Paul Douglas Dickson. A Thoroughly Canadian General: A Biography of General H. D. G. Crerar. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. xliv + 571 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8020-0802-2.
Reviewed by Craig Stone (Department of Defence Studies, Canadian Forces College and Royal Military College of Canada)
Published on H-Canada (July, 2008)
Readers of Canadian history will enjoy this biography of General H. D. G. "Harry" Crerar, one of Canada's most successful generals in the Second World War. Paul Dickson has done a very commendable job of weaving and connecting the many issues associated with Crerar and his role in building and then commanding the Canadian Army. He deals very effectively with some of the unique challenges for Canada as a nation trying to find its place and role within a much larger group of Allies.
The book, like most biographies, is structured chronologically. Beginning with Crerar's early roots as a Hamiltonian and his attendance at Upper Canada College (the province's foremost private school at the time), Dickson sets the stage for why Crerar expressed particular views later in life. For example, Dickson attributes some of Crerar's thoughts on the character-building value of leadership education to his formative years at Upper Canada College and the Royal Military College.
Next, Dickson examines Crerar's First World War experience as an artillery officer with service in artillery field batteries and as a staff officer at the divisional level. In this case, there is nothing profoundly different in Crerar's experience in the war when compared with that experienced by others, particularly by those other Canadian officers destined for generalship in the Second World War. Those who traveled across the Atlantic with a romantic idea of war changed their view soon after arriving on the western front.
It is during Dickson's discussion of Crerar in the interwar years that some of the more interesting aspects of Harry Crerar's life begin to unfold. Dickson's discussion of Crerar's appointment to the War Office, attendance at Staff College and subsequent return to Canada to command B Battery reflect what many would perceive as a fairly typical interwar career path for professional soldiers in Canada. What Dickson does very well is to demonstrate even at this early stage, Crerar's career ambitions, his awareness of Canadian Army internal politics, and his awareness of leveraging relationships with those senior to himself. Dickson also leaves no doubt in the reader's mind that Crerar was rank-conscious and worried about the perceptions of others, both junior and senior to himself.
As might be expected, most of the book is dedicated to Crerar's experience in the Second World War with chapters devoted to the major time periods in the war that are significant to the Canadian Army. Those familiar with Canadian Military history will be comfortable with a structure that looks at the state of the military going into the war, the Dieppe Raid, the Italian Campaign, the birth of the First Canadian Army, Operation Overlord, the Normandy Campaign, the Scheldt, and the return home. Dickson uses this familiar chronological structure to discuss Crerar's time as the chief of the General Staff and the process for how he came to replace General McNaughton as commander of the Canadian Army.
There are a number of issues that come out of Dickson's review of this time period but two are critically important for understanding Crerar the Canadian general and Canada's place in the world. First, it is clear from Dickson's analysis that Crerar was an advocate of Canadian National Command autonomy. In other words, the Canadian Army was not just another military unit for the empire to employ as it saw fit. Canadian national wishes needed to be considered and Canadian commanders would have the final say on how Canadian soldiers would be employed. Despite repeated attempts by British generals such as Field Marshall Montgomery to ignore this issue, Dickson has done a very good job of explaining this relationship in a balanced way without being unnecessarily critical of one or the other. The importance of this issue is that it remains an issue today whenever Canadian forces are deployed on operations. Crerar was successful in continuing the practice started in the First World War and followed by McNaughton in the early years of the Second World War.
Second, and perhaps the more important of the two, Dickson's portrayal of the state of affairs for the Canadian Army with respect to command and leadership abilities is relevant to Canadian military history and the Canadian Forces today. Dickson describes Crerar's hesitancy to make decisive and timely operational decisions within a broader discussion of a general lack of senior operational level command for Canadian general officers. Canada entered the Second World War in much the same way as it entered the First World War--unprepared, lacking military capabilities, and with a cadre of senior officers efficient in peacetime management of a small organization and ineffective in senior operational command. Canada is struggling with some of the same issues today. Politicians and senior public servants that believe senior military commanders should say less on the public stage and be good public servants as opposed to senior military commanders who, based on ten years of operational experience, are not prepared to take the blame for political decisions that place soldiers in harm's way without clear strategic goals and adequate resources for the mission assigned.
Although it was not until April 1, 1965 that Harry Crerar passed away, he basically faded into obscurity upon his return to Canada and his retirement from the military. Wanting to rebuild his relationship with his wife and family, Crerar, after a very short cross-country tour, retired from the military. He turned down opportunities such as Ontario's lieutenant governorship and the chairmanship of Ontario Hydro but remained committed to public service. He responded positively to requests by prime minister Lester Pearson to undertake some minor diplomatic missions and remained active in Ottawa's international affairs circles. Dickson effectively takes the reader through this part of Crerar's life and leaves the reader wondering how it is possible for a man of Crerar's accomplishments to just slip away.
A Thoroughly Canadian General is well researched, well documented, and the maps and illustrations are very effective. Dickson has found the balance required for a successful scholarly examination of an important general officer and the need to keep the reader interested and captured by the words on the page. Those with only a passing knowledge of Canadian politics and history will enjoy the book for its clarity and readability. Those with a more detailed knowledge will be able to use Dickson's explanations and discussions to make the broader connections to those important Canadian issues that seem to be prevalent throughout our history as a nation.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-canada.
Craig Stone. Review of Dickson, Paul Douglas, A Thoroughly Canadian General: A Biography of General H. D. G. Crerar.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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