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Cassar, George.

Ottawa, Oberon Press, c1985. 218pp, paper, ISBN 0-88750-600-3 (cloth) $27.95, 0-88750-601-1 (paper) $14.95.

Grades 12 and up
Reviewed by John Harkness

Volume 14 Number 3
1986 May

This new account of one of the major battles of World War I is based upon private papers and personal reminiscences of many of the principal participants, as well as other documents that were not used by the official historian. The special significance of this battle for Canadians is that the 1st Canadian Division achieved its baptism of fire here, and more especially, were the first soldiers of the empire to face the ugly new weapon, chlorine gas. These Canadians, "lawyers, college professors, graduates, labourers, farmers and clerks," held on to their line, even counter attacked, when others had fled, and their courage undoubtedly prevented a major German breakthrough, as well as saving a quarter of the British front-line forces in France from being cut off and destroyed.

Cassar gives much detail about the six weeks of this battle, from late April through May, 1916. He includes fourteen maps, but even with these aids, trench warfare battles are difficult to follow for all but the avid aficionado. The most interesting and useful parts of this book are the descriptions of the recruiting and early training of the first Canadian troops and the comments concerning that supreme egotist, Sam Hughes, Canada's Minister of Militia, who "made his own rules as he went along." The author also gives some insight into the commanding officers of the Canadian forces and includes photographs of Lieutenant General E.A.H. Alderson, who was the overall commander of the Canadian force, Brigadier General M.S. Mercer, "personally, fearless with a firm grasp of detail who was tragically killed in 1916," Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie, who "soon emerged as one of the outstanding officers of his day," and Major General R.W. Turner, who "lacked decisiveness and a thorough grasp of his profession."

The author concludes his book by reminding us that it was during a break from working round the clock in charge of a dressing station near the Ypres Canal, while agonizing over the suffering of the wounded, that John McCrae of Guelph hastily penned and threw away what the author calls "the best note on which to leave 'Second Ypres,' " the immortal poem, "In Flanders Field."

Sixteen pages of end notes and six pages of bibliography are added to the narrative. A useful little book for the war shelves of libraries and for those still unsure of what caused the deaths of so many brave soldiers in World War I.

John Harkness, Emery C.I., North York, Ont.
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