WHERE THE HELL ARE THE GUNS? A SOLDIER’S EYE VIEW OF THE ANXIOUS YEARS, 1939-44
By George Blackburn
In Where the Hell Are the Guns? author George Blackburn both completes and begins his trilogy on the Canadian experience in the Second World War.
Completes because this is the last of the three to be published (the first two being The Guns of Normandy and The Guns of Victory). Begins because this is chronologically the first – describing the progress of the 4th Field Regiment RCA from recruitment, through a training program that takes place against the background of the “grim cavalcade” of Allied defeats, to the eve of their departure for Normandy, “fully prepared and ready to confront whatever the future has in store.”
Soldiers are natural story-tellers. Blackburn is no exception to this general rule, and he involves the reader through his clever use of the second person and present tense to describe his own experience. In addition, he draws on several other “soldier’s eye views” to fill out the story, blending official and anecdotal sources with ease.
While the book is structured around the training of an artillery regiment, Blackburn also develops two stories of love – one for his wife, whom he marries just before he heads overseas, and the other for England itself, which he comes to adopt as a second home.
With all of this, Where the Hell Are the Guns? is a sentimental story at heart, which is all part of its weird charm.
And “weird” is not too strong a word. An enormous gulf has opened between what happened 50 years ago and the world we live in today, making it seem as though Blackburn is describing a world of legend.
Of course, the tactics of modern warfare have evolved as fast as the technology, but there have been other changes as well. The moral certainty that pervaded the fight against fascism seems lost in a post-Vietnam, post-Somalia age in which even peacekeeping missions degenerate into brutal tragedies where we become the bad guys.
And the idea of marching off “for king and country” seems alien to a time when we are justifiably cynical about our elected representatives and the Royal Family is tarred with tabloid muck. Recalling the Royal Tour of 1939, Blackburn describes crowds nearly swooning under “the intense feelings of loyalty to a throne that stands for decency, human dignity and freedom choice.” Who feels that way about the monarchy today?
“Certainly no generation in history has ever gone into war with its eyes so wide open.” No doubt this is true, but the disillusionment Blackburn is referring to, the result of the First World War’s explosion of the myths of military glory, was only part of a larger process that is yet to end. The sound of Blackburn’s guns is growing more distant, and not only with the passage of time.
Review first published February 21, 1998.