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Book Reviews

At The Sharp End: Canadians Fighting The Great War 1914-1916

by Tim Cook

Toronto: Viking Canada (Penguin Group), 2007
608 pages, $40.00

Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting The Great War 1917-1918

by Tim Cook

Toronto: Viking Canada (Penguin Group), 2008
736 pages, $40.00

Reviewed by Terry Loveridge

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Book coverTim Cook is the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum and well known in military history circles for his earlier works on Canadians at war (No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War and Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World War). In 2007, he published At the Sharp End, the first of two volumes that tell the epic story of the battlefield performance of the Canadian Corps in the Great War, to critical and prize-winning acclaim. The second volume, Shock Troops, released in 2008, is already on its way to becoming as well received. These two volumes will undoubtedly stand as the books on the Canadian Corps for a long time. They are positioned to become the Canadian right markers for the parade of works that will inevitably appear as the centenary of the Great War arrives, and they deserve this pride of place.

Book coverCook’s works taken together contain something for readers of any persuasion – historian, hobbyist, or merely the curious – but they have special resonance for the soldier. Cook knows how to marshal his evidence to establish his points, and he knows how and when to reduce complex situations to basic elements. He demonstrates great skill in deploying academic resources to make these books historically authoritative, but he is no old style military historian. He does not rest upon his well-established ‘academic chops’ to tell this story; rather, he unfurls it with the smoother talent of the journalist or novelist, and he does this without reducing his epic to popularized history. His narrative fairly whips along as it carries the reader along the route from Valcartier in 1914 to Germany in 1919, but the trip is not exhausting. He has punctuated the journey with calculated pauses for reflection. These operational pauses are what turn this strong historical account into a work of art. They enable him to blend the larger story of the Canadian Corps and its military and political struggles with snippets about soldiers, snipers, medical procedures, and the common remembrance of the taste of water from petroleum cans. He manages to enfold shrapnel barrages, personal letters, canny eyewitness reports and descriptions of divisional, brigade, battalion, and company manoeuvres into a tapestry of social and cultural history, and he does it so effortlessly that his story of the Canadian Corps is also the story of Canada, of Canadians, and of the people of the 20th Century. His context includes the contradictory versions of historians, artists, and other witnesses who tried to tell the same story, but through different lenses. Cook’s work is so carefully nuanced that many readers will not be aware that they have also been led through a series of well-constructed arguments that challenge a number of conventional wisdoms about the Great War.

Since Cook’s history is that of the Canadian Corps, and not that of the Canadians in the war, Canadians who were not part of that 100,000 man combat organization on the Western Front receive mention only as they interacted with the Corps itself. The Cavalry Brigade, the airmen, the sailors, the ‘Blue Puttees,’ and all of those on other service or in other theatres get passing mention, but this is by design. The focus throughout both books is on the evolution of the singular fighting machine that was the Canadian Corps. It is a traditional story, and most reviews of Cook’s works have underscored this theme. However, few have pointed out that the author takes an unconventional path to the conclusion. Cook’s analysis proceeds directly from the testaments of the veterans through the re-assessments of a group of Great War historians that includes the likes of John Terraine and Timothy Travers, and this path requires that he take time to demolish a number of old and new shibboleths.

The two books are independent and can be read separately, but they do form a two-volume history of the Canadian Corps from 1914 to 1919. The organization of the books is chronological, with At the Sharp End covering events from mobilization until the end of the Battle of the Somme. This volume begins with the heady events of that August in 1914 when the peoples of the world seemingly went mad for war, and it ends with the biggest bloodbath yet seen in British history in the summer and fall of 1916. By this time, the issue was in doubt, but “[t]oo much blood had been spilt thus far in the name of victory for the Entente forces to give up, or even to seriously seek a compromise peace.” The Entente had suffered horrendous losses. Canada, a very junior member of the team, had so far incurred 61,000 casualties, but the survivors were becoming much better at what they were expected to do. The evolution of this part of the story is one area where Cook begins to subvert the common perception of the futility and lack of imagination evident in the prosecution of the war – a perception that was to take root in the post-war years and climax at mid-20th Century.

