HELL'S CORNER [an Illustrated History of Canada's Great War]

By Granatstein, Jl; Vance, Jonathan | International Journal, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

HELL'S CORNER [an Illustrated History of Canada's Great War]


Granatstein, Jl, Vance, Jonathan, International Journal


HELL'S CORNER An Illustrated History of Canada's Great War J. L. Granatstein Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2004. x, 198pp, $50.00 cloth (ISBN 1-55365-047-6)

Judging by what they read, Edwardian Canadians had no particular interest in the world around them. Only a minority of them were immigrants (according to the 1911 census, nearly 80 percent of the population had been born in Canada), and the bestseller lists that the trade periodical Bookseller and Stationer started compiling in 1899 included very few non-fiction books that had anything to do with international affairs. Religion, civics, philosophy, natural science, yes-but world politics, no. Few people cared when 400-odd French Canadians joined the Zouaves in the late 1860s to defend the papal states against partisans interested in unifying Italy, or when Canadian boatmen volunteered to help pull Britain's chestnuts out of the fire by rafting troops up the Nile to relieve the siege of Khartoum in 1884 . The South African War (1899-1902) caught the reading public's attention for a short while, but over the next decade, Canada was largely oblivious to the deteriorating international situation. This explains the shock of August 1914: the war came to Canada like a bolt from the blue, and the nation was seized by the realization that history had presented it with an opportunity to take its place on the world stage.

Four years later, Canada re-emerged from the inferno, immeasurably poorer for the loss of 60,000 lives but with a more sharply defined sense of itself and its place in the world. The country had proven that it had a rightful role in international affairs, and had used its success on the battlefields of Europe to leverage greater influence within the British empire and on the world stage. It has become a cliché to state that Canada became a nation on the battlefields of Flanders, but it is a cliché with more than a grain of truth.

That transformation from colony to nation underpins J.L. Granatstein's fine new account of Canada's first great overseas war. The nation in 1914, he points out, was a true mosaic, dominated numerically and politically by Anglo-Saxons and old-stock French Canadians, but with a healthy smattering of newcomers from virtually every nation in the world. But in those unenlightened days before federal sponsorship programs, "there had been no organized efforts to make Canadians out of those who had chosen to come here" (1). Only a few idealists, and a few more nativists, gave much thought to transforming newcomers into Canadians.

But the painful process that turned farmers, machinists, and office clerks into some of the finest soldiers to fight on the western front also instilled in them, and the nation, a sense of Canadianness. Granatstein describes the slow dawning of a Canadian consciousness from the stout defence of Ypres in April 1915 to the successful attack on Vimy Ridge in April 1917. It was after Canada's triumphs in the campaigns of 1917 that a French journalist observed "that 'one Canadian is worth three Germans'" (153), a comment that, even when stripped of its propaganda element, had some truth to it. What was emerging as a result of these battlefield successes (and, it must be admitted, the failures that the Canadian corps endured), in Granatstein's view, was a sense among Canadians that they were different-from the British and French who had originally colonized Canada, and from the Americans, and this at a time when the US was starting to overtake Mother Britain as the primary influence on Canada. This sense of distinctness impressed itself powerfully on Canadian soldiers, and was in turn expressed in many different ways, not the least common of which was the colourful language used by future cabinet minister Brooke Claxton.

Playing a key role in Granatstein's narrative is Canada's greatest general of the war, Sir Arthur Currie, whose prewar career gave no hint that he had any potential as a corps commander. …

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