Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cowboys, Indians, and Mountain-men: German Perceptions of the Canadian Soldier

Beaverbrook (left) during the Great War.  LAC.
During the Great War, Canadian soldier's fought well due to their rugged backwoods perseverance, and stalwart frontier pluck.  Or at least so Sir Max Aitken, (Lord Beaverbrook to you), would have the readers of his publications in the Canadian War Records Office believe.  Tim Cook notes in Clio's Warriors that "Beaverbrook [and his CWRO officers] constructed an image of the Canadian soldier reflecting his own ideals. Canadians were depicted as a northern race of rugged civilian-soldiers who were separate from their British cousins." (Cook, 38)

Such perceptions of the frontier soldier had survived the interwar years.  It appears that the image of the Canadian soldier as a vigorous worker of the hinterlands had at times a very western flavour. An 9 June 1944, intelligence summary of the I Canadian Corps in Italy noted,

"Enemy PW recently interrogated in Italy gave the following comparisons of the fighting ability of their adversaries:
Canadians:Very good 'cowboy' manner. Tough, good hand-to-hand fighter, very fair in combat.
English: do not like hand-to-hand fighting.
Americans: Avoid hand-to-hand combat."

Bill McAndrew noted that the German assessment of Canadian soldiers was one of excellent field-craft:
He writes that the Germans claimed, “in fieldcraft (Indianerkrieg) superior to our own troops. Very mobile at night, surprise break-ins, clever infiltrations at night with small groups between our strong points.” (McAndrew, 56)

Vokes speaks to PPCLI, Riccione, Italy, 13 November 1944. LAC.
National pride was used to drum up combat motivation  by Major-General Chris Vokes who urged the troops to
"remember that the German is a worthy opponent, but the German isn't born who can stand up to Canadian Infantry imbued with the will to close
and destroy him." 

That the Canadians had been used in Italy as the break-in formation for the stalled offensive on the Adriatic, as well as through the Hitler Line, meant that German command began to form its own opinions of the Canadian's role in the Campaign.  The presence of Canadians in the line became a portent that a major assault was under way.  Kesselring is reported to have noted upon reports of the Canadians moving towards the Adriatic before the battle of the Gothic Line:  "if they really are Canadians....then it will be a true major operation." (McAndrew, 118)

It would be hard to say to what extent the image of the Canadian soldier crafted by Beaverbrook in the Great War influenced foreign conceptions in the Second World War.  Certainly some of this reputation came from the actions of Canadian formations in both conflicts.  The way that they were characterized as cowboys, Indians or mountain-men, however, suggests that beyond military effectiveness there were cultural factors at play in constructing the ideal of the Canadian soldier.

"NOTES ON ACTIVITIES, 1 CDN CORPS." Week ending 19 Oct 44. (Historical Section)
"CMHQ [Canadian Military headquarters] reports - Ops and admn [Operations and administration] -1 Cdn [1st Canadian] Corps." Canadian Military Headquarters London, 1939-1947. Library and Archives Canada. RG24, C-2, Volume 12306. Reel T17907.
Cook, Tim. Clio’s warriors Canadian historians and the writing of the world wars. Vancouver :: UBC Press, 2006.
McAndrew, Bill. Canadians and the Italian Campaign: 1943-1945. Montréal: Art Global, 1996

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