When Princess Margriet of the Netherlands lifts the veil on a bronze plaque at Beechwood Cemetery on Friday, she will be honouring a Canadian military figure who’s arguably better remembered in her country than he is here.
The plaque pays tribute to Lt.-Gen. Charles Foulkes, who died in Ottawa in 1969 and is buried at Beechwood. His grave is marked by a simple granite headstone, according to military tradition.
Foulkes is most famous for the central role he played in Germany’s surrender in the Netherlands during the final days of the Second World War, but his accomplishments before, during and after that event were no less pivotal.
You could write a whole book on him, but no one ever has.– Tim Cook, Canadian War Museum
“You could write a whole book on him, but no one ever has,” said Tim Cook, chief historian at the Canadian War Museum and the author of a dozen books about Canada’s military history.
“If Foulkes was 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, settling in London, Ont., where Foulkes enrolled at the University of Western Ontario before joining the Canadian military in 1926.
He returned to England in 1937 to undergo officer training at staff college, where he was deemed “sound and competent, and possessed of drive and determination.”
When the war broke out a couple years later, Foulkes was serving as a major. By the war’s end, he’d risen to the rank of lieutenant-general, leading the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division through the Normandy campaign before taking charge of the 1st Canadian Corps in Italy.
In early 1945, the corps was transferred to northwestern Europe, setting the stage for Foulkes’s big moment: On May 5, at a table in the Hotel de Wereld in Wageningen, he dictated the terms of surrender to Gen. Johannes Blaskowitz, ending the Nazis’ cruel five-year occupation of the Netherlands.
Also present at the German surrender was Prince Bernhard, supreme commander of the Dutch armed forces and father of Princess Margriet.
(The surrender wasn’t signed until the following day because, according to some versions of the story, no one could locate a typewriter.)
According to Cook, the Germans initially balked at Foulkes’s demand that the they 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 really was a dire situation.”
The Germans relented, and two days after Blaskowitz signed the surrender, the war in Europe was over.
A Cold War general
Foulkes’s appointment as chief of the general staff following 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 that got better at each level of command,” Cook said.
That was fortuitous, because in his new role as head of Canadian Armed Forces, and later as the first Canadian to chair the chiefs of staff committee, Foulkes helped steer Canada’s military policy through some of the most momentous 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 the Second World War and 15 years of the Cold War, although I think he’s largely forgotten today,” Cook said.
Foulkes was a continentalist who believed Canada’s military policies should be more closely aligned with those of its neighbour to the south, than with those of his native Great Britain. He was also at odds with prime minister John Diefenbaker’s non-nuclear approach. He resigned in 1960.
Don Foulkes remembers his uncle as “absolutely a stern military man who had a great degree of formality with him.”
Foulkes, who lives in Calgary and will attend Friday’s event in Ottawa with his wife, said like many military men, his uncle didn’t like to talk about his war years. But Foulkes recalled one revealing anecdote about what his uncle had found in the Germans’ headquarters following the surrender in Wageningen.
“He was appalled at what they had accumulated and squirrelled away in terms of paintings and French wine and chocolates, when the entire nation of the Netherlands was starving to death,” 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, Beechwood’s director of marketing, communications and community outreach, was the driving force behind the plaque dedicated to Foulkes, which is already installed — the pandemic postponed both the royal visit and the official unveiling by a couple years.
McCarthy noticed most official accounts of Canada’s role in the Second World War give Foulkes short shrift, and felt that was a wrong that needed righting.
“I’m a huge believer in bringing back not just some of the glory, but some of those accolades that we Canadians tend to stay away from,” McCarthy said. “We’re so humble that we tend not to celebrate our military heroes.”
McCarthy, who will host Friday’s event at Beechwood, noted that in the nation Foulkes helped liberate 77 years ago, people still know his name.
“The Dutch are very appreciative of his involvement in World War II, very appreciative of Canada’s involvement in World War II, and they never forget. And I think that’s where we Canadians need to start looking at our [own history] and never forget what these people have done.”