During the First World War, my father served in the infantry and a cavalry unit and I heard stories about trench warfare and charges on horseback over fields raked by machine gun fire. Later, when my brothers came home after World War 2, the stories were totally different, and yet similar in vein.
I recall that the stories never revealed what war was really like, what my siblings and my father felt and the effect the fighting had on them. They told stories, but their tales never really conveyed what it was like to be on the battlefield.
I can say the same about many of the books I’ve read on the two great wars and the Korean conflict. What I mean is that words in books simply cannot explicitly express the horrors of war and tell us what it was like to be in the trenches, what it was like to be bombed and shot at, what it was like to have your fellow soldiers killed around you. To put it another way, you truly had to be there, to experience it yourself to understand what it was like to go to war.
Some books are the exception and they come close to capturing what the war experience was like. One of those books is a little-known volume of wartime recollections called Times to Remember by the late Major R. G. “Bill” Thexton of Wolfville; this was first published in 1995 and reissued last year.
During World War 2, Annapolis Royal native Robert G. Thexton (1918-2013) served with the West Nova Scotia Regiment, from 1940 to 1944, in England, Scotland, Sicily and Italy. During action, he was badly wounded but he rejoined his regiment after recovering, eventually serving in Europe after the war with peacetime forces.
Upon retiring from the military, Thexton was employed at Acadia University for 20 years. Through this latter period, he was actively involved with his old regiment and it was through the West Nova Scotia Regimental Association that the latest issue of his book was published.
Thexton’s book had its birth with a series of talks he gave at the West Nova Scotia Memory Club, which he was persuaded to expand upon and publish. As Colonel Ian Hope noted in the foreword, in this book Thexton “shows us details of life in wartime Aldershot, on convoy across the Atlantic, with the regiment in threatened England, ashore in Sicily and throughout the liberation of Italy.
“To those interested in history, Colonel Hope also said, “this account has so much to offer. Here is a glimpse of war on a grand scale. With Thexton you feel the presence of the combined armies and navies and air force that destroyed the German army in Italy. You sense herein the science of war circa 1944, with its mass and sophistication, in which infantry battalions were mere buckets of solid fuel to be burned almost empty in a single night, reconstituted again between battles, only to be burned empty again in the next.”
This is an accurate summation of this book but the Colonel might also have said that Thexton bluntly points out horrible errors by military commanders that led to so many deaths in his regiment. This aside, Thexton uses his great recall to tell us the important role the West Nova Scotia Regiment played in Italy, a role that helped to win the Second World War. We see the war through the eyes of a wartime military commander who was there and tells us how it really happened. A great read, in other words, for anyone for anyone interested in the military history of Nova Scotia.