||A Review of: We∆re Not Dead Yet: The First World War Diary of Private Bert Cooke
by James Roots
"Little did I think when we were young, and all things around
us were gay, that some fine day our monarch would say, it's up to
every person to do his duty. After living for so many years in peace
and happiness, it was cruel for such a war between so many countries
to start. Little did we think that it would mean the calling of so
many human beings together to be slaughtered like sheep for the
sake of a few individuals who thought they could conquer the world.
Alas, they did not consider the individuals in the Colonies who
were willing to aid the motherland."
Private Bert Cooke's initiation of his World War I diary encapsulates
the importance of the surprising number of Canadian soldiers' diaries
that have been receiving their first commercial publication as we
lurch through the ninetieth anniversary of the Great War.
For practically all of those ninety years, we have been told the
day Canada held the line at Ypres, or advanced on the Somme, Vimy
Ridge, or Passchendaele, was the day we truly became a nation. What
diaries like Cooke's show us is that this clich is absolutely true;
and that, moreover, the soldiers who fought at those fronts realized
it even as it was happening.
Cooke and others like him either observed or participated in all
of the great Canadian battles except Ypres: Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele,
Hill 70, Lens, Amiens, Arras. All of them entered the Army in 1915-16
as patriotic members of the British Empire. Diaries such as Cooke's
reveal the maturation of national self-awareness that they experienced
as the Canadian Expeditionary Force was molded under fire into the
elite shock-troops of the Allied Powers.
It is as subtle as Cooke noting with surprise that Belgians did not
know how to fry eggs "before the Canadians came into this
country"; or as plain as his observation immediately following
Vimy that, "The victory at Vimy was a feather in the Canadians'
cap [it] will always ring in our ears"; or as sentimental as
the doggerel he writes about "Toronto's own the boys that are
so well known / Now here's to the land of the Maple Leaf, the place
where we long to be"
We're Not Dead Yet, besides having the best title, is probably the
most successful of the recent crop of war diaries in vividly depicting
the everyday life of the Great War soldier. Cooke-one of six
brothers, all of whom volunteered and, incredibly, survived-was a
cobbler-turned-butcher in civilian life, and consequently found
himself in demand in both roles at the front. This puts him in
position to treat us to exceptional tidbits like this one: after
covering 50 miles in a hurried three-day march, he had to work night
and day for ten days to repair over a thousand boots to get the
boys ready for another long march.
The writers stress the importance of sport and entertainment, such
as The Dumbells, away from the trenches. They record endless
searches for drinkable water and comfortable sleeping-holes,
relentless training on every leave, and the surprising traffic-jams
of troops and resources constantly on the move. Each meticulously
records names and numbers of deaths around them, determined to
preserve the memories of fellow soldiers even if only for themselves
(none of them intended their diaries for publication, even
posthumously). They present themselves as good boys: they never
mention sex, each claims to have gotten drunk only three times;
they never swear or record others as swearing, and they all go to
church whenever they get the chance.
All of them have a mordant sense of humour. Cooke reports that the
voyage from Canada to England was so rough, seasick soldiers were
"feeding fish with scraps of food eaten the day before,"
and "as the ship rolled, a wave disturbed us causing a few of
us to change our underwear."
Each diarist also has tales of horror to tell. Cooke tells of two
of his own men picking up a metal bar to use in heating tea; it
turns out to be an explosive that "blew them to atoms They
found minute body parts of the two men and put them in a small bag
and buried them."
And perhaps the most poignant similarity the diarists share: all
of them confess that, although they survived, the War destroyed
their nerves. They never got over it.