Letters and diaries give author insight into how ordinary soldiers endured an extraordinary war
The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians survived the Great War
Tim Cook Alan Lane
OTTAWA — It was a haunting statement of truth from a member of the legendary Dumbells troupe that entertained Canadian soldiers during the carnage of the First World War.
“I get a lump in my throat when I think that some of the brave lads we entertained at 5 o’clock were dead at 7:30 in No Man’s Land,” pianist Jack Ayre commented sombrely.
The poignancy of this observation cuts through the collective horror of slaughter and reduces the experience of war to a more personal level. You find it again in the war memoirs of Gregory Clark, a much-loved Canadian journalist.
“The less I counted on living, the more was I likely to live,” Clark recalled — while also revealing that in the trenches, he had a collection of magic charms and talismans that remained with him at all times.
Georges Vanier, a future governor-general of Canada, who would lose a leg in a shell blast, wrote his sister that he always carried the “relic” that she had given him, although he refused to identify it for fear that it might reduce its power in protecting him.
Intimate details like this fascinate award-winning historian Tim Cook, and they are a driving force behind his new book, The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians survived the Great War. It’s his 10th work and he ventures into territory not normally occupied by military historians like himself. It’s not about the big campaigns. It’s about the ordinary Canadians at the front and how they survived.
“I hope readers will have a better understanding of who these Canadians were — this generation that has now passed on,” Cook says during an interview at the Canadian War Museum. “Yes, we talk about the battles, the tactics, the commanders — but I want people to know the men — how they lived and how they died and how they tried to survive. Some 630,000 Canadians enlisted, some 66,000 were killed.”
And as the title suggests, theirs is very much a “secret” history: a history of fatalism and superstition in the trenches; of authorized brothels and YMCA and Salvation Army canteens behind the lines; of pushback against the officers through cartoons in troop-inspired newspapers, profane anti-authority songs and live entertainment. Cook writes about robbing the dead and the popularity of soldiers performing in drag and the gallows humour that sustained life in the trenches.
The focus is not on the Canadian soldier as victim. Rather, it is a study in resilience and stoicism.
“It is a secret history ... the inner life of the soldiers,” Cook says. “It isn’t the history that is recorded in official records, for the most part. What you need to turn to are the letters and diaries and memoirs — thousands and thousands of pages.”
Cook, who is the museum’s Great War historian, has a sense of mission.
“Even to reclaim the soldiers’ culture from obscurity is to broaden the soldiers’ story,” he writes near the end of the book. He argues that this was never intended to be a shared culture — rather it was meant to “insulate” the soldiers from the civilians who would be incapable of understanding what they were going through.
“So to uncover it can shed quite a new light on how these soldiers coped — most of them of a very young age whose average education level was Grade 6,” he says. “That’s the central question of the book — to try to understand how they survived these awful conditions of shellfire and rats and lice and unending death.
“Why were they not driven insane? Why didn’t they all run away? We know some collapsed from shell shock and things like that — but most didn’t. They learned to endure.”
Working on such a book was not emotionally easy.
“There are sections where I was writing and crying,” Cook says. “It was usually when I was thinking about the soldiers themselves, reading their intimate letters and then realizing there was nothing more — they had been killed in the next battle.”
It was the “death culture” that jolted Cook the most, “The stories of the supernatural ... the magic talismans … seeing their own death through premonitions — you have to understand this by accepting that they are living in places of mass murder where everyone around them is being killed or wounded.”
In a lighter vein, he was surprised by the drag culture that surfaced in soldiers’ entertainments.
“The appeal of these crossdressing soldiers who are playing the idealized girls back home — I found it very interesting trying to unpack that and make sense of it. Some historians have said there’s a homo-erotic relationship being played out here, but I say no, that’s not true at all. What is clear here is that there’s pushback against the officers who supposedly fall in love with these beautiful creatures on stage. It’s an attempt to put the officers in their place.”
Indeed, the dynamic between the ordinary soldiers and their officers provides some of the most astonishing pages in a book that details repeated pushback by the men in the trenches against those in authority over them. It’s reflected in the songs they sang, in the cartoons in trench newspapers like the Dead Horse Corner Gazette, in the theatrical entertainments where the men make fun of their leaders.
“The war we tend to think of is this war of iron discipline,” Cook says. “It was a war where we shot 22 Canadians for running away from battle, where you could look at the officer the wrong way and be charged with insolence. But here we find soldiers who are making fun of their officers — and sometimes more.”
Cook cites opposition in the ranks to the notorious Ross rifle. “The men were clearly angry. And sometimes they pushed back really hard.” He cites the anger ordinary soldiers felt toward a commanding officer over the unnecessary death of a comrade.
“Will the officer be attending the funeral of the soldier who he made to go above the trenches to pick up garbage?” the officer is asked. Cook offers his own translation of what the complaining soldier is really saying: “Will you be attending the funeral of the soldier you killed because of your callousness and stupidity?”
Sometimes gallows humour helped Canadian soldiers serving in the First World War endure life in the trenches, where death was all around them.