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Book Review Essay

Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians And The Writing Of The World Wars

by Tim Cook

Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press,
in association with the Canadian War Museum, 2006
ISBN 13: 978-0-7748-1256-6 326 pages

Reviewed by Ron Haycock

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Book coverThe English philosopher W.H.Walsh once commented: “History is an altogether stranger and far more difficult discipline than is often envisioned.” Certainly, after reading Tim Cook’s excellent new book, Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars, one can see that within the swirl of historical writing, there is little doubt that history is also fascinating and complicated. Cook’s work is a history of the history, primarily of the official historians who recorded, preserved, organized, analyzed, and finally wrote about the two most momentous events to date in Canada’s history: the two world wars. In it, he demonstrates that the practice of the historians’ craft is just as susceptible to pressures as those affecting the events about which they are writing. There are reputations at stake, especially when the major players are senior officers still living, or are the government officials or the incumbent politicians who, mirroring Nikita Khrushchev’s observation, think that: “Historians are dangerous people. They are capable of upsetting everything.” Sometimes, our official historians must save Canadian reputations from our friends, or, at least, make sure that the story of the valuable contributions of small allies within a great coalition war are told – for senior coalition partners often seem reluctant to do so. Moreover, that “story behind the story” is not dull. Indeed, Cook’s amazing ability to uncover the true excitement, using exhaustive and wide-ranging primary and secondary historical materials in the unfolding narrative, makes this work a fascinating read.

In many ways, the key part of this book is the introductory essay. Six chapters and a conclusion that cover details of the official history from 1914 to 2000, ending with an assessment of the current state of military history in Canada that follow it. However, the overall story does not commence with the historians themselves. Rather, it is the fact that the two world wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 are the greatest events in Canadian history. There is hardly an element of our society that has not been touched in one way or another by those wars, either in fact or in memory. With 102,000 fatal casualties and hundreds of thousands wounded, either physically or mentally, both the national exertions and the grief generated by the wars were incalculable. Yet, the same events saw the country transformed into a mature nation. These wars are the governing event behind all else contained in the book.

Cook explores the role of the official historians, their keeping of records, and the value and function of archives. He also identifies the common ideas to be woven throughout his text. Official histories are “those authorized by an institution, group or person where the same agent agrees to support the project financially.” This usually implies that the official historian will have “full access... to otherwise restricted records.” In the Canadian case, several themes emerge. The relationship of official historians with their academic counterparts was (and still is) fragile at best, and often uneasy. Sometimes there were accusations that official historians wrote only about the lives of the saints and not of the sinners; or they wrote books that were, as Liddell Hart flippantly once remarked with respect to the British official histories, “official but not history.” Fortunately this was not the case with the Canadian histories.

There is little doubt that Canada’s official historians had to steer their way through the problems of writing contemporary history – a high-risk path fraught with the dangers of still living participants, both soldiers and politicians. And so, their histories were often guarded with respect to making broad judgments, or assigning personal blame. They also had to collect and to process, to read and to analyze millions of pages of information. For years, governments preferred to keep the records closed to public scrutiny, so the official historians were the only people to see the actual evidence. Consequently, they were in the unique and important position of controlling documents and “shaping” the archives. All the official historians knew that no archive was neutral, and so, what quickly evolved was a sense of stewardship. One early tendency was a myopic desire to make sure that the last bit of evidence was collected so that the record was closed until it was complete and protectively “straight.” Sometimes that guardianship was exercised so vigorously that it impeded the scope of historical enquiry for years. Moreover, the official historians established the first, and thereby formative, interpretations of how Canadians perceived their own world wars.