The Canadians suffered terribly at Second Ypres, at Festubert, and at St. Eloi because, like the other armies in the war, they fought with incredible bravery, not with pragmatic effectiveness. Cook emphasizes that the Canadians were not thrown willy-nilly against impossible objectives by cold-blooded ‘chateau generals’ who never visited the trenches. The entire British Expeditionary Force struggled, as a team, to adapt to appalling conditions, new technologies, and new methodologies. However, the Canadians also struggled with home-made inefficiencies, poor equipment, and office politics, and this situation was not to improve until the star of the irascible Minister of Militia, Sam Hughes, began to wane. Hughes managed to force the first commander of the Canadian Corps, General Alderson, out of the position in May 1916, but he was replaced by an aristocratic British officer, Sir Julian Byng, who proved much more capable of limiting Sir Sam’s influence. Here again, Cook serves up a somewhat unpalatable tidbit for Canadian traditionalists. He credits Byng as being, “... [the] single most important figure in transforming the Canadian Corps into a battle-hardened formation.” The Corps grew to love Byng like they would never love Arthur Currie. It was as ‘Byng’s Boys’ that they were to retake Mount Sorrel, and to capture Courcelette and Regina Trench, and it was Byng’s Corps that took Vimy Ridge.

The chapters of this volume follow the Corps from battlefield to battlefield, but interspersed throughout are the often brilliant operational pauses that discuss reputation (and reputations), battlefield medicine, life in the trenches 1915-1916, snipers, trench raiding, and No Man’s Land. Cook continues to delve, almost subversively, into many of the great debates of the war. He reasons that bayonet fighting has been underplayed by historians because it is statistically invisible. Bayonet wounds make up a very small fraction of the injuries recorded at treatment facilities, and this fact has been extrapolated to the trenches. However, unit accounts and personal memoirs are filled with accounts of bayonet fighting. Cook chooses to believe the soldiers because the logic is sound; bayonet wounds, by their nature and situation, are almost invariably fatal, and so, recipients do not turn up at casualty stations. He applies similar logic to the advantages and disadvantages of trench raiding, and to the propensity of Canadians to socialize. The VD rate of Canadians was almost six times that of the British, but then, Canadians were paid considerably more, and the VD rate was quite comparable to that for the Dominion of Canada as a whole.

The second volume, Shock Troops, picks up where Sharp End ends, but contains enough redundancy to stand as a separate narrative. Indeed, Cook seems to have appreciated that his large tomes (750 and 600 pages respectively) would be read in chunks, and they include a significant amount of repetition of key statistics and main points.

The key difference between the two volumes is in the nature of the Corps that they describe. Sharp End is the story of amateurs becoming experts. Shock Troops describes the evolution of the experts into professionals. Fittingly, this process begins with the description of the equipment, organization, and command of the Corps that emerged from the forge of the Somme. This was the machine that set to work on preparations for the deliberate, well-rehearsed, bloodiest, single day in Canadian military history – the thoroughly-unique assault on Vimy Ridge. The Canadian story is well known, but not in the manner that Cook tells it. It is very much a narrative of nascent nationalism, but Cook gives ‘credit where credit is due,’ and acknowledges the British and French contributions to the Canadian victory. Few Canadians who followed the recent commemorations of the action were aware that the Commander of the Canadian Corps was still British General Julian Byng, or that a full brigade of British ‘Tommies’ participated in the assault over the ridge.

