Introducing "The Padre's War Diary" by Brian Dalton

Elizabeth's Art Gallery: Tell us about your book.

Brian Dalton: It is called The Padre's War Diary, an account of four to six years of war in Europe by my uncle, Chaplain Michael Dalton. He wrote it during his time with the soldiers. It is a selection of 229 of his 528 diary entries with 200 illustrations.

E: This book took you four and a half years to complete. How long were you thinking about it beforehand?

BD: About a year.

E: Why did you decide to do this?

BD: I had made a graphic novelette for the Royal Ontario Museum, Sam and the Secrets of the Ancient Maya. You can still see it online. I had sat down and worked every day for 34 days, and I thought, "This is fun; I'm going to do one of my own."
I've always had it in the back of my mind that this diary is a remarkable document. It took me a year to figure out what of his diary to use. He was at war for two years before he started it, which I'm really glad of, or it would have been a lot longer.

E: It's so visual. How did you know what to draw?

BD: If the diary entries mentioned the Rouen Cathedral in France I Googled Rouen Cathedral, and if it was the Prince of Wales ship in the North Sea I found it. Mike talked about going up in an airplane; I found that type of airplane. I couldn't have done it without Google. A lot of the pictures, too, are from his own archives.

E: Explain the value of this book in our modern day.

BD: It's for the reason we have Remembrance Day. It's complicated. It's about remembering those who sacrificed their lives. What I don't think is understood by a great many people is that WWII was a just war. There were atrocities: the Allies bombed Dresden and killed innocent people. But Hitler was out to take over the world, to establish a Third Reich. He invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Holland, Norway -- his goal was to take over the planet. The Japanese joined in and so the Allies engaged in an idealistic war to stop tyranny, the Nazis, the Holocaust. This is about that.
I read Gwynne Dyer who says that we're past the cycle in which world conflicts normally happen: that we could easily have one again. Before World War II and before Hitler became obviously imperialistic, people didn't think it would happen. People right now don't think it will happen. I'm not saying it's going to happen.
The other aspect, a parallel theme, is the confessions: the Catholic ritual of people saying they have sinned. Other religions have it in different ways -- people trying to make things right with their conscience, I guess. There are ten interactions between the chaplain and the soldiers in which they describe situations. They're one-sided depictions of what these guys went through; he doesn't say anything.
I tried to imagine what these soldiers were saying. I did that by reading a couple of really good books on "battle fatigue", or what used to be called "shell shock", or other terms for PTSD. Nobody even needs to spell that out; everyone knows Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We all say we know how bad it is in Afghanistan, we know how Canadian troops suffer from PTSD, but I don't think we really do. We can't.
I tried to make the book pretty graphic. We can see soldiers stepping in other people's intestines. Mike writes in one place, "The smell of human flesh burning is depressing."
There are places where he talks about the glory of war and the defense of good against evil, so that some people have said he liked war. He didn't like war. He talks about the ugliness of war, and soldiers as being noble, and their noble cause. They died for freedom.
Another thing: even though Mike was Catholic, by the end of the war he became an ecumenical person. There are at least a dozen places where he describes non-Catholic men and admires them. I think he began to see -- he was born in 1902, and you can think of men being born in that Victorian era, living thirteen miles north of Goderich, growing up without much knowledge of the bigger world. When he trained to be a priest in seminary he only saw people of his own faith. But when he went to war he sat beside men in the trains and slept beside men in the tents, and he realized that the world is a bigger place than his church.
You might be surprised to find that after it all, with his big family and all the men is his realm, he dedicated the diary to-- but this won't be a surprise to anybody who knew him -- "those Jews and non-Catholics who helped make my war years livable and, I hope, useful."
That's what I like about him. I'm not a Catholic; never was. My parents thought they would make me one, but it didn't take. I had some sort of no-belief gene, but Mike didn't care. I told him that and he said "You are what you are."
I like the idea of unity. "Ecumenical" means everyone is the same.

E: Where can we find this book?

BD: Here at the Gallery, at Fincher's or at the Book Peddler on West Street starting today.

E: One more question: is this book for you, for him, for the men or for everybody else?

BD: All of the above. I did it because I wanted to do it; I didn't really think about selling it or what it was going to turn out like. I put in the beginning of the book, "For my Dad," because he was Mike's little brother and he admired the dickens out of him.
So, I did it because I thought it was worth doing.

E: That's a good answer.

Brian Dalton is a much-loved contributor to the Gallery. We're so proud to host his reading on Wednesday, November 9 at 7:00pm, which will also feature a collection of book illustrations never-before displayedWon't you join us?