple of years later while teaching at the University of Maine in Orono and running the university’s Canadian Studies programme.
UMO was a broadening experience. I made a goal of persuading at least one student that there really was life beyond Houlton. I’m unsure if I succeeded but my Canadian history classes were full of students wanting to learn how to get north to escape the Vietnam draft, another long hair issue. It was an exciting time with Vietnam, Watergate, the civil rights movement, and after six years, and promotion to a tenured position it seemed only right either to change citizenship and become actively involved or return to Canada. When I was offered a job in Ottawa with the Directorate of History at NDHQ I took it. It was another huge, life-changing decision.
I had done no academic studies in military history so had to learn an altogether new field. My first task at the directorate was fact checking and other basic tasks for the first volume of the RCAF official history, on the First World War, then researching and writing draft narratives on the RCAF’s development in the years between the wars. These were concerned primarily with policy and the introduction of aviation to the endless expanse of Canada.
My main interest, however, was the army whose idiosyncratic ways were more familiar. There was another, more personal, aspect. I had not been in combat and couldn’t help wondering if battles actually went like training exercises, straight as an arrow from start to successful finish. Like all young officers, I expect, I also wondered how I would have reacted and behaved under fire. I have a sense that I would have not survived, because of some reckless act, if a sensible sergeant-major was not around to save me from lack of discretion.
Opportunities to explore the conduct of operations, historically, came about by happenstance. With a colleague, Ben Greenhous, I got interested in the extraordinary military career of Major-General Bert Hoffmeister who had landed in Sicily in 1943 as a battalion commander and eight months later commanded 5th Canadian Armoured Division. A projected book didn’t materialize, fortunately, as I was able to pass that on to Doug Delaney who produced his excellent biography. However, we did persuade the then army commander, Charlie Belzile, my old regimental mate, who was recreating a divisional structure in the army, to take several of his senior commanders and staff officers to Italy to refight the Canadian Corps battle of the Gothic Line. Hoffmeister and three of his former commanders walked us through the battle on the ground.
One thing led to another and over the next several years I was uncommonly fortunate to have been able to refight Canadian battles in Italy and North-West Europe with students of the Army Staff College, the Canadian staffs at CENTAG/4ATAF and soldiers in other units. Having both Canadian and German veterans along to guide and inform us lent an incomparable dimension to those battlefield studies.
Many unforgettable moments come to mind. One was a fine spring morning at the Assoro castle in central Sicily when Strome Galloway recited Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “The General,” an appropriate comment, he thought, on the battle he had fought below in the valley forty years earlier:
‘Good-morning; good morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead
and we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
There were others: one dodging traffic on the Caen-Falaise road with George Kitching and Hubert Meyer, old enemies, as they positioned their Totalize tanks; another at Villa Belvedere on San Fortunato with Henri Tellier, Bill Milroy, Ted Brown, Hunter Dunn, and Gerhard Muhm as they talked with Contessa Guerrini-Maraldi who as a young girl had watched their battle at the Villa; yet another walking the trail where John Dougan led his company to infiltrate beyond San Fortunato, blowing a Tiger tank on the way. There was the Belgian resistance leader, Eugene Colson, who described how his fighters seized the Antwerp docks before the Germans could blow them; Johnnie Johnson on commanding Canadians in Normandy; Lockie Fulton, Jamie Stewart, and Rad Walters detail their unique experiences on D-Day; Denis Whitaker on Dieppe’s White beach and Ron Beal on Blue. What a privilege it was to have shared such company.
Talking to them and other veterans, and trying to write about battles at Ortona, the Liri Valley, Verrières Ridge and the rest impressed me upon me the sheer impossibility of describing any military engagement adequately. They can be told on so many levels and in all of them uncountable personal realities intrude on historians trying to participate vicariously in them. There is history and there is historical writing: national narratives, official accounts, personal descriptions, memoirs, fiction, all attempting to approach some version of the truth. Some, of course, are more reliable than others. As E.B. White has cautioned, “All writing is slanted. Writers can’t be perpendicular but they should aspire to be upright.” Some historical writers approach the vertical more closely than others, but even they can go only so far in their depictions of combat.
