Farley Mowat’s Wartime Experiences

Farley Mowat’s Wartime Experiences

Posted on September 1 by Lee Windsor
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Those familiar with Farley Mowat's writing know him as a defining and controversial force in the literature of Canada's wild spaces and wilderness. Fewer may know how he holds similar sway in historical writing on Canada's Second World War experience.

The request to write the introduction for The Regiment was a boyhood dream come true.

Last year I was asked to write an introduction for a new edition of one of Mowat's most important contributions to that wartime history: The Regiment, first penned in 1955 as a unit history of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. Mowat served with the unit in combat as a junior officer until becoming a battle exhaustion casualty during the hard winter of 1943–44 near Ortona. Mowat spent the remainder of the war as a staff officer near his unit and subsequently wrote three books about it, each of which took a step towards making peace with his own loss and trauma. I've read them all.

The request to write the introduction for The Regiment was a boyhood dream come true. Reading Mowat's wartime perspective at a very young age launched me on a life-long journey, first into soldiering and then into the professional historical study of Canada at war. Mowat's vivid word-pictures of Canadian soldiers venturing across Sicily and Italy's incredible landscape lit a fire in my mind and my heart. My military service led to postings in or attached to three different Canadian Army regiments with Italian campaign heritage, traditions, and painful collective memories of members killed and still buried in Italian soil which made Mowat's recollections all the more meaningful. Twenty years ago my university supervisor, Professor Terry Copp, dispatched me to satisfy my yearning to visit the dead and see the Italian terrain they now formed part of. The voyage of discovery ultimately led to a job teaching history at the University of New Brunswick and a post at The Gregg Centre for Study of War and Society. I've since made it my mission, as part of an international team of scholars, to study, remember, and teach others about the Second World War in Italy and its global connections and to truly understand the pain, sorrow, and triumph expressed in Mowat's pages about his Regiment in Italy.

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Although I never met him, Farley has been my closest associate and a bug in my ear for nearly forty years. My beloved wife and colleague tried arranging a meeting between Farley and me in his twilight years but by then he had no interest in speaking about that ugly and brutal war anymore — understandably so.

Farley's writing is brilliantly accessible for introducing any audience to the Second World War.

The task of writing an introduction to The Regiment forced me to re-read it more closely and dive into Farley's personal life more deeply than ever. The process reacquainted me with his powerful narrative about one unit of 875 souls seeing, enduring, and often bleeding out on mountainsides and mud-caked river valleys from 1943–45. What makes his work timeless and different from other regimental histories is that his word pictures of Second World War service are equally applicable to any Canadian or Allied soldier who lived or died in wartime Italy. You can read more about that in the introduction to the new Voyager Classics edition of The Regiment. For these reasons, my colleague and I use this book as an assigned reading for our UNB travel study course taught on the ground in Italy for three weeks in May.

Farley's writing is brilliantly accessible for introducing any audience to the Second World War. Farley's words are opening the eyes and minds of new generations of Canadians to a part of their history that he ironically wished he could forget. Maybe you'll find the time to turn his pages and take a moment to remember the many good men "who came from across the sea to liberate Europe and build a better world."

Lee Windsor

Posted by Kendra on September 2, 2015

Lee Windsor

Lee Windsor is Deputy Director of The Brigadier Milton Gregg VC Centre for the Study of War and Society and holds the Fredrik S. Eaton Chair in Canadian Army Studies at the University of New Brunswick.