30 November 2007

New books (November) at Library and Archives Canada

Library and Archives Canada (www.collectionscanada.ca) has released its new books list for November 2007. The list includes the following items of interest (including some that had not yet been released for sale) with respect to Canadian military history:

Fred Bagley, They Answered the Call: Nine Canadians go to War (Calgary, 2007);

William Arthur Bishop, True Canadian Battles that Forged our Nation, (reprint of Canada's Glory) (Toronto, 2008);

Waite Brooks, A Midshipman's Story: The British Pacific Fleet in World War II and Other Experiences (Victoria, 2008);

P. Whitney Lackenbauer and Craig Leslie Mantle (Eds.), Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian Military Historical Perspectives (Winnipeg, 2007);

Blake W. Smith, Wings over the Wilderness: They Flew the Trail of '42 (Surrey, BC, 2007);

G. Gordon Symons, The Boys of Spring: An Autobiography from World War II, revised edition (Toronto, 2007); and

Jim Wallace, No Colours No Drums: Canadians in the South African Constabulary (Winnipeg, 2008).

27 November 2007

Book Review of Tim Cook’s At the Sharp End, volume 1

Nearly two months ago I wrote a post about Tim Cook’s latest book, At the Sharp End, volume 1: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1914-1916 (Viking Canada, 2007). I wrote at that time that I was expecting a review copy from the publisher and would read it and post a review. No review copy has materialized. However, I am an impatient man and I went out and purchased a copy of the book because I was so eager to read it. Having done so, and considering the hype which the book has received, I’m going to post a review anyway. Such is the “power” of having your own blog.

Upon its release earlier this fall, At the Sharp End was touted by the publisher as the “first comprehensive history of Canadians in the Great War in more than forty years”. If true, such a claim would make this the successor of Colonel GWL Nicholson’s official history, Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919, the one volume abridgement of the previously-dropped official history series, published by the Department of National Defence in 1964.

Considering the First World War to be viewed as more than just a military conflict, also marking “the birth of the modern” (p.2), presenting an incredible tragedy, and the genesis of rampant nationalism, Cook obviously sees this as a story which must be written. Canada’s role in the war was very costly and has, naturally, been the subject of countless other histories. Where Cook sees his as being different is that, in his opinion (p.3),
only a few studies have chronicled the full experience of combat in the Canadian Corps, and what it meant to those men who were forced to partake in the vicious, relentless, and mind-numbing arena of kill or be killed. This book offers a detailed history of the Canadians at the sharp end of battle, and their painful process of learning how first to survive on the battlefield, and then how to effectively wage war on the Western Front.
Within that context, the author especially attempts to deal with the “combat effectiveness of the Canadian Corps” – both the good and the bad – with a particular focus on the infantry, that arm of the corps which suffered the greatest number of casualties.

From the very start, the wide-range of primary documentation consulted in this book is impressive. Library and Archives Canada, the Imperial War Museum, the Canadian War Museum, numerous other museums, personal memoirs, articles, books, online repositories, websites – all make their way into the footnotes in what can only be described as a massive research undertaking. Cook has undoubtedly also been fortunate within his career, where being an employee of Library and Archives Canada and, later, the Canadian War Museum has allowed him the time (although with no more access than any of the rest of us) to dive deep into their respective First World War holdings.

Volume 1 of At the Sharp End constitutes forty chapters – mostly a chronological unfolding of the period from June 1914 to November 1916 (the end of the Battle of the Somme), but also interweaving chapters on specific subjects of note.

The book begins with an overview of the outbreak of the war and Canada’s initial response to it. It is also the reader’s introduction to Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia of Defence, who Cook handles quite even-handedly, criticizing when necessary, but also noting his accomplishments. What is immediately apparent is Cook’s writing style has continued to improve and, truth be told, he has always been a strong writer. If I understand the genre properly, the style is excellent literary non-fiction – literate, engaging, solid.

A chapter on Camp Valcartier in 1914 recounts much that is familiar to long-time readers of Canadian military history. However, I imagine the target audience will find it new ground, with much to offer. That can be said of many parts of the book – this is, after all, a comprehensive, yet general, history of the Canadian Corps (when the two volumes are considered together). Cook’s decision to intersperse sections of text that provide important and specific information, in this chapter’s case the typical composition of a 1914 infantry battalion (from battalion to company to platoon to section), are an added touch to explaining the war to the average reader. It is also in this chapter that the author begins to incorporate what can only be described as a touch of “war and society” or the (now fairly old) “new military history” to the narrative, discussions of gossiping, alcohol, living conditions, etc.

After a chapter on the opening combat on the Western Front, the Canadian 1st Division arrives in England, and so does the narrative of the book. The next couple of chapters deal with the division’s acclimatization to the environment, the British Army, and the intricacies of training for combat.

In chapter seven the 1st Division arrives on the Western Front to begin its tour of duty within the British Expeditionary Force. Cook now embarks on numerous chapters incorporating the fighting of the 1st Division, then the 2nd, 3rd, and, finally, the 4th Division – together the Canadian Corps – in France and Flanders. In as much space as possible, he provides detailed battlefield and operational descriptions of battles, discussions of living conditions, morale issues, leadership, and dozens of other factors, all the while exploring the development of the Canadian Corps as a fighting formation.

You can almost hear him asking as you follow the text: “did they learn anything from this defeat?”, “...from this victory?”, “how did this development take the corps one step closer to being an elite formation?”, etc., etc. How well, or poorly, the Canadian Corps and the BEF in general, answered questions such as these form the core of Cook’s narrative. For example, at the end of the discussion of the Battle of Festubert, he writes (p.215): “The key to battlefield victory in the coming year would be the efficient training and marrying of artillery and infantry into a coherent mailed fist that smashed enemy strongpoints, allowing the infantry a fighting chance at crossing the killing ground, and then helping them hold captured ground against enemy counterattacks.” All in all, the experience of the Canadian Corps in 1915-16 – and presumably in the second volume to come – is presented as a learning curve.

Throughout this trip to the end of the Somme, Cook takes a few detours in chapters dedicated to specific topics which, although they might not fit within the overall chronology of the book, are commonplace in the life of a Canadian soldier during the war. Topics covered include battlefield medicine, trench life (I’d call it existence, more than life), daily routine (food, latrines, and cigarettes), death, No Man’s Land, snipers, trench raids, and rest and recreation.

Throughout the book the author – in my opinion – has a bit of a tendency to fall into the trap that many authors of First World War battlefield operations encounter either explicitly or implicitly. To be blunt, every unit, in every major attack, is completely destroyed. Don’t get me wrong, the casualties suffered by Canadian infantry units at the front were devastating. The numbers reflect that. Nonetheless, I’m not sure the case has been made for the wholesale, and repeated, absolute destruction of front-line formations. Cook deals with some of the numbers, but this book is not about the subject in particular, nor should it be. Until someone researches and writes a definitive view of the numerical/structural balance or imbalance of a Canadian front-line unit or units over the course of the war, I guess I will continue to be disinclined to accept the impression here and elsewhere concerning the devastation suffered.

I noted a couple of errors in the text. The author’s discussion of the 60th Battalion, CEF, (p.348) describes it as the Canadian Corps’ second serving French-Canadian battalion (after the 22nd) and that it was pulled from the line when French-speaking recruits could no longer keep up its numbers. The 60th Battalion “Victoria Rifles of Canada” was formed in Montreal in 1915 by the English-language 1st Regiment “Canadian Grenadier Guards”, the 3rd Regiment “Victoria Rifles of Canada”, the 55th Regiment, and the 58th “Westmount Rifles”. Although there were undoubtedly Francophone soldiers in the unit throughout its existence, it was an English-language unit broken up after the flow of English-language recruits from Montreal became insufficient to support the incredibly large number of English-speaking units from Montreal then serving in the Canadian Corps.

Cook’s use of particular material from Private John McNab’s diary in the chapter of the Battle of Courcelette (15 September 1916) (p.456) also appears out of place as the events he is describing took place during the 38th Battalion’s attack at Desire Trench on 18 November 1916.