The dimension that especially caught my interest was the human, the personal experiences of soldiers. How did they actually behave in battle as opposed to how we think they should have behaved? I recall one veteran company commander standing at the foot of a hill that had been his objective many years earlier saying that he had started at the bottom with seventy-five men and at the top he had twenty. When I checked, the company had taken fifteen casualties. Where were the other forty? What did they do? Where did they go? What happened to them? I began to explore some of the possibilities.
A fortuitous opportunity came when, around the same time, some army units and formations became interested in soldierly behaviour. Brigade in Lahr asked the directorate to have someone develop a presentation to a brigade study week on the topic of battle exhaustion. Soon after the Army Staff College made a similar request. I involved myself and this led me to some intensely interesting explorations in Second World War documents that hadn’t been opened since being deposited at its end: medical records and war diaries of unusual units like No. 2 Canadian Exhaustion Unit and No. 1 Non-Effective Transit Depot, as well as files of military police units, detention barracks and others. They revealed a wide range of soldierly behaviour not usually found in official or regimental histories, in the process shaking my naïve assumptions to the core.
They persuaded me that morale was the core of military effectiveness, hardly a new discovery but one frequently taken for granted both by commanders and historians. The Napoleonic aphorism that the moral is to the material as three is to one is cited more frequently than observed. Moreover, generalized statements on collective morale, especially those from higher headquarters remote from front line soldiers, can often be taken with a few kilos of salt. Was it really so, as a corps commander stated, that his worn out, badly bruised units were keen to get back into action? Morale can vary randomly, daily, hourly depending on timing and circumstances. It also became clear from questionnaires that junior officers completed and from lessons learned reports that morale was directly affected by how soldiers were deployed in battle, that is, their tactical doctrine. Many commented on how top-down plans would be given units to implement, often too late for battle procedures and when the few properly briefed officers became casualties movement stopped. They noted how too often too few troops would be sent to attack too strong a position, how attacks were invariably directed against the enemy’s strongest positions rather than outflanking or bypassing them, and that higher commanders insisted that a circle on a map be occupied despite it being an enemy registered target that could be dominated from nearby. This way of conducting operations inevitably produced soldiery verse:
Let’s throw in another battalion
The Brigadier cried with glee
Let’s throw in another battalion
or maybe two or three
We’ve got the money, we’ve got the time
Another battalion won’t cost us a dime
Let’s throw in another battalion
or maybe the old LAD.
The search for the origins and assumptions of this way of war, tactical doctrine, and its relationship to how soldiers reacted to the stress of battle, is a timeless theme. Beyond ever-changing theories of attrition and manoeuvre, operational art and supposed Revolutions in Military Affairs, are soldiers. Although technologies have materially changed over the years, soldiers haven’t: their bodies bleed and their minds break like those of their fathers and grandfathers. The human factor remains central, even in this day when the sole strategic problem has to be climate change, all other political and military dimensions being just messy operational and tactical distractions. If we lose the basis of our human existence, air and water, other concerns fade away.
What can I conclude from this long, varied and fortunate life that has seen the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the sixties, globalism, the Internet era, the Canadian transformation, and climate change? Above all is the need for a thinking education in the humanities. This need not be at a university, after all there are countless educated fools and many wise illiterates, but we ignore the experience of the ages at our collective peril. A thinking education can reveal the arrogance of the categorical, demonstrate the insight of nuance, and stimulate a healthy skepticism of ideologues of whatever stripe; political, economic, religious, philosophical, whatever. It can provide an escape from the necessarily limited bonds of individual experience to peer into the vastness of human diversity over time and in space and provide understanding of how the other guy thought and lived, thinks and lives. A thinking education can, should, must lead one to penetrate the cant and doublespeak of much discourse, question the premises and assumptions of any assertion and assess its veracity accordingly. This especially applies to those who want to send others to war.