- At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914–1916, Volume One, and: Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917–1918, Volume Two
Anyone who believes that war is glorious or diplomacy tedious needs to read these books for an understanding of what ‘glory’ looks like and a reminder of who often pays the price for inadequate diplomacy. Tim Cook, Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum, has done readers a great service by managing to publish these volumes in back-to-back years. These studies represent the culmination of over a decade’s research and the combined result is a thorough examination of the Canadian Corps’ combat evolution with an unabashed and well-deserved focus on the ‘poor bloody infantry’. As Cook notes, “with the infantry suffering a little more than four out of five of all battlefield casualties on the Western Front, they deserve to be the centre of this history of combat” (I: 5). Further, in Shock Troops he aims to present a new view of the Canadian Corps’ later battles, demonstrating [End Page 1358] both why generals made the decisions they did and their effects on the men at the sharp end (II: pp. 8, 10). He has succeeded admirably and produced works that are easily read, though not always easy to read because he has brought the ‘sharp end’ to life in a memorable and visceral way, with vignettes taken from the lives of soldiers both well known and anonymous. These are woven skillfully with historical commentary and the results are rare historical works indeed—engaging stories of the infantry around and through which the author has constructed a fascinating study of a military organization.
At the Sharp End is an even-handed look at the Canadian effort and growing pains through 1916 and deals objectively with the controversies surrounding then Brigadier Arthur Currie’s actions at Second Ypres and Second Division’s troubles with the St. Eloi craters. Shock Troops’ coverage of the well-known ground of the Great War’s final two years offers new light on those battles and demonstrates repeatedly that the infantry, in Currie’s words, decided “the fate of a battle” (II: 648). Cook’s approach juxtaposes the views of those at the sharp end with those higher up on the military-political food chain and questions orthodoxy. The battle of Vimy Ridge, for example, is seen in Canada as a formative moment in that nation’s history, but Cook suggests that the costliest day in Canadian military history (II: 144) might not have been viewed that way on the ground, stating: “To men who lacked the gift of seeing into the future, even from their victorious position atop Vimy Ridge the war looked as if it might go on for twenty more years” (II: 148) This approach is consistent throughout—recognizing that an operation might be defined as a success operationally, strategically or politically and yet questioned by the men who had been on the cutting edge. Cook is also even-handed in his assessment of Sir Douglas Haig stating that “Haig and his generals were not simply callous butchers…even if this is how popular memory tends to construct these men” (I: 434) but also noting that Haig could not “emerge from any analysis of the Somme undiminished” (I: 522) and explaining his reasoning cogently. Shock Troops’ final chapter, “Whither the Great War?” should be mandatory reading for any historian who wishes to comment on the quality of generalship. Cook asks cogently:
Is it possible that every general was a donkey? Or is it more likely that the problems of modern warfare, such as command, control, and supply, and the inherent...