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Book Reviews

général dollard ménard, de dieppe au référéndum

by Pierre Vennat

Montreal: Les Éditions Art Global, Montréal, 2004
340 pages

Reviewed by Dr. Béatrice Richard

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Book coverThe Disenchantment of Life After War

Biographies of French-Canadian military leaders are rare, and for good reason. It is only from the Second World War onward that a significant enough number of them would rise to the rank of general. This was the case, in particular, with Bernatchez and Allard, who both won their spurs in European campaigns. Consequently, francophone officers reached the senior ranks most often during the Cold War, a period which scarcely lent itself to spectacular armed operations. This contrasts with the experiences of Currie, McNaughton and Simonds, who were all senior commanders during the two world wars.

With his recent biography of General Dollard Ménard, journalist Pierre Vennat attempts to rectify this situation. In the process, the author takes on an individual who is complex and very controversial. Did not the hero of the Dieppe raid create a sensation by taking a stand in favour of the “yes” side in the 1980 Referendum?

General Ménard was the commander of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal, the only francophone unit that participated in Operation Jubilee, conducted on 19 August 1942 against the French port of Dieppe. He was also one of the few officers who survived the massacre. Recalled to Canada, he became the central figure of an avid propaganda campaign searching for a war hero at a critical time of the war. The Allies were retreating on all fronts and a disillusioned public could quickly turn against the Dieppe debacle. However, possibly even worse was the fact that nearly four months earlier, Quebec francophones had voted en masse against conscription. As in 1917, war policy was dividing the two founding peoples. The War Information Office had no other option but to portray the disaster as a heroic raid. In this context, the fact that Ménard was a French-Canadian was a windfall. Who, if not him, could revive the patriotism of the inhabitants of La Belle Province? Wounded five times in combat, the commander of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal thus became a veritable media star who was taken to the four corners of Canada to boost the sale of Victory Bonds, all while minimizing the disaster at Dieppe.

The major point of interest in this book is Vennat’s presentation of the “before” and the “after” of this disorganized media campaign that remains unparalleled in the history of war propaganda in Canada. How does one become a war hero? What are the “profits and losses” associated with such a distinction? The author attempts to answer these questions based on interviews he conducted with Dollard Ménard when he was still alive, and through the contents of Ménard’s personal diary. He traces the life of the future general, from his entry into the Royal Military College of Canada until his death in 1997. Vennat includes Ménard’s experience as an officer in the Indian Army, where he fought rebel tribes on the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This episode, in particular, provides an understanding as to why Ménard, amongst others, was selected for the 1942 raid: Combined Operations required experienced men to quickly train shock troops. In this case, only four months passed between preliminary approval of the plan and its execution. The “after Dieppe” period is, without doubt, the most poignant part of the book.

For obvious reasons, there is a tendency to turn the spotlight on generals when they are in the heat of the action. However, in this case, Ménard is mainly tracked through an unglamorous maze of military bureaucracy. In fact, Vennat describes a descent into hell for the man. After Dieppe, and still not fully recovered from his wounds, Ménard was sent at the head of the Hull Regiment to liberate Kiska Island. The mission unfolded without incident, since the Japanese occupiers had already abandoned the island before the Canadian troops landed. End of story.

Ménard’s subsequent career was one long series of disappointments, starting with the after-effects of his wounds, which kept him away from the European fighting fronts for the rest of the war. Of course, these health problems had a direct effect on promotions, which were slow in coming. Between the lines, we discover the extent to which the career soldier who has stopped fighting has a difficult time coping and thriving. Vennat shows very well how much the return to the monotony and the red tape of bureaucracy was difficult for this hero, who had experienced the intensity of the operational theatre and who subsequently had been highly praised in a propaganda campaign. In addition, there was the difficulty associated with being a francophone in the army, especially in peacetime. Like other francophone officers of his generation, Ménard continued to denounce the discrimination faced by French-Canadians. Nevertheless, he was able to obtain a position as military attaché in Paris after the war, and then served as United Nations chief of staff in Kashmir from 1950 to 1951. His later career was rather lacklustre, complicated by alcoholism and depression, which, one suspects, poisoned his interpersonal relationships. He returned to civilian life in 1965, nine years after having been promoted to brigadier-general, but he faced serious problems upon re-entering the work force.

Bitter and disillusioned, Dollard Ménard was in the headlines again, but this time generating controversy, particularly when he filed a libel suit against Generals Jean-Victor Allard and Jacques Dextraze after the 1980 referendum campaign. Ridiculed by his comrades-in-arms for his statements favouring the “yes” side, the old warrior bared his teeth and ultimately received a public apology. Another controversy erupted on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Dieppe. The hero of Jubilee was offended at not having been invited to the commemorative ceremonies.

Through these anecdotes, Pierre Vennat paints a human and touching, although not a sympathetic portrait of a man who, after having given everything for his country, felt that he had been abandoned by it. Was he right or wrong? This is what the reader wonders at every page of this biography. Admittedly, the author observes the rules of journalism here and extensively allows his subject to speak for himself, without diminishing his shortcomings or pettiness. The advantage of this approach is that it allows the reader to form his or her own opinion. However, the “professional” historian will perhaps not find this linear account very useful. Frequently, it is in the form of a patchwork of interviews, press clippings and extracts from personal diaries. As a result, there are occasionally some very long quoted passages, for which the sources are forgotten in the course of reading them. The reader no longer knows who is being cited: be it Pierre Vennat, General Ménard or even someone else. In short, the style is sometimes confusing, but this book tells a good story and portrays an engaging individual whose fate leads one to reflect on the disenchantment of life after war.

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Béatrice Richard holds a doctorate in History. She teaches at RMC, in Kingston

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Aftermath of the raid – The beach at Dieppe.