World War I, Canada’s “war of independence,” marked a turning point for a young colony wanting to prove itself as a self-reliant nation, but at what cost.
The night before going into battle on the Somme in September 1916, Hart Leech, a young subaltern from Winnipeg, wrote a letter to his mother. “I am ‘going over the parapet’,” he told her, “and the chances of a ‘sub’ getting back alive are about nix.” Perhaps thinking that he had allowed himself to be too frank, Leech did not send the letter. Instead he tucked it into his paybook, and the next day he became one of the 60,661 Canadians killed in the war. In the aftermath of the battle, a British officer who had come forward into the line found Leech’s body and, preparing to bury it, searched the dead man’s pockets. He took the letter, planning to mail it at the first opportunity. But he was wounded the next day and his belongings were sent home to England. Twelve years passed before he found the crumpled scrap of paper and mailed it to Hart Leech’s family in Winnipeg. One can only imagine how they felt upon receiving such a message from the past.
Stories of the so-called Great War are a bit like Hart Leech’s letter to his mother. They arrive belatedly and stir up all sorts of conflicting emotions and opinions. At the time it was fought, the war was seen as a great crusade to preserve civilization from the barbarity of “the Hun.” Then, as events faded into the past, a reaction set in. Instead of heroism in a noble cause, the war seemed more like an inglorious waste of a generation of young men led to the slaughter by callous generals and calculating politicians. More recently the revisionist wheel has taken another turn and the war seems almost heroic again, not in its motivations or its conduct but in the sacrifice made by the young men and women who fought in it.
Talbot Papineau, a charismatic young officer from Quebec who died at Passchendaele, once explained in a letter to his mother why he chose to return to his regiment on the front lines rather than remaining safely at a desk job in London. “Better to share in the making of history than in the writing of it,” he wrote. Most of us understand what Papineau meant, but he was wrong. Events were made by the soldiers, but history is made by historians.
One of them is Tim Cook, First World War historian of the Canadian War Museum, who has recently published two large volumes: At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914–1916 and Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917–1918 (Viking Canada). In these works, Cook presents a detailed account of Canada’s infantry from the creation of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (later the Canadian Corps) in 1914 to the armistice in November 1918. Even for someone such as myself, who is usually uninterested in military history, the books are a stunning achievement. Cook’s re-creations of the various battles are thorough and briskly paced. His explanations of tactics, strategy and weaponry will satisfy most armchair generals. And his judgement of the leading personalities seems fair-minded: even Sam Hughes, who most people thought was mentally unbalanced, gets a fair shake.
The Great War occupies a special place in Canadian mythology. For a long time, people claimed that it united Canadians in a moral crusade that proved our maturity as a nation. Nowadays historians are more likely to emphasize the negative impact of the war on the home front. Canadians were far from unanimous in their support for the war. Anti-war activism was widespread, especially once conscription was introduced, and not just in Quebec. Electoral politics were shamelessly corrupt. The rights of minorities were ignored. Profiteering was widespread. Still, Tim Cook argues that the 1914–18 conflict was our “war of independence,” in the sense that Canada emerged from it with a new stature as an independent country, not the subservient colony it had been when the war began.
Afghanistan notwithstanding, Canadians do not like to think of ourselves as a warrior nation. We would rather make peace. Yet Cook’s books make clear that in our first real call to arms, Canada’s citizen soldiers turned themselves into a superior army. With experience, our troops on the Western Front came to be regarded as “the most effective strike force in the Allied armies.” In the last two years of the war, Cook writes, Canadian soldiers never lost a set-piece battle and “punched far above their weight as a combat formation.”
This is not to glamorize the war, or to minimize its cost in bodies maimed and lives lost. Cook does not argue that the experience was “worth it.” He is far less interested in theorizing the war than in capturing its awful immediacy for the men who fought it.
A few years ago in his polemical Who Killed Canadian History?, Jack Granatstein complained that military history was neglected in Canada. If that was true then, it certainly isn’t now. Books about various military campaigns spill off the remainder shelves at the chain bookstores. Not to mention the extensive television coverage of important military anniversaries, the endless war documentaries on the History Channel and, most recently, Paul Gross’s $20-million movie epic, Passchendaele. So much has been written and broadcast that we may be in danger of overdosing on war memories. But before we do, let me recommend Cook’s two volumes as the perfect antidote.