Documenting a forgotten legacy
For Mark Zuehlke, chronicling Canadian military history for generations to come started at a post-Remembrance Day gathering at Kelowna, B.C.'s Royal Canadian Legion. Amidst a few ales, a steaming bowl of stew and the camaraderie, some stories swapped by veterans about their Ortona experiences caught Zuehlke's ear. Ortona was a key battle in the Second World War Italian invasion, an operation in which Canadians played a vital role.
"I wasn't planning on it, (becoming a Canadian military historian), I just thought their stories were interesting and, as I researched the subject more, I found that there really wasn't anything distinctly Canadian written on the topic (of the Italian campaign)," he said.
More than a decade later, and with nearly a dozen military titles to his name, the pursuit of documenting this nation's military legacy has become compelling, almost duty-like for Zuehlke.
"It's funny," says the Victoria-based author who pens for Douglas & McIntyre, "when I first pitched the idea about Ortona, the response was very lukewarm, like, 'who cares?'."
After "Saving Private Ryan" hit the big screen in 1998, suddenly, Zuehlke says, there was interest.
"Almost immediately, we had three book deals, including one offer from a place that earlier rejected the idea," he laughs.
Ortona was followed by Liri Valley and the Gothic Line - all part of the Italian campaign in which many Western Canadian-based troops took part. Holding Juno, Juno Beach, Terrible Victory (The Scheldt Campaign); the Gallant Cause (Canadians in the Spanish Civil War); For Honour's Sake (War of 1812); and now two new releases Brave Battalion: The Remarkable Saga of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) First World War; and Operation Husky: Canada's Invasion of Sicily, 1943, are in print.
Zuehlke's attention to tactical detail is a signature of his work. From first-hand accounts of veterans combined with official military records, the author paints vivid battlefield portraits with his prose.
As a fan of board-based military re-creation games, military strategy has always fascinated Zuehlke and that is apparent in his work.
"What many Canadians may not know is, how our troops became 'shock troops'," says Zuehlke, explaining many key Allied drives in both the First and Second World Wars were spearheaded by Canadian or ANZAC (Australian/New Zealand) troops, often at a heavy price.
"I think, growing up on the Prairies, or in other harsh, rural areas, as many of these people did, there was a natural toughness, a sense of innovation that allowed them to succeed by improvisation ... in many cases, on the battlefield," he says.
The reputation of sturdy often earned Canadian troops some of the toughest assignments, says Zuehlke, and this was not lost on the opposition Germans, he added.
"In some cases, all identifiable marks and identification and such was stripped from Canadian troops because if the Germans knew where the Canadians (or ANZACS) were aiming, they had a pretty good idea about where the rest of the troops would be coming from."
Proud of Canada's military heritage, a theme which resonates in Zuehlke's works, the author surmises the regimental system plus Canada's relatively small population was a huge part of battlefield success.
"Unlike the Americans, Canada uses a regimental system, which means in many cases, you knew the guy next to you (he mentions examples such as Loyal Edmonton Regiment and and Seaforth Highlanders) and the ranking officer might be the phys. ed. teacher from the local high school," he says.
"It really makes a difference going into battle when you know the guys you are going in with."
While his writing pace has slowed - he says he was trying to write too much, in a short period of time - the yen for telling Canada's battlefield stories still drives him. The Liberation of Holland is now his focus, another topic many Canadians have not read enough about, he says. After that, perhaps he'll dig deeper into Dieppe's sad, but noble, sacrifice and/or take a closer look at the battle for Hong Kong.
And of current missions such as the one Canadians face in Afghanistan, Zuehlke says he has already been approached by some returnees to tell their stories, but he says he is uncomfortable wading into a conflict that remains unresolved.
Nevertheless, he maintains a sense of duty in his work. His intense look at the Scheldt Estuary (summer and fall of 1944) in Terrible Victory convinced him there is plenty of work to be done.
"The Canadians took their heaviest casualties in that battle (almost 6,500) and many Canadians don't even know about that."
"Why haven't we been told?," he asks rhetorically.
One thing is for certain, Zuehlke will continue to answer Canadians' tough questions about its proud military legacy.
You can learn more about Mark Zuehlke and see a full list of his works at http://www.zuehlke.ca.
Fred Rinne is Western Community Corporate Editor for Sun Media
Photo caption: Victoria-based author Mark Zuehlke has nearly a dozen Canadian military history texts to his name. He's now working on a series of titles featuring Canada's Second World War efforts in the liberation of Holland.
Photo: courtesy of Mark Zuehlke/ Douglas & McIntyre