- A Soldier 's View: The Personal Photographs of Canadians at War, 1939–1945
Blake Heathcote's task in assembling A Soldier's View was to select from among the more than 8, 700 photographs he has gathered from the personal collections of Canadian veterans of the Second World War and present them in a visual companion piece to his bestselling Testaments of Honour project. The result is a compilation of more than four hundred photographs depicting Canadian men and women from all branches of the services on every front of the war in which they took part. A Soldier's View differs from previous collections in that Heathcote's previously unpublished photographs have been gathered from the veterans themselves, rather than the collections assembled by official army, navy, and air force photographers during the war. According to Heathcote, '[T]he heart of their wartime lives was often reflected in the photos they took,' and A Soldier's View presents a visual record of their personal experiences. It is a moving tribute to the generation of Canadians who fought the Second World War.
This book is particularly strong in depicting the bonds of friendship between soldiers, and the chapter headings often reflect them. Chapter 6, 'In Faithful Company,' consists mainly of group photos, many of them taken while the soldiers were on leave or in training. There are many smiles and most have arms around each other's shoulders. There are photographs of mascots, ship's crews, war brides, the Women's Army Corps, sets of brothers in uniform, and friends sharing a pint of beer. While many of the photographs were taken by soldiers while they were enjoying a spell of rest and relaxation, the reality of war is always kept in perspective. One photograph of a smiling group of Typhoon pilots in Normandy, for example, is accompanied by a sad note that within a few weeks most of the men in the picture had been killed in action. Chapter 5, 'The Face of Battle,' depicts scenes of these soldiers in combat, and pictures from the North Atlantic, Dieppe, Italy, and particularly Arnhem, convey a sense of the chaos of war and the ferocity of the conflict. [End Page 386]
A Soldier's View is hindered at times by errors of fact, such as when the assault on Verrie'res Ridge is confused with Operation Totalize and the German invasion of Russia mistakenly dated to April 1941 instead of June. My only real difficulty with this book, however, concerns its organization and layout. While the chapters are organized thematically, the photographs themselves often appear in random order within them. According to Heathcote, the photographs he selected were those that inspired the most powerful memories from their owners: 'I've come to appreciate that what matters most about a photograph is the emotion it inspires . . . However wrenching an image may be, its deepest powers lie in opening the viewer up to something that extends past the boundaries of time and history to reveal events on an individual and human scale.' While there is something to be said for his approach, and many will agree that the perspective of the individual soldier is the 'most vivid and moving way to understand what war must have been like,' the organization of this collection is often very unsystematic, and for that reason conveys little sense of the 'history' of the war. An introductory note by renowned Canadian war artist Alex Colville explains that 'the very randomness of the images . . . seems to give a truer sense of the chaos of war than a more systematic selection and grouping would,' yet I cannot help feeling that while each 'soldier's view' may have been limited to what he could see from his own foxhole, the passage of time was universal for all of them. I would like to see photos from the Dieppe raid preceding those from D-Day; failing that, an index would be helpful.
Nevertheless, one should conclude with a tribute when it comes to a book...