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Book Reviews

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Reviewed by Howard Coombs

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by Robert Engen
Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009
x + 245 pages, $34.95
ISBN 978-0-7735-3626-5 (cloth)

Reviewed by: Howard G. Coombs

Canadians under Fire provides analysis of a hitherto untouched trove of first-hand battle questionnaires from a variety of Second World War Canadian infantry officers who served in both the Mediterranean and Northwest European theatres. Some of these combat leaders, like Major Jeff A. Nicklin of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, are well known to Canadian military enthusiasts, while others are not so prominent. However, all contribute to the mosaic painted by Robert Engen providing, “…a new perspective on how Canada’s Second World War was fought at the tactical level.” Engen goes on to elaborate, “...the Canadian riflemen, as indicated by the questionnaires, were capable of flexible responses to the problems presented by the battlefield.” (p. 145).

In a similar fashion to American military historian Dr. Russ Glenn’s Reading Athena’s Dance Card: Men against Fire in Vietnam (2000), Engen disputes the results of United States Army researcher S.L.A Marshall’s Men against Fire: the Problem of Battle Command in Future War (1947). In his seminal work, Marshall argued that 75 percent of American infantrymen that he interviewed did not fire their weapons, regardless of provocation. Although this statistic has been called into question during recent years by historians such as Dr. Roger Spiller, it nonetheless has influenced some military and police training, such as that designed by retired United States Army Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995) and On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace (2004). Engen and Glenn, based on their respective sources, show that in the instances they studied, there was not a problem getting soldiers to fire but quite the opposite, thus calling into question the universality of application of Marshall’s statistics.

Engen uses archival battle questionnaires to draw conclusions about the Canadian infantry experience during the Second World War. He examines these questionnaires as historical artifacts, detailing their construction, and he provides the names of those that participated in the surveys, along with a brief description of who these officers were. Engen also looks at the combined arms team of artillery, infantry, armour, and air power, and, as well, provides thoughts with respect to the effectiveness of Canadian infantry during this period.  His conclusions argue that the Canadian soldier of this time was aggressive and innovative – certainly unlike the inferences drawn by Marshall for his nation’s soldiers during the same conflict.

However, the difference between the books written by Engen and Glenn is that Glenn attributes the difference in Marshall’s low “ratios of fire” during the Second World War and his findings concerning the much higher rates of fire among American infantryman in Vietnam to leadership and training, which he explores in some detail. If Canadians under Fire has any shortcoming, it is that Engen does not look at those aspects of the Canadian infantry experience during the Second World War to the same degree. To be fair, one must keep in mind that Engen researched a group of historical documents that were designed to provide a snapshot of the Canadian battle experience in the context of the time, and were focused on identifying the tactical lessons of combat. On the other hand, Glenn designed his own questionnaires to be administered to Vietnam veterans over two decades after the end of the war. Therefore, Glenn’s research could and did address much broader issues in greater detail.

In any case, Engen provides a trove of historical analysis and sources useful to Canadian military studies. His work gives a foundation for other historians to examine that which enabled the Canadian infantry to perform as well as they did during the war. Perhaps of most significance for current Canadian military practitioners is Engen’s use of our national military experience to call into question the applicability of the conclusions drawn by S.L.A. Marshall in training for the wars of the 21st Century. Consequently, Canadians under Fire is a solid piece of work that is of utility to both military professionals and historians.

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Colonel Howard G. Coombs, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada currently with the Directorate of Learning Innovation at the Canadian Defence Academy. He is also a part-time reserve officer who was Commanding Officer of the Princess of Wales Own Regiment, an infantry unit based in Kingston, and is now serving as the Director of the Joint Command and Staff Programme (Distance Learning) at the Canadian Forces College.

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