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.

No comments: