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Book Reviews

A Thoroughly Canadian General: A Biography Of General H.D.G. Crerar

by Paul Douglas Dickson

Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007, 571 pages, $55.00
ISBN-13: 978-0802008022

Reviewed by Douglas Delaney


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Book coverIt was worth the wait. Paul Dickson’s ambitious biography of Canadian General H.D.G. Crerar finally fills the most glaring gap in Canadian military biography, authoritatively and with aplomb.

Crerar’s career demanded an inexhaustible biographer. A Royal Military College graduate and an artillery officer from a well-to-do Hamilton family, Crerar deployed to France with the First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in 1915, and he fought during all the major battles of 1915 and 1916. He commanded a battery during the battle of Vimy in April 1917, and, later, as a Brigade Major in the 5th Divisional Artillery, he worked under the future Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Francis Brooke, and helped perfect the counter-battery and counter-mortar techniques that contributed largely to the victories of Canada’s Hundred Days in 1918. He subsequently spent much of the inter-war period at the locus of Canadian military planning and policy. During the Second World War, he was the primary architect of the First Canadian Army and he fought that formation in the 1944-1945 campaign to destroy the Wehrmacht in Northwest Europe. No Canadian has ever commanded a larger formation than the 476,000-man army Crerar led during the high point of Operation Veritable in February 1945. That is a lot of story to tell.

It is also a lot of documentation to plough through – and Dickson seems to have ploughed all of it. Crerar’s personal papers alone are enough to have discouraged most historians. Although Crerar kept everything, Dickson did the ‘hard slogging.’ He also mined Canadian and British archives for a myriad of war diaries, personal papers, and after action reports, in addition to consulting an impressive array of interviews, memoirs, and secondary sources. This is how history should be recorded.

The product of Dickson’s toil is a credible and balanced portrait of one of Canada’s most important, yet ‘obscure,’ historical figures. Like most biographers, Dickson sympathizes with his subject, but he does not let that interfere with either his account or his analysis. Crerar was a complex individual, and ‘we get the good with the bad.’ He was incredibly ambitious, yet he shunned the spotlight. He could be kind and loyal to the people around him, yet he contrived to have his mentor and boss, General A.G.L. “Andy” McNaughton, removed as commander of First Canadian Army in 1943. Personal connections were critical to his manner of doing business, and yet, he was personally cool and reserved to nearly everyone, including family members. He was a Canadian nationalist and a believer in the British Empire. These traits may appear incongruous, but Dickson’s narrative is so complete that, by the time the reader is done, none of it seems contradictory.

At 571 pages, A Thoroughly Canadian General is neither a light volume nor a light read, so while it might be a bit weighty for the lay reader, readers of both Canadian and military history will find it enlightening. Most soldiers will be disappointed to learn that Crerar had written McNaughton in 1926, seeking employment as a staff officer in Ottawa – in preference to assuming command of an artillery battery. The two chapters dealing with the 1930s reveal much about how Crerar positioned himself to be near the centre of defence policymaking, and how very small was the Directorate of Military Operations and Intelligence at National Defence Headquarters at the time. Chapters 8 through 10 highlight the political skill with which Crerar, as Chief of the General Staff, got a reluctant government to approve an overseas army of five divisions and two independent brigades in 1941. Crerar skilfully fed the requirement to the politicians, one digestible increase at a time. His life-long conviction that the army had a role to play as a key element of Canadian external policy, and as a civic institution of the Canadian nation, permeates most of this book. Having fought two world wars, and having been intimately involved at the political-military interface, he believed in having the nation ready to face international threats and challenges, in compulsory military service, and in the role of the army in educating the public upon the necessity of preparedness. Dickson draws that theme ably from the many speeches, lectures, personal notes, policy papers, and actions of his subject. Sadly for Crerar, both he and his opinions faded quickly from the national scene after 1945, and the general died a largely forgotten man 20 years thereafter.

Dickson also makes it clear that Crerar was a man who knew his limitations, and who was often sensitive about them. He lacked the combat experience of his British peers, and even some of his Canadian subordinates, so he devolved much to those subordinates with respect to the planning and conduct of battle. He gave Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds the lead in planning the battles between Caen and Falaise, which Simonds spearheaded with his Second Canadian Corps during the summer of 1944, and, in the winter of 1944-1945, he left the ‘nitty-gritty’ details of Operation Veritable to Lieutenant-General [Sir] Brian Horrocks, then commanding 30th British Corps. On the battlefield, Crerar was more of a coordinator and resource-provider than anything else. For the most part, he managed to keep his insecurities under wraps, but occasionally, when he was questioned or challenged on operational matters, those insecurities popped out. When Guy Simonds dismissed one of Crerar’s staff officers in Italy, Crerar took it as a brush-off by a snotty junior officer, who was puffed up by his recent battle successes and contemptuous of anyone not in that ‘battle-experienced club.’ Piqued by the episode, Crerar sent a note to the Eighth Army commander, General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, expressing his concern that Simonds had become unstable. When Lieutenant-General Sir John Crocker, GOC 1st British Corps, refused an order in July 1944, Crerar again went to Montgomery, this time seeking the removal of the difficult subordinate. And yet, in spite of a few touchy episodes that broke the monotony of Crerar’s blandness, Dickson reminds us that the man did preside successfully over the operations of First Canadian Army in Northwest Europe – and that was no small accomplishment.

This is the biography that Harry Crerar deserves. A soldier who was at the centre of Canada’s Great War victories, who gave up a lucrative civilian career to save some shred of military professionalism in Canada’s dismal inter-war army, who engineered the largest Canadian field force ever assembled, who fought that army competently against one of the fiercest armies ever assembled, should not have been allowed to slip into obscurity, no matter what his faults. In effectively dragging Crerar from the shadows, Paul Dickson has performed a great service.

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Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas E. Delaney, CD, PhD, PPCLI, is an infantry officer and an Associate Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, currently serving as Chair of the War Studies Department.

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