When the restrictions of general admission to these archives was finally but slowly eased after the Second World War, a new generation of non-official or “academic” historians, as Cook labels them, reappraised the decades of official interpretation. That they were able to do so was because their “official brethren” had compiled and defended the military archives – a fact lost upon some but not on others. Moreover, in the last few decades, there have been increasingly more numerous re-examinations of the documents and of the official assessments. Cook cautions us that some of these “new viewers” have forgotten that “...the historian’s duty is to understand events within the context of the time rather than by reading history backwards with the benefit of hindsight.” Nevertheless, this latter fact will ensure that those who do not make this error will keep military history under constant review as new interpretations are deconstructed and reconstructed in a healthy evolution. With academic military historians currently widening the scope of study, the discipline has moved beyond the original administrative and campaign focus of the official historians to assess the impact of the world wars on Canadian society. This broader application makes military history much more legitimate and attractive in academic history circles. Perhaps it eventually will change the minds of those in many civilian universities who, as yet, have not fully accepted military studies into their curricula. Nevertheless, military history seems generally alive and well – and a great amount of the credit must go to the official historians who first laid the foundations and nurtured talented academic successors.

As for the general public, far from the predictions of some fearful or budget-driven politicians, Canadians were truly interested in the official history of their wars. The public strongly endorsed their writing and bought their books. Yet, while there were varying degrees of success and even one spectacular failure in the writing of war history, all the government historians were dedicated, hardworking, analytical historians who set the standard for the gathering, preserving, and writing of military history in this country. As Tim Cook frequently notes throughout his text, they “formed, fashioned or challenged the canon of Canadian World War writing and constructed memory.”

Cook’s various chapters look at the main personalities and forces in the unfolding of the official history for the world wars. For the Great War, Sir Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, was the original progenitor of both the official historians and a marvellous collection of military records. Cook puts Beaverbrook in the context of the times, examining, for instance, the reason why he did what he did. Quite deftly, the author plays other influential personalities and wartime events into the narrative, allowing us to see how it all came about. In the end, like Sam Hughes and Robert Borden, Beaverbrook wanted recognition of the magnificent contributions and terrible sacrifices made by the Canadian Corps. Through a steady stream of media releases, such as the series Canada in Flanders, Aitken created a sense of Canadian distinctiveness and identity lest our military efforts be buried and forgotten within the history of the British armies. His, then, was not the stuff that official history became. It was the stuff that established the reputation and the uniqueness of Canada’s wartime performance. In addition, Beaverbrook knew that a more critical history must ultimately be written. As he said: “The world can not be allowed to forget. Records are necessary to knowledge. There can be no history without them.” Beaverbrook’s Canadian War Records organization set the precedent for the documentation of all of this nation’s future conflicts.

Near the end of the Great War, fatefully, for both good and bad, Lieutenant-Colonel A. F. Duguid emerged as Canada’s Official Historian of that war. Moreover, he remained in that position until the end of the Second World War, having been originally commissioned to write an eight-volume official history of the 1914-1918 conflict. Nearly 20 years later, and after many embarrassing questions, in both Parliament and in public, Duguid had only managed to produce one volume with companion notes. Cook unravels this story with clarity and sympathy. Not a trained historian, Duguid spent most of the inter-war period as a steward and compiler of the details of the conflict. He battled with the British official historian, Sir James Edmonds, whom Duguid felt had denigrated the role of the Canadians at the Second Battle of Ypres n 1915, and Duguid won. He reacted to the American official historians in much the same way for their ignorance and neglect of Canada’s war role. He even resisted, then set straight, Canadian senior soldiers such as Garnet Hughes, the wartime Minister’s son, and Sir Richard Turner, VC, both of whom wanted to put their own “saving spin” on why their commands had not performed particularly well in battle. Above all, he wanted to make sure the official history would be a testament to the sacrifice that the Canadian soldier made in the Great War, and he felt it his duty to make he documented base as complete and accurate as possible. This was his greatest mistake, because he did not get down to actually writing the history. As a result, Canadians went into the next war with no history of the preceding war.

