Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Baptism of Fire by Nathan M. Greenfield

The Second Battle of Ypres and the Forging of Canada,
April 1915

Nathan M. Greenfield's talent for combining rich (and often overlooked) historical data with first-person accounts made his book The Battle of the St. Lawrence both a critical and popular success. Now he turns his formidable storytelling skill to one of the defining battles of the First World War and a seminal event in the building of our country.

The Second Battle of Ypres pitted the highly trained German soldiers - armed with the first weapon of mass destruction, chlorine gas - against the 1st Canadian Division, which had been in the trenches for just over a week. Yet it was the Canadians who ultimately triumphed, stopping the German advance that followed history's first poison-gas attacks.

In Baptism of Fire, Greenfield revisits the battlefields and war rooms of history, deconstructing military motives and unearthing scores of unpublished interviews, giving voice to the men who faced what one officer called a "filthy, loathsome pestilence" that turned copper buttons green and seared the Canadians' lungs. He describes how surprise turned to terror as the infantry saw the first clouds of chlorine gas rolling towards them; how, at first, the German soldiers had joked that their mysterious silver cylinders, spied across the enemy line, were a new kind of German beer keg. Recreating how the Canadians immediately filled the 12-kilometre-long hole in the Allied lines after the initial gas attack, Greenfield takes readers into the unimaginable horror of shell fire that turned men into "pink mist" and obliterated trenches, leaving the survivors to defend a position of death. And he explains how the untried Canadians, with their defective Ross rifles, breathing through urine-soaked handkerchiefs, successfully made one of the most important stands of the war - perhaps even staving off an ultimate German victory.

With alacrity and a great respect for the men in the trenches, Greenfield adds a new dimension to, and explodes a few myths behind, the Battle of Ypres. Within his pages are the words of the Canadian - and German - soldiers themselves, many of whom have never been heard before. Their accounts make this a gripping read for anyone seeking to understand our historical or military past.
This book will be out on October 5, 2007. I had an advanced reading copy to enjoy! Well, not really enjoy, it is about a book about death and destruction, but you know what I mean!

Baptism of Fire is about the Battle of Ypres, or as many Canadians know it, the Battle at Flanders Fields. This is the second time a battle was fought there during the First World War, and it was really the first time that Canadians had been involved in a major battle. Canada became separate from Britain in 1867, but when Britain declared war, Canada was still under responsibility to follow the Mother Country. It may not have been their war, but they were part of Britain for so many years, it was a necessary thing. The Second World War they were allowed to make their own decisions, so they only entered because they decided to help the war effort.

I learned a lot reading this book. I am sad to say that I know more about World War Two than World War One, simply because it was WWII that my grandfather and other family members played a part in. What I knew before opening this book was a poem written by a doctor, John McCrae. It is one of the most famous poems in Canadian history, and it is spoken aloud at Remembrance Day ceremonies across the country. I have heard it so many times, I know it by heart.

In Flanders Fields
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army

IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

I copied it here, and it really is 'blow' not 'grow'. When the poem was recorded on the Canadian Ten-Dollar bill, many people thought it was an error. It is not. So, that is what I knew about the Second Battle of Ypres. The Battle for Vimy Ridge is talked about more, but Vimy owes many things to this battle. When people began recording this battle after it was completed, Canadians had identities. Instead of being listed as part of the British Troops in some manner, Canadians received a lot of attention and names were named. Greenfield continues this tradition, when I finished this book there were names that I had seen enough time to remember. Many people said that this makes it look like it was on the Canadians were there, which is not true, but since its founding Canada had switched back and forth between the English and the French. This was Canada's first major battle as its own country, and it deserves way more attention than it receives.

I learned a lot reading this book. This was the first battle where poisonious gases were released on the Allies. This is a battle where communication was almost non-existant, and many mistakes were made because no one knew what was going on. Soldiers fought for several days without any food, water, or sleep, so it was a very trying affair. The Allies held their own, though, despite extreme abuse to their bodies, they fought on. Could this battle have been handled differently? Probably, but they did the best they could considering this was 1915. One of the things that really bothered me about this battle was the guns. It was made clear several times that the guns the Canadians had to work with were horrible because they kept seizing on them. Just functioning guns would probably have made a big difference.

Baptism of Fire was a very interesting book. I learned a lot from it about just one battle because the battle revealed so much more about what it was like to be a Canadian soldier during the First World War. They are the dead, and we owe it to them to never forget the sacrifices they made to insure freedom for Canada. They were not alone, there were other people there, but this book is about Canada's contribution.

Be sure and pick up your own copy when it is released in October!

(Received from Harper Collins in 2007)

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