A tale of sur­vival

My fa­ther, who ex­tended a long fam­ily tradition of an­swer­ing the call to duty in the Sec­ond World War, won’t have a street named af­ter him just yet, writes PAUL COUVRETTE.

Ottawa Citizen - - ARGUMENTS - Paul Couvrette is an Ot­tawa writer, who dab­bles at pho­tog­ra­phy.

‘Lunch, when are they serv­ing lunch?” Dad asks po­litely. “You just ate lunch,” I ex­plain. Os­car Couvrette turns 93 Satur­day. He is the one of a hand­ful of sur­vivors of Ot­tawa’s reg­i­ment, the Cameron High­landers, who landed on DDay and most likely the last liv­ing Cana­dian to have in­vaded a for­eign coun­try. The Camerons were formed in 1856 and served in ev­ery en­gage­ment since Riel.

Dad never missed the Ceno­taph parade and be­came a celebrity, mak­ing the cover of dozens of news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. His chil­dren and many grand­kids could only won­der how this ami­able, quiet man could have done the deeds of war.

Os­car joined the Cana­dian Army at 18. He was an am­bi­tious kid in the De­pres­sion who packed gro­ceries for a dol­lar a day. The Army of­fered $1.10. The ca­ma­raderie of his pals played a part, as they suc­cumbed to the rous­ing war pro­pa­ganda. What he did not know and what ge­neal­ogy would un­earth was that Cou­vrettes have fought in ev­ery con­flict since the Carig­nan Sal­ières Reg­i­ment in 1665 pro­tect­ing Montreal against the Iro­quois. Dur­ing the Up­per Canada re­volts they were among a hand­ful of French Cana­dian Loy­al­ists. Cou­vrettes fought in the War of 1812 and the War to End All Wars, the First World War. There was, no doubt, some­thing in the blood.

Os­car was part of Z Force that landed in Ice­land on July 9, 1940. Churchill deemed Ice­land a threat, given its strate­gic po­si­tion. Un­like D-Day where we were in­vited by a gov­ern­ment in ab­sen­tia, the Ice­landic gov­ern­ment protested. Camerons en­dured the Ice­landic win­ter in tents but only saw com­bat once, strafed by a Ger­man fighter. Ice­landers even­tu­ally warmed to the Cana­di­ans and Os­car won the heart of one Ice­landic woman whose name he re­mem­bers to this day.

On June 6, 1944, he landed at Bernières-sur-Mer sup­port­ing the Chauds Reg­i­ment. He was the first man off the land­ing craft, not out of hero­ism, but sim­ply be­cause he could not stand the smell of vomit. The sur­real na­ture of D-Day was per­son­i­fied by Pipe Ma­jor Scott who pa­raded in kilt along the beach play­ing the bag­pipes. Men were slaugh­tered whole­sale, while Scott suf­fered nary a scratch.

Dad re­turned to those beaches many times to bathe in the ado­ra­tion of French school­child­ren. He was feted by roy­alty and prime min­is­ters, hon­oured by towns­folk as he walked through towns in his Camerons kilt. Os­car drove a mo­tor­cy­cle as a dis­patch rider and even­tu­ally a Bren Car­rier through the hedgerows. His lan­guage skills were used to com­mu­ni­cate with the Re­sis­tance. My fa­ther’s ac­tions in­cluded fight­ing the SS 12th Panz­ers at Carpi­quet, and the bat­tles of Falaise, Rouen and Boulogne.

Death was ever present. On DDay his sergeant was in a fox­hole 20 feet away when a mor­tar landed. It was as ran­dom as that. Most irk­some to Dad was the sheer mad­ness of it all when it came to death. He saw for him­self hun­dreds of his broth­ers in arms killed by friendly fire. Only once did he shed a tear about the war and it was at Ar­denne Abbey 50 years af­ter Kurt Meyer’s men mur­dered Cana­dian pris­on­ers. Sol­diers all saw the irony that is war. Dad had fought in Caen where 10,000 bod­ies lay in the sum­mer sun af­ter our “vic­tory.”

Ber­trand Rus­sell wrote “Pa­tri­ots al­ways talk of dy­ing for their coun­try, but never of killing for their coun­try.” Dad rarely spoke of his wartime ex­ploits to a young boy who con­stantly asked if he had killed any Ger­mans. In later years he told me that the 12th SS Panz­ers that he fought were re­ally just kids his age and younger. I never once saw any pride in his eyes — more like duty. Dad was, how­ever in­ge­nious at it. He had the brain­storm to wait un­til the SS were lined up for chow, think­ing that they were be­yond the range of his Vick­ers 303. He had cal­cu­lated an arc that would al­low the burst to fall where they stood. One thou­sand rounds lit up the sky and his spot­ter made a slic­ing mo­tion ... and only then did the full im­pact of hav­ing mowed down men whose crime was lin­ing up for a warm meal hit home.

