The First World War in Africa

by Hew Strachan
ISBN: 0199257280

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A Review of: The First World War In Africa
by Greg Gatenby

Alas, because most people today get their news and their mythologies from TV and cinema, it is no surprise that most Canadians cannot talk accurately about Canada and WWI for three full minutes-in large part because next to none of our history is taught in schools, and because our filmmakers in English-Canada have failed to make film-dramas about some of the most seminal moments in our past. Where are the feature films about Vimy or Passchendaele? Where are the TV dramas about the Canadian General Arthur Currie (widely acknowledged as the finest commander on either side of the Western Front) or about John McCrae, the author of "In Flanders Fields"? While the USA, the UK, France, and even Australia have created, and do create, motion pictures and television dramas about their heroes and history, Canadian screen-fillers continue to ignore our past while, like the best quislings, making movies based on foreign tales.
So if we won't salute our past, it is little wonder that foreign writers also do not, especially foreign historians from imperialist countries who inevitably see the Great War as something won by their respective homelands, with-albeit sometimes reluctantly admitted-a little bit of help from the other imperial nations. Thus the hefty contributions of Canada and Australia, for example, are barely mentioned in most American, French or British accounts of the War despite the huge donations of men and materiel made by both Dominions. This benign neglect is particularly tiresome when one reads British authors because Canadians fought-and died-for almost four years beside the Brits.
The disregard of our martial effort is one of my few reservations with the books recently issued by Hew Strachan, fast becoming the leading authority on the conflict. In 1998 be published The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, a superb anthology of original essays by noted experts on prominent facets of the struggle. However, three years later, Strachan stunned the history world with his magisterial To Arms. This 1250-page tome (and even at this length it is just the first of a proposed three volumes), is a masterpiece, in part because it is especially rich with inclusions of German documents previously unknown to anglophone readers. Strachan seems to have read every French, German, Bulgarian, English, and Turkish piece of paper having anything to do with the War, yet he wears his phenomenal research lightly, and the writing itself rarely becomes clogged with too much detail. Only in the chapters dealing with the economic and banking aspects of the War did he lose me-but then, can anyone make fetching an account of accounting? The book has been rightly chastised for the poverty of its maps and illustrations, but these are the kind of criticisms you utter to a child prodigy whose talent and accomplishments otherwise take your breath away. It is unfortunate that OUP did not take the criticisms to heart, though, for they have just released To Arms, not as a single paperback, but as three abridged paperbacks, each with typos and minor errors corrected, each, more importantly, with updated bibliographies, and each still stuck with the less than ideal maps of the original. For those who do not want a door-stopper on their chests while reading in bed, these three paperbacks will make far more comfortable companions since they contain the most interesting material of their parent edition, although each is comfortably re-arranged to fit a theme. The First World War In Africa is especially appealing since it illuminates a corner of the conflict too often under-reported in other general histories. All war and history buffs are enthusiastically anticipating Strachan's second volume, scheduled for release in 2009.

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