- Far from Home: A Memoir of a 20th Century Soldier
Jeffrey Williams joined the Canadian army at the outbreak of the Second World War and stayed in until his retirement in 1970 as a lieutenant colonel. Despite a long and by all accounts successful career, Williams's greatest distinction was winning the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 1983 for Byng of Vimy, his much acclaimed biography of Sir Julian Byng, who commanded the Canadian Corps at Vimy and was later Governor General of Canada. He subsequently wrote three other commendable books, a history of his postwar regiment, Princess Patricia's Light Infantry [PPCLI] (1972), a survey of Canadian army operations from the break-out from Normandy to the end of 1944 called The Long Left Flank (1988) and First in the Field (1995), a biography of Hamilton Gault, the man who founded the PPCLI. Beyond that, if there was anything important to say about Williams's military career he took it with him to the grave.
Nearly half of his memoir is taken up with life and family in prewar Calgary, a subject no doubt of interest to family and friends, and historians of the Depression era prairies. Williams's early mobilization for war and his arrival in England in September 1940 would seem to set the stage for great and interesting things. But Williams's life was filled with training courses and social events: we learn a great deal about the apparently silly courses he was posted to and who he had lunch with. When the Calgary Highlanders finally got ashore in France in July 1944, Williams was doing the staff course in Canada. Upon his return he was posted to the Army Equipment Section of First Canadian Army and tasked primarily with tank replacements and "controlled stores," essentially machine guns and radios. He does provide a full page on what that job entailed in a general way, but no specifics—no apparent crises, no sense of the cadence of work, no accounts of the problems of keeping an army equipped in combat. Part of his job was to wrestle 21st Army Group over Canadian tank requirements, but all Williams tells us of this is the following: "Without going into detail, it kept me busy all day every day." Full stop. What follows are the usual anecdotes, gay luncheons and the occasional buzz-bomb. His most poignant war story is the brief mention of a [End Page 971] special request received by First Canadian Army from the Polish Armoured Division in April 1945. The Poles, part of II Canadian Corps, suddenly wanted 3,000 rounds of 5.5" medium artillery ammunition and 250 brassieres. Apparently they had overrun a concentration camp filled with Polish women, "Some of them the wives and daughters of the men in the division" (p. 259). The reader is left to speculate on what the ammunition was for.
Williams finally got into combat in Korea in 1951 as a company commander with the 2nd Battalion, PPCLI. By all accounts his only action was a company-sized raid on Chinese positions in October. After that the round of staff postings and socializing began anew. Evidently nothing of interest happened to the military during the Cold War. Amid tales of socials and gala luncheons there are photos of Williams with the King and Queen taken in 1940, and after the war with Prince Philip, a shot of the wonderful house in Washington with the cherry trees out front, fine portraits of the children, and other family members. Williams retired while serving in London and stayed on for a bit, enjoying the good life and hobnobbing with the best crowd. It was then, through some clever sleuthing, that Williams discovered that his father was actually the illegitimate child of the 4th Baron of Kensington, William Edwardes. Oh dear! His other books are keepers.