When the next war did break out in 1939, Duguid remained as Official Historian, but soldiers and politicians alike did not want him to repeat his relative inaction this time around. Therefore, in 1940, they appointed the 34-year-old expatriate Canadian and history professor, Charles P. Stacey, then teaching at Princeton, to handle records at the Canadian Military Headquarters in London. Back in Ottawa, Duguid was supposed to get on with finishing his Great War volumes. In contrast, by gathering professional historians around him overseas, Stacey created the organization that compiled and cared for war records, and he wrote wartime narratives of the activities of the army in Italy and in Northwest Europe. Not only did they record events as they happened, but soon, Stacey’s team members – moving in the field with troops in action – proved their worth by using their narratives as operational research tools in aid of the fighting. When peace broke out in 1945, it was this dynamic group of official historians, as Cook notes, that formed the post-war historical team.

Cook also spends substantial time analyzing the separate course of the official air and naval historians. However, they were not nearly as efficient or as numerous, nor did they have the same enthusiastic support of their senior RCAF and RCN officers as did Stacey’s Army Historical Section, either during hostilities, or afterwards.

Stacey was appointed Official Historian in 1945, replacing Duguid, whose decision not to pursue his Great War history during the second global conflict was perhaps his most consequential act. It cost him a demotion, and, in 1947, the Minister cancelled the scheme altogether. Duguid was bitter, and Stacey was his greatest critic. Years later, in 1962, Stacey wrote that Duguid had “wasted years of time and thousands of dollars of public money... Duguid’s shortcomings came close to being a national scandal, and as his successor as Director, I found them a millstone around my neck for years.” Cook does not agree with this excoriating assessment, mirroring the opinions of others at the time. Duguid “may have failed to produce an historical series,” but, as Cook writes, “he did not fail as guardian of the CEF’s memory and reputation.” Nor should he be judged in historical hindsight. In 1962, long after Duguid’s retirement, Stacey’s deputy director, Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson, produced a single volume history of the CEF, and he paid due respect to Duguid’s pioneering efforts as keeper of the Great War records. This directional habit permitted the 1962 official compilations to appear so quickly and to be so thorough.

In the decades immediately after the Second World War, the fortunes of the official historians led by Stacey encountered similar forces as had those of Duguid in the aftermath of the earlier struggle. Once again, there were more reputations to consider. There were soldiers who wanted the history, but not necessarily its criticism. Defence Minister Brooke Claxton did not think anyone would read an official history, so why, he offered, should the Department pay for its production? But, by 1948, the Directorate Historical Section, as it was then called, had surprised one and all when it published the first volume of the Official History of the Second World War, The Canadian Army, 1939-1945: an Official Historical Summary. It was an instant bestseller, and it won the Governor General’s Gold Medal for Non-Fiction in 1949. Clearly, Stacey was not Duguid. Still, when other official volumes appeared in the 1950s, both Claxton and his successor, Ralph Campney, prevaricated for years with respect to releasing them to the public, lest there was some damaging political fallout.

All through these years, there were other impediments to producing the official history of the war. Old and current allies were secretive or reluctant to share the vital top-echelon records needed to flesh out the Canadian story. The staff acquired during the war slowly drifted back to academe, or to other civilian jobs. New staff members had to be recruited, and there were never enough to carry out the main task of producing good professional military history for the public. On top of this came the tedious tasks of answering endless government and public inquiries. To cut through these problems, on several occasions, Stacey threatened to resign, and more often than not, he had to use his other well-established connections in “end runs” designed to preserve the official history projects, and to offset the cloak of secrecy that permeated government circles, denying public access to military historical records.

At the same time, the historical section continued to encourage the writing of military history. The high quality of the official histories, and the acknowledgements they received from academe and the public alike, indicated that the official historians were the leaders in the discipline. For his part, and similar to his successors, C.P. Stacey continued to recruit talented young people into his shop, and just as quickly, it became the incubator of future military historians, who would later take their places in the civilian universities, teaching military history. As Cooke concludes, Stacey was, “ a master historian whose command of military history was nearly unrivalled.”

