Sunday, March 29, 2009

Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918

by Tim Cook

This has taken me months to get through, not because it was a chore, but because I knew that I never wanted to enter into it unless I could devote a good chunk of time and mental energy into reading it. It's a very dense, information-heavy recounting of the experiences of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the last two years of the First World War.

Cook has spent a decade researching this book (and its companion first volume), and has read through millions of pages of archival material, synthesizing it all into a thoroughly readable, and at times exciting, chronicle of Canadian strength, bravery, sacrifice, and maturity.

In many chapters, especially when describing the large set-piece battles at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, or the rapid advances of the last hundred days of the war, Cook's pages fairly vibrate with tension and excitement. He frequently lets the soldiers themselves narrate the story through their letters, diaries, and memoirs, providing a human face to the largely mechanized slaughter. Cook also portrays the growth of the Canadian forces, as the difficulties and failures of earlier battles lead to a more de-centralized command structure, fluid advancement techniques, and improvements in tactics and equipment.

The last chapter of the book is perhaps the best, as Cook examines the way in which the memory of the war has been constructed in Canada from 1919 to today, as only one veteran remains alive (at least at the time of publication). While describing the war in minute and exacting detail, and demonstrating how it forged Canada's identity into the 20th century, this book never loses sight of the experiences of the common infantry soldier who served at the sharp end of the spear, doing the lion's share of the work and fighting, and placing himself at the greatest risk.

This is a massively important book for any Canadian to read.

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