||A Review of: The Outbreak Of The First World War
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.