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In slanders fields ... American post-war propaganda was high in slander, misinformation and lies and Britain was its target, even though it had 10 times the casualties in WWI.

I SAW A RERUN of The Great Escape on TV recently. The breakout from Stalag Luft III said it all about American distortions and lies about the wars, a process that has been going on since 1918. But the movie, produced in 1963, epitomized the greatest downfall of American crap on Canadians since the War of 1812. Yet, ironically, the American PR factory has often overlooked its greatest asset--the thousands of Americans with the guts and conviction to come across the border and fight for a cause long before their country was at war.

But getting back to my original statement, there were no American airmen at Stalag Luft III at the time of the historic prison break. They had been moved to another compound. If any American citizens were in fact there, they were wearing RAF uniforms. Yet Hollywood managed to insert Steve McQueen and his motorcycle as a Yank airman who somehow dominated the action of a well-planned British undertaking. A potentially excellent movie ignored the key role of Canadians. Tunnel king Wally Floody somehow developed a Polish accent in the movie. Barry Davidson of Calgary was the scrounger, but James Garner usurped his role as a provider of key material. While they watched a softball game, Keith Ogilvie of Ottawa acquired a guard's wallet, which provided vital information on German documents. But Hollywood failed to identify him just as it ignored the role of all Canadians, a process which dates back to the victory parades of 1918 where the theme song was "We Won the War!"

James Cagney once did a song and dance routine in which he sang of a grand old flag where there "was never a boast or a brag." It worked in show business, but American propaganda made a liar out of him. In the decade following WWI, a profusion of American publications adopted the "we won the war" syndrome and spewed Canadian newstands with propaganda and lies. The link to official Washington policy is obscure and articles were probably written by enthusiastic amateurs or non-official government personnel. The point is they tried to create a chasm with lies and exaggerations that cast the Yanks as heroes and the Brits as incompetents.

The United States was three years late in honouring an agreement to protect countries such as Belgium. It didn't get an army into the field until the final months of the war. Yet much of the American propaganda was critical of the British war effort. By 1928 major publications such as Liberty, The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan were grinding out a plethora of garbage such as "We put more troops more quickly in the face of the enemy than did the British and in the important last stages of the war, we had more troops facing the enemy than they did." At the time of the Armistice, the Americans had less that a million combat-ready troops, while the British had over 1.7 million fully engaged. They also had been in the war four years. The British had 8.6 million under arms during four years of war and suffered over 3.6 million casualties. The Americans mustered 4.1 million on paper, but less than a million were close to the front. Their casualties in less than six months of action were one-tenth that of the British, yet they claimed they won the war.

These comments in no way denigrate the quality of the American fighting man, but are directed at a small group of Americans who tried to re-write history. Typical of the stupid publicity campaign by some Yanks in the post-war years was an inane article in Cosmopolitan by somebody called Brigadier-General Henry Reilly who asserted: "Lack of Allied success on the Western Front was due to British failure to enforce a draft law and their refusal to move troops away from Channel ports."

Britain had fought a war around the world and also met a well-prepared enemy on the Western Front. The prospect of invasion was a reality and a cadre of troops on home defense made sense. What Reilly neglected to mention was that the British started their action weeks after the war began and in 1918 they recovered from the massive German Ludendorff offensive long enough to bring it to a halt and stage a counter-offensive, which turned the tide in the war. When Canadians and Aussies fought their way out of Amiens, they started a drive that broke the back of the German army. A German high commander later wrote that the day of the attack from Amiens was a dark day for the German army. It soon penetrated the Hindenburg Line, an action that was the first conclusive sign of victory. The Americans later briefly met an exhausted German army far to the south and soon the Germans had surrender terms in order.

The American publicity was not official propaganda because individuals and key magazines promoted it. In 1928 Maclean's magazine published a classic rebuttal by Major George Drew who later became the premier of Ontario. The blurb that preceded the study said: "An irrefutable answer to the slander published in certain United States magazines that in the Great War the British Empire shirked its responsibility."

George Drew's magnificent analysis is called "The Truth About the War." It documents and denies much of the gross, inaccurate propaganda the Americans pushed to the extreme. Drew's "The Truth About the War" deserves republication, perhaps by the War Museum.

