The Second World War forever transformed Canada. With 1.1 million in uniform and more than 3 million working in related industry, the country was engaged in a total war. Once mobilized against the fascist threat, Canadians were fighting around the world: on the seas, in land campaigns, and in the air. Even traditionally marginalized groups, such as recent Eastern European immigrants and Indigenous people, served by the thousands. Although there were domestic abuses of civil liberties, most notably with the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians from the West Coast, there was tremendous support for the effort. In Quebec, which bore deep scars from the First World War and the fierce debate over conscription that had led to attacks on French Canadians, more than 132,000 served in uniform.
With Bombs and Barbed Wire, Ronald Cormier presents the stories of eleven Acadians from New Brunswick and Quebec who joined the fight. Drawing from interviews conducted over thirty years ago (with veterans who have since passed away), Cormier sheds light on the approximately 24,000 Acadians who swore an oath to king and country. Originally published in French in 1990, the work has been translated by Cormier and reissued as the twenty-ninth book in the New Brunswick Military Heritage Series, a joint venture between Goose Lane Editions and the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick.
The introduction is rather slight and should have better situated Acadians in Canada — a group that has felt martial brutality more than almost any other due to their forced relocation and dispersal in the 1770s by the British for their refusal to declare loyalty to the Crown. Overall, however, Cormier’s volume makes a valuable contribution by allowing these eyewitnesses to history to provide insight into why they enlisted and what their service meant to them.
Roger Pichette, who received a gallantry medal for his service in the Royal Canadian Air Force, recounts how a seminary teacher instructed him and his fellow students in the wickedness of Nazism and Communism. When his classes ended in June 1940, the nineteen-year-old felt compelled to enlist. Léo Vienneau, a fisherman, signed up at age twenty-one for financial reasons. While serving, he learned to read and write, although his health was permanently damaged in a prisoner of war camp after he was captured in Normandy in July 1944.
Several men talk about their love of flight as young boys. One of them, Blair Bourgeois, survived dozens of aerial missions in the RCAF after enlisting in the spring of 1940. His experiences were harrowing; he describes living in a world of chance and fate, as his bomber pressed the assault under anti-aircraft fire, through weaving searchlights, and alongside enemy fighters that patrolled over the cities. Most airmen carried talismans, embraced rituals, and were deeply superstitious as they sought to improve their slim chances of survival. Part of Bourgeois’s ritual was to look for a four-leaf clover before each flight to bring with him. He also had a doll that his mother had sent from his family home in Moncton, and he “drew a small bomb” on the box he kept it in upon returning to the base each time. “There were sixty at the end.”
Flight Sergeant Roger Pichette also survived many operations over occupied Europe. He remembers his comrades-in-arms playing hockey when they had some leisure time. It was often the Bomber Command team versus those from Coastal Command, which rarely flew deep into Europe. “We had problems with our team because we often lost players,” Pichette explains. “The Coastal Command team had good players and seldom lost men.” Pichette watched crews go down in flames or simply disappear into the darkness. After multiple sorties, he was brought back to Canada as a war hero in late 1942 to assist in selling Victory Bonds in French Canada.
Pilot Officer Ulysse Gallant, who enlisted at eighteen and later served with the RCAF’s 432 Squadron, narrates how he and his crew were nearly shot down by an enemy fighter. His skilled pilot was able to bring the wounded bird limping back to England, where it crash-landed in a field. Gallant discusses what it was like to face his own mortality night after night, as well as the morality of bombing cities, filled with both wartime industry and civilians. He comforted himself somewhat with the knowledge that the Germans had started the bombing, but he admits that “after a while, you stopped thinking about such things to keep your sanity.”
Almost 10,000 Canadians in Bomber Command were killed, and thousands more were shot down. The survivors were almost all captured and herded to German POW camps. Life in captivity was filled with constant surveillance and abuse. Care packages from the Red Cross and patriotic organizations from home helped sustain prisoners with treats, reading material, and cigarettes. The latter could be traded with German guards for contraband material, including spare parts for clandestine radios that were tuned to the BBC for news from the front. Sports, plays, and reading helped to combat boredom. But food became sparser as Germany was bombed into submission. Several of the interviewees lived through the agonizing journeys by foot in early 1945, as they were driven westward on starvation rations to escape the marauding Red Army driving in from the east. Some malnourished prisoners died during these brutal marches, which extended hundreds of kilometres, while the survivors trekked on with bleeding feet and empty bellies — reduced to shuffling skeletons.
Cormier’s interviews provide just a glimpse into the veterans’ postwar lives, including how they interpreted their wartime experiences. Laurie Cormier, who served as a tail gunner in a bomber and suffered several years in a POW camp, remembers with bitterness: “I lost part of my youth.” Others are proud of their service, although it took decades for many in the Acadian community, which felt little connection to the overseas war, to recognize their actions.
So many Canadians served in uniform in the Second World War, but fewer than 20,000 are still alive. This generation will soon be lost to time. While there are many unanswered questions in Bombs and Barbed Wire, the memories Cormier has gathered provide a deeper understanding of how these Acadians endured the trials of war. We are the better for his efforts.