Birth of a Regiment


Contemporary Writing – Reflection

We turn now to more current historical accounts.  We will briefly consider three general histories before turning to focus more directly on Canadian and Regimental account.

Hew Strachan, a Cambridge trained Scott had written extensively on the development of the British Army and for a brief period served at Sandhurst before he took up the First World War as his major interest.  He is currently Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford.  The impact of his work has been dramatically increased his authorship of the excellent BBC documentary series on the war.  In print Strachan also edited the widely circulated, well-illustrated, 350 page, The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War published in 1998.    This wide ranging book provides contributions from some of the best writers in the field and covers subjects ranging from women and war work and the home front to Turkey’s War.  Tim Travers chapter “The Allied Victories, 1918[i] provides a Canadian flavour.  For our purposes, we will adopt the use of images to support the text.  Each photo includes a brief description in side bar. On our web site you will see this replicated with a roll over pop-up text for most photos.  Travers chapter also reinforces the image of Canadian and Australian Corps as “the premier attack troops in the BEF”[ii] and will cause us to re-examine the general perception that the early years of the war involved the hardest fighting.

John Keegan’s The First World War, although well written, can provide challenges for those not steeped in the history of the war. In particular, the dearth of easily accessible maps and the separation of images from text is particularly problematic. For example, we find images of Passchendaele inserted in the middle of a section of text about Gallipoli[iii]. It seems that Keegan forgets that most of his readers will not have his familiarity with the ground.  For example, we read:

“Kluck’s First Army…was aligned to the south, with the Sixth Army and the Paris garrison behind it, the BEF on its right flank, the Fifth Army to its front and Foch’s Ninth Army menacing its left and threatening an irruption into the gap which had opened between it and Bulow’s Second Army.”[iv]

This passage, although critical to understanding the opening failure of the German plan is almost incomprehensible without the map that appears several pages later.  Even then, the basic black and white image provides little sense of the terrain. Our site manages these challenges by providing hyperlinks to both images and maps that can be accessed immediately from any point in the narrative.  In addition, we will be able to use the high, full colour terrain maps without the cost constraints of the print media.

In addition to excellent background material on the big picture of the western front, Keegan’s history also provides some interesting comments on reinforcement challenges faced by the BEF.  We will suggest that the phenomenon of the University Companies was not unlike the Pals battalions of Kitchener’s Army.

Ian Beckett’s The Great War 1914-1918 published in 2001, takes a thematic approach arguing that chronological narratives like that of Keegan are “somewhat old-fashioned” and cannot “treat the war in sufficient depth or at sufficient length to reveal the wider political, diplomatic, social, economic military and cultural contexts”[v].  We acknowledge this challenge and will, at least in part respond by providing a framework that will capture themes of particular importance to the regiment in a section that will be accessible from the main chronological narrative.

The final general history we will consider is Gary Sheffield’s somewhat revisionist history, Forgotten Victory.[vi]  Sheffield’s work is interesting in its attempt to resurrect Haig and the critical role of the BEF and by extension the armies of the Dominions.  In essence, he re-argues much of the thesis initially put forward in Haig’s memoires.  In some sense this might be seen as an attempt to counteract the over blown thesis all too common in American sources that it was really the American’s led by the brilliant Pershing who finally showed up to rescue the incompetent British generals from defeat.  Sheffield’s thesis however controversial provides a useful balance to those historians who simply seek out a useful scapegoat for the bloodshed and slaughter of the trenches while praising the heroism and stoutheartedness of the troops.  The weakness of the – blame it all on Haig and the donkeys – school is quite simply that you must then assume that the mass of men and officers who followed him into battle and ultimately won the war simply managed to somehow muddle through.  In dealing with such emotive material the historian must be both sensitive to the context of the time and reserved in the judgment of others.  The historian who concludes that victory would have been certain, swift and less costly if only wiser men had been in charge (the historian obviously being such a person) is a fool. Equally misled is the historian who blindly accepts the official line proclaimed by official and sponsored history.  Particularly when writing of one’s own regiment one must constantly strive for balance between these two poles.

[i] Tim Travers, “The Allied Victories, 1918” in Hew Strachan ed, The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, 278-290.
[ii] Tim Travers, “The Allied Victories, 1918” in Hew Strachan ed, The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, 281.
[iii] John Keegan. The First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1999, 238
[iv] Keegan, The First World War, 111
[v] Ian F. W. Beckett, The Great War 1914-1918. Harlow, Essex, UK: Pearson Education Ltd., 2001. , vii
[vi] Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory – the First World War: Myths and Realities. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2001.

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