12 January 2007

Book review of Radley's First Canadian Division

Vanwell Publishing Limited, in St. Catharines, Ontario, has agreed to take on The Cannon’s Mouth (in the practical sense, me) as a reviewer of its publications in Canadian military history. Vanwell is a respected name in Canadian military history publishing and I look forward to this opportunity. These reviews are my honest opinions of the books I’ve been sent. In terms of length they’re probably a little longer than those that would appear in a printed journal and in terms of my writing style, well this isn’t The Journal of X and Y, it’s my blog. Now that I've got that out of the way, the first review I’ve completed is of Kenneth Radley’s We Lead, Others Follow: First Canadian Division 1914-1918 (Vanwell, 2006).

Right out of the gate, in the first paragraph of the preface to his book, Kenneth Radley makes an interesting observation. None of the four Canadian infantry divisions (ignoring the moribund 5th Division) that served in the Canadian Corps during the First World War have been the subject of particular historical study. Radley intends to redress that situation, in part, with this study of the 1st Canadian Division, a reworking of his doctoral dissertation in the same subject matter.

A former officer with the 1st Battalion, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, (the regular force battalion) and a graduate of the University of Manitoba (B.A.) and Carleton University (M.A. and Ph.D.), Radley actually served with the 1st Division – the post-Second World War incarnation – during his career. His affection for the “Old Red Patch”, as it had long been nicknamed, is apparent. Or, as he puts it (p.20):
“An infanteer comes to see his battalion as family and home, and should he, God forbid, be sent to another battalion, even of the same regiment, his new unit would be alien at first. He may also extend feelings of kinship to his brigade, and his division may also be a family, albeit a very large one. What is important is the sense of belonging, which is essential for success in war. The subject of this book is one particular family, 1st Division, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).”
The 1st Division is also especially significant to Radley because it was the first – the first Canadian division to be formed, the first to sail overseas, the first to train in Britain, the first to make it to the continent, the first to fight, etc., etc. “In fact,” he adds (pp.xii-xiii), “1st Division was the first nonregular division to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), beating the first Imperial Territorial Division (the 46th) to France by two weeks and the first New Army Division (the 9th Scottish) by three months.”

Not only was the 1st Division the initial Canadian contribution of that size to the war, it also became an effective and well-thought of component of the British forces in France and Flanders. How did it achieve that status? That is the crux of Radley’s narrative (p.21): “The central idea of this book is that 1st Division became a good division. What made it a good one, that is to say what took it from raw militia to a good, professional fighting formation, was competent command and control, thorough staff work and sound training.”

Let’s be clear here. Radley’s book is not a history of the 1st Canadian Division “looking out”, i.e. the story of its accomplishments, the heroics of its personnel, its trials and tribulations.

Instead, this is a history of the 1st Division “looking in” at a certain level, stating matter-of-factly what was accomplished, but focusing on how the division accomplished what it did and gained the reputation it had by the end of the war. This goal, what Radley calls (p.21) “a sizeable and complex matter” is, indeed, that. As a result, this book is not what the reader might expect when picking it up off the shelf. But, it’s also not the end of Radley’s planned work on the division (p.21): “To try to add the story of the ordinary soldier’s life would far exceed the space available within a reasonably sized book. Consequently, a subsequent companion volume will focus on the ordinary soldier and the junior officer, the two being those most at risk in war.”

Dealing with a subject such as this – the internal workings of a military formation and how they came to be reflected in the formation’s accomplishments – is not a simple matter. Deciding how to deal with the results of one’s research is a difficult decision. Radley wrote (p.25):
“Reflection suggested a combination [of chronology and analysis]. The story will begin with a chronological account of command and control, staff work and training from Valcartier to Salisbury Plains and then to Flanders to that point at which Old Red Patch first took charge of a sector of the Front. This provides a start line for analysis. The book concludes with an accounting of how the division stood in mid-1918 in comparison to its state in April 1915. In between, one element at a time will be discussed, taking care to relate each to the record of selected battles or actions [1915-18].”
The book is broken down into ten chapters. The first deals with the beginnings of the division, the second the contemporary underpinnings of an infantry division. Then follow six chapters on three subjects: command, staff, and training. The ninth chapter deals with how it all came together, and chapter ten is a summation and conclusion. There are also appendices concerning abbreviations, formations, battles and engagements, an order of battle, a Victoria Cross roll of honour, commanders, and senior staff appointments.

Chapter one, “In the Beginning…”, deals with some of the background to the formation of the division and outlines the type of discussion the reader can expect in the rest of the book. As Radley puts it (p.49): “Understanding the language of Army life is very helpful, for without this, one can miss all sorts of important nuances. One has also to learn a unique culture, a significant part of which is organization. Organization may be mundane, but it cannot be ignored, for it is central to the waging of war and the first step to understanding command and control, the staff system and training.”

Chapter two, “Divisions: First the Fundamentals”, is exactly that and describes, as one contemporary observer noted, what should have been part of an infantry division at the time, not necessarily what was present in Valcartier in 1914. It also outlines the obstacles and difficulties to be overcome. For example, (then) Lieutenant-Colonel David Watson’s recollection of “the incredible organizational dance in England. On 1 November [1914] the division, conforming to British practice, went to four companies, back to eight three weeks later, to four again in December and within days back to eight before settling at four for good in January 1915.”

