Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Tim Cook

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Ten Questions, with Tim Cook

Tim Cook, a historian of the Great War at the Canadian War Museum, talks to Open Book about the Canadian perspective on war heroes and Remembrance Day. His newest book, The Madman and The Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie, was published this fall by Allen Lane Canada.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, The Madman and the Butcher. Who is "The Madman" and who is "The Butcher?"

Tim Cook:

The Madman is Sir Sam Hughes, the minister of militia and defence from 1911 to 1916. Hughes was a long-time MP. He was brash, loud and arrogant. He had an enormous ego. Many contemporaries described him as barking mad. He was also the man responsible for leading Canada during the first two and a half years of the Great War, before he was fired for his outrageous behaviour.

The Butcher is Sir Arthur Currie, the third and last commander of the Canadian Corps in the Great War. The Corps was Canada’s primary land army, and by late 1916 it was 100,000 strong. It had a fierce reputation and was widely regarded, to use British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s phrase, as the "shock army" of the British Empire. Currie commanded the Corps and was one of the finest generals of the war.

But in 1919, Sam Hughes stood up in the House of Commons and publicly accused Currie of being a butcher; in effect, of killing off Canadians callously in the fierce battles of the Western Front. Why did anyone listen? That is the question at the core of the book. The story of these two important Canadians is set against the back drop of this tragic war that killed more than 60,000 Canadians, and forever changed our country’s destiny.

OB:

What audience did you have in mind for this book?

TC:

Like with my two previous books, At the Sharp End and Shock Troops, I wanted to reach a wide audience with this book. While I spent years researching these stories in the nation's archives and delving into hundreds of archival collections, I wanted to share this story with all Canadians in a fast-paced narrative.

OB:

You are a renowned war historian with two other books about the First World War (At the Sharp End and Shock Troops). What caused you to follow this path of specialization?

TC:

My grandfather, Gordon Cook, flew in Bomber Command in the Second World War, so I’ve been interested for some time in military history. But my fascination with the Great War started after a trip to the Western Front when I was 17. I walked those silent cities where the 60,000 Canadians lay buried under the white Commonwealth War Graves headstones. I wanted to know what had driven 35-year-olds, 25-year-olds, even 15-year-olds to leave their families and communities and go overseas, where many sacrificed everything.

The Great War forever changed our country, putting us on a new path towards full autonomy, but also, we must concede, leaving terrible scars from the enormous exertions. It is a story that is still relevant today, as millions of Canadians have a family link to someone — a great-grandfather or grandmother — who served and was affected by the Great War.

OB:

One of the subjects that your book takes up is Canada's discomfort with war heroes. This is an interesting perspective, especially since Canadians and the military are today faced with a new generation of soldiers who are being killed in combat in tragic numbers. Can you tell us a bit more about this subject?

TC:

Sir Arthur Currie was one of the finest generals of the war. Yet he was accused of being a murderer by Sam Hughes, and some Canadians listened to him. I wanted to know why. The accusations stuck because of the 60,000 dead. Who was to blame for the losses? Some thought it was Currie, who seemed a convenient scapegoat. It was an unfair charge, but war rarely produces fairness.

If Currie was an American, I suspect the entire world would know about him. In Australia, Currie’s counterpart, Sir John Monash, has a university named after him. Not so here. Currie remains an ambivalent figure from the past. While I think many Canadians have a sense about the Great War’s impact on this country, Currie has, for the most part, faded into the background. Yet Currie and the Canadian Corps provided a voice for the young nation. Through the sacrifice and success of the Corps, Canada stepped out on to the world stage. At the time, for many British generals and politicians, Currie represented the maturation process of the young nation. But back in Canada, Currie received little praise, and had to fight to restore his reputation from Hughes’s charges.

OB:

How did winning the Charles Taylor prize change your career?

TC:

I was very lucky to be recognized with the 2009 Charles Taylor for literary non-fiction prize for my book Shock Troops. It was a thrill, especially since Shock Troops is not a light read at over 600 pages and the second book in a series. I see myself as a hybrid historian, with one foot in the academic camp and the other as a writer. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, although it is not always easy to marry the two disciplines. I have always engaged in sustained research in the archives to explore my subject matter, but have sought ways to work this into the narrative, rather than letting it slow down the story.

In practical terms, the Taylor prize opened new doors. I have been invited to speak at writers’ festivals and to give public lectures, and I find it very gratifying to share these stories with new audiences.

OB:

What methods do you use to conduct the research for your books?

TC:

My books are based on archival research into original sources. I have spent years reading through the long-forgotten archives in Canada and around the world to better understand Canada’s role in the Great War. There is something very powerful about opening a dusty file from 1917, which has not been seen by another human for over 90 years. These records are the bare bones of history. It is how I construct the stories of the past.

I also rely heavily on the voice of the soldiers. This was a generation that wrote letters and saved them. I have had the pleasure of reading through tens of thousands of letters from overseas soldiers to their loved ones. They are often filled with the mundane — talk of weather, the need for socks, an inquiry about the farm or a friend at home — but they also reveal the hidden history of the war, that which cannot be pulled from the official record. It is these eyewitnesses to history that offer us the most poignant view of the war.

OB:

Tell us about your work at the Canadian War Museum.

TC:

I have one of the best jobs in the country. I’m the First World War historian at the CWM and responsible for creating exhibitions for all Canadians. Through artefacts, film and photographs, we bring the stories of the past alive. The new CWM has been open for over five years now and more than 2 million visitors have passed through the doors.

Along with co-curator Dr. Andrew Burtch, I am currently working on an exhibition that explores the intersection of war and medicine from the mid 19th century to the present. This fascinating exhibition will run from May to November, 2011.

OB:

You also teach at Carleton University. What is that like?

TC:

I have the opportunity to teach at Carleton and to interact with the very bright students there. Each year I offer a seminar on some aspect of Canadian military history. There is a very high level of interest by the students in exploring our collective past. We focus on the experience of service personnel — how they coped and endured with the strain of combat — but also delve into the home front, with a focus on women, children and the elderly. They too were shaped by war. One of the most challenging components of studying the world wars is how they have been remembered over time. Poetry, plays, film, history books, novels and memorials are just some of the ways that Canadians have imagined and re-imagined the past.

At another level, I simply enjoy teaching students. They are passionate and funny, and often their comments and questions force me to rethink some long-standing views. We are all learning together.

OB:

How do you observe Remembrance Day?

TC:

I attend the ceremony at the Cenotaph in Ottawa. I am struck by the power of Remembrance Day and how it continues to have relevance in the lives of Canadians. It is a day that is rooted in the past (first observed in 1919), but it has changed over time with each new generation. While many of the signs and symbols of the day come from the Great War — two minutes of silence, the poppy and "In Flanders Fields" — there are new symbols that each succeeding generation brings to the day. One of the relatively new acts of remembrance at the National Cenotaph in Ottawa is the laying of the poppy on the grave of the Unknown Soldier at the end of the ceremony.

OB:

What will be the focus of your next project?

TC:

My next book explores the political experiences of wartime prime ministers Sir Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King, and will be published by Penguin Canada. Borden was Canada’s prime minister during the Great War and King led the country during the Second World War. They were confronted with enormous challenges. The country was committed to a nearly unlimited war effort. I’m fascinated by how these two unwarlike men guided their nation, for good or ill, throughout these difficult times.


Tim Cook is the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum as well as an adjunct research professor at Carleton University. He is the author of the award-winning books No Place to Run and Clio’s Warriors, as well as At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War, Volume One, which won the 2007 J. W. Dafoe Prize and the 2008 Ottawa Book Award. Earlier this year, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917 – 1918,the second volume in his series on the Great War, was named the winner of the 2009 Charles Taylor prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

His latest book, The Madman and The Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie (Allen Lane Canada/Penguin Group), was released by Penguin Books in the fall of 2010. A resident of Ottawa, he and his wife Sarah Klotz have three daughters.
For more information about The Madman and The Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie please visit the Penguin Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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