The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War, by Tim Cook, Allen Lane, London, 2018, $26
In his memoirs former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George referred to the Canadian Corps—four divisions deployed on the Western Front from 1915 to 1918—as storm troops. “Whenever the Germans found the Canadians coming into the line,” he wrote, “they prepared for the worst.” Author Pugsley describes the corps as “the most effective fighting formation among the British armies on the Western Front, superior in performance to its vaunted Australian contemporary in terms of organization, tactical efficiency and staying power.” Attention has been lavished on the corps’ combat effectiveness by Bill Rawling (Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914–1918) and Shane B. Schreiber (Shock Army of the British Empire: The Canadian Corps in the Last 100 Days of the Great War), among others.
In The Secret History of Soldiers Tim Cook turns his attention to the latter question—the corps’ staying power. Rather than ordnance or organization, bombs or bullets, Cook assesses the sense of community, the social and cultural bonds that kept members of the corps in the pink and saved them from “getting their wind up”—succumbing to what is now termed PTSD. Slang and jargon, Cook argues, are key components of a specific corps dialect that united the group and served to exclude outsiders. Liberal use of any and all obscenities also served to unite the men of the corps in a unique brotherhood.
Cook explores and attributes similar power to singing (by both professional entertainers and the soldiers), vaudeville shows, theatrical troupes (most famously “The Dumbells”) and viciously satirical trench newspapers produced by the “Poor Bloody Infantry” themselves. The generation, transference and evolution of trench culture sustained the combatants and gave them a sense of “agency within a consistently dehumanizing war,” according to Cook.
The author is eminently qualified to tackle this complex and comprehensive cultural approach to the corps. Over the past quarter century Cook has published dozens of academic articles and 10 books, including the 2008 volume Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917–1918, recipient of the Charles Taylor Prize, Canada’s highest award for nonfiction. In 2013 he was awarded the Pierre Berton Prize for popularizing Canadian history. His latest encyclopedic treatment of Canadian involvement in World War I does indeed lay bare, per the subtitle, “how Canadians survived the Great War.”
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