As I attend Remembrance Day services, I often wonder how the graying men in uniforms ever lived through their experiences. How did they survive under the relentless stress of battle after battle? How did they cope with the necessity of killing, all the while living with imminent death themselves? This book provides one man’s answer. As Pierre Berton writes in his foreword, “This is war seen from the point of view of a bayonet, closer than a sniper’s bullet.” As such, it is well worth reading.
What is remarkable in hindsight is how hard Kipp fought just to be allowed to take part in the war. Despite a medical condition that would have excused him, he made his first attempt to enlist in the service shortly after the war began. As a result of both his persistence and his cleverness in hiding his disability, he was eventually accepted and rose through the ranks, finally seeing active service after D-Day He is honest enough to admit that after sixteen days, he had seen all he wanted to of war.
Kipp’s memoir is as straightforward and unemotional a narrative as you will find. He recounts events ranging from the mundane to the horrific in a voice that does not ask for pity. This sense of detachment may be the same attitude that helped him deal with the psychological demands of war. After two months of leading his section into battle, he no longer learned the names of his new men, because he couldn’t bear to send a friend out to certain death. He viewed the Germans with the same measure of indifference, seeing them not as real people, but as targets. Only rarely do his emotions take control in this book, such as his account of the dying moments of a man he has just shot, and even then the interlude is brief. Yet the plain language is suited to his story, and his exact choice of words never fails to evoke the sensations of battle. Whether he is describing the irrational coldness experienced by soldiers in battle shock or recreating a ground attack under aerial machine gun fire, the reader comes close to a first-hand experience.
Kipp was part of the “mopping up “force deployed after D-Day. When the average life expectancy of an infantryman in his regiment was estimated at two and a half days, he served through ten months, was wounded nine times, received approximately one week of rest, endured sleepless nights and constant fatigue, and was continually cited for medals which he never received. A hint of bitterness is felt in his is unsparing criticism of unprepared and inefficient military authority, yet his willingness to commend those in command when they act effectively indicates that his condemnations are probably deserved.
In addition to sharing his personal experiences, Kipp also informs the reader about an important era of Canadian history. Being unfamiliar with much of the history of the Second World War myself, I was surprised to read that many of the “battles” involved small numbers of men fighting for possession of houses, battling from one town to the next. On several occasions, Kipp was told to capture a strategic point using only his section of thirteen men. I was not familiar with war on such a small scale, and it reminded me of children’s games such as Capture the Flag or Hide-and-Seek, but with deadly consequences.
The title of this book comes from an incident in which Kipp and another soldier were toasting the success of an upcoming battle. A local civilian marveled that, while his own hand was trembling, the two soldiers showed no fear. When asked why this was so, they responded in unrehearsed unison, “Because we are Canadians.” Without glorifying the act of war, this book does inspire pride in the national character of the Canadian soldiers who were sent into the most difficult situations under the most desperate odds and still performed their duty.