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Book Reviews

Survivre aux tranchées l’armée canadienne et la technologie (1914-1918)

by Bill Rawling
Athena Publishing, Outremont (Que), 2004 304 pages

Reviewed by Carl Pepin

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Book cover Éditions Athéna has shown good initiative by publishing, finally, a French version of Bill Rawling’s classic, with the title Survivre aux Tranchées. L’armée canadienne et la technologie (1914-1918). The original, published in 1992 and titled Surviving Trench Warfare. Technology and the Canadian Corps 1914-1918, was so successful that a second edition was published in 1997. Before tackling the contents of the book, it would be appropriate to describe the context for the French version.

Francophones in Canada do not usually read books of this nature. For them, the Great War comes down to the mass refusal of French-Canadians to take part in the conflict. They remember more, for example, the 1918 Quebec riots than the one thousand soldiers of the 22nd Battalion (French-Canadian) who were killed in combat. French-Canadian historians generally have little interest in the subjects examined by Rawling. Moreover, the book takes a very technical approach towards the ways that Canadians waged war. French-Canadians, it must be admitted, have a poor knowledge of general military history. Is the appearance of this book, therefore, too hasty? Perhaps, but it is a risk that Éditions Athéna has had the courage to take.

More than one historian will be surprised to find that a French publication deals with the First World War from a purely military perspective. Since the 1980s, research has been focused primarily on cultural history. Studies on topics such as the corpse, the child, mourning, and memory have presented the 1914-1918 war from new angles. In this perspective, the central question is the one asked by Jean-Baptiste Duroselle in La Grande Guerre des Français: L’incompréhensible (The Great War and the French: the Incomprehensible): how were civilians and soldiers able to hold out for more than four years? In other words, part of current research focuses on the acceptance of civilian and military populations of the sacrifices imposed by the war.

This cultural history does not take into account the way soldiers waged war. Yet, there is a link between what is considered disdainfully as the technical history of battles and the history of soldiers determined to adapt and to survive the trenches. Merging two theoretically opposing schools of thought could have the great advantage of shattering myths that unfortunately endure about the war. Bill Rawling takes up this challenge by showing that the “cultural” history of soldiers can be combined with a technical analysis of their equipment. For example, he frequently quotes from the correspondence of soldiers who regularly gave technical details about the functioning of their weapons.

The reader who expects to find in this book an explanation of the scientific processes that led to the appearance of new weapons at the front will be quickly disappointed. The author is not trying to write history “from up high” and he does not review the debates on the utilization of the airplane, the tank, or toxic gases. He wonders how soldiers adapted and survived with the equipment they had in light of what they endured. This is the fundamental question for Rawling who, like the soldiers, is not satisfied with the reports of the decision-makers on the introduction of new technologies. He tries to understand how the soldiers succeeded in imposing “above” what had been tried out “below.”

Rawling’s interest is three-fold. First, the author is more concerned with tactics than with strategy inasmuch as he tries to define the link between the tools of war and those who use them. Next, he considers that the decisive factor for victory was not so much technology as the efforts of the Canadian army to adapt in order to survive. Apart from some rare exceptions, most of the weapons and equipment that were used already existed before 1914, and some were rudimentary. Finally, he shows that the soldiers did their utmost to incorporate tools which allowed them to escape the stalemate of the trenches and to better control their environment. He believes that they succeeded in this, which goes against the more traditional and stereotypical portrayal of trench warfare in which nothing moves for months and even years.

Rawling could be placed in the class of authors for whom the theory of the learning curve explains the soldiers’ adaptation to the realities of the battlefield. This theory is subscribed to by British researchers who attempt to understand how military leaders and their soldiers adapted their strategies and tactics to meet the new demands of combat that, in 1918, were no longer anything like those that were studied before 1914. According to this theory, war is linear and errors provide rudimentary lessons that may well lead to victory. Its supporters maintain that it provides a rebuttal to the arguments of those who believe that England never recovered from the heavy loss of men, which has been deemed as pointless. For Tim Travers and Paddy Griffith, this theory explains the errors of command of 1914-1918 while the “Australian school,” led by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, questions its validity. In their study of the third battle of Ypres, Prior and Wilson recall the ineffectiveness of the English bombing of German positions. According to them, the mistakes made were the same as those at the Somme the preceding summer. What has been learned since to justify the fact that the troops of the British Empire lost more than 250,000 men in order to advance several kilometres? Rawling’s work joins in this debate.

Survivre aux Tranchées is divided into eight chapters that cover all the operations of the Canadian Army Corps from the spring of 1915 to the fall of 1918. The author recounts in chronological order the major battles of the Canadian Corps (Ypres, the Somme, etc.) , where new tactical and technological knowledge was put to the test, but he also describes the activities of the Canadians at the front during lulls in the fighting, particularly in winter. Periods of training behind the front were opportune moments for assimilating lessons learned from experience and for devising new tactics. This is an aspect of the book that is unique because we still do not have a clear idea of the kind of activities that took place between the large-scale battles. We often think that these engagements were the rule rather than the exception.