Finally, although I found the maps to be excellent and very useful, sometimes I found their placement in the book to be, well, strange and not where I think the author would have wished them placed to be of the most use for the reader.

However, such minor points from a picky reviewer should not detract from the fact that Tim Cook has researched, felt the passion for, and written a fantastic book on the experience of the Canadian Corps up to the end of 1916. Does it replace Nicholson as the comprehensive history of the corps? Perhaps, although to be honest, I think that would be comparing apples and oranges, each book having different goals, appearing in different eras historiographically, and being produced under different constraints. Without a doubt, At the Sharp End, volume 1, will become – and deserves to be – at home on a lot of Canadian bookshelves as the overall history of (much of) the Canadian contribution to the First World War.

26 November 2007

Latest issue of Canadian Naval Review

Volume 3, Number 3 (Fall 2007) of Canadian Naval Review is out. Unfortunately, it contains just one item of interest to Canadian military history: Laura Allan, "The Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service", as well as a handful of book reviews.

23 November 2007

Genealogical website on Canadians in the South African War

While searching for something else entirely recently, I came across Hugh Armstrong's Genealogy Site (www.cangenealogy.com/armstrong/index.htm) which, among other things, contains an entire section on "Canadians in South Africa 1899-1902". Mr. Armstrong has transcribed material from the Sessional Papers of the Parliament of Canada and the Canadian Almanac, providing lists of officers who served and the dead and wounded of the six contingents Canada sent to the war, as well as auxiliary troops. Honours and Awards and Pay also have their own sections. An interesting reference site to be sure.

22 November 2007

Charles Yale Harrison's "Generals Die in Bed"

American publisher Annick Press (www.annickpress.com) recently reissued Charles Yale Harrison's (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Yale_Harrison) novel Generals Die in Bed, originally published in 1928. I re-read it recently having first read a previous edition a decade or so ago. It's still a very interesting read. The novel was a bestseller when originally published, although many in Canada reportedly were upset with some of the activities described. Harrison, an American but also a former member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, always maintained he was trying to write about what really happened during the war, but in a fictional setting. His anti-war sentiments, and overwhelming sense of futility of what he experienced, certainly do appear clearly in the narrative. That said, should anyone who's spent any serious time studying the First World War really be surprised by this? I don't think so. I can certainly understand those, like a very public Sir Arthur Currie, who were offended by the novel when it was first published. At the same time, I don't find the novel to be that controversial. Now, whether that's just my personal sense of what to expect from such a story or whether it's a reflection of growing up in a much later generation with two world wars behind it, I don't know. Anyway, it's an interesting novel from someone who the war obviously affected very deeply.

20 November 2007

Latest issue of Legion Magazine

The November/December 2007 issue of Legion Magazine (www.legionmagazine.com) has been published and contains the following items with respect to Canadian military history: Sharron Arksey, "One Family's Tree"; Terry Copp, "Breaking the Gustav Line"; Adam Day, "Operation Medusa: The Battle for Panjwai, Part 2, Death in a Fire Free Zone"; Hugh A. Halliday, "Lost to Friendly Fire"; Tom MacGregor, "Hall of Valour aims to tell Heroes' Stories"; and Marc Milner, "First Blood in the Atlantic", as well as a handful of book reviews from J.L. Granatstein.

18 November 2007

Upcoming military history in museums lecture

Dr. Steve Muhlberger, history professor at Nipissing University (and a former prof of mine at Trent University nearly twenty years ago - I'm feeling kinda old all of a sudden), has posted notice for an upcoming lecture on his blog "Muhlberger's Early History", the information courtesy of Dr. Robin Gendron. On Thursday, 22 November, Dr. Dean Oliver, chief historian at the Canadian War Museum, will present "Bloodless Wars? Military History in Museums" at Nipissing history department's annual keynote address. Steve notes that Dean "...will be speaking about the challenges involved in presenting history and historical research at public institutions, a particularly germane topic given the controversy at the museum this past summer about its portrayal of the strategic bombing campaign against German during the Second World War." Admission to the talk is free, is open to the public, and will take place at 6.30 p.m. in room H106.

