About the Author

Tim Cook

TIM COOK is the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum, as well as an adjunct professor at Carleton University. He is the author of five other books, including Shock Troops, which won the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction in 2009. He was also awarded the Ottawa Book Award and the J.W. Dafoe Prize for At the Sharp End. Cook lives in Ottawa with his family.

Books by this Author
At the Sharp End Volume One

At the Sharp End Volume One

Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916
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Clio's Warriors

Clio's Warriors

Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars
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Fight to the Finish

Fight to the Finish

Canadians in the Second World War, 1944-1945
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No Place to Run

No Place to Run

The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War
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Shock Troops

Shock Troops

Canadians Fighting The Great War 1917-1918 Volume Two
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The Fight for History

The Fight for History

75 Years of Forgetting, Remembering, and Remaking Canada's Second World War
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The Madman and the Butcher

The Madman and the Butcher

The Sensational Wars Of Sam Hughes And General Arthur Currie
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The Necessary War, Volume 1

The Necessary War, Volume 1

Canadians Fighting The Second World War:1939-1943
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The Secret History of Soldiers

The Secret History of Soldiers

How Canadians Survived the Great War
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Excerpt

 
In the soldiers’ songs, the patriotic discourse of the home front, with its exalted speech-making of one more push, was buried under a chorus of deliberately shocking satire, anti-conformity, relentless vulgarity, and merry-making. This was the grousing of everyday soldiers put to song. The cynicism expressed in the songs did not mean that the soldiers were willing to give up or embrace defeat. In fact, to sing about the army discipline, which in its extreme form was much hated, or about escaping the trenches, was a way of coping with the strain at the front and finding strength to go on. Chester Routley of the 18th Battalion was so taken with one untitled and impertinent song that he wrote it down from memory in his postwar memoirs:
 
 
They say we’re going over the ocean
They say we’re going over the sea,
They say that we’re going to Blighty,
But it all sounds like bull-shit to me.
Bull-shit, bull-shit, it all sounds
Like bull-shit to me, to me,
Bull-shit, bull shit, it sounds
Just like bull-shit to me.
 
 
These satirical send-ups also allowed for the trivialization of mud, lice, and sudden death. In the strange world of the trenches, where lives were ruled by fate or military discipline, one simply had to grin and bear it. This sentiment was expressed in many ways, but the soldiers’ song “Never Mind” (also known as “If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum”) captured it well:
 
 
If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind
And your face may lose its smile, never mind
He’s entitled to a tot but not the bleeding lot
If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind
When old Jerry shells your trench, never mind
And your face may lose its smile, never mind
Though the sandbags bust and fly you have only once to die,
If old Jerry shells the trench, never mind
If you get stuck on the wire, never mind 
And your face may lose its smile, never mind
Though you’re stuck there all the day, they count you dead and stop your pay
If you get stuck on the wire, never mind
 
 
Some troops added their own fun to the lyrics by mimicking officers or NCOs, either in speech or tone, to personalize the song for their comrades.
 
Though soldiers liked to take their superiors down a notch, reminding those in power that the rank and file were on to their tricks, they reserved a special vitriol for those at home who would not fight. The anonymous satirical attack on conscientious objectors, “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier,” was sung with vigour:
 
 
I don’t want to be a soldier, I won’t be compelled to fight:
I much prefer to stay in England than to battle for the right:
Others may be patriotic and answer King and Country’s call,
But my conscience won’t allow me—no, my conscience won’t
Allow me—or I’d sacrifice my all.
Chorus
I don’t want to be a soldier,
I have nought worth fighting for;
If I had, my conscience tells me
It’s not right to go to war
I don’t want to be a soldier, I feel quite happy singing psalms,
Tho’ I’ve often heard the bugle sounding the call to arms:
I would rather be a shirker and sleep upon a feather bed,
Than to doss within a dug-out—a dirty, muddy dug-out—
And plaster Ticker’s jam upon my bread.
 
 
“It won’t be good to be a chap who stayed at home, when the boys return,” wrote one Canadian stretcher-bearer in a letter about those young men who did not serve. “This thing is just a bit too serious. We know what it is here.” Motivated by anger at the unfair burden shouldered by those at the front, many soldiers dreamed and sang lustily about postwar revenge against the slackers at home and their own abusive superiors. The moving “When This Lousy War Is Over,” which was sung to the tune of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” fantasized about postwar payback.
 
 
When this lousy war is over no more soldiering for me,
When I get my civvy clothes on, oh how happy I shall be.
No more church parades on Sunday, no more begging for a pass.
You can tell the sergeant-major to stick his passes up his arse.
When this lousy war is over no more soldiering for me,
When I get my civvy clothes on, oh how happy I shall be.
No more NCOs to curse me, no more rotten army stew.
You can tell the old cook-sergeant, to stick his stew right up his flue.
When this lousy war is over no more soldiering for me,
When I get my civvy clothes on, oh how happy I shall be.
No more sergeants bawling, “Pick it up” and “Put it down”
If I meet the ugly bastard I’ll kick his arse all over town.
 
 
Such feelings of anger and discontent could be aired safely in the songs, in a way that they could not be presented in private letters home, which were censored, or in direct talk with superiors, which could result in confrontations and punishment.
 
