Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Desmond Morton, When Your Number's Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Desmond Morton, When Your Number's Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War

Peter Simkins
Imperial War Museum
Morton, Desmond. When Your Number's Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War, Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1993. 354 pp., 52 photographs, 5 maps, 5 diagrams. Softcover $19.00, ISBN 0-394-22288-1.

1 Although nearly 80 years have elapsed since the end of the Great War, interest in it has, if anything, grown in the past two decades and the debates about its causes, conduct and effects are as fierce as ever. Military and war museums — especially those such as the Imperial War Museum in London, the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra, and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, which house not only artifacts but also major international collections of documents, film, photographs and works of art — have played a significant part in generating and sustaining this interest. The vigorous collecting policies of these institutions and of other museums and archives in recent years have ensured the preservation of large numbers of diaries, letters and unpublished memoirs and, at the same time, have greatly increased their accessibility to scholars and general readers alike.

2 New technology has inevitably facilitated the task of the curator and archivist. The advent of the cassette recorder and camcorder has given us an 11 th-hour opportunity to interview the dwindling number of First World War veterans and to carry out what has been aptly described as a "smash and grab raid on history" by the New Zealand author Maurice Shadbolt in Voices of Gallipoli (Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988). Similarly, computers have transformed cataloguing and information retrieval. A visitor seated at a computer workstation in the Australian War Memorial's splendid Research Centre can obtain details of the AWM's entire holdings on, say the 1917 operations at Bullecourt without moving. From the general public's viewpoint, the most obvious changes wrought by modern technology lie in the area of museum display. The Historial de la Grand Guerre at Péronne in France, for example, makes highly imaginative use of film in its galleries to reflect the cultural and social impact of the Great War in France, Germany and Britain, while the Imperial War Museum's remodelled First World War displays, opened in 1990, incorporate —besides film— oral history listening posts, sound effects, interactive touch-screen video monitors, and a "Trench Experience" complete with smells, "conversations" between soldiers and a simulated trench raid.

3 In the field of research two trends have become particularly apparent in the last 20 years or so. One, which has both inspired and mirrored the present museum collecting and display policies, has been the much closer attention paid by scholars to the experiences of junior officers and other ranks —the study, in short, of "everyman at war." The other has been the gradual, yet now firmly based, recognition that in the British and Dominion contingents on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918 there was a distinct and more or less continuous "learning curve," manifesting itself in a series of tactical, organizational and technological improvements which enabled those formations to make what was arguably the decisive contribution to the final Allied offensive of August-November 1918. The distinguished Canadian historian, Professor Desmond Morton, has already done much to determine the recent course of Great War studies. Not the least of his achievements in his empathetic analysis of the Canadian soldier in the First World War is the skilful and entertaining way in which he combines and, interweaves these two main strands of current research.

4 Desmond Morton makes many telling points in his wide-ranging survey. Like scholars in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, he establishes doubt that the motives of those who volunteered in 1914-1915 were far more diverse than previous generations of writers and historians had supposed. Reminding us that up to 70 per cent of the First Canadian Contingent's other ranks were British-born, he observed that, certainly at the outset, the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) had only a little of the restless egalitarian "mateship" of Australian units. "Canadian-born officers and predominantly British-born other ranks," he remarks, "helped maintain a deep social gulf." But, as the war progressed, the advantages enjoyed by the units of the Canadian and Australian Corps in staying together in their own formations did make it easier for them to decentralize and foster tactical initiative. Morton is right to underline the fact that the Canadians were important partners, and sometimes leaders, in the development of more flexible tactics, even if he under-values the role of the best British divisions— such as the 9th (Scottish) and 18th (Eastern)—in this process.

5 Throughout the book the author demonstrates a refreshing willingness to chip steadily away at the myths and half-truths that still pervade our collective folk-memory of the First World War. In the chapter, covering the CEF's medical services, for instance, he emphasizes that 93 per cent of the wounded men who received medical treatment survived their wounds — a rate of recovery unmatched in the Second World War. Canadian losses in the successful battles of August to October 1918 exceeded those suffered by the CEF on the Somme in 1916, though the proportion of lighter wounds was higher and fatalities lower. As well, nearly one in nine Canadian soldiers was infected with venereal disease, which was the largest single cause of hospitalization for Canadians during the war.

6 A few mistakes have crept through to the final text. One or two places names are misspelt (Festubert on page 36 and Armentières on page 37); there is a curious reference to "Oxford Square" in London on page 86; and Ivor Maxse (page 154) was the commander of the 18th Division, not XVIII Corps, in July 1916. However, these are minor blemishes in an outstanding work which — perhaps more accurately than any other study — pinpoints the qualities of heart and mind that made most Canadians such good soldiers in the First World War. In Morton's own words, once the conflict had ended, "poets, politicians, even veterans, preferred to dwell on military incompetence, not achievement....What lay behind the unexpected victories of 1918 was easily forgotten. Now it has been recalled." The Canadian soldier could ask for no better tribute or any more honest and balanced assessment of his motives, attitudes and deeds, than that which Professor Morton has provided here.