Some Memories of 2816 Brigadier General W.W. Turner
By 12570 Mike Kennedy
“He was a hell of a fine officer, and one who did a lot for the College and for the Artillery.”
Sergeant Major Fournier to Mike Kennedy, speaking of General Turner
December 15, 2016
As we approach the season that should be a time of joy and celebration, like many Ex-Cadets who attended the College in the mid-1970’s, I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of 2816 Brigadier General William Turner (photo right). “WW”, as we often referred to him back then, overlapped with me at the College in 1976-77, during his final year as Commandant, and what would turn out to be my first and only year at RMC.
I am sure that all who knew General Turner in that era will join me in extending sincere condolences to his family and friends.
In appreciation of his exemplary service to the College and to Canada, I would also like to take this opportunity to share a few of my own personal memories of the General with readers of e-Vertias.
As I recall, the members of the Recruit Class of 1976 got our first glimpse of the great man sometime during the week following our arrival on Sunday the 22nd of August. As raw recruits who had just donned our recently-issued and decidedly unglamorous uniforms for the first time, one evening after dinner we were ordered to attend a lecture in Currie Hall given by General Turner. By that time, the already sleep-deprived recruits were operating in something akin to a state of suspended animation, and I recall us being sternly admonished by one of our seniors (the inimitable Scotty Miller, no less !) that “No one sleeps during the Commandant’s lecture.”
It was a mighty struggle, but we did manage to stay awake during the lecture. Even so, I must confess to being wholly unable to remember a single word that was said. Nonetheless, over the course of the next several months we would be destined to see General Turner on many more occasions, some of which I remember very well to this day now 40 years later.
As young cadets in the mid-1970’s, most of us knew very little about General Turner apart from the fact that he was an Ex-Cadet who had seen service in the Second World War, and has risen through the ranks of the Artillery to become Commandant of the College. I don’t think any of us at that age had any comprehension of the experiences he had lived through, and certainly we were completely incapable of even remotely understanding the ordeals he and his comrades had suffered while fighting the war. It is only now, with the perspective gained of many years passing, that I think it is possible for us to more fully appreciate just what a remarkable life General Turner must have had.
According to his life story, Turner entered this world in 1921, at a time when veterans of the Canadian Corps had returned home in triumph after fighting the greatest war in history, but were also struggling to re-establish themselves in civilian life during the economic downturn of the early 1920’s. He grew up in an era where it was widely believed that “the sun never set on the British Empire”, but as things would turn out, he and his contemporaries would live to see that sunset arrive much more quickly than anyone might have believe possible.
In September 1940 Turner reported to RMC as a member of the one and only “Last War Class” who would march off the square just two years later. As a freshly-minted gunner officer, he would fight the Germans in NorthWest Europe, helping other Allied soldiers to successfully defeat the most evil regime the world has ever known. Following the war he would remain in the peacetime service, patiently and diligently climbing the ranks, and at the same time bearing witness with other members of his generation to a dramatic maelstrom of social change and upheaval in the world around him.
Looking back now 40 years in retrospect, the 1970’s was a strange and often difficult time to be wearing a uniform, especially in this country. The rejection of all things military in the aftermath of the hugely unpopular Vietnam war spilled over into this country, and the proud and professional Canadian fighting forces that had been created at the dawn of the Cold War were being slowly but inexorably eviscerated by a government that was much more preoccupied with the illusion of social justice as opposed to the realities of national security. Members of the services had been quickly and painfully tripped of the vestiges of their distinctive identities, and were being force-fed the distasteful mixed drink of unification in what often seemed like an ill-considered attempt to transform the armed forces into just another branch of the civil service.
Today, one can only imagine what a man of General Turner’s generation must have felt as he watched long-haired, jeans-clad members of the “Me Generation” arrive on his parade square as the newest crop of recruits. But throughout the turmoil unfolding in the world around him, Turner and men like him soldiered on with quiet dignity, never wavering from their sense of duty, and loyally and faithfully keeping alive the values and traditions that are the bedrock of military service and fighting spirit.
Of the many memories I have of General Turner, the one that stands out most vividly is that of Remembrance Day 1976. It was beautiful Thursday morning, cold and sunny, and by that time our recruit class had been at the College for not quite three months. It was also an occasion on which we were elated, not the least because following the requisite ceremonies we were excused from classes for the remainder of the day.
At the prescribed hour, our squadrons were marched out to the Arch, where General Turner gave an address. The phrase I remember him talking about was “RMC, and what it stands for.” As young recruits who were fighting to survive from one day to the next, perhaps quite understandably at that point in time none of us had any real conception of what the General was talking about. But it is only now, many years later, that I think we have come to appreciate just what a huge impact the College has had, not only on our own lives, but also on the life of the country which has given us so much. And I think today we would all agree that it was General Turner, and men like him, who showed us by their own personal example what RMC stood for, and what it meant to be a cadet, a man, and ultimately, a leader.
It must be admitted that in the eyes of his youthful charges, General Turner could at times appear to be a rather stern and remote figure. To some degree, I suppose that was only in keeping with the nature of the office that he occupied. But he was also without question not only a highly competent and professional officer, but also a gentleman in the best sense of the word, and a true man of honour. In many respects, he could be considered to be one of the last members of a unique and remarkable generation that had an extraordinary impact on the world around them, and that have now largely passed into history.
General Turner was a great Ex-Cadet, a great soldier, and a great Canadian. He was one who loved his College and his Regiment, and who served both with great distinction, but more than anything else, he loved the cadets and the soldiers he commanded. And now that he has departed this earth, he will be dearly missed by all those who knew him.
Rest in peace, Sir, and thank you for your service. Those of us who had the honour of serving under you are better men for having had that experience. Your contributions will never be forgotten, and will live on forever in the hearts of an entire generation of young men for who you helped to illuminate the path of true service to Canada and her people.
TRUTH, DUTY, VALOUR !
12570 Mike Kennedy