In war, you laugh or go in­sane. One day at a farm­house, just prior to the bat­tle of Falaise, his unit came un­der mor­tar at­tack. Ev­ery­one jumped for cover, in­clud­ing one of his bud­dies who leaped head first into a pig sty. Jump­ing up, he leaped into a horse stall used to store duck feath­ers which poked through his uni­form. The pla­toon split a gut laugh­ing as the poor un­for­tu­nate ran around the barn­yard in some dis­com­fort cov­ered in pig slop and feath­ers, scream­ing for some­one to pull them out.

I am not cer­tain whether it was courage or sim­ple mis­chievous­ness that caused my fa­ther to im­per­son­ate a gen­eral at a bunker just south of Boulogne-sur-Mer. The Ger­mans waved a white flag, but de­manded that terms be dis­cussed only with a se­nior of­fi­cer. They had all been killed and Dad was the only per­son to ne­go­ti­ate since the Nazi spoke only Ger­man and French.

A long over­coat cov­er­ing his lowly uni­form, he ad­vanced on the bunker with two sol­diers who showed the great­est of def­er­ence. The Ger­man met him in mid field ask­ing only “What is your rank?” PFC Couvrette an­swered, “Gen­eral Nui­sance.”

A snappy salute and a Luger was handed over and out marched a com­pany of tired de­fend­ers who surely would have taken many more lives that day.

An hour later, they kicked in a booby trapped door, which killed the en­tire pla­toon ex­cept Dad. He suf­fered burns over 90 per cent of his body. This was, how­ever, the luck­i­est day of his life, for his back­pack con­tained dy­na­mite, which mirac­u­lously did not ex­plode. Sixty years later, we no­ticed that Dad had a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the sounds of the com­pres­sor on the re­frig­er­a­tor. He shared with me that he was wor­ried that the fridge door might catch fire. Un­for­tu­nately I brushed it off to some form of mild de­men­tia but now I re­al­ize how badly I had missed the signs of PTSD. The cost of war, it seems, is not al­ways paid on the bat­tle­field.

English politi­cian Tony Benn once wrote that “all war is a fail­ure of diplo­macy.”

As the politi­cians line up for that photo op at the Ceno­taph, I can’t help but think that one Novem­ber it would be won­der­ful if our lead­ers showed up where the real cost of war lives ev­ery day: the Per­ley vet­er­ans’ health cen­tre.

Those who died surely paid the ul­ti­mate price, but those who linger on with wounds to the body and the psy­che pay a daily toll.

Tom Brokaw coined the term the “Great­est Gen­er­a­tion” in ref­er­ence to men who lived through the De­pres­sion and fought in the Sec­ond World War. They val­ued hard work for the work it­self, not for the en­ti­tle­ments. They val­ued duty over per­sonal hap­pi­ness, es­chewed style over achieve­ment. Those who have not met such men are truly the poorer.

Os­car was no an­gel. On D-Day on the land­ing craft he was busy with a deck of cards. Ap­par­ently the men had lost their sense of rea­son and he landed in France with more than $5,000 in his back­pack, a small for­tune in those days. On re­turn­ing to Canada a hero he was granted a plum po­si­tion as chauf­feur for Paul Martin Sr., min­is­ter of health, but in his off hours he ran num­bers! Gam­bling was, of course, il­le­gal in those days be­fore OLG.

When Dad first en­tered the Per­ley, I be­gan the process of ap­ply­ing for a street nam­ing in hon­our of the Couvrette name. I was not solely think­ing of my fa­ther, but of the gen­er­a­tions of Cou­vrettes who had been war­riors.

I had un­earthed the fact that Cana­dian icon Joe Mont­fer­rand was in fact a dis­tant cousin and had been taught how to fight by his mother Marie Louise Couvrette. Dad’s fore­fa­thers, I dis­cov­ered had not missed an en­gage­ment in any Cana­dian bat­tle since 1665.

A few months of pa­per­work, and sure enough a call came in that the pow­ers that be would cer­tainly con­sider the mat­ter. They sim­ply wanted to know when ex­actly my Dad had passed away, since they only name streets for vet­er­ans af­ter they had died. Winc­ing, I re­layed the story to my fa­ther who with his typ­i­cal sum­ma­tion of events, pro­nounced his clas­sic syn­op­sis: “Knuck­le­heads.”

“Lunch, when is it?” Os­car asks again. I re­veal a choco­late chip cookie. We have to be care­ful be­cause the nurses will have my hide if they spot us. I tell him once again that he is 93 and re­mind him of the but­ton we gave him that reads “I Sur­vived Damn Near Ev­ery­thing.” He gives me a know­ing smile.

We sit qui­etly and watch the last of the fall leaves touch the Earth.

Por­trait of Ot­tawa’s Cameron High­landers by The Ser­vice Photo Com­pany, Sur­rey 1942. Re­stored by Couvrette Stu­dio. Os­car Couvrette is fourth from the top right.

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