Remembrance Day: the Great War and Canadian Mythology

Tim Cook's The Madman and the Butcher

The Great War ended 92 years ago today. I reflect on Canada’s experience in the war in a review I did for The Walrus of Tim Cook’s new book The Madman and the Butcher. The review can be read here.

My Walrus review was tightly constricted by space to 600 words, so I’ll take the opportunity to add a few extra thoughts.

Cook’s book (and his earlier works) represents both the strengths and weaknesses of English Canadian historiography about the Great War. The strength of this literature is that the way it has exhaustively combed through the archives to recreate the experiences of Canadians who fought in the war. Given the nature of the evidence available, there is a slight imbalance towards the experience of officers but in recent decades historians like Cook have also been paying more attention the experiences of enlisted men. What these books give us, at their best, is a deeply textured and specific phenomenology of the war as it was lived through day by day.

The paradigms that Cook uses – the learning curve, the forging of national identity – are all taken from earlier historians and need to be queried more than he’s willing to. It’s true that the Canadian soldiers (like the soldiers from all sides of the war, I’d argue) learned how to fight during the war. They started off with really no idea of what modern war entailed and through the most horrendous slaughters imaginable developed tactics and strategies that, in the case of the Allies at least, led to victory. That’s true enough, but the danger of the learning curve paradigm is that it casts the war in a progressive light, as a story of improvement over time. I’d argue that the learning curve was a steep one – the learning did take place but really at a horrible cost, one which does call to mind the earlier histories of the war which emphasized the callousness of the officers. There really was a lack of imagination and intelligence on the part of Allied officers which no amount of learning can hide.

About national identity, Cook, like many other English-Canadian historians, see the war as the period where Canada as a nation matured. Again, there is a kernel of truth here but it has to be set against the fact that the war also greatly divided the nation: the strongest supporters of the war were those who were either born in the British Isles or had ancestors from Britain. Other types of Canadians – notably the French but also those whose ancestors were born in continental Europe or elsewhere – were not inclined to support the war or to sign up. So far from being a war that forged national identity, it could just as easily and accurately be seen as a war that divided the nation along permanent lines.

One of the biggest problems with English-Canadian historians is that they ignore or side-step the cause of the First World War. Cook is by no means the worst of these. I’ve heard other historians argue that the First World War was fought for democracy and human rights. This always seemed to me absurdly propagandistic. The Kaiser’s Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were hardly less democratic than the Britian that held sway over Ireland and India, or the Czar’s Russia or, towards the end of the war, the Jim Crow America of Woodrow Wilson. Canadians did not go to war in 1914 for democracy or human rights. Those that did go to war did so to defend the British Empire, then seen by many (but not all) of them as a good thing. Of course the ironic effect of the war was to weaken the British Empire and set in motion the long decline that would lead to imperial extinction. That’s why historians who love the British Empire, like Neil Ferguson, now question whether Britain should have fought the war. I don’t hold much truck with Ferguson and his celebrations of empire but it does seem to me that he’s much more realistic than this Canadian counterparts. He at least understands what the war was about and is willing to make a rational cost/benefit analysis. To many Canadian historians are still ensnarled in the mythology of nationalism to ask the tough questions about the whether the war was worth it.

There’s also the question of scope: historians like Ferguson see the war on a truly global scale and are mindful of the larger forces at work. By contrast, Canadian historians tend to be miniaturists, focused on reconstructing the battles at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. These battles were great victories for Canada but they were also a drop in the bucket compared to the larger battles that were fought by some of the biggest armies in the history of the world. When you read Canadian historians, you don’t get a sense that the war also included British, French, Australians, Americans, and others. Of course, all national mythologies tend to do this: in the American imagination World War II in Europe is the story of D-Day (with a slight nod to the Battle of Britain). Stalingrad is hardly even mentioned, although it was a much more important battle.

In a lot of ways, English Canadian historiography on the war is oddly stunted: on the one hand historians like Cook have done magnificent archival research so we have a tremendous knowledge of the war as experienced by soldiers. But there is a persistent tendency to ignore the big picture, to see the Canadian military as being part of a larger fighting force, to ask questions about the cost and wisdom of the war, to compare the Canadian experience to that of other nations. As well, there is a tendency to read later Canadian nationalist sentiment back into the war experience, ignoring the imperial identity that was the chief motive for recruitment. English Canadian historians are still in the thrall of nationalist mythology, a situation that has to change if we’re to come to terms with Great War.

4 thoughts on “Remembrance Day: the Great War and Canadian Mythology

  1. Not so much of a critique as an observation based on unreliable personal experience: I do understand that “war is hell”, and would personally rather see foreign policy being driven by selling Blackberries and buying iPods than at the point of a bayonet. However, I can remember reading somewhere recently that Canadian soldiers were universally feared on the battlefield during World War I – not unlike how the Gurkhas were and still are – and feeling a brief surge of national pride, albeit in a atavistic, sense.

    I can’t help but think that if there was a more prominent “whig” account of Canadian military achievements, it would be somewhat easier to compete with cherished national American myths. Of course the reason for that might not have anything to do with the actual quantity of those whig accounts, and more to do with the quality or ability of the authors to get them into the greater public discourse.

  2. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. The issue of feeling pride in past military experience is a complicated one. My great-grand-father was a soldier during the First World War — not as a Canadian but as a Sikh from India fighting for the British. And the Sikhs, like the Gurkhas and the Canadians, have a fierce reputation. I suppose I do have some pride in that. But to me, the act of soldiering can’t be seperated from the political purposes of war. I’m not a pacifist and there are wars that I think were justified but the First World War isn’t one of them. As far as I can tell it was a pointless bloody disaster, the consequences of which we’re still living with.

  3. Thank you for your this lucid critique of Canadian WWI historiography. I wish that some of these ideas had made it into The Walrus.

  4. I’d agree with the statement that people didn’t go there to fight for democracy, no way, to claim that is anachronistic, but definitely Britain, France and US were uncomparably more democratic than the other countries you mention, esp. Russia and Ottoman Empire. Which is kinda obvious – if Russia were as democratic as Britain, why the hell we’ve seen not just one but two revolutions in 1917, in St.Petersburg alone (not to mention other places)? All the “other” countries acquired different systems of government after the war, while France, Britain and US retained those they had. So there.

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