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Bookends: An Extreme Act of Remembrance February 7, 2016

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: An Extreme Act of Remembrance

By Dan Davidson

November 11, 2015

– 787 words –


Through Blood and Sweat

A Remembrance Trek Across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds

By Mark ZuehlkeBlood & Sweat

Douglas & McIntyre

215 pages



When Mark Zuehlke was at Berton House in 2003, he had finished writing a series of popular history books about the Canadian efforts in the Italian Campaign during the Second World War and had moved on to writing another series about the action during and after D-Day on the other side of the continent.

At the time he was also writing a series of three mystery novels about a coroner on Vancouver Island, a character inspired by his non-fiction study of those odd immigrants called Remittance Men. I’m hoping he’ll get back to the Elias McCann novels but, as it turns out, the Canadian Battle Series (11 books and counting) and the other Military Heritage series (four books), plus two in the Rapid Reads easy reading series have so far kept him too busy to plot another murder mystery.

It was his 2008 book,
The Canadian Invasion of Sicily, July 10–August 7, 1943 (Douglas & McIntyre) that got him involved in the adventure chronicled in this memoir. The trek was the brainchild of Montreal businessman Steve Gregory, who was walloped by the muse of inspiration while visiting a Canadian military cemetery in Agia in 2006. It was after that experience that he read Zuehlke’s book and began a single minded campaign to organize the 2013 event and to have Mark be part of it.

Needless to say, he succeeded, overcoming resistance from not only Mark, but also his partner, Frances Backhouse. On the other hand, Gregory was not successful in mobilizing what he had hoped to be a large number of walkers, including a sizable contingent of military personnel. Oddly, for all its sabre rattling, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper had a minimal interest in this celebration, and made service people available only near the end of the month long event.

They set out in July 2013 to attempt, so far as it was possible, to follow the 300 kilometre route taken boy the soldier of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division in 1943. Along the way they planted hundreds of markers to memorialize the service men who had died during Operation Husky, their ultimate objective being to reach that cemetery where 490 of the 562 Canadian dead were buried.

Each day meant marching under the grueling Sicilian sun, in temperatures sometimes topping 40°C, dealing with heat rash and dehydration, and also standing through day after day of very moving, but very long, commemorative ceremonies in each of the towns and villages that they passed along their way.

It needs to be pointed out that none of the core group of 10 on the march were young people. They were middle aged to elderly, from reasonably healthy for their ages to being barely able to cope with the strain. There were some illnesses and at least one short hospital stay before the trek was over.

Zuehlke had driven the routes they took while he was writing the earlier book, but writes that walking the countryside gave him a far greater appreciation of both the land and the difficulty experienced by the soldiers in 1943.

This isn’t strictly a first person, present tense, journal of the march. There are things we actually need to know about cemeteries, markers and how the whole cemetery program developed after the First World War. Zuehlke gives us this information in a different typeface and a different tense, dropping out of the narrative from time to time when needed to tell us what we need to know to appreciate what’s going to happen next as the marchers move on.

There are some spooky bits in this story. Sicilian stray dogs are not noted for being particularly friendly, but two dogs, at different times, join the walkers and turn up at what seem to be significant moments along the trek. Dubbed Husky I and Husky II, the serendipity of the dogs’ appearances lead the marchers and some members of the support crews (there’s a logistics team planning routes and Max Fraser’s film crew) to begin to wonder if there isn’t some sort of supernatural connection involved. Could the dogs be channeling the spirits of the departed soldiers?

As with his popular histories, Zuehlke makes a strong effort to include the voices of others in his narrative, giving us background stories and first hand observations and reactions from various of the participants.

This is an engaging book, one that not only tells us about the event itself, but about the history that inspired it.






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