Tim Cook. At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916, Volume One. Toronto: Viking, 2007. vi + 579 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-670-06734-3.
Reviewed by Tavis Harris (Department of History, Wilfrid Laurier University)
Published on H-Canada (July, 2008)
A View from the Trenches
In this weighty yet highly readable book, Tim Cook focuses on the recruitment and training of the Canadian contingent on the western front, and its first year of combat experience. In the crucible of war, the Canadians went from a group of ill-disciplined colonial troops to a battle-tested (though not yet elite) national fighting force. The book seamlessly weaves first-hand soldier testimony with discussions of wider developments during the conflicts' initial two years.
The First World War, Cook argues, was "more than a war," representing the advent of a modern age, shaping events for decades to come (p. 3). At the same time, the meaning of the war has changed greatly and competing interpretations continue to re-define its significance to this day. The war greatly increased Canada's international stature and created both heroes and martyrs for the Canadian public. Cook contends that while there have been many works on Canada and the Great War, few have addressed the nature of combat for those "at the sharp end." The author owes an acknowledged debt to Desmond Morton's When Your Number's Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War (1993) in this regard. The difference between Cook's volume and that of Morton and others is Cook's fuller use of soldier testimony. The book employs this material primarily to investigate the "learning curve" of the front line infantry. The elite Canadian Corps of 1917 was a culmination of not just the battle testing Canadians underwent in1915-16, but what the Canadians learned from this experience. Cook details the often painful tactical transformation as Canadians discovered the importance of infantry-artillery co-operation, reacted to new and terrifying weaponry such as poison gas, and figured out how to trade "space for time" in spite of British commanders maintaining the notion that surrendering ground was a sign of weakness.
The book reflects over a decade of research into both official and unofficial sources. By integrating soldiers' own recollections, with selected archival materials and ample secondary sources (only a partial bibliography is provided in the first volume), Tim Cook has expertly recreated the soldier's experience in the trenches, even while carefully acknowledging the difficulty of aggregating individual soldiers' experiences to represent the whole. "Every soldier's story was different. Two men who enlisted on the same day and who served together in the same unit, might have different experiences in the trenches, suffer different wounds, even participate in different battles" (p. 5). Cook argues that the full nature of the experience can only be understood through the relationships between all levels in the military hierarchy. The book, then, is a mixture of "top-down" and "bottom-up" approaches.
Each of the book's forty short chapters addresses a different component of soldiering life. This is in many ways both the book's great strength and single problem. The topics vary from an overview of Canada to the problems of the Ross rifle to the gas attack at Second Ypres to the Canadian experience at the Somme. In many cases, Cook makes use of recent historiography. For example, Ian Miller's 2002 work Our Glory and Our Grief is cited in discussing the nature of Canadian enlistment. Rather than it being a case of "hungerscription," most recruits left well-paying employment to don the khaki (p. 28). In other cases however, Tim Cook relies upon older interpretations in providing the background for the conflict. It would be interesting to see more recent historiographical developments used in explaining the war's origins.
The narrative fluidly shifts from discussions of daily routines to the horrors of battle. There are powerful accounts of the devastating physical and psychological impact of artillery shelling, a fresh account of the failure of such amateurish early Canadian innovations as the "MacAdam shovel," and a full treatment of the development of trench raiding in 1915. The limitation of selection, however, is inevitable and in some cases the reader is left wanting more on topics only mentioned in passing. Cook notes, for example, that murders occasionally occurred on troopships in transit to Europe (p. 69), but supplies no additional information or a citation for further reading on the topic.
Tim Cook's use of personal soldier testimony is quite evocative. The recollections of a veteran private of the 42nd Battalion about a newly arrived soldier provides a good example. The inexperienced soldier raised his head above the sandbags to look for an enemy sniper, and "stretched up in spite of my protest. The bullet entered his forehead and went out the back, breaking the strap of this helmet and carting to the rear of the post. I lowered the body to the trench floor and covered the face with a clean sandbag" (p. 286). Readers familiar with Canada and the Great War will find well-known figures such as Agar Adamson and Canon Frederick Scott, but this account by the private from the 42nd Battalion is typical of the numerous lesser known memoirs the author drew upon. Cook generally mentions the fates of the soldiers whose accounts provide the work's core.
Though the book is written for a general audience, those versed in the literature still have much to gain from the work. The detailed description of trench life and the nature of combat provide both a good overall picture of the war and some specialized discussion. The author also does not refrain from weighing in on many of the debates concerning the Canadians in the Great War. He justifies Arthur Currie's decision to leave the front to seek reinforcements from British General Thomas Snow's 27th Division at the Second Battle of Ypres: "[O]nly a personal appeal from [Currie] would convince the British to commit further troops" (p. 156). Another example is Cook's support for Sir Douglas Haig's decision to use tanks sooner and in a piecemeal fashion, rather than withholding the weapon use until larger numbers could be produced: "[I]t is difficult to argue Haig should have held on to the tanks for another nine months to a year while his troops were massacred as they ran up against uncut barbed wire" (p. 437).
The author's detailed and often moving descriptions of the daily life fill a gap in the literature concerning the daily lives of Canadian soldiers suffering through the misery of life in the trenches. By focusing on the first two years of the war, and the "learning curve" Tim Cook has set the stage for the forthcoming second volume, which this reviewer eagerly awaits. Tim Cook has shown that without the painful learning process of 1914-16 the Canadian Corps would not have emerged as the elite force of the Great War's later stages.
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Tavis Harris. Review of Cook, Tim, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916, Volume One.
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