War, remembrance and scholarship: In memory of Louis Audette, a Canadian veteran of World War II

Remembrance has special meaning in a university. For remembrance, without study and the understanding that comes from study, can too easily become empty ritual. Understanding war is probably an impossible task, but it is one that humankind cannot avoid. Incomprehensible as war may be, it is also definitively human.

Capacity for co-operation to protect and nurture has been the tap root of humankind’s success and yet has also embraced co-operation to commit organized violence on an ever larger and more destructive scale.
To paraphrase the great historian Blair Nearby, the university is one of the very few places where people have the freedom and the means to tackle such an open-ended and profound issue.

On Remembrance Day, I particularly think of Louis de la Chesnaye Audette, who educated me — and many other historians — about the enormous challenge and urgent necessity of studying war. It is painful, I must confess, to speak of Louis in terms of “remember.”

The cold reality is that we lost him over fifteen years ago, at a ripe old age, but I find it hard to speak of him in the past tense. I can still see his jaunty form (perhaps five feet eight inches on a good day, always meticulously turned out in jacket and natty bow tie), the quizzical tilt of his head (he was always completely engaged with everyone he met) and hear his wicked one-liners (he was the very definition of irreverent).

Yet, we have lost Louis, like so many of the generation that endured the Great Depression and fought the Second World War. And, as he himself always proclaimed, he was exceedingly fortunate to have had the privilege of experiencing old age.

A native of Ottawa, Louis was descended from two of the ancient families of Quebec City, one English-speaking (his mother was a Stuart), the other French. He was fluently bilingual and truly bicultural. During the late 1930s, Louis, then a young lawyer practising in Montreal, volunteered to come out on active service with the navy in the event of war.

He was among the first groups of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve to be called up in 1939 for an accelerated training program and he served at sea almost continuously from 1940 until the end of the war in 1945.

He saw as much of the Battle of the Atlantic as any person. He was in the destroyer HMCS Saguenay when she was severely damaged in a torpedo attack off the British coast in December 1940. He was commanding officer of the corvette HMCS Amherst in November 1942 when she formed part of the tiny escort for convoy SC 107, whose passage in the face of some 15 U-boats was among the bloodiest convoy battles of the war.

As captain of a big new frigate, HMCS Coaticook, he was fully engaged in January 1945 when German submarines equipped with schnorkel equipment that allowed them to evade Allied defences, inflicted heavy losses on shipping near Halifax.

Yet Louis was the first to declare that, even as a warship captain of extraordinarily broad experience, he had only a worm’s eye view of the naval war.

The key to understanding, he always proclaimed, was study — research and reflection.

Although he became one of the government’s top administrators after 1945 (he held a succession of senior appointments, ultimately at the deputy minister level) he never ceased to study war. He particularly made a point of picking the brains of young scholars to discover the results of the latest historical research and analysis, the revelations of newly declassified high-level military and political archives.

The hospitality was always on Louis. He would produce ample quantities of the best scotch at his beautiful heritage house in downtown Ottawa, while his resident cook put a superb dinner on the table.

Yet convivial as Louis’s hospitality was, his purpose was intensely serious. Understanding can only be achieved through disciplined study and without disciplined study there is no understanding, and the great danger of “prejudice.” He used the word more broadly than most people, to mean any strongly held opinion that was not based on a genuine effort to gather the pertinent facts and analyze them in a balanced, open-minded way.
Among the prejudices that most infuriated him was the belief that chronological age automatically imparts wisdom.

I well remember the shock, during my early meetings with this wartime hero, when he repeatedly asked me what I had learned in my studies – if his views were at all accurate or needed to be modified in light of recent scholarship. I was only 28 or 29, not yet finished my graduate studies and well used to keeping my mouth shut in the presence of the great.

He had no patience for that attitude and made it clear I had to share my discoveries and insights — treat him as an equal and not some sort of historic artefact — if he were to be saved from the prejudices of his own experience.

On this Remembrance Day it comes to mind that Louis embodied the ideals of our best schools. He was one of those rare individuals who show that the university is not just a place — vital as it is to have such wonderful places — but a state of mind.

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