There were also multiple songs devoted to the popular subjects of booze and sex. “Here’s to the Good Old Beer” and “Drink It Down” were celebrations of alcohol, and even abstainers were known to join in to the chorus to be a part of the social activity. The songs of drink quenched a thirst of the spirit and facilitated male bonding. The rough culture of the soldiers was revealed more boldly, and bawdily, through sexual songs such as “My Nelly, Skibboo,” “I’m Charlotte, the Harlot,” “Oh, Florea’s [or Florrie’s] New Drawers,” and “Three German Officers.” The most famous dirty song of them all, “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” with its ever-changing and increasingly vulgar lines, is known to have at least 700 recorded versions. And this doesn’t include most of the unprintable ones, with the lyrics degenerating into incest and bestiality. “Certainly some of the verses we sang were pretty ripe,” said Ernest Black in his memoirs, with little more than a literary shrug.
 
The more blasphemous the song, the more it was sung with gusto, with some of the raunchiest songs being belted out on the march. Soldiers were not known as foot-sloggers for nothing, and it was not uncommon for them to march in their heavy hobnailed boots for kilometres behind the lines, carrying gear weighing more than sixty pounds. Lieutenant Thomas Dinesen, a Danish national who enlisted in the CEF and would later receive the Victoria Cross for fierce fighting at the Battle of Amiens, recounted the joy men took in shouting irreverent lyrics while on the march:
 
 
Again and again we go back to the good old Pack Up Your Troubles; or else we roar so that the whole countryside may hear: The Gang’s All Here! But the best of the lot is the everlasting and ever-varying song of Mademoiselle from Armentières:
 
 
Oh, madam, have you any good wine?
Parley voo,
Oh, madam, have you any good wine?
Parley voo,
Oh, madam, have you any good wine,
Fit for a soldier from the line?
Hinky dinky, parley voo.
 
 
It continued, “Oh, madam, have you a daughter fine? Yes, I have a daughter fine. Then …” Our imagination pictures the continuation of the song in lusty and vivid colouring, although in any case we have now turned our back on all such pleasures for some time to come.
 
Excerpted from The Secret History of Soldiers by Tim Cook. Copyright © 2018 by Tim Cook. Published by Allen Lane, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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Vimy

Vimy

The Battle and the Legend
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The Battle of Vimy Ridge was the most carefully planned operation the Canadians fought during the First World War. The ridge was the site of several titanic battles, starting in October 1914, and a place where hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers had been killed or maimed in attempting to capture or hold the critically important geographical position. The 7-kilometre Vimy Ridge protected the coal-rich area around Lens that the Germans occupied and desperately needed to retain to supply their war effort. When the Canadians arrived at the foot of the western side of the ridge in October 1916, Vimy was a vast desert of shell craters and rotting corpses. The Canadians faced one of the most formidable positions on the Western Front. Under the command of British general Sir Julian Byng, the four Canadian divisions, with significant support from British engineers, gunners, and soldiers, prepared for the battle in April 1917. The assault on Vimy was part of a larger British push, the Arras offensive, which was, in turn, a supporting attack for the French Artois offensive to the south. Through meticulous preparation, training, determination, and sacrifice, the Canadians succeeded where the French armies had failed in the past. The Corps’ victory solidified its reputation among allies and opponents as an elite fighting force.
     But Vimy is more than a battle. The unanswered question of Vimy is how the battle became a focal point of remembrance and an icon of Canadian identity. Why do Canadians remember Vimy instead of the 1915 Battle of Second Ypres or the 1918 Hundred Days campaign? The former was the first major engagement where the Canadians faced chlorine gas and stopped the overwhelming German forces; the latter was hailed at the time as the most important series of battles by the Canadian Corps. To pull back the gaze further, why do Canadians celebrate Vimy more intensely than they mark battles of the Second World War, such as the Battle of the Atlantic, D-Day, or the liberation of the Dutch in 1945? How do we make sense of the proud Canadians in 2007 who returned to Vimy Ridge wearing hats and T-shirts that proclaimed “Vimy: Birth of the Nation.” No one would attribute that origin story to the battles of Ridgeway, Paardeberg, or Ortona, to Normandy, Kapyong, or the Medak Pocket. Vimy is unique.
     The value that Canadians attach to the battle and the memorial is forever linked to the Great War. For many English Canadians the war marked Canada’s coming of age, as its primary land formation, the Canadian Corps, spearheaded a number of Allied offensives and delivered hard-fought victories. The war was perceived differently in French Canada, which had a distinct culture and identity, and by many of the two million immigrants who had come to Canada since the late nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the war was an important transformative event for all. The enormous exertions on the home front saw millions of shells produced for the war effort, crops produced by farmers to feed the Allied nations, and unprecedented patriotic support of the war effort and the soldiers. Major social changes, from industrialization, income tax, and enfranchisement for women to deeper government intervention into the lives of Canadians, were ushered in by the war.

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Warlords

Warlords

Borden Mackenzie King And Canada's World Wars
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Filling the Ranks

Filling the Ranks

Manpower in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1918
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