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The young soldier provided detailed and often enthusiastic accounts of the theoretical and field training provided at these military camps. He wrote extensively about the battle drills, field exercises, physical training, shooting practices, written and oral examinations that made up the regimen there and reflected in more personal terms on his own preparedness for war. His development as a leader is also revealed in accounts of his relations with the soldiers he trained as an officer instructor. From an advanced infantry training camp in Aldershot, Nova Scotia, he writes in January 1944:

“Dear Mom and Family: Yes, I am still at Aldershot. I still don’t know the date that my course starts and may be able to finish the last two weeks of training with my platoon. They heard that I was going away and all wanted to know if there was any way I could stay with them for the last two weeks. I think we’ll actually shed tears when we part. Whenever one of them has to drag out of a run or route march he comes to me and apologizes for letting me down. I have started something new. At the end of every day, I have a review of the days work and then we have an informal “man to man” talk on anything they want to know of that’s bothering them. They love it and learn a lot.”12
Dr. Wilfred I. Smith, Dominion Archivist, 1970-1984

Dr. Wilfred I. Smith, Dominion Archivist, 1970-1984.
Photo by Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada

His eagerness to join the troops in Europe was finally satisfied in 1944 by a joint British-Canadian scheme called CANLOAN, by which Canadian officers could serve in regiments of the British Army. Smith volunteered and chose the Wiltshire Regiment (4th Battalion) where he became second in command of the Carrier Platoon in charge of flamethrowers. He crossed the Channel as part of the second wave of Allied Forces and landed in Normandy a few days after D-Day. He was wounded in the Battle of the Scottish Corridor west of Caen in July 1944 and returned to the front in January 1945. He was a platoon and company commander during the winter campaign in Belgium and in the Battle of the Rhineland. After the German surrender in May 1945, he was involved in the disarming of the German Army.

In his personal papers, Smith was a keen recorder of life in his regiment as it became heavily involved in the war in Northwest Europe. In his correspondence he tells the stories of life in the trenches, of the camaraderie between his men and of the wrenching impact of inevitable casualties amongst them. He writes also of the reception they received from the local population as they moved across Europe. Field notes taken by the young officer provide valuable information on the progress of the regiment and its military activities, as well. His enthusiasm for defending his country and democratic principle rarely falters even when confronted with the deaths of fellow soldiers, or in extreme fatigue or when, as depicted in the following letter to his family in April 1945, he has sudden leadership responsibilities thrust upon him:

“Dear Mom and Family: I am about ten years older that I was when I wrote to you last and have been commandinga company in action most of that time. The CO has suggested several times that I take promotion and Philip wanted me for his 2 l/c so Capt Bennett was transferred to another battalion to make a vacancy for the next battle. It turned out to be the hardest day we ever had, fighting our way about ten miles on foot along the outskirts of Bremen where the main defences were, taking 16 subsequent objectives, and capturing the commandant of Bremen, his HQ complete and a total of 1000 prisoners. At dusk we were about to pass thru another co[mpan]y to go on to the final objective and Philip went ahead in a carrier to interview the other company commander. I heard a volley of shots and the carrier came speeding back with Philip’s dead body and I was commanding the company under severe shelling and sniping. I was standing beside the colonel a few minutes later when he got shot in the leg but insisted on carrying on. The next minute a shell burst beside us and he fell, hit on the back. One of my sergeants volunteered to help me carry him across the open to the nearest building, during which (time) the C.O. was hit again and I was in command of the battalion until the second in command (2 l/c) came up. We then pushed on, getting consolidated about 2 a.m. and at dawn we went on again in a pouring rainstorm to take six more objectives. I’ve had wonderful cooperation ever since and the other lieuts give me all the obedience and respect they did Major Colverson. Please don’t worry about me as I am absolutely fit and happy as a lark. I’ll at least have something to remember — or forget — about this war (which isn’t over out here).”13

Dr. Smith’s experiences during the war led him to write a history of Canadian involvement in the CANLOAN programme in 1992. In his research and writing of the book, called Code Word CANLOAN, he used the responses to questionnaires that he had collected from officers who participated in the programme, about their experiences during the war. These materials and some unpublished military memoirs (including Smith’s) can be found in the fonds.

With his return from the war and the completion of his MA in history at Acadia in 1946, Smith set his sights on obtaining a PhD, with the objective of teaching at the University level. In the fall of that year, he accepted an offer from the History Department of the University of Minnesota which combined a position as a teaching assistant with a chance to obtain his doctorate. Smith’s thesis advisor was the well known historian and authority on Canadian history, A.L. Burt, who became a close friend as revealed in correspondence from the Smith fonds. The historian also introduced his protégé to the staff and holdings of the Public Archives of Canada which Burt used extensively for his research. After a stint as an instructor at the University of Saskatchewan from 1948 to 1950, Smith accepted an archivist’s position at the PAC in the hope of using this job to complete his PhD research and achieve his goal of becoming a University professor. Instead, it would lead him down the road to becoming the fifth Dominion Archivist in 1970.


  1. Wilfred I. Smith fonds, MG 31, E 96, vol. 24, file 11.
  1. Wilfred I. Smith fonds, MG 31, E 96, vol. 24, file 12.