History Slam 179: Civilians at the Sharp End

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By Sean Graham

Every May, the City of Ottawa hosts the annual Tulip Festival to celebrate the relationships built between Canada and the Netherlands during the Second World War. Following the war, the Dutch Royal Family gifted tulips to Canada as a symbol of friendship, in part to commemorates the birth of Princess Margriet in Ottawa in 1943, the only royal personage ever born in Canada. Perhaps more significantly, however, the gift acknowledged the instrumental role Canadian troops played in the liberation of the Netherlands from Nazi Germany.

What tends to be taken for granted, though, and this is certainly the case for me, is that the relationship was easily forged. Canadians were there for the liberation, the Dutch people were appreciative of the efforts of Canadian soldiers, and a positive relationship blossomed. That version of events discounts the extensive work done by Civil Affairs, a branch of the army tasked with mediating the relationship between combat troops and civilians as Allied troops advanced through Europe. As troops continued the push towards Germany, members of Civil Affairs were left to work with civilians on reconstruction efforts, preserving law and order, and providing shelter for displaced peoples. Through this work, the Civil Affairs branch was able to both protect civilians while also fostering goodwill towards Canada and its troops.

The work of this branch is the subject of David Borys’ new book Civilians at the Sharp End: First Canadian Army Civil Affairs in Northwest Europe. Profiling a little known component of Canada’s war effort, Borys adopts a geo-chronologic approach, following the Civil Affairs branch from June 1944 through June 1944. As a result, Borys is able to highlight the specific challenges of each location, as the circumstances in France differed from those in Belgium or Italy. In doing so, Borys highlights the adaptability required by officers in responding the unique challenges they faced.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with David Borys about the book. We explore the military’s use of abbreviations, the evolution of civilian treatment by the military, and the colonial elements that influenced Civil Affairs in the Canadian military. We also discuss the circumstances in each country, the composition of the Civil Affairs branch, and David’s outstanding podcast Cool Canadian History, which is currently in its sixth season.

Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca

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