Cover image for The secret history of soldiers : how Canadians survived the Great War / Tim Cook.
The secret history of soldiers : how Canadians survived the Great War / Tim Cook.
Publication Information:
Toronto, Ontario, Canada : Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Canada Books, Inc., 2018.

Physical Description:
472 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Tim Cook, Canada's leading war historian, ventures deep into the Second World War in this epic two-volume story of heroism and horror, loss and longing, and sacrifice and endurance. Written in Cook's compelling narrative style, this book shows in impressive detail how soldiers, airmen, and sailors fought--the evolving tactics, weapons of war, logistics, and technology. He also examines the war as an engine of transformation for Canada. With a population of fewer than twelve million, Canada embraced its role as an arsenal of democracy, exporting war supplies, feeding its allies, and raising a million-strong armed forces that served and fought in nearly every theatre of war. The six-year-long exertion caused disruption, provoked nationwide industrialization, ushered in changes to gender roles, exacerbated the tension between English and French, and forged a new sense of Canadian identity. It showed that Canadians were willing to bear almost any burden and to pay the ultimate price in the pursuit of victory.


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
940.48371 COO Book Adult General Collection

On Order



There have been thousands of books on the Great War, and hundreds on Canada's part in the conflict, but most of these have focused on commanders, battles, strategy, and tactics. Less attention has been paid to the daily lives of the combatants, how they coped with and endured the unimaginable conditions of what was then modern industrial warfare- the rain of shells, bullets, and chemical agents. The Secret History of Soldiers examines how those who managed to survive the horrific conditions of trench warfare on the Western Front found solace, relief, distraction, and even entertainment.
Over the years, both writers and historians have overlooked this aspect of soldiers' lives, as there are no official histories or records. These tales come from the soldiers themselves, captured in letters, diaries, memoirs, and oral accounts. The recollections and artifacts of more than five hundred soldiers form the basis of this book; they include such rare resources as trench art, postcards, and even songsheets. Each piece of history is a reminder that these battles were fought by living, breathing human beings who, when they weren't engaged in battle, needed escapist activities to counter the daily horrors of trench life. It is those eyewitnesses to the bloodshed and carnage who act as guides to the Great War.
The world they introduce readers to isn't limited to the harrowing struggle to another day. Cook catalogues the violence of war, but also the gallows humour the soldiers employed to get through it. The Great War was a devastating event, but another layer of life that included songs, skits, art, and even newspapers existed on and behind the battle lines.
With his trademark narrative abilities, Cook has created another landmark history of Canadian military life.

Author Notes

TIM COOK is the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum, as well as an adjunct professor at Carleton University. His books have won numerous awards, including the 2008 J.W. Dafoe Prize for At the Sharp End and the 2009 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction for Shock Troops . In 2013, he received the Pierre Berton Award for popularizing Canadian history. He is a member of the Order of Canada.