Rawling’s approach is to present events first, providing a detailed explanation of what really happened, and then to describe the Canadians’ weapons and equipment. Next, the author analyzes how the soldiers conducted themselves on the ground and how they faced the unforeseen. He constantly reminds us that the technology made available to the Canadians forced them to act in a certain way in order to survive and he explains why. This connection between cause and effect, contained in the theory of the learning curve, is the second feature of the author’s approach.

Rawling uses a wide variety of sources. He focuses on platoons, companies and battalions, and he relies on documents that are mostly from the National Archives in Ottawa. The accounts of generals, lieutenants and soldiers show that everyone made a point of getting the most out of their equipment so that each formation, even the smallest, such as the platoon (30 to 50 men) or the section (10 to 15 men), could become completely independent and have recourse to some firepower when heavy auxiliary weapons, such as the artillery, could not intervene.

The platoon of 1915 had almost nothing in common with the 1918 version. In 1918, each infantryman had to carry out a particular task with a specific weapon. The comparison that Rawling makes of the combat styles of various battalions, for example, is one of the most interesting. A few diagrams accompany the text, such as the one showing the deployment of the 28th Battalion at the assault on Vimy Ridge. At that time, the unit had an Order of Battle that was different from that of the 22nd Battalion, which was called upon to fulfill a different role as a reserve unit. What emerges from all this is that there was no uniform doctrine of war in the Canadian Corps.

The author is careful not to generalize when presenting these schemas. Given the problems of communication, the nature of the terrain, enemy resistance, and the available manpower and equipment, everything leads us to believe, according to Rawlings, that the tactics were not the same from one battalion to the next. He concludes from an analysis of his sources that the main goal of the soldiers was certainly to survive, but it was also to wage war in a way that made the rate of losses proportional to the importance of the objective.

Rawling can be criticized for using too wide a variety of sources. As interesting as they may be, particularly when ordinary soldiers talk about their weapons, they may impede the emergence of an overall view of the evolution of technology and of the men’s adaptation to this technology. Yet, this is where the reality of the combatant lies. Contrary to those historians who give a collective interpretation of the experience of war, Rawling insists on the fact that the war was far from being the same for everybody. The allotment of rifles, grenade rifles, machine guns and grenades seems to have been the same from one platoon to the next, but what is important is the use that was made of these weapons.

The controversy raised by the introduction of the Ross rifle illustrates what could be called “culturo-military” history. In this respect, the letter of soldier T.W. Law is an interesting account: “You ask me about the Ross rifle. Well, my dear, it’s dreadful to say, but we are here to do our best and they don’t give us the rifle that would be the most useful for us. I’ve seen lads, my dear, in the middle of battle, kicking the rifle to change the bolt before shooting again and being forced to repeat this five times. There’s talk of giving us Enfields and the sooner the better; we will then have a chance to save our lives because after ten shots the Ross can only be used as a club. Let’s hope that the Canadian population will become aware of this.” Become aware of it? It is doubtful because Law’s letter was intercepted by military censors. Nevertheless, there is an innovative combination of elements here that illustrates the possibility of researching cultural history through the accounts of battles. This is another feature of Rawling’s methodology.

The book would have gained in clarity if there were more photos and maps. A well-informed reader could do without them if need be, but for those who do not know this period of history so well, it would have been appropriate to include maps of the major operations of the Canadian Corps. More knowledge about the topography would have allowed the reader to better grasp Rawling’s theory that the war was not the same for everybody and that each time a problem arose the Canadians provided technological and tactical solutions based on their experience and by adapting to the situation. The other weak point is the lack of photos. What does a Lee-Enfield rifle equipped with a grenade launcher, or a Mills No. 5 grenade look like, for example? Some illustrations would not have undermined the comprehension of this book, which very vividly portrays the situation Canadians faced concerning equipment. Nevertheless, the few photos present are appropriate and they adequately illustrate Rawling’s views.

The French version also has some shortcomings. It does offer a detailed description of sources in which Rawling provides appropriate bibliographical data for the researcher, whether amateur or professional, who is interested in the Canadian Army Corps during 1914-1918, and also makes historiographical comparisons to see how his subject has been treated in other countries. However, the annexes are rather poor. Except for the analysis of sources, the French version only has one seven-page annex on the monthly losses and strength of the Canadian Corps. There are no tables, like in the 1997 English version, that show the Order of Battle for this army corps, which would have been useful for the reader who does not know this subject well.

All the same, Survivre aux tranchées is an essential work. It is a major work tool for researchers, students and neophytes who want to understand how the 1914-1918 war unfolded for Canadian soldiers. This book, which frequently and judiciously puts events in perspective, is carefully researched and shows a steadfast interest in presenting Canadian soldiers in another light, all with a vivid writing style. Rawling distances himself from the paradigm of the “victimization” of “soldier-citizens.” He portrays the soldiers as men who became true combat professionals and learned to use the technology and tactics available to take control of their environment and to survive. This book is a true breath of fresh air which disperses the smog of bad interpretations of historical reality.

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Carl Pepin is working on a doctorate in History at l’Université Laval.