Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"At The Sharp End" by Tim Cook

 Recently finished reading Tim Cook's At The Sharp End: Canadians Fighting The Great War 1914-1916. Some observations:

The Western Front was a case of institutional insanity and mass psychoses. Someone from a particular social class in Britain or France or Germany or Canada might have thought being a military officer was a noble profession in the 19th Century. Furthermore, once a war had started, they would be determined to fight it to win. They'd be determined to figure out how to win with the least sacrifice in human lives possible. But then they'd come to the realities of 1914 and beyond, which is that technology had progressed to the point where you could put hundreds of thousands of men into uniforms, give them rifles, and march them directly into the path of machine guns, barbed-wire and artillery barrages, where they could be uselessly slaughtered.

The people at the top should have been forced to look at what they were doing and forced to put a stop to it. Whatever his personal failings, I have to give Bertrand Russell enormous credit for having had the courage to publicly protest against this barbarism at the time.

The Canadian government is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. That takes place after the events in this book, but I can't imagine it was much less revolting than this:
The Canadians soon found that St. Eloi was a battle of industrial might and medieval fury. Frank Maheux, an Ottawa Valley lumberjack who wrote to his wife in run-on sentences that may remind us that the average education level of soldiers was grade 6, recalled the horrific conditions: "We were walking on dead soldiers and the worse was they was [in] about three feet of mud and water. I saw poor fellows trying to bandage their wounds, bombs, heavy shelling fall all over them ... it is the worst sight that a man ever wants to see." Commanders rushed forward rum and hot food, but as one 27th Battalion infantryman attested: "We had a drink of rum, but nobody wanted anything to eat. These dead bodies lying around there took your appetite right away." Private Donald Fraser recorded with revulsion that his crater was filled with at least thirty corpses. He and his companions clun to the top of the crater walls, scrambling in the mud to keep from sliding back into the corpse-filled muck. Throughout the day, shells landed among the bodies, dismembering them and plastering the survivors with rotting flesh. Vomit was soon added to the unimaginable swill at the bottom of the crater.
That was from the Battle of St. Eloi. A pointless fight to "straighten out the line" of the front. It was supposed to consist of creating large shell craters that advancing troops could hide in and from them, rush the German lines. But counter-shelling, rain, and bad maps turned the whole battlefield into a soggy mess. Officers didn't know where there men were. Men didn't know where they were. And the result was human beings fighting over muddy holes in the ground and eventually being forced to return to their starting positions after days of slaughter.

Cook writes about Canadian soldiers shooting prisoners. He argues that soldiers on all sides did this. But from his writing and other sources I've heard, it appears that Canadians had a reputation for killing prisoners because we bragged about it:
A steady line of terrified captured Germans was still emerging from a dugout, seemingly oblivious to the slaughter that awaited them as Canadians herded them around the corner and put a bullet in them. One German tried to escape the slaughter by jumping out of the trench, "dodging in and out amongst us to avoid being shot, crying out 'Nein! Nein!' He pulled out from his breast pocket a handful of photographs and tried to show them to us in an effort to gain our sympathy ... As the bullets smacked into him he fell to the ground motionless, the pathetic little photographs fluttering down to the earth around him."
Where is the "glory" in that? Who was that man? What would he have accomplished with his life. Who was hoping for his safe return at the moment he was murdered?

Finally, one anecdote stayed with me longer than most of the others:

Back at billets, soldiers relaxed, smoking their cigarettes sprawled on the ground. Frank Ferguson, a prewar chauffeur driver from Nova Scotia, remembered one gunner who spent many hours of his time in reserve tending to the graves of the fallen behind the lines, pulling weeds, straightening crosses, and saying prayers. "Some asked him why he spent so much time looking after a stranger's grave." remembered Ferguson. The gunner replied, "Well, I might be in his place someday." Sadly, Ferguson buried the gunner on the Somme.


No comments: