- Shoestring Soldiers: The 1st Canadian Division at War, 1914 - 1915
Recent writing on Canada's military role in the Great War has effectively exploited the learning-curve paradigm popularized by British historians [End Page 298] whereby enthusiastic but largely unskilled amateurs, drawing on the hard lessons of their combat experience, successfully made the transition to battle-hardened professionals. A key buttress of this interpretation of experience-based progress has been the long-held view that the Canadian Expeditionary Force initially showed much courage and keenness but little in the way of command or administrative ability. This was a comforting assumption and one to which the book's title makes pointed reference, because it highlighted the ultimate transformation from the potential of 1914, 1915, and 1916 to the virtuoso performances of 1917 and 1918. Breaking the learning-curve's grip on Canadian Great War historiography has proven difficult, but in Shoestring Soldiers Andrew Iarocci has certainly struck a welcome blow.
In ten chapters, Iarocci deals successively with the marshalling and training of the 1st Division (1-4), its bloody introduction to combat at the Second Battle of Ypres (5-8), and finally its ensuing engagements during the remaining months of 1915 (9-10). It is the first eight chapters of Shoestring Soldiers that make the most valuable contribution. Nowhere is Iarocci's thorough archival research more in evidence than when he assesses the division's training during its first winter in England. In contrast to the usual account of precious time frittered away on the sodden Salisbury Plain, he outlines a rigorous, remarkably sophisticated, and certainly well-organized training regimen that left the 1st Division as well prepared - if not as well equipped or supported - to fight a modern war as the German reservists with whom they would soon grapple. With a chapter devoted to each day, the 1st Division's baptism of fire in Flanders in April 1915 is covered in rich - and at times, numbing - detail. To reconstruct this chaotic engagement, the author relied chiefly on surviving message logs, as well as a keen eye for the operational and tactical implications of the terrain over which the soldiers fought. After reading chapters 5 through 8, it is hard to believe that we have very much more to learn about the battle's hour-by-hour developments. Iarocci aptly characterizes the Canadian side of the battle as a fluid, disorganized, and ferocious defensive struggle, indeed as fierce an engagement as any of the Canadian division would participate in during the war. Persuasively, he argues that the forces shaping Second Ypres were not 'raw courage, frontier grit and . . . a deficit of good sense' but 'skill, experience, cohesion, leadership and exhaustion.' In his treatment of the central controversy Canadian historians have obsessed over for decades - manifest weaknesses in high command - he is especially fair, reminding armchair and academic strategists that in this instance the fog of war was particularly opaque, leaving Generals Alderson, Turner, and Currie in near-impossible situations. While Currie's reputation once again survives, Iarocci deserves credit for at least questioning the future corps commander's decision to abandon his command post [End Page 299] during the heat of the action. For their part, Turner and Alderson receive a long-overdue rehabilitation. As for the final two chapters, they are interesting but anticlimactic, the author having already made his most significant points.
Thoroughly researched from Canadian and British (as well as some useful German) documents, Shoestring Soldiers offers both insightful and balanced analysis. The author's conclusions are important, starting with his revisionist assessment that the 1st Division was a capable fighting formation from the outset, and because of that, 'the foundations of the learning curve paradigm are increasingly uncertain.' Indeed, this solid and generally well-written account has brought the idea of a continuous learning curve into question, suggesting a more sophisticated version of the traditional paradigm, one where tactical and operational improvements were made in a series of discontinuous steps, clearly not all of them worthy of being characterized as progress.