Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Innocent "Iyties": Soldiers' Perceptions of Children in the Italian Campaign

Canadian historical memory of liberated Europe during the Second World War is dominated by themes of celebration, gratitude, and co-operation.  The generously free-flowing Calvados unearthed from Normandy cellars, or the joyous Dutch street celebrations are  the stuff of safe reminiscences of victors and victims.  In the Italian campaign, however, a more uncomfortable narrative challenges these tropes.  Here, racist language towards Italians, and perceptions of Italy as dirty and barbaric are not difficult to find in soldiers' letters.  An exception to the rule, however, is found in Canadian consideration of Italian children, who are seldom included in condemnation, but often held up as innocent exceptions to an otherwise blameworthy, wayward, and unhygienic people.

UBC Press
Of the campaign in Sicily, Jeff Keshen writes in Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers (UBC Press, 2004), his critique of the Canadian "Good War", that many interactions were "cordial, even warm, as the Canadians were often greeted as liberators." (Keshen, p. 245) Others, however, distrusted Sicilians, disdained the "squalid" conditions they lived in, and stole what they wanted from them, occasionally at gunpoint.  Soldiers issued chits for payback which were signed by movie stars or cartoon characters.  While many men reportedly rejected Sicilian women for their dark complexion, this did not prevent seven rapes by the end of July 1943 (Keshen, p. 246).  The poverty of the civilian population is illustrated in the payment of several cigarettes or tinned rations to women for sex.  Children of the age of eight or nine would wander the streets to drum up business for prostitutes.  The booklet that prepared soldiers for Italy stated that in regards to women, "the less you have to do with them the better." (Quoted in Keshen, p. 248)

Racist themes continued to mix with more favourable encounters across the straits of Messina.  Of interactions on the Italian mainland Keshen records, "As in Sicily, there were many reciprocal exchanges between soldiers and civilian.  But some Canadians considered the Italians, or "Iyties" as they called them, in the same light as they saw the Sicilians: chameleon-like in allegiance, crooked, and thus deserving of little consideration." (Keshen, p. 248-49)  Here too, looting occurred, at times escalating to armed robbery, and justified by the perception that Italians were price-gouging the soldiers.

Comments in Canadian censorship reports which pertain to Italians were seldom favorable.  In December of 1943, the censors recorded that only 10% of references to Italians were positive.  Especially in Southern Italy, the general attitude of soldiers was distrust, dislike, and disgust at the squalor that Italians were living in.

A comment from a member of the 3rd Field Regiment of Royal Canadian Artillery may serve to express the ethnocentrism of those familiar with sanitary conditions in Canada towards those in war-torn Italy: “These wops are a dirty filthy bunch, I wouldn't trust them as far as you can smell them and that's a fair distance.” (December 1943, Library and Archives Canada, RG24 Volume 12,323)

There was, however, an exception to these harsh sentiments, found in sympathies expressed towards children.  In December 1943, a British war correspondent wrote an account of sharing shelter in a home in Ortona with a handful of Canadian soldiers.  He reported, "The children clambered around the Canadian soldiers and clutched at them convulsively every time one of our anti-tank guns, located only half a dozen paces from the door of the house, fired down the street in the direction of one of the remaining German machine-gun posts.   Soon each one of us had a squirming, terrified child in his arms." (Quoted in GWL Nichols, The Canadians in Italy (Queen's Printer, 1956), p. 331.

