In this month of remembrance, I wonder how many Canadians will remember Matthew Halton, one of Canada’s greatest foreign correspondents. Perhaps more now that his son David Halton (also a prominent Canadian journalist) has written the book Dispatches from the Front: Matthew Halton, Canada’s Voice at War.
Halton began life humbly – in a two-room shack in Pincher Creek, Alta. In order to fund his university education, he had to work as a teacher in remote Alberta towns – often travelling for miles by horseback to reach the one-room schoolhouses. After studying in Edmonton and England he returned to Canada to work at the Toronto Star.
What a time to be a journalist. It was the early ‘30s and the heyday of print media — a time of reporters dressed in fedoras, flasks stuffed in the pockets of their trenchcoats, rushing out to get a scoop.
After a few early successes, Halton quickly rose in reporting status to become a foreign correspondent. He returned to London, and wrote stories there and in Europe. In Germany he witnessed the manipulation of a people utterly ruined and humiliated after the First World War, and bent on revenge.
He warned again and again of the threat of Fascism, and of Germany’s increasing power. Halton’s writing was personal and vivid: “Germany enters a nightmare. I feel it in my bones. She has heard the call of the wild. Pan-Germanism, six centuries old, is on the march again, but in a new demonic form.”
As he wrote his German series, most other news outlets in Canada (and the prime minister Mackenzie King) thought Halton’s fears were overblown. Later, at the whitewashed Munich Olympics, a Canadian figure skater told Halton he no longer believed that the Germans were a threat: “No people as courteous as these could persecute Jews or militarize their whole country.”
As with many of his predictions, Halton was proved right. He went on to cover many more assignments in the lead-up to the war, and during it: the winter war in Finland, the desert war in North Africa, Ortona, D-Day and the liberation of Paris. His dispatches back to Canada were splashed across the front pages and picked up by the Americans and British. Working for CBC radio, he became the most recognized voice in Canada.
David Halton is careful to highlight his dad’s failures alongside his rise to stardom. He details extra-marital affairs, excessive drinking, and times when his dad’s writing was simply not at its best. For the most part, he describes his father as a profound and prophetic writer. Fortunately, David is an equally insightful engaging writer. In addition to the great storytelling, there is much to be learned in this book about the 20th century, and how it’s possible we may repeat our mistakes.
Heather Allen is a book reviewer living in Penticton