"That is what remains in my memory. I say that I contributed in a small way to democracy and in liberating the world. Because we know what Hitler was. Nazism was the cruelest thing in the world. "
(With the Régiment de la Chaudière in Europe.)
After Nijmegen (Holland), we crossed over into Germany. We were the first French-Canadian regiment that officially set foot in Germany. There was hardly any resistance left there. Once there, after Nijmegen, after Holland, let’s just say that we cleaned up.
I often think about the stress and I tell young people that we heard that they were starting to surrender all over the place (at the end of the war). They said that we were getting close to the end, and we wondered whether or not we would make it. We often thought about that since we were close to our goal. We knew that the war was still going on, but it was less taxing. There were still snipers, they were always on the lookout; you never knew. There were always snipers; they were spread out and stayed hidden until the end.
We were less motivated because we knew that the war was coming to an end. We knew from the wireless radio operators. There wasn’t a communication system like today, it was rudimentary. But we knew from the wireless radio operators that it was coming to an end. Armies were surrendering all over the place. We started seeing the columns of prisoners. It re-invigorated at us, but at the same time, we were scared. We were scared that the prisoners would escape or that there would be a shell burst. There was still artillery all over the place. The famous German 88 (the 8.8 cm Flak 18, an 88-cm anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery gun) would still fire at us from time to time. So we were very tense over the last couple of weeks.
We gave the Germans their due. They were true, cold-blooded military men. We weren’t trained the same way. They were taken at a young age and they were molded. The German army was very strong, we knew that. At one point, you could say that it was almost fighting against the entire world. It made you think of Napoleon. They were highly skilled and they knew it. Furthermore, we knew that the defensive position was always better than the offensive. Because whoever is in front of you is waiting for you, he’s hidden and you have no idea where he is. You had to go find him. At the same time, I knew that they were human. After all was said and done, I knew that they were human like us, and that they had a job to do. But occasionally, when we saw the prisoners, sometimes thousands of them were in the fields, we thought about the glorious German army that was on its knees before us since they had been captured like others had. They were starving; it wasn’t the success they had experienced in the past. It was strange to compare the two.
I never dared to touch a German prisoner. I respected that. That wasn’t always the case, though, since there were things that happened on the side that were overlooked. The Germans took some of our men and hung them; twenty or so, in France. After that, there was retaliation. We were more “fair” if you could say; an eye for an eye. There were some cruel things that were hidden. It’s hard when four or five prisoners would raise the white flag when you’ve been having a hard time for three or four days, and you’ve been losing your friends. It’s not easy when we see four or five guys who want to surrender. We didn’t know what to do with them. We ask young people that: “What do you think we should have done? Left our friends to take four or five guys behind the lines?”
In those days, there were tough guys. They left with the German prisoners and said, “They tried to get away.” But any excuse would have been valid really to say that they had “left.” They killed them. We didn’t know what to do with them. If we had been a large group of 20, 30, 50, 100 but when two or three escape and hide close and then at one point, they surrendered, well it depended on the situation. Sometimes we couldn’t take care of them because we would lose time. It’s not very easy to explain but we knew what it was. Your friend is beside you and it’s not like you’re about to say to him “go with the prisoners” otherwise you’d be alone. Especially when it was a strategic situation.
(About enemy snipers.)
With respect to the recruits that were sent our way, one guy showed up called Rancourt. We had met in Vancouver. We shook hands and I was happy to see him. He went to report to his platoon a few blocks away. We were in Zutphen (Holland, spring of 1945). We set up there and didn’t advance further since there were snipers. It was a beautiful sunny day when we got to the town. I shook his hand and told him I would see him later. I told him, “Be careful and stay close to the houses, since there are a lot of snipers.”
He had to walk four blocks. He walked two blocks close to the houses but instead of continuing to the fourth block in that way, he crossed the street. My friends, they called me Jack, started shouting out to me, “Jack! Look at your friend!” He didn’t make it; he was shot and killed. That happened all the time. He didn’t even make it to his platoon. He was a corporal and a close friend. We had just shaken hands. There are a lot of stories like that. Guys killed just after they had arrived, often due to a lack of experience. It was the worst thing that could happen.
Sometimes we stopped. They called it “pinned down” which meant that everyone stopped and didn’t move. We brought the tanks forward. There were always tanks in the back when we needed them. They eventually came; it depended on where we were. They would spray fire and advance with their machine guns. We could detect firing from a building. They would shoot down the building. Or if it was with planes, Mustangs (P-51 Mustang, an American fighter plane) or Spitfires (Supermarine Spitfire, a British fighter plane) would go out ahead and shoot everything down. Sometimes it was the only way we could advance.
War is a disaster because some people lived there but they had to leave. We had to destroy everything in order to advance. We had to destroy everything in our path. That’s why I tell people that war is a disaster. It makes no sense. We thought about our families, and we thought about being in their position. Their homes were destroyed, everything was lost, and nothing remained. That was the price of success, the price of war. We had to advance. I saw some very troubling things. Sometimes we saw children and women in their basements who were still hiding. They didn’t want to evacuate their homes, but nothing remained. The only thing left was their basement.
(About the Régiment de la Chaudière.)
In my opinion and in that of many historians, and based on what I’ve seen, the Régiment de la Chaudière was the best French-Canadian regiment in the last war. We were the regiment with the greatest renown with the famous battles. Other regiments fought with us, such as the Queen’s Own Rifle (of Canada) and the North Shore Regiment. I’ve been told that it wasn’t the same. La Chaudière was a gang of tough guys, a “crack regiment” as they say. Often units and companies from La Chaudière were called upon to help the Queen’s Own Rifle who fought alongside us (in the same infantry brigade).
I think that La Chaudière had team spirit that the other regiments didn’t have. That’s what is mentioned in many books. La Chaudière is known for its enthusiasm and tenacity. We didn’t back down. It’s true that we lost men from time to time, but nevertheless… It’s surely due to the fact that the leaders were good as well. We had good leaders; Taschereau was tough guy, Gauvin was quite a man, Major L’Espérance. We had great leaders.
I’m happy that as a soldier, not a career soldier, that I did my small part. Some of my fellow soldiers who did the same thing are still here. We’re proud. We’re tapering out but people admire us all the same. They’re happy to see us because there aren’t many of us left. If we hadn’t done what we did, where would we be today? That’s what I ask young people. We wouldn’t want you to go through what we had to, but if we hadn’t, we don’t know where we’d be today.
That is what remains in my memory. I say that I contributed in a small way to democracy and in liberating the world. Because we know what Hitler was. Nazism was the cruelest thing in the world.