WarningThis information has been archived for reference or research purposes.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats on the "Contact Us" page.

Book Reviews

Hell’s Corner: An Illustrated History Of Canada’s Great War, 1914-1918

by Jack Granatstein
Toronto: Douglas & McIntrye. 198 pages, $50.00

Reviewed by John Marteinson

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

Book coverCanada’s most prolific military historian has once again produced a superb book that everyone with an interest in the wartime exploits of Canadian troops will want to have. Jack Granatstein’s new book tells the compelling story of Canadians in the First World War. The focus is primarily on the renowned Canadian Corps and how it evolved from a motley group of amateurs in 1914 to the “shock troops” of the British Expeditionary Force by the end of the war in 1918. The book also recounts the derring-do of Canadian pilots in the Royal Flying Corps, as well as the contribution to the war effort by those left at home. The text is deftly crafted and riveting, as might be expected of so respected an author, and this is complemented by a well-chosen selection of evocative photographs, many from the archives of the Canadian War Museum that have never before been published. In addition, more than 25 paintings from the War Museum’s extensive art collection are reproduced in colour, along with contemporary posters and other ephemera.

Some might well ask, why yet another book about the First World War? Perhaps one of the best reasons is that all other high quality, illustrated ‘pop history’ books dealing with Canada’s efforts in the Great War are long out of print and hard to find even in the used book stores. For example, the Granatstein and Morton book, Marching to Armageddon, indeed covered much the same ground, but it was published in 1989. Then too, in recent years there has been a significantly heightened interest in this war, perhaps sparked by the excellent books by the British historians John Keegan and Hew Strachan, both entitled The First World War, and Margaret MacMillan’s award winning Paris 1919. Jack Granatstein’s own book, Canada’s Army, also deals in part with this same period, but in less detail and without the extensive illustrations. Hell’s Corner is thus much needed to re-tell this proud story of daring and selflessness and sacrifice to yet another generation of Canadians, a generation that has grown up with visual images as an integral part of life.

The book is structured in a conventional way, with individual chapters devoted to the mobilization and training of the Canadian Expeditionary Force; the baptism of fire and introduction of the 1st Division to the horrors of trench warfare at the Second Battle of Ypres and at Festubert and Givenchy in 1915; an account of the extreme discomfort of daily life in the cold, wet trenches, along with a fairly lengthy section on Canadians serving in the embryonic Royal Flying Corps; and, the growth of the Canadian Corps with the arrival and introduction to battle of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Divisions at the battles of St. Eloi and Mount Sorrel, as well as the early signs of the maturation of the Canadians’ fighting skills during the costly attrition battles at the Somme in 1916. Chapter 5 returns to the Home Front, with descriptions of the growth of war industries, the employment of large numbers of women, and the impact on the country of the enormous number of casualties and the consequent need to resort to conscription. There is then a chapter covering the battles of Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele in 1917, battles where the Canadian Corps demonstrated how truly professional it had become because of innovative changes in tactics and technology introduced in the five months after the battle of the Somme. Here we get far more detailed descriptions of the battles than in earlier chapters, and excellent examples of the sterling leadership of both Generals Byng and Currie in this period. The next chapter deals with “The Hundred Days”, when the Canadian Corps – now the “shock troops of the British Expeditionary Force” – had the leading role in the 1918 offensives that brought about the German surrender on 11 November. The final chapter is essentially an account of the repatriation of the Canadian Corps – the finest army Canada ever produced – and its rapid disbandment in 1919. The one appendix shows the distinguishing sleeve patches worn by units of the CEF, reproduced from the official history by Colonel Nicholson.

Hell’s Corner is a well-balanced but still passionate account of the early failures and then lofty triumphs of the enormous army Canada raised for service in ‘The Great War for Civilisation’, as the conflict is dubbed on the Victory Medal awarded at the end of the war. If there is a single major shortcoming with this book, it is a dearth of maps. Military history, especially when it involves accounts of battles, needs good maps on which a reader can follow the course of the fighting. This book has only four maps – the 2nd Battle of Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Amiens, and the Canal du Nord – and these are indeed excellent reproductions of large fold-out maps from Nicholson’s official history. But, there are no maps depicting the important Canadian battles at St. Eloi, Mount Sorrel and the Somme in 1916, or Hill 70 or the bloodbath at Passchendaele in 1917, or the hard-fought offensive that broke the hinge of the Hindenburg Line east of Arras in 1918. Almost as serious a failing is that the book does not have a more general map of the Western Front showing the locations of all of these important Canadian Corps battles.

Despite this reservation, Hell’s Corner is highly recommended.

CMJ Logo

John Marteinson is the former editor of Canadian Military Journal. He teaches military history and Canadian defence policy at Royal Military College.