Sunday, January 25, 2009

Two great books...

...about the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the Great War:
Tim Cook was a teenager when he was first struck by the Canadian experience in the First World War.

Like many young Canadians, Cook didn't understand the richness of his country's military history until he visited the Western Front during a family trip to Europe.

The experience shaped Cook, who has written Canada's first two-volume history of the Canadian Corps from 1914-1918 [actually not formed until September 1915].

"You can't help but be moved by that," said Cook, about seeing the battlefields for the first time. "You feel the real weight of history there."

The first volume, At the Sharp End, was released in 2007 and the second volume, Shock Troops, was released last year. At the Sharp End won the 2007 J.W. Dafoe Prize and two weeks ago Shock Troops was shortlisted for the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction.


Cook, who is the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum and a Carleton University professor, has written more than 1,200 pages of compelling narrative in Shock Troops. His easy-flowing style, interesting personal stories and attention to detail engage the reader.

"I wrote it in an engaging manner so not only academics will benefit from it," he said.

Shock Troops also tackles an issue not often touched by historians of the First World War. In Chapter 14 -- Supernatural Battlefields -- Cook writes about Canadian soldiers who tried to make sense of the war through their religion. He writes that thousands of soldiers had trouble understanding why their God would let the horror they witnessed on the battlefields continue. Some entered the war as non-believers but went home unscathed and sought the guidance of religion, while others who had a deep religious belief and were also spared death never set foot inside a church again.

"When shells landed next to men but failed to explode, it appeared that some higher power had protected them; but why had their friend, who was just as worthy, been taken?" wrote Cook.

The two other award finalists are Elizabeth Abbott for Sugar: A Bittersweet History, and Ana Siljak for Angel of Vengeance: The "Girl Assassin," the Governor of St. Petersburg, and Russia's Revolutionary World.

The winner will be announced in Toronto on Feb. 9.
And see this online exhibit from the Canadian War Museum:
Canada and the First World War
More on the museum:

A man walks through a First World War display at the War Museum in Ottawa. Even before visitors walk into the lobby of the Canadian War Museum, they recognize they are entering a building like no other. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - Even before visitors walk into the lobby of the Canadian War Museum, they recognize they are entering a building like no other.

With its grass-covered roof and facade jutting out toward Parliament Hill like the bow of a great ship, the concrete building overlooking the Ottawa River is striking. Inside, the lobby is open and expansive, but as visitors enter the galleries, there is something constrictive about the space.

The architect, Raymond Moriyama, wanted to take people out of their comfort zone. The imposing grey walls seem cold and barren.

With Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, the stories told here have had more resonance. An extended 14-month exhibition on Afghanistan [Update: an earlier post on this by The Phantom Observer], now touring Canada, attracted 190,000 visitors before wrapping up in April 2008 - exceeding the initial 12-month projection of 120,000 in just seven months [online version of the exhibition here].

More than 300 attended the opening of the travelling exhibit at the Rooms in St. John's, N.L., earlier this month. The war museum plans to bring the show to Victoria, Calgary, Toronto and other places through 2011 [emphasis added].

Since reopening in a new
building in May 2005, the museum has become a beacon for tourists and history buffs alike. Visitors have more than quadrupled to 450,000 a year.

The museum traces Canada's history through conflict. Visitors can learn about early Iroquois fortifications, the Seven Years' War and the War of 1812. There are also permanent displays on the two world wars, Korea and Canada's blue-helmeted peacekeeping missions in far-flung regions of the world, along with an extensive collection of war art.

Dioramas, interactive displays and amazing artifacts - like Adolf Hitler's Mercedes, or the torn, bloodstained coat of French Capt. Francois Dezery, shot at the Battle of Chateauguay in 1813 - bring the installations to life.

Besides Afghanistan, special exhibitions have featured the art of war propaganda, photographic collections and a look at wartime life at home.

Public lectures and other events ensure the museum is a venue for the informed discussion of military affairs, past and present.

"We're not pro-war, we're not antiwar," said spokesman Pierre Leduc.

The current special exhibition, "Trench Life: A Survival Guide," focuses on some of the 65,000 Canadian soldiers who experienced the misery of First World War battlefields, showing their kit, their trench art, their letters home.

The image that we have of young soldiers constantly huddling on frontline trenches in the mud and cold is accurate but incomplete, said Dean Oliver, director of research and exhibitions.

The soldiers were sometimes in underground shelters or slightly removed from the front, and it's those moments that the exhibition explores.

Theatre, poetry, newspapers, cartoons, songs and art helped soldiers find meaning in their war experience and cope with the strain of combat. Trench art included mugs crafted from shell casings, and all manner of trinkets.

The unique cultural artifacts they created remained, until this exhibition, relatively unknown. "Trench Life" marks the first time a Canadian museum has put on display an exhibit focusing on the life of soldiers when they were not at the front.

Weekends are family-oriented at the museum. Young visitors can create trench graffiti, maple leaf badges and personal identification tags.

"Trench Life: A Survival Guide" runs until April 13. The Canadian War Museum is located at 1 Vimy Place, in downtown Ottawa on LeBreton Flats, west of Parliament Hill.

On the Net: [full listing of online exhibitions here]

Update: Some other excellent sources for Canadian Military History:

Library and Archives Canada: Military and Peacekeeping

Veterans Affairs Canada: History

Canadian Military History

Canadian Forces Directorate of History and Heritage (note all the publications available online on left at "Histories")

CBC Archives: War & Conflict

Juno Beach Centre (see esp. "Canada in WWII")


Blogger vmijpp said...

A forgotten classic is "A Rifleman Went to War," by an American, Herbert McBride, who went north to join the Canadian Army when WW1 broke out. The bulk of the book describes his two years' as a proud Canadian soldier, before America's entry into the war forced him to get out and resume his commission in the US Army. Highly recommended.

11:21 a.m., January 25, 2009  
Blogger Griff said...

I have both volumes, and I have to agree, they are quite an incredible read.

12:16 p.m., January 25, 2009  

Post a Comment

<< Home