- Triquet's Cross: A Study of Military Heroism
On March 6, 1944, Paul Triquet of the Royal 22e Régiment learned that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross, the British Commonwealth's highest decoration for valour in battle, making him the first and, as it turned out, only French Canadian to receive the award during the Second World War. The [End Page 264] recommendation for the award had been made in recognition of Triquet's role the previous December in the Battle of Ortona. In their quest to control this Italian town, Triquet and his men encountered strong German resistance and engaged in street fights so intense that the battle came to be described as "Little Stalingrad." The turning point came when Triquet and his men captured Casa Berardi, a house strategically located near the town centre. With only a handful of men left under his command, Triquet succeeded in holding the house until reinforcements could arrive. It was generally agreed that Triquet's determined leadership had been crucial to the Canadian victory at Ortona, which was a key part of the Allied effort to retake the Italian peninsula. Triquet's bravery under fire and ability to rally his men against enormous German pressure attracted the attention of his superiors and led to the recommendation for the Victoria Cross. When news of his exploits reached Canadians back home, Triquet emerged suddenly as a hero whose valour and leadership appeared to be neatly encapsulated by the words he was reported to have uttered to one of his men about the Germans: "they won't pass here."
While Triquet would often tell reporters that he had not said these words and that it was in fact a young soldier who had died during the battle who made this defiant statement, the truth no longer seemed to matter to a Canadian public eager to celebrate a hero. By the time his exploits became known, Triquet had already lost control of the narrative of events. In this fine study of the politics of heroism, Brian MacFarlane shows how the media, government, and military created images of Triquet to advance their own particular agendas. Triquet would be removed from the front for a rest and then sent back to Canada to promote the sale of bonds and to drum up support for enlistment. He would be paraded in front of crowds by English-Canadian officials to exhibit the bravery of French-Canadian soldiers and thus to counter accusations that French Canadians had not been pulling their weight in the war. Politicians and recruiters also hoped that Triquet's exploits might motivate more French Canadians to enlist.
MacFarlane makes it clear that Triquet's Victoria Cross was both a great honour and a heavy cross to bear. It turned out that Triquet was unsuited for the role of hero that he was expected to assume. The son of a French father and French-Canadian mother, Triquet had dreamed as a boy of becoming a soldier and followed his father into the military, but it took a while for Triquet to adjust to the strict discipline of military life. A bit of a loner and exhibiting what one of his superiors described as a difficult personality, Triquet would nonetheless find his greatest happiness in the military, which provided him with the camaraderie he craved and the structure that he needed. By the time Triquet was shipped to England at the beginning of the Second World War, he had matured into a disciplined soldier and was eager to see combat.
It was thus ironic and, as it turned out, rather tragic that, at the very moment of Triquet's greatest triumph on the battlefield, he would be removed from the front and catapulted into a role that he was not at all interested in taking on. When the national media descended on Cabano, the small Quebec town where he was [End Page 265] raised, to celebrate the country's newest star, neither the townspeople nor Triquet were prepared for this onslaught...