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Book Reviews

Book Cover: Triquet’s Cross: A Study in Military Heroism

Triquet’s Cross: A Study in Military Heroism, by John MacFarlane

Reviewed by Peter J. Williams

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Triquet’s Cross: A Study in Military Heroism
by John MacFarlane
Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2009
250 pages, $34.95 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0-7735-3577-0

Among the sculptures of 14 heroes in Canadian military history, adjacent to the National War Memorial in Ottawa, is one of Paul Triquet, or, more correctly, Brigadier (ret’d) Paul Triquet, VC, CD. As a captain and company commander in the Royal 22e Régiment (R22eR) fighting in Italy during the Second World War, he won the Victoria Cross, then, as now, the Commonwealth’s highest award for valour.

While some may be aware of Triquet’s actions at Casa Berardi in late-1943, most will be unaware of his life before and after the events for which he is best known. With the publication of this book, DND historian John MacFarlane has filled a long-standing gap in Canadian military history, and, perhaps more importantly, MacFarlane has the reader come to grips with what it means to have that most un-Canadian of labels, ‘a hero.’ MacFarlane has consulted widely in researching this book, making use of archival material in Canada and interviews with Triquet’s family and comrades, as well as contemporary newspaper articles. The Notes at the end of the book constitute over 60 pages in their own right, and, in many cases, they are extremely detailed, always a marker for good scholarship.

The book is divided into three parts and an epilogue. Part 1 deals with Triquet’s life before winning the VC. Next, and in the longest part of the book, the author considers the role of medals and the media in general, and focuses upon how they impacted Triquet’s life. In Part 3, Triquet’s post-war life is analyzed. In all, this is a somewhat bittersweet story, and, indeed the book could have been entitled “Triquet’s Crosses,” as it delves into subjects such as post-traumatic stress disorder and reintegration into a post-conflict military, issues with continuing relevance for the Canadian Forces (CF) today.

Paul Triquet was born in the small town of Cabano, Quebec, in 1910. Coming from a family with a strong military background, it is not surprising that he eventually chose a career in uniform, joining the R22eR in 1927 as a private. His military prowess was quickly evident, and he rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming Regimental Sergeant-Major (RSM) in 1939. Subsequently, at the war’s outbreak, he deployed with his regiment to the United Kingdom. Thereafter, his leadership potential was also recognized, and, by early 1941, he had been commissioned as an officer.

By 1943, the Canadian Army was in Action in Sicily and Italy, and Triquet earned a reputation as an officer who led from the front. In December of that year, his company was chosen to lead a battalion attack to capture Casa Berardi in order to facilitate the Allied advance. German resistance was extremely stiff, and, in the midst of the fighting, Triquet uttered the words which were to be forever associated with his actions and those of his men: “We are surrounded, the enemy is in front, behind and at our sides-the safest place is on the objective.” Triquet and his men eventually took the objective. In the process, his company was reduced from 81 to 14 men. Triquet did not escape entirely unscathed from the action, and, in speaking later of the events of that day, whereupon he constantly moved about his company’s position, motivating his men, he stated: “In the state of mind I was, seeing all those dead bodies strewn over the area, and being unable to bury them, I had to, in order to hang in there, be able to speak with the few survivors that remained.” Herein, we get a glimpse of the psychological effects from which he was suffering.

The actions of Triquet at Casa Berardi soon spread throughout the Eighth Army, of which the regiment was part, and so arose the issue of how this particular action was to be recognized. Initially, Triquet’s own Commanding Officer (CO) recommended the Distinguished Order (DSO), in itself a great honour. This recommendation was endorsed at brigade and divisional level by the appropriate Canadian commanders. However, it was the British Commander of the 5th Corps, Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Allfrey, who made the key ruling on the issue: “I won’t recommend the man who broke the crust on my front for a Military Cross (MC) or a DSO. Make it a VC. He deserves it.” Herein, the author proves his mettle and turns what could have been a rather dry discourse on the honours and awards process into an analysis of the various factors including politics, the media, and nationalism, which can impact upon the granting of military decorations. Triquet received the VC from King George VI on 27 March 1944, the citation citing his determined “leadership and example,” as well as his “magnificent courage and cheerfulness.”

It is at this point that Triquet’s career as a front-line soldier was effectively terminated. As his new CO informed him: “Paul, you generously offered your life to the service to your country and your country accepted it – it no longer belongs to you.” Thus, Paul Triquet embarked upon a series or morale and recruitment boosting tours across the country, initiated by a government which saw the advantage in promoting a Francophone winner of the nation’s highest decoration for valour. Some, including the mayor of Victoria, David Howrie, saw it as nothing less than “prostitution of the Victoria Cross.” One gets the impression that Triquet himself was not fully comfortable with his new role as a hero. This is highly evident in many of the photos of Triquet taken after the award, whether returning to Montreal, or giving various speeches across the country, wherein the viewer gets the sense that he would rather ‘not have been there.’ Triquet also looks much older than his years at the time, and both these elements are evident in the book’s cover photo.

Following his award, Triquet continued to lobby for a return to field duty with his beloved soldiers. There existed no clear Canadian policy on this matter, and although Triquet was able to return to the R22eR in Italy for a short period, he was destined to spend the remainder of the war in training units away from the front.

After the war, Triquet decided to remain in the army. However, his health began to deteriorate, he was drinking heavily, and he was attempting to reconcile with his wife. His superiors considered retiring him, and he accepted their offer, with a formal retirement date from Regular Force service of 12 November 1947. With the outbreak of the Korean War, he volunteered for active service and is accepted as a member of the Reserve Force, eventually becoming CO of Le Régiment de Lévis before finally retiring as a brigadier in 1959. He remained active in regimental affairs, making a final trip to Casa Berardi in 1974, before passing away on 4 August 1980. His ashes are interred at La Citadelle, home of the R22eR, in Quebec City.

Although Canada’s recent performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics has given rise to what some are calling a sense of newfound national pride, Canadians are generally uneasy with ‘heroes.’ In the author’s view, the definition of a hero has changed over time, Canadians having become increasingly skeptical of holding such people up as behavioural models to be emulated. However, the successors to the tradition of Triquet’s battlefield valour continue to follow his example, particularly in Afghanistan. As long as Canada continues to send its soldiers abroad in the service of the nation, the stories of soldiers such as the brave young man from Cabano deserve to be told. Highly recommended.

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Colonel P.J.Williams, an artillery officer,is currently Director Plans Western Hemisphere on the Strategic Joint Staff at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.