In spite of the malarkey in the above-mentioned magazines, American PR practitioners missed a host of human interest stories. During WWI, some 36,000 Americans served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and an estimated 1,700 joined the Royal Flying Corps. American propaganda at the time generally ignored these heroes and concentrated on the Lafayette Esquadrille, a squadron of American volunteers who flew with the French.

Canadian Raymond Collishaw--who became a 59-victory ace--shared time, missions and Manhattans with the Yanks at Luxeuil, France. One day an American pilot was killed and his funeral included a procession of a thousand troops who followed a flag-draped coffin. That was the year the Royal Flying Corps lost 560 casualties over the Somme. Collishaw was concerned and later wrote in his memoir: "I don't begrudge them this (publicity) at all ... but it always stuck me as peculiar and rather unfair that the Americans who flew with the Lafayette Squadron should have received such great public acclaim whereas the many hundreds of Americans who flew as members of the British air forces, mostly with the RFC and the RAF, remain completely ignored."

Collishaw had in mind men like Fred Libby of Sterling, Colorado. He joined the Canadian army and was overseas and in the trenches the year of the gas attacks at Ypres. After several months in the trenches, Fred was accepted as an observer with the RFC. On his first operational flight, he shot down an enemy aircraft. When the Battle of the Somme wound down in the dismal fall of 1916, air observer Fred Libby had 10 victories and was selected for pilot training. As a pilot, he added four more to his score before being transferred to the USAF.

Libby was one of the first who transcended national boundaries, presumably out of a sense of respect for his neigbours to the north. Hundreds followed Libby's course as 16 of the top 20 American aces served in British or French squadrons. While Libby was flying overseas, Col. Cuthbert Hoare came to Canada to set up an air training plan. He laid the foundations in Canada and then looked south in early 1917. He set up a recruiting centre on 5th Avenue that unleashed a flood of American volunteers. Soon there were more Yanks undergoing training in Toronto than were present in the area in 1813. Of the top 50 American aces, these volunteers accounted for 305 of 378 victories later scored in France.

With the exception of the Lafayette Squadron, there was virtually no coverage of American volunteers in action. There was much ado about Eddie Rickenbacker, the American ranking ace with 26 victories, but few words about Fred Gillet who ran up 20 victories in four months with the RAF and added four more with the Yanks to become America's second-ranking ace. American-born Wilfred Beaver joined an RAF squadron after his country was at war. His RFC machine accounted for 19 enemy aircraft. American Howard Kullberg was credited with 19 victories between May and September of 1918. The war was a very personal thing for American friends long before their country was involved and the same sentiment prevailed in the Second World War.

During WWII some 19,000 Americans joined the Canadian army and 9,000 joined the RCAF. During the Battle of Britain, the American Eagle Squadron suffered a hundred casualties, but accounted for 75 enemy aircraft. Fred Gaffen's Cross-Border Warriors quotes some of the heroes.

Although President Roosevelt fought a courageous and difficult battle to assist the British, he didn't move fast enough for Lionel Proulx who volunteered for the RCAF in February 1941. Proulx later explained: "I became impatient with President Roosevelt's lack of action against Hitler."

Terry Goodwin took a similar view: "I was not at all pleased with the American position of non-intervention. As an individual, I could be more useful by joining the RCAF. I did guard duty at Camp Borden and buried 10 students while I was there."

Billy Hopkins wanted to fly, but remembered the people: "...I still have to fight back tears when I hear O Canada!"

Richard Dunham worked part-time on a farm. "One day as I was sitting under a brown Swiss cow, the cow managed to kick me and a milk bucket clear across the barn. I contemplated my future and decided that war might be hell, but it beat milking cows. I struck out for the border, pledging myself to serve King and Country--as long as neither owned any cows."

John Magee was planning on entering Yale in 1940, but joined the RCAF instead. He got his pilot's wings and went overseas. While undergoing advanced fighter training, he collided with another aircraft and was killed. Three months earlier, he had sent his parents a copy of a poem which he had entered in an RCAF competition. It was the airman's answer to In Flanders Fields, and said in part:
 I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace,
 Where never lark or even eagle flew,
 And while with silent lifting mind I've trod
 The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
 Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
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Title Annotation:THE GREAT WAR
Author:Shannon, Norm
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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