Neither of the towns above ranks among the destinations that attract so many travellers to Italy, but for Canadians they represent the beginning and the end of a significant chapter in our history. That chapter opens on July 10, 1943, when 1st Canadian Division came ashore with the Anglo-American forces committed to the invasion of Sicily, and ends in February of 1945, when after twenty months and five major battles 1st Canadian Corps made its dry-eyed parting from Italy to take part in the final assault against Nazi Germany. Nearly seven decades after the war, the young men from all parts of Canada who fought in Italy have grown old and are now fading away, but the ancient landscape of Sicily and Italy remains the dramatic setting for their efforts and exploits. The monuments and war cemeteries marking the “Maple Leaf Route” invite Canadians of the present day to retrace their forebears’ steps and to partake of the multifaceted human experience of the Italian Campaign. Nearly 100,000 Canadians served in Italy, leaving a wealth of histories, memoirs, war art, photographs, correspondents’ reports, and oral accounts to tell their story.
German prisoners-of-war carrying wounded members of the 1st Canadian Corps through Cesena. October 21, 1944, Cesena, Italy.
The series of guidebooks to the Canadian battlefields in Italy which Matt Symes and I have now completed is an attempt to provide Canadians with a resource serving two ends at once. I took on this project as something of a layman, for, although trained as a historian, my specialisation in Byzantine studies was about as remote from Canadian history as ancient Egypt. This lack of background, however, had its advantages, since it forced me to keep asking myself what the non-expert yet deeply interested visitor to the battlefields (such as I was) would need to know. From giving adult-education courses on the Italian Campaign, and from talking with fellow Canadians in Italy, I tried to gain a sense of the context and measure of information necessary to form a coherent picture of events without drowning the audience in details – an easy thing to do, alas, and a particular trait of military historians. So the first task in assembling the guidebooks was to condense the accounts of each battle into an irreducible minimum while emphasizing the reasons why the fighting took the course it did. I should say here, by the way, that many of the regimental histories are minor classics in themselves – Kim Beattie’s history of the 48th Highlanders (Dileas), Farley Mowat’s The Regiment, or Fred Cederberg’s The Long Road Home being only a few outstanding examples – and that there are two remarkable French Canadian memoirs, Claude Châtillon’s Carnets de guerre and Gaston Poulin’s 696 Heures d’enfers avec le Royal 22e Régiment which richly deserve translation for the light they shed on the lesser known legacy of the Italian Campaign.
Despite the volume of material, doing the research and writing was the easy part. Blundering through the remoter parts of Sicily and Italy, maps and campaign accounts in hand, proved to be challenging, frustrating, and rewarding simultaneously. The roads change names every twenty feet or so, and it seems that the Autostradas were designed to run through every Canadian battlefield. Still, in most places the setting has changed very little. The roads and landmarks are where they should be, and as I roamed in search of various sites, I was increasingly struck by the courtesy and helpfulness of the locals who went out of their way to point me in the right direction, or, as often happened, to take me to the place I was looking for. I soon learned to ask the older men for directions, since they retained the memory of placenames no longer used and had kept the ways of another time, which included an automatic hospitality to strangers. Laying out the routes for each tour was a lengthy process of trial and error, involving first the location of significant sites, then investigation of the road connections, and finally the development of an itinerary that followed the flow of events and kept the visitor aware of the importance of the terrain. I can only hope that visitors to the battlefields will find, as I did, that examining the setting gives them an understanding of events that the narrative histories, no matter how good, cannot. Far more importantly, touring the battlefields gave me much greater appreciation, bordering on awe, for the physical obstacles that Canadian soldiers faced and overcame – not only the infantrymen who scaled Assoro, mouseholed at Ortona, punctured the Hitler Line and the Gothic Line, and slogged through the sodden ground of the Romagna, but also the tank crews, the engineers, the service corps, and the staffs who all in their various capacities coped with the challenges posed by the corrugated ground and endless succession of rivers. Two thoughts recurred as I beheld the places made famous in Canadian military annals: how the hell did they do it, and thank God it wasn’t me at the ripe old age of 19 or 20 having to pick my way through “the Gully” or across the Lamone.
The journey is not over. Now that the guidebooks are done, Matt and I are creating an online supplement. Click Here for the online supplement for The Canadian Battlefields in Italy: The Gothic Line and the Battle of the Rivers.
Eric McGeer is a teacher at at St. Clement’s School in Toronto and a research associate of the LCMSDS. He received his doctorate from L’Université de Montréal, and as a specialist in Byzantine history he has concentrated on Byzantine warfare and law.