Hell's Corner: An Illustrated History of Canada's Great War, 1914-1918

by J. L. Granatstein
ISBN: 1553650476

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A Review of: HellÆs Corner: An Illustrated History of CanadaÆs Great War 1914-1918
by James Roots

J. L. Granatstein hardly needs introduction, but if he did, he certainly accomplished it by publishing no fewer than four books in the past year (with two more coming out this spring). One senses that he can whip off two or three war books on any rainy afternoon not only because our war history is by now completely ingrained in his synapses, but also because he has the gift of writing brisk sentences. Even when he is wasting words, he is doing so at a refreshing sprint.
With Hell's Corner: An Illustrated History of Canada's Great War 1914-1918, it takes him only about 150 pages of text to provide a complete, detailed account of Canada's experience in World War One. There is no count provided of the illustrations, but it looks like around 100 photos, posters, paintings, drawings, cartoons, and colour maps.
Granatstein brings a voice of total authority to his work. He is a master, nothing less, of integrating first-person quotes to add both colour and credibility to his narrative. His account of the first gas attack at Ypres is powerful enough to make the reader wheeze for breath; and after providing 12 or 13 pages of the best description of Passchendaele ever written, he nails the horror and disgust with the sharp line: "Men had to struggle merely to survive; that they had to fight was almost inhuman." He uses perfect selection of facts to pound home points such as the staggering casualty rate for pilots:

" in April 1917, No. 60 Squadron of the RFC, based near Arras, France, suffered a 110 per cent casualty rate with thirteen of eighteen of the original pilots shot down, along with seven replacements."

Rather surprising for such an opinionated writer, Granatstein displays a fine balance of judgment. Proud of our troops' accomplishments, he nonetheless points out they were not only the best but also the dirtiest fighters, notorious for looting prisoners and corpses of even the most personal items such as family photos and love letters, possessors of the highest incidence of STD among all the armies, worst drunkards among the Allied Powers, the most frequent users of poison gas (a very little-known fact), and the deliberate killers of surrendering enemies.
If there is any disappointment with the text, it is the spare use of Granatstein's delightful wit. The only time he lets it off the leash is when he suggests Canadian troops didn't complain much about trench food because "such a high proportion of the Canadian Corps was British-born and used to unappetizing food."
Of the many worthy illustrations, three stick out, at least to the reader who has already seen many of them in Heather Robertson's two unjustly forgotten collections, A Terrible Beauty (1977) and Relentless Verity (1973). A close-up of Sir Julian Byng (p70) shows a man maintaining a front of British stoicism while the lines carved around his eyes bespeak the unbearable agony of training wave after wave of men to go to their deaths. A well-known photo of Canadians trudging exhausted from the front (p76) terrifies the viewer with the dazed, emotionless emptiness of their faces. And the sight of tufts of grass clinging to the walls of a trench (p80) brings home with real force the demeaning nature of a war that drove hundreds of thousands of men to live in a hole in the ground like a bunch of insects.

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