Chapters three and four, two parts to “At My Command”, deal with the complexities of command and control in the division, from the level of divisional officers, to those at brigade and battalion. If (p.127) “1st Division were to grow professionally and become more effective in unleashing the hurricanes of compressed violence known as combat”, officers at all levels had to learn their jobs inside and out in order to become competent, professional operational commanders. Only then, in hindsight, would the division improve in its capabilities from 1915 through 1917.

“A Staff to Serve the Line” is the subject of chapters five and six. What are staffs and who are staff officers anyway and what do they do? Radley covers the division’s staff system in great detail, looking at the characteristics of staffs, their organization, responsibilities, functions, and their working methods. Where did staff officers come from and what types of officers became staff officers? How did relations between staff and commanders, between staff, regimental officers and soldiers, and between Canadian and imperial staffs, affect operations and the efficient running of the division? Just one example of the subject matter in these chapters – an important one in Radley’s view, given the amount of attention he gives it – are orders, divisional orders, brigade orders, battalion orders for operations, administration, etc. How were they written, how clear was their intent, how were they interpreted at each level down the chain of command?

Chapters seven and eight turn to training, specifically “Policy and System” and “Content and Conduct”. As he writes (p.246): “The great virtue of training is that it provides the individual and collective self-confidence that makes a division or an Army effective.” It takes effective training to make an army actually an army, or a division in this case. What was the division’s training philosophy, policy, components, specific content, training standards and how was it all conducted? In the end, the chapters aim to (p.246): “track the soldier along the path from Base Depot, Corps Reinforcement Wing, division, brigade (or Brigade School or Depot) to unit – in short, from rear to “up forward”.”

The final chapter before the conclusion, chapter 9, is titled “And It All Came Together”. Here, Radley is referring to how “three years of fearful hard work” on command and control, staff work, and training “all came together” during the offensives of the Hundred Days beginning in August 1918. This chapter examines the contributions of the division and its performance during the battles for Amiens, the Drocourt-Quéant Line, Canal du Nord and Bourlon Wood and how the internal workings mentioned above played into this. For example, when discussing the operations orders for the August-September offensives, he writes (p.333):
“Minor SD [staff duties] is impeccable, a quality that always adds to the confidence of the recipients of an order. Finally, in examining the ladders formed by division Operation Orders, the brigade orders written from them and the 12 battalion orders written from brigade orders, one see continuity, relevance to the originating level of command, and above all, presence of the essentials. The sense of the whole, whether individual order, ladder or package, is easy to understand, which is commendable and critical because it is tired, even exhausted, distracted, or anxious men who must read and execute orders, usually under severe pressure of time and circumstances.”
Radley concludes that in three years (p.354) “the best efforts of every officer and man took the division from raw militia to a good, professional formation. By mid-1918, well-equipped, well-trained and well-motivated men, their material wants ensured by good staff work, were led by commanders who had become professional, capable of operating at a level far superior to that of the war’s earlier days.”

The shift that Radley employs from a primarily chronological approach (chapter one) to a primarily analytical approach (chapters two through eight) and back to chronology again (chapter nine) is a tough juggling act. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. I found myself wishing he had stuck to one or the other throughout, although I definitely appreciate the dilemma he found himself in when trying to decide how to approach this topic. Perhaps this was the best compromise means of telling his story.

I found myself having more difficulty sometimes with his writing style. Radley often puts himself and his opinions explicitly in the text in the form of “colour commentary”, if you will. My problem with this style most likely reflects my own training as an historian in the sense that you leave yourself out of your text (even though I’m under no illusions about the possibility of true objectivity in history). Despite my occasional discomfort with his style, it most definitely shows a lot of passion, perhaps even obsession, with the subject matter, and I think that’s a good and welcome thing to find in any history text. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Radley was a staff officer during his career in the army. I know first hand the underappreciated nature of such a function in the Canadian (and probably any other) military.

Kenneth Radley has undertaken an absolutely incredible amount of archival and published research for this book. In addition to delving deep into the military record groups of Library and Archives Canada – researching a lot of material which I think many others have simply not investigated – he moved on to numerous personal papers of senior commanders and staff officers. He also researched numerous “manuals and instructions” (“pams” as the military would call them) as well as an impressive list of published books and articles. An historian might be reluctant to say that no stone was unturned in the research of the subject, but I think it’s quite possible that no stone was indeed left unturned.

The appendices that close out Radley’s text are also of interest. In addition to the types of material the reader would expect to find, the divisional order of battle is interesting. However, it is the lists of commanders (Canadian Corps, 1st Division, 1st Brigade, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Brigade), commanding officers of the twelve infantry battalions in the division, and senior corps and divisional staff officers, that shed light on what, in my opinion, this book really boils down to – behind the men in the trenches doing most of the fighting and dieing (and sometimes amongst them) were commanders, staff officers and trainers who likewise went from being amateurs to becoming professionals, learning the intricacies of their craft in the process, and playing their part in the Canadian victories of the First World War as part of the family that was the 1st Division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

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