In Strangers in Arms: Combat Motivation in the Canadian Army, 1943–1945, Robert Engen provides an unparalleled examination of the motivation, leadership, and morale of Canadian soldiers fighting in Europe. Traditional explanations for combat morale, most significantly “primary group cohesion,” are challenged, and, in its place, Engen argues that “swift trust” (whereby relative strangers were able to quickly trust one another due to their shared training experience) played a fundamental role in maintaining cohesion among the Canadian infantry. As the title suggests, the morale of Canadian soldiers is thus presented as far more complex and nuanced than traditional models hold. Engen’s study provides a bold and unique step forward in allowing us to understand the realities of combat in the Second World War. [End Page 154]
Engen begins his work with a discussion on the demographic makeup of the Canadian volunteers who served overseas (with special emphasis on those who volunteered in 1939) and then shifts focus to the training that these, and the Canadians that followed, received. His discussion of battle-drill training is particularly important as it serves as a key ingredient in his “swift trust” thesis. He then examines the combat motivation and morale of Canadian soldiers in Sicily and Italy in 1943–4 and northwest Europe in 1944–5. Though tackling a very broad range of dates, Engen effectively weaves his central thesis throughout each period he examines.
Engen’s book is very much the philosophical sequel to his first book Canadians under Fire (McGill-Queens University Press, 2009), and it continues his challenge of S.L.A. Marshall’s findings in Men against Fire (University of Oklahoma Press, 1947) as well as later scholars who have used Marshall’s work to draw their own conclusions about combat effectiveness (Dave Grossman’s On Killing (Back Bay Books, 1996), for instance). Engen’s work is also part of a broader trend of “population studies” on Canadian soldiers that is reshaping the way historians view the Canadian Second World War experience. There is no question that Engen’s work has been influenced by previous studies that have sought to deconstruct traditionally held beliefs about the Canadian war experience including work by Anthony Kellett, Bill McAndrew, Terry Copp, and Tim Cook to name but a few. Engen’s work sits comfortably in this literature, even while his conclusions reverberate far beyond the Canadian context.
Through the extensive use of battle experience questionnaires and censorship reports as well as other statistical data collected from both Kew and Library Archives Canada, Engen successfully presents a unique perspective that challenges much of what we thought we knew about the experience of Canadian fighting men in the Second World War. The heavy reliance on battle experience questionnaires and censorship reports provide a solid foundation for his generally convincing conclusions. One is shocked, however, that no historian has previously sought to tackle these reports in such a manner. Engen discovered a gold mine of archival material and makes good work of it. His methodological approach, though not necessarily innovative, is sound and illuminating.
Perhaps one of the most engaging points to emanate from Engen’s work is his challenge of the rhetoric of nationalism and democracy as motivations for the fighting soldier. Engen clearly demonstrates through his research that neither national pride nor the defence of [End Page 155] democracy played a significant role in inspiring soldiers to fight. Certainly, the soldiers were aware that they were doing something important, yet Engen establishes that these larger ideas of state and identity were not prevalent among most infantrymen. For Canadian historians and the general public, this will be both an uncomfortable and illuminating realization that not only challenges views of combat motivation but also asks us to rethink our understanding of “Canadian” identity in the mid-twentieth century.
Through his research, Engen challenges some commonly held conceptions about the Canadian war experience in Europe. For instance, he refutes the notion of a recruitment crisis in northwest Europe during 1944–5. Instead, he...