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Marching as to War: Canada’s Turbulent Years 1899-1953

by Pierre Berton

Anyone with an interest in this country’s past owes a great debt to Pierre Berton. In book after book, he has written the Canadian story with style and grace – and a sure eye for the telling anecdote. The style, grace, and telling eye are still there, but unfortunately Marching As to War lacks many of the elements that made his earlier work so compelling. Previously, Berton used primary and secondary sources to tell his stories. This book is wholly based on secondary sources, and his breadth of coverage is limited.

Most important, Berton used to get the story right: Marching As to War is so riddled with errors of fact and historical interpretation as to be almost completely unreliable. Berton messes up the battle of Paardeberg in South Africa; he has Sam Hughes as minister of militia after he was sacked; he attacks Dieppe in 1942 with a division instead of a brigade; and even his chart of military formations and ranks is full of errors.

This is a pity, because the subject is a grand one. The time between the South African War to the Korean War spans only 54 years, but the period saw huge changes in the Canadian nation. Berton focuses on the wars, and he slides quickly over the periods between them. In the Great War, Canada raised more than 600,000 soldiers, and they accomplished miracles. In the Second World War, we raised more men and fared less well. Neglecting new interpretations, Berton argues that the Germans outfought the Canadians repeatedly. He also suggests that Canada ought to have fought under experienced British command, an amazing position for a nationalist to hold.

Luckily Berton’s prose remains scintillating, and he can still take a well-trodden story and give it new life. His analysis of the justifications advanced to explain away the Canadian catastrophe at Dieppe is superb, the best I have read. When Berton’s good, he’s very, very good. When he’s bad…