by Edith Cody-Rice

dispatches from the frontIf you have a last minute Christmas gift to buy for a history buff, may I recommend Dispatches from the Front, broadcast journalist David Halton’s memoir of his father, the famous Matthew Halton, whose stories for the Toronto Star and broadcasts from the European theatre of the second world war made him famous throughout Europe and America of the 1940’s . David Halton, who himself had a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent for the CBC, traces his father’s career from his impoverished (only financially, not emotionally) childhood in Pincher Creek Alberta, the child of British immigrants who scraped out an existence, through his education and experience as a teacher in small rural Alberta schools to the journalistic career that made him a household name. Halton covered the Spanish civil war and Hitler’s Germany in the 1930’s. His was a voice in the wilderness accurately predicting Hitler’s intentions to dominate Europe and recounting his vicious conduct toward dissidents and Jews. Politicians and many other journalists preferred to close their eyes to what was evident, the prospect of another world war being just too chilling to acknowledge. The Toronto Star and the Winnipeg Free Press were the only major Canadian newspapers of the time that were anti-Nazi – other papers such as the Globe praised Hitler and avoided irritating the Nazi regime. The account of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games is particularly telling. People who attended them and should have known better, were charmed by the propaganda surrounding the games (attacks against Jews were prohibited during the games only to resume afterwards). All was friendly and light hearted. MacKenzie King was a particular fan of Hitler’s, a sympathetic soul as he himself put it. It was not until kristallnacht, the night of broken glass when Nazi thugs smashed Jewish businesses and publicly humiliated Jews,  that the world woke up to the evils of Nazism.

Halton covered the second world war from London, the deserts of North Africa and was with the first assault wave of Canadian troops invading mainland Italy, when  the spectre of the disastrous Dieppe haunted them and before they could know they would be victorious.   He was in Paris during the Liberation. In fact, after he learned to control his fear, he developed something of an addiction to the intensity and adventure of war. As Knowlton Nash, a CBC new anchor later stated,

Mathew Halton; in a way, was our Ed Murrow,

referring to the great American journalist Edward R. Murrow.

David Halton covers his father’s life with a remarkably objective voice. He conducted extensive research of Matthew Halton’s broadcasts, articles, journals and other papers. The book ends with 33 pages of footnotes. David lauds his father but does not neglect his failings: his heavy drinking, a short affair during the war when he was far from home for a long period of time, his father’s sometimes moralizing tone in his broadcasts and writing. But clearly, the Haltons, through three generations, have been a close, loving and supportive family. This is a good, clear-eyed memoir worth reading about  a man who was truly a witness to history in the mid twentieth century.

Dispatches from the Front is published by McClelland and Stewart