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Book Reviews



Reviewed by Richard Desjardins

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by Yves Tremblay
Montreal: Athéna Editions, 2008
389 pages, $39.95
ISBN 13: 978-2-922865-58-5

Reviewed by Donald Graves


The military officer, Yves Tremblay assures us in the introduction to Instruire une armée, that he is “a perpetual student.” Officers spend a great part of their careers studying and training, performing a wide variety of exercises and tests, and being judged on the results of their efforts. Members of the military are probably the most professionally educated segment of Western society, and it is only to be hoped that their extensive peacetime training will prepare them for the hard school of war. Tremblay believes that this was not the case with the Canadian Army of the Second World War, and his book is a scholarly and critical analysis of that army’s training prior to and during the conflict.

As his starting point, the author takes the attack on Nissoria in Sicily, made by the 1st Canadian Infantry Division during the period 24-26 July 1943. The first major action after Dieppe fought by the army during the war saw Major-General G.G. Simonds launch four formal frontal and very costly assaults upon a strong German defensive position that could have been more easily outflanked. Nissoria revealed major weaknesses in Canadian tactical practices, including too lengthy preparations involving precise and detailed written orders; every attack being preceded by an intense artillery bombardment; inflexible thinking on the part of senior commanders; a lack of initiative on the part of more junior commanders; poor coordination between armour and infantry; and poor communications, resulting in general confusion at all levels.

Nissoria, Tremblay informs us, demonstrates that modern warfare is difficult to wage, and that it requires the mastering of sophisticated techniques, as well as complex coordination between the different arms. To obtain victory, it is necessary for an army to adequately instruct its officers and troops, and to do that, it must have a clear concept of the educational objectives it wishes to instil in its members - and it must have the training organization that can implement those objectives. The Canadian Army lacked these basic elements when it went to war in 1939, and Tremblay believes that more attention should have been devoted to the development of a training organization and syllabus in the early war years, rather than to the operations of the later years. Instruire une armée is intended to fulfil that gap in our knowledge.

In 1939, the army was faced with the extremely difficult situation of having to expand a small permanent force of regulars and reservists – 4286 regulars and 51,418 reservists – into what would ultimately be a service numbering about 700,000 men and women that eventually fielded two corps, five divisions, and two independent armoured brigades. It was clear, particularly after the fall of France in May 1940, that the training of the pre-war regular officers did not correspond to modern military realities. To prepare a very ‘green’ army for combat would therefore not only take time, but it would also be necessary to increase the army’s own capacity to be able to instruct by undertaking a major re-organization of the training system and its syllabus. To a certain extent, despite hesitation, problems, and inconsistencies, by 1942, an organization was in place that, using ‘scientific’ methods of personnel selection, could choose potential officer candidates and train them in numbers.

Tremblay relentlessly documents the doleful effect that the domination of First World War theories and practices had upon the intellectual life of the army in the two decades that followed that conflict. But he also points out that, although the army suffered from weak numbers and deficient financing, it did have access to modern ideas as discussed in the articles that appeared in the Canadian Defence Quarterly, the professional periodical, but it did not profit from them because of the cultural conformity of senior officers. The result was that when the army went to war in 1939, it trained to re-fight the First World War, and it was only the shock of the German successes in Western Europe during the early summer of 1940 that brought about major changes in the army’s training establishments and concepts, changes that were almost always resisted by senior officers who were veterans of the First World War.

The author devotes considerable effort to elucidating the creation of new methods of junior officer selection and instruction. Despite problems and certain inconsistencies, a system was created that eventually did produce junior officers in numbers. Using a battery of committees and testing, ‘scientific’ selection was introduced, as well as new methods of instruction that aimed at giving the officer, not only useful knowledge, but also – and perhaps particularly – the wherewithal to develop his own capabilities for commanding men in the stress of combat.

Paramount among these new methods was the introduction of ‘battle drill.’ A system of realistic training intended to increase knowledge of field craft, to simplify and perfect small unit tactical movements (i.e., ‘fire and manoeuvre’), particularly under fire, and to increase physical fitness. It developed without official sanction in the British Army, and spread at the unit level across to the Canadian Army, and two of the most interesting and rewarding chapters in Instruire une armée are concerned with its conception and implementation. ‘Battle drill’ has had both its proponents and its detractors, both during and after the war, but Tremblay is very clear (pp 206-207) that, “… training for combat cannot be reduced to a single battle drill,” but the debate over the value of ‘battle drill’ reveals "the profoundly cultural characteristics" of the wartime Canadian Army, and the "characteristics found in a single element are typical" of that army’s "institutional culture."

Institutional culture, as it existed in the training practices of the pre-war and wartime Canadian Army, is the underlying premise of this fine new book. Although other historians – notably John A. English, Steven Harris, and W.J. McAndrew – have touched upon aspects of this subject, Yves Tremblay has, for the first time, provided the broader intellectual context of the preparation of the Canadian Army for combat in 1939-1945. Given the importance of this subject, it is to be hoped that Instruire une armée will, in the not-too-distant future, be translated into English, so that it may reach the widest audience possible.

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Donald E. Graves is the author of several books on the wartime Canadian Army as well as works on other topics in military history.

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