Pte. Alex Livingstone Handing Biscuits to Italian Children .Copyright belongs to the Crown ; Credit: Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / ecopyLibrary and Archives Canada Item no. (creator) ZK-552
Archival reference no. R112-1459-1-E

(Credit: Members of the Seaforth Highlanders
 sit down for their Christmas dinner.
Photo: Terry F. Rowe / Canada.DND
 / Library and Archives Canada / PA-152839)
Toronto Public Library
The Christmas in Italy of 1943 was one which has gone down in the lore of Canadian military history, largely due to the press reportage of the time.  The official historian G.W.L. Nicholson broke from his battle narrative to describe the occasion.  He accounted, "Long after the lessons of Ortona recede into the pages of military textbooks men who were there will remember how, despite their joyless surroundings, the two Canadian battalions [the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and the Loyal Edmonton Regiment] observed Christmas day.  Nothing could be less Christmas-like than the acrid smell of cordite overhanging Ortona's rubble barricades, the thunder of collapsing walls and the blinding dust and smoke which darkened the alleys in which Canadians and Germans were locked in grim hand-to-hand struggle." (GWL Nichols, The Canadians in Italy (Queen's Printer, 1956), p. 329)  Of the men who were rotated out of the line for a Christmas feast, the Seaforths' war diarist wrote, "The expression on the faces of the dirty bearded men as they entered the building was a reward that those responsible are never likely to forget.  (Quoted in Nicholson, p. 330)

For most soldiers of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, letters included more references to children than Christmas parties in and of themselves.  A member of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Regiment wrote of the feasting, 
Most of us had an Italian child with us – they were very happy Darling believe me but they were so glad to get a dinner. They would have framed the plate if they could of. It makes one feel like crying to see them eat. (Dec. 1943, RG24, Vol 12,323)

Trooper Ralph Catherall of The Calgary Regiment giving food to an Italian child, Volturara, Italy, 3 October 1943.Credit: Lieut. Jack H. Smith / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-144105 
Canadian letters generally blamed Italians for the state of their war-ravaged country, but were willing to make exceptions for youth.  The postal censors wrote in February 1944:
The plight of small under-nourished children is often mentioned and children are regarded with sympathy and understanding as the unfortunate victims of conditions for which their parents are wholly responsible. Although certain individual kindnesses are appreciated, the general attitude to the adult population never seems to be free of a feeling of suspicion and distrust.
         Men are very often appalled with the insanitary and dirty conditions existing in the Italian villages and it forms a never-ending theme in letters home. (Feb. 1944, RG24 Volume 12,323)

Praise for children was not universal.  In March 1944, a member of 2nd Canadian Armoured Regiment wrote, “It doesn't matter how good you treat the Wops they will always come right back and stab you in the back. We feed all the kids around here but they still steal everything they can get their hands on.” (March 1944, RG24 Volume 12,323)

It seems that it was involvement with partisans in the battles breaking the Gothic Line and beyond that finally changed the opinions of  soldiers towards Italians.  The censor wrote in November 1944, A number of forward units have recently been in contact with Italian partisans, and, in their case, a marked change in the usual unfavourable attitude towards local inhabitants has been noted. They have nothing but praise for the work done by these guerrillas.”
Troopers W. Balinnan and A. Gallant of a Canadian reconnaissance regiment speaking to partisans Louisa and Italo Cristofori after the capture of Bagnacavallo, Italy, 3 January 1945.  Credit: Capt. Alex M. Stirton / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-173569

In December 1944, the chief censor's report wrote that relations with Italians in the villages of the North were cordial, and the mail contained frequent reference to the hospitality and cooperation of partisans.  An officer of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada wrote of a kindness alongside racist references, writing, “Despite what these rough tough Canadians say about these 'gawdamn Wops' they treat them royally and the kids never go without chocolate.”

Attitudes towards Italians were mitigated by the passage of time since their co-belligerency against the Allied cause, and by partisan willingness to risk their lives fighting against the Germans.  The ethnocentric judgement of living conditions found in early letters from the campaign tapered off as Canadians themselves were forced to live in the mud and ruined remnants of Italian homes. 

Children encountered in the campaign were treated with a generosity often not extended to adults.  Young people were interpreted as innocent of Italian transgressions earlier in the war, and reminded soldiers of young friends and family members left behind on the homefront.  They served as ambassadors between two cultures, softening soldiers to a "foreign" people, and providing a way to break down tensions and hostilities between Canadians and Italians.

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