By the early 1960s, both Stacey and Nicholson had left the directorate for academe – Stacey going to the University of Toronto. There, he wrote the last of the official army histories, Arms, Men and Governments, which dealt with governmental war policies. In 1965, faced with further budget cuts and the need to make progress on the air and naval histories, Defence Minister Paul Hellyer amalgamated the three historical services in a new Directorate of History (D.Hist). Two professional historians in succession would head this new directorate. The first was Syd Wise, a former RCAF officer, followed by W.A B. Douglas, who was still serving in the navy. They committed the directorate to producing the air and naval Second World War official histories. By 1980, the first of three air force volumes had appeared, and others soon followed. Then came the work on the navy histories. This was about two-thirds completed in the mid-1990s, when the directorate was once again savaged by governmental financial cuts. Staff numbers were gutted to a third of their former complement. There was also a name change, as the historians were forced into another amalgamation with the government heritage offices, ultimately becoming the Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH). In spite of these setbacks, the official historians decided to get additional historical information released to the public as quickly as possible. Thus, they speeded up the production of excellent military history for the public, who, in turn, were more anxious than ever to read it, now that various Second World War event half-century anniversaries were occurring with ever-increasing frequency. As had been the case with Duguid’s coverage of the earlier conflict, memory of the Second World War was starting to fade from public awareness. In 2003, the first volume of the naval history was released to very good reviews, and the second of three planned volumes emerged in 2007.

And so, as Cook demonstrates, the cycle of official history-recording continues, especially since Canada embarked on operations in the Gulf and in Afghanistan, following years of peacekeeping all over the world. The quality of the work of the official historians has never waned. Yet, one might criticize them on several counts. For example, Duguid failed to complete the Great War volumes, and yet he kept the records cloistered, tucked away from other scholars and from public scrutiny. Undoubtedly, this policy direction prevented a Canadian military history of the Great War from emerging in a timelier manner, and in a better state. But perhaps Stacey was too harsh in judgment upon Duguid. After all, it was Duguid who compiled all those documents, and he ultimately ensured that the CEF’s reputation was not maligned, and that it got its due recognition in the face of its tremendous sacrifices. It is difficult to write military history, or history of any kind for the first time, and it is even harder to do it for a young nation. Perhaps Stacey was – as Tim Cook says – passing a judgment with historical hindsight. Stacey had a “top down” view of official history, and he did not bring the individual soldiers’ war often into his writings. Cook also notes that while Stacey managed the “art of the possible” for the sake of the Official History in steering between soldiers’ and politicians’ sensitive reputations and power, he was not critical enough of the senior staff when such criticism was merited.

Having said all that, Tim Cook also demonstrates the importance of these official historians as leaders, experts, incubators, and protectors of the study and writing of military history in Canada. Much of what is done in the discipline today can be traced to their pervasive influence. Given this monumental contribution, any criticism appears minor. In addition, the official historians established the first images that Canadians had of themselves in their world wars. As such, they helped the nation identify itself, and in so doing, to mature. While they wrote much about campaigns and military organizations, they also set the stage for the new, wider military history that looked at wars’ impact upon Canadian society. They also taught a whole generation to ask the essential question: “Why?” This also, in my opinion, created an environment for the healthy and appropriate revisionism and re-examination that now permeates the wider military history community. The popularity of their works puts paid to any cynical comment that Canadians are not interested in their martial past. The records they so carefully compiled and retained have provided the basis of ongoing deconstruction and reconstruction of the meaning and significance of the world wars. The official historians resisted attempts to censure their writings, and, after the Second World War, they were the primary instruments in getting records made available to other scholars, and to the public. They did not write sycophantic history. The fact that their work stands up well after many decades is ample evidence of that, and so is the opinion of first-class scholars who continue to read those histories. In the end, history is, as Cook notes, all we have. And “we are not yet finished with the world wars, and they, it would appear, are not yet finished with us.”

Scholarly, well-written, very analytical, and never dull, Tim Cook’s book is marvellous. All Canadians should read it because it reminds us that we are looking at national memories of ourselves as Canadians.

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Doctor Ronald G. Haycock is a Professor of History and War Studies, and a former Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College of Canada.