Sunday, December 7, 2008

At The Sharp End

By Tim Cook.

Volume One of a two-volume set, At The Sharp End is the compelling story of the Canadian Corps in the first two years of The Great War. From the first significant Canadian engagement in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1916 and on to the charnel house they called the Somme some 18 months later, Cook has taken the harrowing experiences of the infantrymen – those at the sharp end – and has woven them into a gripping, almost page-turning, narrative. And I say ‘almost’ only because his descriptions of life at the front are so powerful and the narrative so intense that the reader, like the front-line troops themselves, periodically has to withdraw to decompress and catch one’s breath.

The Western Front during the early years of The Great War was a brutal place to be. Life expectancy was often measured in days and hours. Friends and comrades were wounded, killed, and oftentimes simply disappeared in a “red mist” during the continued shelling that took place 24 hours a day along much of the front. Cook takes these facts and intertwines them with the battlefield history of major engagements, attacks, counter-attacks, and strategy, never losing sight of the terrible human cost.

Books – both fiction and non-fiction – describing the horrors of the front are not uncommon but what makes Cook’s account so forceful is that he has extensively researched and liberally uses excerpts from war diaries (actually forbidden, but fortunately for historians many men kept them anyway) and letters home. It is these entries and letters that constantly bring the reader back to the fact that these were real men, with wives and lovers and parents, who were thrust into this maelstrom and who tried to fight the good fight. Some survived, many didn’t.

The letters themselves were surprisingly blunt, especially considering they were going home to worried family members and friends an ocean removed from the carnage – John N. Beaton wrote to his father of the first German gas attack of the war: “It was the poisonous gases that killed a lot of our poor fellows. They did not have a chance to fight.” And some were perversely poetic with the imagery leaving nothing to the imagination – Lieutenant Coningsby Dawson wrote of The Somme: “When [the shells] struck, the ground looked like Resurrection Day with the dead elbowing their way into daylight and forcing the earth from their eyes.” One cannot read a line like that and simply dismiss it without emotion.

In addition to the letters and diaries, Cook includes facts and other details about the war in general and specific battles themselves that are not easily distilled from the more academic, if I can use that term, analyses of the war. For example, Cook reports that “an estimated 100 million 18-pounder shells were fired by the British and Dominion forces during the war – the equivalent of 44 shells, per second, every second of the day, for the duration of the 1,561 days of the war.” That’s simply an astonishing number, especially when one considers that’s the output from only one specific calibre of gun, in support of one army, on one side of the war. And if that doesn’t adequately describe the sheer mass of artillery fire that rained down on the troops at the front consider this, during the 5-month battle in 1916 “... parts of the Somme were subjected to more than 1,000 shells per square metre.” One square metre – just about the size of the chair I sat in while reading this book.

Heavily researched and well written, At The Sharp End is an excellent read for the serious military history scholar as well as for someone like myself who has an abiding interest in The Great War but more from the viewpoint of the men and women who were there. It’s an important addition to any World War I library, and I can’t wait to get to get my hands on Volume Two.

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