Stories of Remembrance: John Ralston Saul

In 2005, to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Canadian celebrities spoke about the meaning of remembrance as part of the Stories of Remembrance Campaign, a project of CanWest News Service (now Postmedia News), the Dominion Institute (now Historica Canada) and Veterans Affairs Canada. This article is reprinted from that campaign.

Crisis of Memory

"Memory of war," John Ralston Saul once wrote, "is such a delicate thing."

Best known as a political essayist and from October 1999 to September 2005 as one of the vice-regal occupants of Rideau Hall (see Adrienne Clarkson) Ralston Saul might better be defined as the son of a D-Day soldier, godson of a decorated war hero from the Italian campaign, and close friend of innumerable Canadian veterans. He grew up in a military family surrounded by men like his father who fought and won the Second World War.

Ralston Saul acquired many values from such people, but he never once heard them speak about battle.

"I never heard them tell a war story, except perhaps as a joke," he says.

The only fragment his father told him about his own war experience was that, unlike most of the landing troops on D-Day, he never got seasick riding the waves into Juno Beach. For 60 years, many Canadian veterans have been equally reluctant to discuss the war.

"To explain would be to suggest that such things were explicable," says Ralston Saul.

Their reticence is understandable, but he believes it has fuelled a crisis of memory in which Canada's enormous contribution to the Second World War arguably the greatest achievement in the nation's history is poorly appreciated by many of its citizens.

"I think there's a crisis of memory, and the vets are conscious of this," said Ralston Saul in a 2005 interview. "The vets are now much older, the real witnesses are disappearing we're losing direct access to the physical memory of that time and we don't really know how to handle it.

"Everybody's trying to figure out: How do you lock that memory in?"

War Monument
Canadian War Monument in Ottawa on Remembrance day.
Remembrance Day, 2010
Veterans pay their respects as they attend Remembrance Day ceremonies in Halifax, 11 November 2010 (courtesy Canadian Press Images).
War Memorial, Ottawa
The Ottawa Memorial was erected in memory of the airmen who died in WWII, and for whom there is no known grave (courtesy Canadian Tourism Commission).

Wartime Marriage

Ralston Saul knew enough while growing up to appreciate that his parents and their friends had been immersed in a momentous event of great national sacrifice. Capt. William Saul had fought briefly in North Africa, then landed on D-Day as second-in-command of a company of Royal Winnipeg Rifles.

Miraculously, he survived the drama of Juno Beach, and even the killing fields of Normandy, although many of his comrades were subsequently murdered during the infamous Nazi executions of Canadian prisoners following the D-Day invasion.

Before leaving England, Capt. Saul had met and married Beryl Ralston, the daughter of a family with deep roots in the British military.

Ralston served during the war in a women's regiment that drove army trucks and taught soldiers how to do the same. Afterwards, she moved to Canada with Saul, who remained in the military after 1945 the family hopscotching across the country from one army base to another until he died, a colonel, in 1967.

What Did They Fight For?

Ralston Saul kept in touch with his father's friends and fellow veterans as they grew older, and he says many began to worry that the country hadn't learned enough from them about the increasingly distant war neither its dramatic details nor its wider lessons.

"The big shock to all of them was this realization that somehow they knew something that they couldn't explain, and that somehow they didn't know how to deal with society on that subject. As they got older and older, I think they got more and more insistent on trying to explain it."

The stories they now strive to tell concern far more than just the dusty facts of history. (See The Memory Project.)

"Today we still see violence breaking out, and racism coming back," says Ralston Saul. "There's been ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. So at some level, we haven't succeeded in remembering what they fought for. What was supposed to be absolute out of the Second World War has turned out not to be absolute. Some of the things we went to war for are now coming back.

"The head of the World Jewish Congress gave a speech just before (the 60th anniversary of the liberation of) Auschwitz in which he said, 'We have to succeed in our memory of this, because of Rwanda, because of the Congo, because these things are linked.' We landed on D-Day partly to make sure things like Yugoslavia would never happen."

Self Confidence, Self-Sacrifice

There are other lessons. To forget the generation that helped defeat the Nazis is also to forget that Canada whatever our national insecurities today was once one of the most self-assured societies on the planet, secure in its identity thanks largely to a grand ethos of public service that helped produce the victory in Europe.

As Ralston Saul explains it: “My father's generation had been part of this great army, one of the great modern armies in history. They had enormous self-confidence. They landed on D-Day, they liberated countries, they were astonishing people, and they did it all together. So when they hear people today searching for Canada's place in the world, they look at them and say: 'What are you talking about? Don't you know who we are, and what we've done?”

Canadian soldiers landing on Juno Beach, Courseulles-sur-Mer, France, June 6th, 1944. Image: Lieutenant Ken Bell / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-132655.

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