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Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada's Second World War

by Jeffrey A. Keshen, Jeff Keshen
ISBN: 077480923X


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A Review of: Saints, Sinners and Soldiers: Canada∆s Second World War
by Nathan Greenfield

Though published by a university press, Jeffrey A. Keshen's Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada's Second World War is easily accessible to a general reader. This history of Canada's "home front" is an amalgam of insight and post-modern drivel. On the positive side, Keshen punches a rather large hole in the received wisdom that one third of the men joined up to escape the Depression. Most of the volunteers who flocked to recruitment centres in Toronto had both a job and families. In 1943, fully 91% of soldiers said they were fighting for "democracy." Commitment to building a better world was so pronounced that in 1945, 70% of Canadians said they would be willing to "continue to put up with shortages . . . to give people food to people who need it in Europe"-and this after three years of rationing in Canada.
As always, Quebec's numbers stand out. In September 1939, more than 2,000 enlisted in the two French-speaking infantry regiments, numbers similar to those of English-speaking regiments. After that, however, Quebec's numbers declined. With 85% of Ontario's population, Quebec raised only 41% of Ontario's recruits. Only 30% of French-speaking Quebeckers believed the news media was telling the truth; Elsewhere in Canada 62% believed the media.
Keshen's claim that King's government realized that though some censorship was needed "civilians would react with suspicion to uniformly positive copy," hits the nail on the head. Thus, while Canada had an official propaganda office and journalists were more than eager to foster patriotism, millions heard CBC radio journalist David Halton describe the 1943 Battle for Ortona as "the antechamber of Hell." Closer to home, the losses in the Battle of the St. Lawrence (during 1942 and 1944 U-boats sank 28 ships in the Gulf and River) were widely, if belatedly, reported.
Saints, Sinners and Soldiers is filled with fascinating discussions of such war-time measures as the black-out (actually a "dim-out") which was practised as far in-land as Ottawa. Remembered only by septuagenarians and those older is the fact that kids pulling wagons went door to door collecting cooking fat that was turned into glycerine for bombs, that toothpaste tubes were collected to be turned into Bolingbroke bombers, that by the end of 1942 enough scrap metal had been collected in Toronto alone to build two Tribal class destroyers. Most of us know that gasoline and tires were rationed; few know of the shortage of typewriters or that transportation was so stretched that Grayhound "asked civilians to avoid long-distance travel unless it was absolutely necessary." Forgotten too is the 1942 prohibition on the production of bloomers, lounging pajamas, teddies, parkas, skirts longer than thirty inches, double-breasted suits, dresses with more than nine buttons and the reduction of the number of thread colours. In March 1942, it became illegal for healthy males between 17 and 45 to work as real estate agents, messengers, bartenders, sales clerks and taxi drivers, for their brawn was needed in war industries. The book's many pages on VD among both soldiers and women, and the strains the war put on marriages, are fascinating. Keshen is at his best when he points out that the rise in juvenile delinquency during the war surely had more to do with the rise in the number of adolescent males (from a 1920s baby boomlet) than to failings of working mothers.
Unfortunately, he undermines his work more than once by allowing post-modern feminist theory to intrude. My wife, a senior financial officer at a large corporation, responded to Keshen's summation of the tens of thousands of women who volunteered to knit hundreds of thousands of pieces of clothing for the men on the North Atlantic Run-"a patriotic activity that, of course, related to stereotyped gender-based roles"-with a plaintive cry "Oh! Pleez!! Give me a break!" Her point being, of course, that in 1940, these women were not acting stereotypically, but, rather, patriotically doing their bit. Sentences such as "Women also shouldered the load in preparing packages, containing such items as chocolate," cause one to wonder, with a million men under arms, and older men working in heavy war-related work, exactly who else Keshen thought would have be doing this.
Keshen is not unaware that when writing about women and the war he's on contentious ground. He rightly criticizes Ruth Peirson, author of They're Still Women After All, for writing "the cautious and carefully circumscribed extent to which women were admitted to the military . . . precluded any fundamental change in gender relations." But then, he goes on to accept her view, when he writes-without any evidence-that "Servicewomen certainly did experience a great deal of harassment and discrimination," something that scores of women I interviewed have denied.
Worse, when writing about the Woman's Royal Canadian Naval Service (Wrens) he writes (of those involved with secret listening posts on Canada's East Coast): "The work, though frequently tedious-Wrens often sat for hours wearing headsets-was still portrayed by military and civilian sources as critical to Canadian security" (emph. mine). "Still portrayed???" Historians of the Battle of the Atlantic have shown, that those poor Wrens were critical not only to Canada's security but to the survival of the North Atlantic run because through those headsets they heard the signals that allowed Allied intelligence to triangulate on the U-boats that infested the North Atlantic. Those same Wrens copied down codes: the Enigma Code. Keshen is so intent on underlining the pay differential between Wrens and other naval personnel, he neglects to mention that the 67 Canadian women who became Wrens in 1942 were the first women to hold commissioned rank-a warrant for being saluted-in the British Empire.
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