Fighting Words is a document of war, intriguing because so many of us know only peace. So, we learn the hanging of 1837 rebels was bungled so badly one prisoner was nearly decapitated; that rifles fired by Canadian troops in the Boer War sounded “like lightning humming birds” — Zzz-Zzz-Zzz-Zzz-Zzz; that Hitler on weekends wore a tweed coat one size too small.
These are anecdotes of Canadian war reporting from the age of Vikings to al-Qaeda. “People seem to have a pathological need for conflict,” writes Mark Bourrie. “They also have a very strong urge to tell stories about it.”
Bourrie recounts the most poignant reporting of anonymous diarists and acclaimed war correspondents like Stewart Lyon, who pioneered Canadian Press coverage of WWI; Ross Munro, who documented the slaughter at Dieppe in 1942; Gregory Clark, who filed on deadline from liberated Paris for the Toronto Star in 1944 though his own son was killed in action days before.
The result is compelling accounts of high-stakes conflict, human triumph and minutiae of depravity.
Here is Laura Secord, on stumbling through the woods in the dark to warn the Yanks were coming in 1812: “Here I found all the Indians encamped; by moonlight the scene was terrifying…Upon advancing to the Indians they all rose, and, with some yells, said ‘Woman,’ which made me tremble.”
Here is a Toronto Leader account of the death of a Fenian in 1866: “He was sensible and able to tell me that his names was James Gerrahty, from Cincinnati, and that one of his own comrades had shot him by mistake, and that he freely forgave him. He died in about thirteen minutes, one of his comrades holding a crucifix before him as long as he could see it. We buried him in an orchard.”
Here is Paul de Martigny, a Canadian reporter imprisoned by Nazis in occupied France: “Among the internees was a cultured Englishwoman with her 18-year-old idiot son. The guards delighted in torturing the mother by playing pranks on the boy. She spent most of the time in tears,” de Martigny recalled. “The more she wept, the more they teased.”
Tales of conflict are always the most indelible. In the words of one fighting man – not a Canadian – “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”
By Holly Doan
Fighting Words: Canada’s Best War Reporting by Mark Bourrie; Dundurn; 368 pages; ISBN 978-1-45970-666-8; $29.99