[Editor’s note: To mark the announcement of the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction yesterday, we’re running reviews of the three nominated finalists, contributed by guest bloggers. The first review appeared last week. This is the second of three; look for the final one later this week.]
BY CATE SIMPSON
Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting The Great War, the sequel to Tim Cook’s Ottawa Book Award-winning At The Sharp End, picks up at 1917 where the latter left off.
Cook’s skill as a historian and a researcher is evident in every page of Shock Troops, and the level of detail with which he describes the battles of the war’s final two years is impressive. His ability as a writer though sometimes fails to live up to the stories he wants to tell. For the most poetic and vivid descriptions of war, Cook turns to hundreds of personal accounts from soldiers’ notebooks and letters from the front, which nicely counterbalance and serve to personalize the mind-numbing statistics on Canada’s war injuries and fatalities sprinkled throughout the book. But where Cook ventures into more poetic language himself he often misses the mark, lapsing into cliché or getting caught up in extravagant mixed metaphors.
Shock Troops is an account of war from the front lines. There are few digressions into the politics behind the conflict; instead, Cook concentrates on the planning and execution of battles in which the Canadian forces’ involvement was significant. Some, like Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and Amiens, have passed since the war into Canadian popular vocabulary.
Cook’s painstaking descriptions of military tactics and strategies will turn off some readers, but their inclusion is necessary to the author’s thesis that it was the sophistication of the Canadian forces’ tactics and preparation that ensured their effectiveness. His accounts of the machinations of battle are often surprising in their familiarity with individual soldiers’ experiences, although some aspects are hard to visualize in the detail Cook intends without some sense of the war’s inherent geography, and the significance of those efforts to the war at large.
More interesting to some will be the collection of chapters focusing on trench culture and soldiers’ downtime on the front lines. Cook doesn’t spend much time on these discussions of shell shock, trench discipline and soldiers’ superstitions, which have been covered far more extensively in other writing on the Great War. But they provide a welcome interlude between the battles of the first and second half of 1917, which are harder going and the book would be a struggle if its entire 648 pages consisted in them.
Shock Troops‘ length and lack of linguistic sparkle make it a sometimes tough ride, but its importance lies in the quality of the research, and the detail in which Cook’s two-volume work lays out the years that arguably established Canada as a nation.