Stoic heroes

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.

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