16 November 2007

Latest issue of The Canadian Army Journal

Volume 10 Number 3 (Fall 2007) of The Canadian Army Journal / Le Journal de l'Armée du Canada is out and contains some material of particular interest to students of Canadian military history, including:

Major Andrew B. Godefroy, "The Canadian Army Journal, 1947-2007" / « Le Journal de l'Armée du Canada 1947-2007 »;

Major George Jager, "Sinews of Steel: Canadian Railway Troops on the Western Front, 1914-1918" / « Des routes d'acier : la contribution des troupes ferroviaires canadiennes sur le front ouest, 1914-1918 »;

as well as several book reviews.

15 November 2007

Upcoming presentation by Paul Dickson on General Crerar

Paul Dickson, with the Centre for Operational Research and Analysis, Department of National Defence, author of A Thoroughly Canadian General: A Biography of General H.D.G. Crerar (discussed here on 10 October) will be speaking about "General H.D.G. Crerar and an Army for Strategic Effect" on Thursday, 22 November, at 1900 hours, at the Laurier Military Centre, 232 King Street, Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. For more information, visit www.canadianmilitaryhistory.com or contact Mike Bechthold at (519) 884-0710 ext 4594 or mbechthold@wlu.ca.

12 November 2007

A couple of Canadian military history articles

Just references to a couple of articles in Canadian military history I stumbled across:

John MacFarlane, « La longue marche de l'Afrique du Sud : en mémoire des Canadiens français qui ont participé à la première intervention militaire du Canada au XXe siècle », Mens : Revue d'histoire intellectuelle de l'Amérique française, vol.vii, no.2;

Timothy C. Winegard, "The Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force, 1919-1919, and the Complications of Coalition Warfare", Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol.20 (April-June 2007): 283-328.

10 November 2007

Canadians and their military history

Yesterday, The Globe and Mail reported on the latest survey on Canadian history undertaken by the Dominion Institute. The news wasn't good, the article noting the "report found that little has changed since 1997, the last time the survey was conducted - prompting the organization to call on provinces to organize a national citizenship exam that would be a requirement for high-school graduation." Ironically, even though the level of general Canadian history knowledge dropped, the level of knowledge of Canadian military history seems to have risen somewhat, although I'd argue the results still aren't anything to write home about.

07 November 2007

Index to The Northern Mariner, vols.9-10

Here's more of the index of The Northern Mariner (with links to the full text where possible) as compiled by the parent organization Canadian Nautical Research Society:

R.H. Caldwell, "The VE Day Riots in Halifax, 7-8 May 1945" (vol.10, no.1, pp.3-20);

Elizabeth B. Elliot-Meisel, "Arctic Focus: The Royal Canadian Navy in Arctic Waters, 1946-1949" (vol.9, no.2, pp.23-39);

Richard Gimblett, "'Too Many Chiefs and Not Enough Seamen': The Lower-Deck Complement of a Postwar Canadian Navy Destroyer - The Case of HMCS Crescent, March 1949" (vol.9, no.3, pp.1-22);

Richard Oliver Mayne, "A Covert Naval Investigation: Overseas Officers, John J. Connolly, and the Equipment Crisis of 1943" (vol.10, no.1, pp.37-52);

James McCrostie, "'Women and Seamen Don't Mix': VD in Canada's Merchant Navy, 1942-1945" (vol.9, no.4, pp.1-12);

Bill Rawling, "Only 'A Foolish Escapade by Young Ratings?': Case Studies of Mutiny in the Wartime Royal Canadian Navy" (vol.10, no.2, pp.59-70);

Joseph Scanlon, "Source of Threat and Source of Assistance: The Maritime Aspect of the 1917 Halifax Explosion" (vol.10, no.4, pp.39-50);

David Syrett, "The Battle for Convoy HG-75, 22-29 October 1941" (vol.9, no.1, pp.41-51); and

David Syrett, "On the Threshold of Victory: Communications Intelligence and the Battle for Convoy HX-228, 7-12 March 1943" (vol.10, no.3, pp.49-55).

