Primary Source Review

Title: The Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King

Source: Library and Archives Canada

Access: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/databases/king/index-e.html ; the selected excerpts   can be found according to the stated dates.

The Canadian raid on Dieppe on the 19th of August, 1942 was an unmitigated disaster. To the Canadian public, the loss of a considerable number of Canadians for a seemingly irrational purpose was hard to contextualize. On many levels, Canadians found the defeat as a clear sign that their overseas troops were not being deployed practically. This opinion was not only the domain of the general public. William Lyon Mackenzie King agreed with them.

            The collected diaries of Mackenzie King provide a fascinating insight into one of our most famous and notable wartime leaders. His writings portray a deeply engaged and concerned leader, heavily burdened by the decisions of the Allied command, as well as his own.

            The first news of the Dieppe disaster was related to King early on August 19th, 1942. His dismay is conspicuously presented; King’s remarks concerning the dinner party later in the day illustrate a disillusioned, yet intimately humane leader who found it hard to come to grips with the wanton destruction of the expeditionary force.

          [Wednesday August 19th 1942]

...while Council was sitting, the first authentic word came of its extent and probably extent of our losses. It was that casualties were heavy. Number of Canadians taken prisoners but also many killed and wounded. One felt inclined to question the wisdom of the raid unless it were part of the agreement reached when Churchill was with Stalin.

I continue to feel sick at my heart when I think of that visit having as one of its features, a dinner at which apparently there were no end of toasts, references made to the high spirits of the dinner, etc. It is all continuance of the worship of false gods. Love of power, and the eating and drinking that goes with it. With men slaughtered by millions as is the case today, these leaders should have been on their knees before the world to my way of thinking.

It all serves to create false views and helps to bring about destruction...”           
The next day King continued to express his sorrow over the lost Canadians; pursuing a line of questioning concerning the usefulness of the raid, while attempting to understand the rationale behind the sacrifice of hundreds of skilled Canadian soldiers who had been the backbone of an increasingly professional military force:

          [Friday August 20th 1942]

... I was at work or telephoning until til 8 at the Farm, and then picked up Joan who came over to Moorside while I had dinner and remained there while I read accounts of the Dieppe episode. I am still not too sure of the wisdom of what was attempted. It goes back, I feel, above all to the time when it was felt it was necessary to have the Canadians do something for a variety of reasons. I still have a feeling that the part of wisdom would have been to conserve that especially trained life for the decisive moment. It may, in the long run, prove to be for the best but such is war. It makes me sad at heart...”

The following days, however filled with lingering sorrow they may have been, present a leader coming to terms with the Canadian tragedy. King’s August 30th entry reveals a man accepting that the Dieppe raid was an essential aspect of the struggle against the Germans, and not a singular waste of life. 

          [Sunday August 30th 1942]

...a personal & most secret letter & [?] cable from Churchill re his talks with Stalin...came yesterday – from Malcolm McDonald a revised copy today, has relieved my mind greatly. Churchill has taken the right course in seeing Stalin, & having situation clearly understood. I feel we are at last nearing the turning point, that Japs and Germans alike are revealing evidence of waning strength & power, or perhaps more accurately overtaxed strength & power. Their lines of communication have become too long & too heavy. They are now where Britain was at the start. It all looks more hopeful, & [sic] but terrible struggle still ahead...”

            Mackenzie King’s diary gives us a unique and invaluable insight concerning the inner turmoil of a leader forced to make difficult decisions in a time of world war. It is through selections of readings such as these that the impact of our contributions in the Second World War can be brought to bare. The entirety of William Lyon Mackenzie King’s diary can be accessed via Library and Archives Canada.

Voyager Magazine thanks Library and Archives Canada for the permission to reproduce these sections of Mr. King’s diaries. All transcriptions in this article are produced by Voyager and any errors in reproduction are our own.

 

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