Sometimes the story of a historical source is more interesting than the actual information it contains. Here are two little eight-page booklets, yellowed with age, that my parents received in the mail in January 2001. (Click on the booklets to see their contents.)
You’ll learn from the service book on the left that my grandfather’s name was Robert MacDougall, that he was born in September 1908, and that he joined the Canadian Armed Forces on September 6th, 1939. That was five days after the German invasion of Poland and four days before Canada’s official declaration of war. That Robert MacDougall, who went by “Mac,” was thirty years old, a teacher, just recently married, a graduate of Queen’s University. The booklet lists the courses he took, the inoculations he received, his appointment as a company commander and his promotion from Captain to Major in July 1943. From the equipment book, you can learn that he was issued a pistol, binoculars, and two tins of anti-gas ointment. You can also see the size clothing he was issued. I see that Major Robert MacDougall’s jacket would probably fit me but his trousers would be too short. I also note that the first item of clothing on the sizing list is described as “battle dress, blouse,” followed by “cap or bonnet,” neither of which sound nearly manly enough.
But as is so often the case with historical sources, the booklets don’t answer any of the questions you really want them to. What was Major Robert MacDougall like? What did he think about the war? How did he feel when the Perth Regiment sailed for Europe in October 1941, leaving his pregnant wife and infant daughter behind? Obviously, these two little booklets are mute on those subjects. Nor do they offer any details of their own sixty-year journey, and how they came back into my parents’ hands.
Mac’s regiment trained at Camp Borden—aka “Camp Boredom”—near Barrie, Ontario, for nearly two years before sailing for England. In England, the Perths spent another two years as coastal defense and training as motorized infantry. But the motorized part of their equipment never really arrived—other than what their regimental newspaper dryly called “some ancient and honourable vehicles” that had given “long and distinguished service” in the North African campaign. When Operation Timberwolf started in 1943, the venerable vehicles were abandoned and the Perths reverted to regular infantry. (Here’s the regimental history of the Perths.)
The Perth Regiment saw its first real combat in the invasion of Italy in late 1943 and early 1944. Half of the Canadians killed in World War II died in Italy. The Battle of Ortona, eight days of brutal house-to-house fighting around Christmas 1943, was Canada’s bloodiest battle of the Italian campaign. Canadian newspapers insisted on calling it “Little Stalingrad.” Scroll down on that page to see a vintage Battle of Ortona newsreel in Quicktime format. And here is a Battle of Ortona wargame, of all things, including the following advice:
To be successful you [the Canadian player] must think like a Commonwealth troop. You do not have men to burn like the Russians or an over-abundance of equipment like the Americans.
Three weeks after the fall of Ortona, the Perth Regiment was ordered to cross the Arielli River north of the city. But the area was heavily fortified by the 1st German Parachute Division, and after a day and night of formidable fighting, the Perths were driven back. Major MacDougall’s company was decimated; he and at least thirty of his men were killed in the attack.
Major MacDougall and his men are buried in the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery near Ortona. My parents visited there for the first time last month. They were, in fact, mistaken by the locals for Canadian dignitaries. The Governor-General was due to arrive for a memorial ceremony the following day. So Mom and Dad got an extremely warm welcome.
That’s where Mac’s story ends. But the story of the little booklets continues, and from here on we have only fragments of the tale. Because the Perths were driven back, the bodies from my grandfather’s company could not immediately be recovered. By the time they were, they had been searched and stripped by the Germans, and, probably because Mac was an officer, his papers and personal effects were taken for intelligence purposes.
You’ve seen the booklets. It’s hard to imagine what use the Nazi brain trust could get out of Major MacDougall’s “cap or bonnet” size. But we have German meticulousness to thank for this story, so let’s not look a gift Nazi in the mouth. The Germans sent the booklets to Berlin, where I suppose Enigma cryptographers were working feverishly to decode them when the Reich fell in 1945.
Apropos of nothing, here’s a quote I and my friend Sean really like from the novel Cryptonomicon:
Ask a Soviet engineer to design a pair of shoes and he’ll come up with something that looks like the boxes that the shoes came in. Ask him to make something that will massacre Germans, and he turns into Thomas Fucking Edison.
We can also thank the Red Army for this story. After the Allies took Berlin, the Soviets confiscated all the German documents they found, and hauled them back to Mother Russia. And apparently the Soviets cannot bear to throw away a single scrap of paper, because those two little booklets then spent the entirety of the Cold War in Russia somewhere, on some dusty shelf, or in a hanging file, or a good proletarian cardboard box. Maybe they were filed in a giant Siberian warehouse next to the Tunguska meteor, the Russian Ark of the Covenant, and Hitler’s lost testicle. Don’t laugh: didn’t fragments of Hitler’s skull recently turn up at the back of a desk drawer full of pencils or floppy disks or something?
Fast forward almost sixty years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the thawing of the Cold War, whatever Russian bureaucracy had inherited these old wartime documents decided it was time to do a little spring cleaning. In 1999, Boris Yeltsin ceremonially returned all the documents taken from British and Commonwealth soldiers to Tony Blair. In London, they were sorted out and shipped back to the respective colonies. By October 2000, effects and documents from twenty-five Canadian soldiers killed in action arrived in Ottawa, and the Department of Veterans Affairs set about tracking down next-of-kin.
My grandmother Helen, named on the first page of Mac’s service booklet, kept his surname and never remarried after his death. She passed away in 1996. My father, who was two years old when his father died in Italy, retired in 2000. He and my Mom moved back to the little town Dad grew up in and built a new house there on the site of the house where he had been born. Which made it quite easy for Veterans Affairs to find them. Had Mom and Dad not been living there, I expect it still would have been possible to track them down. But the story of these two little booklets would not have had the same circularity—a sixty-year journey, in my grandfather’s pocket from this little village in Ontario to England, to Sicily, to a muddy riverbank in a vinyard on the east coast of Italy, and then, in hands unknown from Ortona, to the heart of the Reich, to the heart of Stalin’s Russia, and then finally in our time back to London, to Ottawa, and into my father’s hands at the very same address in the same little village where Major MacDougall said goodbye to his family so many years before.
Sometimes history is something you study—an intellectual interest, a puzzle, a spectacle. And sometimes history comes home to you.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
—Laurence Binyon, “For the Fallen”