  In the soldiers' songs, the patriotic discourse of the home front, with its exalted speech-making of one more push, was buried under a chorus of deliberately shocking satire, anti-conformity, relentless vulgarity, and merry-making. This was the grousing of everyday soldiers put to song. The cynicism expressed in the songs did not mean that the soldiers were willing to give up or embrace defeat. In fact, to sing about the army discipline, which in its extreme form was much hated, or about escaping the trenches, was a way of coping with the strain at the front and finding strength to go on. Chester Routley of the 18th Battalion was so taken with one untitled and impertinent song that he wrote it down from memory in his postwar memoirs:     They say we're going over the ocean They say we're going over the sea, They say that we're going to Blighty, But it all sounds like bull-shit to me. Bull-shit, bull-shit, it all sounds Like bull-shit to me, to me, Bull-shit, bull shit, it sounds Just like bull-shit to me.     These satirical send-ups also allowed for the trivialization of mud, lice, and sudden death. In the strange world of the trenches, where lives were ruled by fate or military discipline, one simply had to grin and bear it. This sentiment was expressed in many ways, but the soldiers' song "Never Mind" (also known as "If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum") captured it well:     If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind And your face may lose its smile, never mind He's entitled to a tot but not the bleeding lot If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind When old Jerry shells your trench, never mind And your face may lose its smile, never mind Though the sandbags bust and fly you have only once to die, If old Jerry shells the trench, never mind If you get stuck on the wire, never mind  And your face may lose its smile, never mind Though you're stuck there all the day, they count you dead and stop your pay If you get stuck on the wire, never mind     Some troops added their own fun to the lyrics by mimicking officers or NCOs, either in speech or tone, to personalize the song for their comrades.   Though soldiers liked to take their superiors down a notch, reminding those in power that the rank and file were on to their tricks, they reserved a special vitriol for those at home who would not fight. The anonymous satirical attack on conscientious objectors, "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier," was sung with vigour:     I don't want to be a soldier, I won't be compelled to fight: I much prefer to stay in England than to battle for the right: Others may be patriotic and answer King and Country's call, But my conscience won't allow me--no, my conscience won't Allow me--or I'd sacrifice my all. Chorus I don't want to be a soldier, I have nought worth fighting for; If I had, my conscience tells me It's not right to go to war I don't want to be a soldier, I feel quite happy singing psalms, Tho' I've often heard the bugle sounding the call to arms: I would rather be a shirker and sleep upon a feather bed, Than to doss within a dug-out--a dirty, muddy dug-out-- And plaster Ticker's jam upon my bread.     "It won't be good to be a chap who stayed at home, when the boys return," wrote one Canadian stretcher-bearer in a letter about those young men who did not serve. "This thing is just a bit too serious. We know what it is here." Motivated by anger at the unfair burden shouldered by those at the front, many soldiers dreamed and sang lustily about postwar revenge against the slackers at home and their own abusive superiors. The moving "When This Lousy War Is Over," which was sung to the tune of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," fantasized about postwar payback.     When this lousy war is over no more soldiering for me, When I get my civvy clothes on, oh how happy I shall be. No more church parades on Sunday, no more begging for a pass. You can tell the sergeant-major to stick his passes up his arse. When this lousy war is over no more soldiering for me, When I get my civvy clothes on, oh how happy I shall be. No more NCOs to curse me, no more rotten army stew. You can tell the old cook-sergeant, to stick his stew right up his flue. When this lousy war is over no more soldiering for me, When I get my civvy clothes on, oh how happy I shall be. No more sergeants bawling, "Pick it up" and "Put it down" If I meet the ugly bastard I'll kick his arse all over town.     Such feelings of anger and discontent could be aired safely in the songs, in a way that they could not be presented in private letters home, which were censored, or in direct talk with superiors, which could result in confrontations and punishment.   There were also multiple songs devoted to the popular subjects of booze and sex. "Here's to the Good Old Beer" and "Drink It Down" were celebrations of alcohol, and even abstainers were known to join in to the chorus to be a part of the social activity. The songs of drink quenched a thirst of the spirit and facilitated male bonding. The rough culture of the soldiers was revealed more boldly, and bawdily, through sexual songs such as "My Nelly, Skibboo," "I'm Charlotte, the Harlot," "Oh, Florea's [or Florrie's] New Drawers," and "Three German Officers." The most famous dirty song of them all, "Mademoiselle from Armentières," with its ever-changing and increasingly vulgar lines, is known to have at least 700 recorded versions. And this doesn't include most of the unprintable ones, with the lyrics degenerating into incest and bestiality. "Certainly some of the verses we sang were pretty ripe," said Ernest Black in his memoirs, with little more than a literary shrug.   The more blasphemous the song, the more it was sung with gusto, with some of the raunchiest songs being belted out on the march. Soldiers were not known as foot-sloggers for nothing, and it was not uncommon for them to march in their heavy hobnailed boots for kilometres behind the lines, carrying gear weighing more than sixty pounds. Lieutenant Thomas Dinesen, a Danish national who enlisted in the CEF and would later receive the Victoria Cross for fierce fighting at the Battle of Amiens, recounted the joy men took in shouting irreverent lyrics while on the march:     Again and again we go back to the good old Pack Up Your Troubles ; or else we roar so that the whole countryside may hear: The Gang's All Here! But the best of the lot is the everlasting and ever-varying song of Mademoiselle from Armentières :     Oh, madam, have you any good wine? Parley voo, Oh, madam, have you any good wine? Parley voo, Oh, madam, have you any good wine, Fit for a soldier from the line? Hinky dinky, parley voo.     It continued, "Oh, madam, have you a daughter fine? Yes, I have a daughter fine. Then ..." Our imagination pictures the continuation of the song in lusty and vivid colouring, although in any case we have now turned our back on all such pleasures for some time to come.   Excerpted from The Secret History of Soldiers by Tim Cook. Copyright © 2018 by Tim Cook. Published by Allen Lane, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. Excerpted from The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War by Tim Cook All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Soldiers' Culturep. 1
Chapter 1 Survival Culturep. 23
Chapter 2 Death Culturep. 54
Chapter 3 Voicing Culture: Slang and Swearingp. 90
Chapter 4 The War's Soundtrackp. 118
Chapter 5 Trench Storiesp. 143
Chapter 6 "Somewhere in France"p. 163
Chapter 7 Trench Newspapersp. 194
Chapter 8 Drawn and Quarteredp. 221
Chapter 9 Material Culturep. 245
Chapter 10 Soldiers' Culture Behind the Firing Linep. 266
Chapter 11 Shock Troupesp. 293
Chapter 12 Entrenched Culturep. 318
Endnotesp. 361
Acknowledgmentsp. 417
Select Bibliographyp. 420
Indexp. 456