Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Capturing Hill 70 and the state of Canadian military history

UBC Press has just released Capturing Hill 70: Canada's Forgotten Battle of the First World War, edited by Douglas Delaney and Serge Durflinger, and with contributions by seven other Canadian military historians.

I know because I just received a copy, and I received a copy because I read it in page proof and supplied a backcover comment. I called it "a meticulous work of battle history" and said it "showcases all the strengths of Canadian military history today."

Still sounds about right to me.  By August 1917, a competently led battle on the Western Front was a weird mix of complicated, mathematical engineering and insensate horror.  Capturing Hill 70 does not neglect the latter, but the 'meticulous' part is how its authors analyse the former: how staffs organized "battle procedure," the slide-rule calculation of artillery fire plans, the logistics of ammunition supply, even the application of railroad and tramway technology to casualty evacuation.  It ain't trumpets-and-drum history, but it casts a powerful spotlight on modern warfare a century ago, and it is well done.

The only part of Capturing Hill 70 I didn't much admire was the "Forgotten" in the subtitle, and the undertone grumbling here and there that suggests that military history in Canada 1) is neglected, 2) has not had enough written about it, 3) is insufficiently memorialized, and generally 4) doesn't get the respect it deserves.

This has been a theme of military historians at least since Jack Granatstein wrote Who Killed Canadian History? And maybe they need to get over themselves.  (By the way, Granatstein contributes a superb article here on manpower issues and the conscription crisis behind Hill 70, with the vital data powerfully deployed in a short space.).

Let's be clear.  There is a substantial corps of good, well-trained, well-organized and productive military historians in Canada. They have lots of access to publication, and they are prolific. They have access to notable centres of military history, not only in universities but at the War Museum, the forces' Directorate of History, the military colleges, and various private foundations. The bookshelves are full of military history, and the documentary films pour forth unceasingly.  These complaints of neglected and forgotten military history have a poor little rich kid sound.

I'm talking here about military history, but the same applies to a lot of Canadian history fields and subfields.  Any historian can make a case that his or her particular specialty deserves more respect and attention and should have had more published about it.  Frankly, it's pretty much always a waste of time. If you think your subject is understudied, then do your work. And stop bitching.  You probably have it pretty good.      
Follow @CmedMoore