When Princess Margriet of the Netherlands lifts the veil from a bronze plaque at Beechwood Cemetery on Friday, she will pay tribute to a Canadian military figure who is arguably better remembered in her country than here.
The plaque honors Lt. Gen. Charles Foulkes, died in Ottawa in 1969 and buried in Beechwood. His grave is marked by a simple granite tombstone, according to military tradition.
Foulkes is best known for the pivotal role he played in Germany’s surrender to the Netherlands during the final days of World War II, but his achievements before, during and after that event are no less were decisive.
You could write an entire book about him, but nobody ever has.– Tim Cook, Canadian War Museum
“You could write an entire book about him, but nobody ever has,” said Tim Cook, chief historian at the Canadian War Museum and author of a dozen books on Canada’s military history.
“If Foulkes were an American general or a British general, he would certainly be much better known in those countries.”
Foulkes was born in Stockton-on-Tees, England, in 1903, one of eight children. His family immigrated to Canada and settled in London, Ontario, where Foulkes enrolled at the University of Western Ontario before joining the Canadian Army in 1926.
He returned to England in 1937 for officer training at the staff college, where he was deemed “sound and competent, and possessed drive and determination”.
When war broke out a few years later, Foulkes was a major. By war’s end he had risen to the rank of lieutenant-general, leading the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division through the Normandy Campaign before taking command of the 1st Canadian Corps in Italy.
In early 1945, the corps was moved to northwest Europe, setting the stage for Foulkes’ big moment: on May 5, at a table in the Hotel de Wereld in Wageningen, he dictated the terms of surrender to General Johannes Blaskowitz, ending the Nazis. ‘ cruel five-year occupation of the Netherlands.
Prince Bernhard, supreme commander of the Dutch armed forces and father of Princess Margriet, was also present at the German surrender.
(The surrender was not signed until the next day because, according to some versions of the story, no one could locate a typewriter.)
According to Cook, the Germans initially balked at Foulkes’ request to immediately make way for emergency food aid to reach starving Dutch civilians.
“Foulkes growled at them…and said, ‘That would be a war crime,'” Cook recounted. “It was truly a dire situation.”
The Germans gave in and two days after Blaskowitz signed the surrender, the war in Europe was over.
A Cold War General
Foulkes’ appointment as chief of staff after the war surprised some, said Cook, who noted his somewhat spotty performance on the battlefield. But the higher his rank, the more Foulkes seemed to excel.
“Foulkes was one of those generals who got better with each level of command,” Cook said.
This was fortuitous, for in his new role as head of the Canadian Armed Forces, and later as the first Canadian to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Foulkes helped guide Canada’s military policy through certain of the most significant events of the post-war period: rearmament, the formation of NATO, the Korean War and the nuclear arms race.
“So he really is an important figure, both for WWII and 15 years of the Cold War, although I think he’s largely forgotten today,” Cook said.
Foulkes was a continentalist who believed that Canada’s military policies should be more closely aligned with those of its southern neighbor than with those of his native Britain. He also disagreed with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s non-nuclear approach. He resigned in 1960.
Don Foulkes remembers his uncle as “an absolutely stern military man who had a lot of formalities with him”.
Foulkes, who lives in Calgary and will attend Friday’s event in Ottawa with his wife, said like many servicemen, his uncle didn’t like to talk about his war years. But Foulkes recalled a telling anecdote about what his uncle had found in German headquarters after the surrender at Wageningen.
“He was appalled at what they had hoarded and accumulated in terms of French paints, wines and chocolates, while the whole nation of the Netherlands was starving,” Foulkes recalled.
Charles Foulkes would go on to teach strategic studies at Carleton University in the late 1960s. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1968, the year before his death.
“They never forget”
Nick McCarthy, director of marketing, communications and community outreach at Beechwood, was the driving force behind the plaque dedicated to Foulkes, which has already been installed – the pandemic has postponed both the royal visit and the official unveiling by a few years .
McCarthy noted that most official accounts of Canada’s role in World War II overlooked Foulkes and considered it a wrong that needed to be righted.
“I strongly believe in not only bringing back some of the glory, but also some of those accolades that we Canadians tend to shy away from,” McCarthy said. “We are so humble that we tend not to celebrate our military heroes.”
McCarthy, who will host Friday’s event in Beechwood, noted that in the country Foulkes helped liberate 77 years ago, people still know his name.
“The Dutch very much appreciate his involvement in the Second World War, very much appreciate Canada’s involvement in the Second World War, and they never forget. And I think that’s where we as Canadians have to start looking at our [own history] and never forget what those people did.”