Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hyperbole, Sarcasm and Fatalism: Canadian Humour in the Italian Campaign 1943-45

Stephen Leacock wrote in Humour and Humanity that humour approaches indifference or cruelty, but is softened by its link to pathos in its compassion and pity.  This union, he claimed, was what prevented humour from "breaking into guffaws" in callous mockery, or "subsiding into sobs", in commiseration. (Gerald Lynch, Stephen Leacock: Humour and Humanity McGill Queens: 1988.) Both the anger and the sadness of humour is found in the censored letters of Canadian soldiers in the Italian campaign.  Men on campaign wrote home with exaggerated criticism of army policy, and told stories of their fellow soldiers' humour relieving the most pitiable circumstances.  Both the cruelty and the sorrow of war lies sublimated below the rough surface of their sarcastic and often biting humour.

Tim Cook gave a lecture at Trent in 2009 on Soldiers' Humour.
Tim Cook recently published an interesting article on humour in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War, arguing that humour was a way to release tension and survive the horrific conditions and experiences on the Western Front.  The article, "'I will meet the world with a smile and a Joke': Canadian Soldiers Humour in the Great War" in Canadian Military History, (Spring 2013) argues that while the lasting memory of the First World War, constructed by poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and perpetuated in print and on film ever since, has been that of pointless carnage and suffering, that soldiers' writings provide an important adjunct to this somber tone.  Cook writes that soldiers' humour was by no means uniform, but that themes can be drawn from the wide corpus of personal testimony including: justification of the killing process; masculine teasing; gallows humour which hoped to "trivialize the terrifying"; mockery of the heroic and patriotic rhetoric of the war; masculine teasing; and plain bawdy lewdness and silliness.

In Italy, attempts to relieve the stress of battle are clear in an account of the crossing of the Moro River.   In December 1943, a member of the 3rd Field Company of Royal Canadian Engineers wrote at length of the sappers under his command who made light of his attempts to sooth their concerns at being under fire while bridging the river on the outskirts of Ortona:
We have been having a ding-dong, knock-em-out-drag-em out battle with Jerry the last little while and are still advancing so I guess we are better than he is at this war game. All the advantage is on his side. Hills and rivers forming natural obstacles for him to defend and we to overcome. We had quite a job about a week ago getting over a river but did get over it amid much praise from General Montgomery down. I was explaining to the boys that getting to the job was the worst part and on the job we would be as safe as in a church. A sapper pipes up and wants to know if I have any particular church in mind, quite humorous under the conditions. When we got to the job we came under machine gun fire and again the great fatalist tried to explain that if one had your number on it you got it, if not you would not. A sapper said he wasn't ascaird of the one with a number on it, it was the one addressed 'To whom it may concern' which worried him. Humor comes out in the strangest places. (Library and Archives Canada, RG24 Vol. 10,705)
Poppy on the Moro Approaches.  2009 Gregg Centre Battlefield Tour. Copyright Will Pratt.

Using humour to relieve stress and misery is particularly apt in front-line conditions.  As one soldier from 3rd Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery wrote in April 1944, “There may be lots of mud and rain and the unpleasant thoughts of what we are engaged in but there is always humour. Men are irrepressible – there is always the brighter side for the picture.” (RG24 Volume 12323)

As men found more problems with administrative policies later in the campaign, the humour in censorship excerpts was increasingly of the sarcastic variety.  Men frequently complained about lack of leave back to Canada.  The Zombies (the nickname for National Resources Mobilization Act conscripts who were for the time still allowed to serve in Canada) were continually criticized.  One trooper's comment suggests that suspicions and jealousy lay close below the surface. He sarcastically wrote in August 1944,
How are those Zombies doing back in Canada? They must really have a tough battle over there. Trying to keep away from beer parlours or keeping form having too delightful a time. Or keeping a fighting man's wife company. (RG24 Volume 12,323)
Jealous worry about women on the homefront is a major theme in soldiers letters, and has been identified as prevalent in the Eighth Army in earlier postal censorship by Jonathan Fennel in his work Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign (2010).


Something funny was definitely going on here.  
Troopers of the Governor General's Horse Guards displaying distinctive haircuts before the advance on the Hitler Line, Italy, 26 May 1944. Credit: Lieut. Strathy E.E. Smith / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-189923
Cook noted that First World War soldiers used humour to raise grievances, and the tradition continued for the next generation of Canadian soldiers.  In Italy, the policy of putting towns out of bounds to Canadians after the Battle of the Hitler Line as an attempt to reduce venereal disease rates was a notable hit on troop morale.  Again in August, as the I Canadian Corps prepared to breach the Gothic Line, signs bearing "Out of Bounds to Canadian Troops", came under sarcastic criticism.  A private wrote home,
Every damn place is out of bounds to the Canadians. It is getting beyond a joke now. Most of the boys are wondering if Canada will be 'Out of bounds.' I guess the only place they can trust them is at the front. (RG24, Vol. 12,323)


Private W. Sutherland (left) of The Westminster Regiment (Motor) 
and Private V.A. Keddy of The Cape Breton Highlanders
 repacking compo rations at a supply depot, Cassino, Italy, 18 April 1944.
Credit: Lieut. Strathy E.E. Smith / Canada. Dept. of National Defence 
/ Library and Archives Canada / PA-151177 
The old saw that the army marches on its stomach seems to be as true for the General ELM Burns' troops as it was for Napoleon's.  Those in the Chief Censor's office got in on the joke by labelling some grousing about the tinned rations of Meat and Vegetables the "Gourmet's Resolve".  A private soldier wrote, I'm still on that balanced diet of M. & V. I'll get even with Argentina someday.” (RG24 Vol 12,323)

The connection with the homefront and longing to return there was observed in many letters as a second winter in Italy began.  By the end of 1944, the lack of home leave was criticized by many soldiers.  A new points scheme had been put in place, but many correctly assumed they wouldn't see Canada until after the war.  One gunner wrote home using a little hyperbole about his expected leave date:

Guess the papers have quite a write-up about the '39 boys coming home for Christmas leaves. At the rate they are going about it, I'll likely be home about 1960. We have sent two men out of about 500. (RG24 Vol. 12,323)
Maple Leaf, 24 January 1945.
While criticism of officers and superiors was not a general feature of Canadian mail, in 1945 the visit of John Bracken, the Progressive Conservative leader of the opposition, came in for griping against politicians who visited the front and later spoke in the press on behalf of soldiers.  As the censorship report for early February wrote, Bracken need not have taken these grouses personally as comments were characterized by a certain impatience with politicians as a class.”  Lamenting the long campaign in Italy, a private wrote,“Bracken is here in Italy – the opposition chief. I wonder if he comes to bring us our Italian naturalization papers.” (February 1945)  Another private's note home bordered on mania.
I won't be qualified to come home for another six months or so as the powers that be have decided that the Cdns are the toughest solider on earth and as a result they can stand five years overseas when Br. Forces only stay three and a half, N.Z.'s three years and American 18 mos. Yeah, we're tough and we love it. Yeah!!! (February, 1945)
The marriage between pathos and cruelty that Leacock identified as the essence of humour certainly existed in Canadian letters from the the Italian front.  Men joked their fear away, and used sarcasm to complain of policies that restricted them.  The strain of humour that Cook identified as mocking the patriotic or heroic discourse of the war is related to the complaints against leave policies that kept soldiers in Italy.  Considering that longing to return home was a major theme of wartime letters, and that unlike trench newspapers, the audience for these writings was friends and family at home, the sublimation of homesickness with a wry joke at the Army's expense comes as no surprise.

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