For me, this is a difficult book to review. My taste runs to history and narrative, and this is not a narrative of the First World War.
Yet this book is important because it provides a glimpse into the totality of the experience of Canadian soldiers on the Western Front. When we think of the First World War we tend to think of the battles, the massive casualties, and the horrors of trench warfare. But we don't hear about, or think about, how the soldiers actually lived. Troops were not in the trenches continuously; they rotated in and out on something like a two-week cycle. Behind the lines, they had a chance to rest and recuperate, and considerable effort was put into keeping the troops stimulated and/or diverted.
Life away from combat was the particular province of the chaplains. Canon Frederick Scott was 54 years old, an Anglican minister with a parish in Quebec City, when he signed on as chaplain with the 14th (Montreal) Regiment. He went over to Europe in the first great transport in December 1914, and rose to become senior chaplain in the First Canadian Division.
Scott gives only isolated accounts of his interactions with particular soldiers. But he does speak a lot about what he called "parish visiting", where he would go forward to the front line trenches and visit with the troops in the line.
But in spite of being a pastor, he was always a great supporter of discipline. Soldiers who "wanted out" were asked: why should you get out and leave the burden and risk to your mates. He also speaks of counselling a man sentenced to death for desertion; he was horrified by the punishment while at the same time understanding the necessity for deterrent.
Scott writes frequently, and with great feeling, about the "esprit du corps" (my words) of the Canadians. "Live for today; tomorrow we will do our duty -- even if injury and death are the result". They knew, especially in the last eighteen months of the war, that every battle was going to involve substantial casualties. Yet the feeling, according to Scott, was, "Let's get on with it; we are all in this together". Indeed he speaks about being uncormfortable while on leave because he wanted to get back to the front lines with the troops going into battle.
Scott's tone is very patriotic, almost jingoistic by today's standards. There was no question in his mind that the allies were "on the side of right" and that the Germans were evil -- or worse. But such attitudes and convictions were the norm during the First World War; it would be wrong to judge his approach by "modern standards".
The book is written in a very "rich" style. Scott was also a published author of poetry, and this shows in his command of English, and his aptitude for vivid description.
Scott's war ended with his being wounded in both legs during the attack on the Canal du Nord in October 1918. He died in 1944.
Scott's book was originally published in 1922 and then reprinted in 1934. CEF Books published this edition in 2000.
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|Last updated: 30 July 2014|