Cook’s detailed descriptions of the incredible series of victories that followed, from Hill 70, through Passchendaele, Amiens, Arras, Drocourt-Quéant, Canal du Nord, and Valenciennes to Mons, is punctuated with the same type of sidebar chapters as the first volume. In this book, he updates the descriptions of trench warfare, discusses leave, soldier’s culture, combat motivation, supernatural experiences on the battlefield, punishment and psychological breakdown, and Sir Arthur Currie. Each of these contextual chapters is eye-opening, and many will be seen as provocative. Cook continues with his insistence that Great War generals were not the ‘donkeys who led lions,’ to paraphrase one of the greatest quotes never made. He is sympathetic to their efforts even when he is not forgiving. This view of 1914-1918 generalship is emphasized in his treatment of Currie, a man self-admitted as “not clever.” Currie’s recognized strength was undoubtedly his attention to detail and thoroughness, but his less acknowledged strengths lay in his ability to garner more support from Field Marshal Haig than his peers received, and in his steadfast refusal to reorganize his corps into smaller manoeuvre units. Reorganization along the lines taken by the British and the Australians would have elevated Currie to an Army command, but would also have diluted the fighting power of the Corps. Fascinatingly, Cook reveals that Currie’s lack of charisma and bombastic personal pronouncements made him unpopular within his corps. His admonition to “...advance or fall where you stand facing the enemy” was widely derided by the combat hardened sharp-enders, who “...chirped facetiously to each other, ‘Did you stand where you fell?’ “ Later historians would make much of Haig’s reticence when they painted him as a callous, casualty-insensitive commander, but in the Canadian Corps, it was Currie who was accused of ‘running up the butcher’s bill’ in search of a reputation for his shock troops. Between August 22 and October 11 1918, during the First Army’s climatic battles to break the Hindenburg Line, the Canadian Corps took ten times as many casualties as its fellow corps in that army, a price that many within the Corps thought resulted from the readiness of old ‘Guts ‘n Garters’ Currie to take on the hard tasks. Currie understood what many did not, and do not yet understand; that no matter what action is taken, many soldiers will die. This attitude lingered for some time after the war. Currie was forced to defend his reputation for taking unnecessary casualties in court in an infamous libel case in 1928, and he remained the only senior general in the British Empire who was not publicly thanked by his own government.

The descriptions of war in Shock Troops are even darker than those in the first volume. Casualties increased with each operation and replacements were absorbed quickly, sometimes moments before an assault. By 1918, the battlefield was an almost permanently toxic environment, with both sides employing various gasses as a standard operating procedure. Gone were pretences at Christmas truce. By Christmas 1917, Canadians were sniping Germans with a “Merry Christmas Fritz, you.” Gone too were the glory days of Vimy, when operations were deliberately planned over weeks. The most difficult Corps battle of the war, one equal in complexity to the assault on Vimy, the breaking of the Drocourt-Quéant Line, was planned in less than a week. This assault, probably Canada’s finest hour in the war, took place during the last ‘Hundred Days,’ and the description of shattering intensity and constant grind of this period is a highlight of the book. It completes the evolution of the war machine that, by 1918, had been tempered from a wrought iron battering ram into a polished steel blade, flexible enough for the intricacies of manoeuvre warfare.

The Canadian Corps’ adaptation to manoeuvre warfare underscores the one weak portion of the book. The publisher has made an exceptional effort to present the works in clear, readable script, and has bound the volumes to last; the index, endnotes, and so on, are superior to most non-academic history books coming into the market. However, the maps are surprisingly inadequate, especially once the elements of the Corps begin to manoeuvre over distance. They are old-fashioned, and not always suitable to support the flow of the narrative. Future editions would benefit from an application of the graphics capabilities now available to authors and publishers.

Shock Troops follows the members of the Corps beyond the Armistice into their transformation to civil life. Cook describes how its members adapted to a future that “was dimly lit,” largely in their own words. He reveals that they were required to fight yet again, this time for their pensions, their jobs, and their place in Canadian society. He also engages the reader with revealing analyses of casualties by type, by rank, and by employment; almost seven out of 10 combat troops serving on the Western Front were killed or wounded, and a pension rates study noted that the infantry incurred an 82 percent casualty rate. His final chapter reflects upon the Great War, or, more pointedly, it reflects upon the way it has been remembered at different periods. It was popularized in novels, eclipsed by another ‘great war’ that followed all too soon, viewed through the psychedelic lenses of an anti-authoritarian generation and, finally, it was rediscovered as a nation-building event. He discusses the impact and importance of the views of key historians, novelists, filmmakers, and politicians upon public perception, but ends with the observations of R.J. Manion, a parliamentarian and medical officer in the Corps, who noted that, once everything is said and discussed, the salient observation on the Great War is that victory was delivered by the citizen soldiers who fought and endured. This makes a fitting conclusion.

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Lieutenant-Colonel (ret’d) Terry Loveridge, CD, PPCLI, is a former infantry officer who continues to teach History at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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