05 November 2007

Latest issue of the Canadian Historical Review

Volume 88, No 3 (September 2007) of The Canadian Historical Review has been published. No articles on Canadian military history this time around, but there are book reviews of Tim Cook's Clio'sWarriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars; Brian Reid's No Holding Back: Operation Totalize, Normandy, August 1944; Michael Gabriel's Quebec during the American Invasion: The Journal of François Baby, Gabriel Taschereau, and Jenkin Williams; Bill Parenteau and Stephen Dutcher's (eds.) War on the Home Front: The Farm Diaries of Daniel MacMillan, 1914-1927; and Faye Kert's Trimming Yankees Sails: Pirates and Privateers of New Brunswick.

This issue's "Recent Publications Relating to Canada" (prepared by Michael D. Stevenson) includes the following of interest to Canadian military history:

Ted Barris, Victory at Vimy: Canada Comes of Age, April 9-12, 1917 (Markham, ON, 2006);

John Blaxland, "Strategic Cousins: Canada, Australia and Their Use of Expeditionary Forces from the Boer War to the War on Terror", PhD dissertation, Royal Military College of Canada, 2004;

Stephen Brumwell, Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe (Montreal, 2007);

David Campbell, "The Divisional Experience of the C.E.F.: A Social and Operational History of the 2nd Canadian Division, 1915-1918", PhD dissertation, University of Calgary, 2004;

Frances Jewel Dickson, The DEW Line Years: Voices from the Coldest Cold War (East Lawrencetown, 2007);

Tom Douglas, The Battle of Vimy Ridge: The Great Canadian Victory of World War I (Canmore, AB, 2007);

Daniel Galvin, "A Role of Canada in an African Crisis: Perceptions of the Congo Crisis and Motivations for Canadian Participation", MA thesis, University of Guelph, 2004;

Andrew Godefroy, "Defence and Discovery: Science, National Security, and the Origins of the Canadian Rocket and Space Program, 1945-1974", PhD dissertation, Royal Military College of Canada, 2004;

James Goodwin, Our Gallant Doctor: Surgeon-Lieutenant George Hendry and HMCS Ottawa (Toronto, 2007);

W. James MacDonald, Honour Roll: The Nova Scotia Overseas Highland Brigade (Sydney, 2007);

John Maker, "Battalion Leadership in the Essex Scottish Regiment and the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade during the Second World War", MA thesis, Wilfrid Laurier University, 2004;

Marc Milner, D-Day to Carpiquet: The North Shore Regiment and the Liberation of Europe (Fredericton, 2007);

John Nelson Rickard, "McNaughton's Dagger: The Raising, Training, and Employment of the Canadian Army, 1939-1943", PhD dissertation, University of New Brunswick, 2006;

Julie Root, "Canadian-American Relations and the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea, 1947 to 1948", MA thesis, University of New Brunswick, 2005;

Gordon E. Tolton, Prairie Warships: River Navigation in the Northwest Rebellion (Surrey, 2007); and

Richard Walker, "The Political Management of Army Leadership: The Evolution of Canadian Civil-Army Relations, 1898-1945", PhD dissertation, University of Western Ontario, 2004.

01 November 2007

New books (October) at Library and Archives Canada

Library and Archives Canada has released its new books lists for August and September 2007. The lists include the following items of interest (including some that have not yet been released for sale) with respect to Canadian military history:

Clayton E. Beattie, The Bulletproof Flag: Canadian Peacekeeping Forces and the War in Cyprus (Maxville, ON, 2007);

Serge Bernier, et.al., The Military History of Quebec City, 1608-2008 (Montreal, 2008);

-----, Québec, ville militaire, 1608-2008 (Montréal, 2008);

Jack Fitzgerald, The Jack Ford Story: Newfoundland's POW in Nagasaki (St. John's, NL, 2007);

Geoffrey Hayes, The Lincs: A History of The Lincoln and Welland Regiment at War, 2nd edition (Waterloo, ON, 2007);

J.W. Kennedy, From the War Diaries of Sgt. J.W. Kennedy, Second Canadian Division, 24th Battalion, Victoria Rifles of Canada, 1915-1919 (Portland, ON, 2007); and

B.D. Tennyson, Percy Wilmot: Cape Bretoner at War (Sydney, NS, 2007)