20 September 2007

Book review of George A. Reid's Speed's War

My latest book review is of George A. Reid's Speed's War: A Canadian Soldier's Memoir of World War II (Royston, BC, 2007). My thanks to Margaret Cadwaladr at Madrona Books & Publishing in Royston, British Columbia, for sending me a review copy.

Speed's War (the author's nickname was Speed) is George Reid's memoirs of his service during the Second World War as a member of The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. Essentially, this book can be broken down into two parts: (1) his service with the regiment, especially the fighting in Sicily and Italy, and (2) his time as a prisoner of war. The balance of the book is definitely slanted towards the latter period, which is all the better in the sense that there are several memoirs of Canadian soldiers serving in the Italian campaign, but not that many devoted to life as a prisoner of war (unlike the plethora of such publications coming out of the First World War).

The author provides a humble preface to this book, text which lays out the intent and limitations of the narrative that follows:
"I don't mean to try to make a hero of myself in this short narrative of my experiences while in Sicily, Italy and eight POW camps. Many men did much more and gave much more. A lot would not have the thrill of coming home to family and friends, and seeing the changes in the hometown and country and the world that they fought and died for. This is not a thriller or a tall tale. This is a record of my own experiences during World War II. I recorded these memories several years after the end of the war and reconstructed dialogue as accurately as possible. Although some names and details are hazy, I recall the events vividly."
Reid begins his memoirs with three chapters on his military service - enlistment, training, and operations. He quickly displays a simple, down-to-earth style in his writing and is willing to voice his opinion of his experiences, for example, admitting that he had initially tried to join the Royal Canadian Navy, only to end up in the Canadian Army instead. Reid provides some very interesting observations concerning the climate, living conditions, and enemy in the Italian campaign. At one point in the campaign in Sicily he writes:
"The smell of burnt bodies or just dead bodies, you never forget. Even if the towns or villages weren't bombed or shelled, you could smell them long before you saw them. At first it was the urine. We blamed the donkeys. Later it was the stench of dead and bloated bodies along with the urine from the animals. To this day, when I watch fighting on the television in areas of unrest in the world, the smells come back to me."
Such passages go a long way to helping place the reader at the scene and provide an appreciation for some of the little things which a military veteran can never quite let go of, even sixty years after the fact. He also displays an ability, legitimately, to "name drop", describing his encounters with Smokey Smith, long before Smith went on to fame as a recipient of the Victoria Cross.

The next eight chapters deal with Reid's capture by the German Army in October 1943, his incarceration as a prisoner of war, and his eventual escape from captivity in April 1945. Again, much of this deals with his struggle with living conditions - food, clothing, and his health (in particular, recurring bouts of malaria contracted in Italy). These chapters provide him further opportunities to pass on his opinions of his fellow Canadians, but more often of other nationalities encountered along his travels - Germans, British, Australians, Russians, and Americans - guards, civilian supervisors, fellow prisoners, and fighting troops. However, the most interesting aspect of these chapters is the view inside camp life for at least one Canadian prisoner of war. All kinds of stories are resurrected - everything from officer/men relations to intriguing food combinations to the work routine to the awarding of the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal.

On occasion the text lacks names and dates which would make the going easier, but Reid began the book by noting that memory fades. The reader was warned. The major downside of this work, however, is its length. It's short - ringing it at 95 pages - and would probably be deemed a novella if it were fiction. That said, this is probably all the author wanted - or was willing - to say about his experiences. If he, or an editor, were to flush it out any further it would have undoubtedly detracted from what was written. And that would have been unfortunate, as this is a very readable and quite interesting book from a proud Canadian veteran with some distinctive stories to tell.

I'm not sure how widely available this book is to purchase, but Madrona Books can be contacted by phone at (250) 897-3256, by fax at (250) 897-3286, or by e-mail at cadwaladr@shaw.ca.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The book is available by calling
1-800-866-5504, at Chapters/Indigo, and at Amazon.com and AbeBooks.com