by Edith Cody-Rice
Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer has worked as a freelance journalist, columnist, broadcaster and lecturer on international affairs for more than 20 years, but he was originally trained as an historian. He was born in Newfoundland and has received degrees from Canadian, American and British universities, finishing with a Ph.D. in Military and Middle Eastern History from the University of London. He served in three navies and held academic appointments at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and Oxford University before launching his twice-weekly column on international affairs, which is published by over 175 papers in some 45 countries.He is also the author of five books.
Canada in the Great Power Game 1914-2014 examines the world of the great European powers and how Canada participated or was coopted into their power struggles. Tim Cook, the Canadian author of seven books on Canadian military history gave the book a rather devastating review in the Globe and Mail, calling it bland and stale, so I approached it with some trepidation.
I have not read all of Dyer’s other books so I was pleasantly surprised by this one and carried along by the narrative. Dyer posits that the great powers, that is, the western European powers for much of our post middle ages history, have been jockeying alliances since the 1400’s and that what we call the First World War was actually the fifth world war, the first being the Thirty Years War (1618-48). These European powers had been vying with each other for expansion or protection of their lands for several centuries before the First World War but were totally unprepared for the new nature of mechanized warfare in the 20th century. The military were fighting the last 19th century war in their training and in their heads and when war came, which all expected to cost a few thousand men and be over in months, Europe emerged after four brutal years with 11 million dead and many regimes on the brink of dissolution. Oddly enough a Polish banker by the name of Jan Bloch accurately predicted the stalemate of the western front in 1897 when he wrote a 6 volume work translated into English as “Is War Now Impossible?“. He stated:
At first there will be increased slaughter – increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue. They will try to, thinking that they are fighting under the old conditions, and they will learn such a lesson that they will abandon the attempt forever. Then…we shall have… a long period of continually increasing strain upon the resources of the combatants… Everybody will be entrenched in the next war.
Bloch thought this cautionary admonition would prevent the great powers from engaging in a future war and the book caused a sensation in Europe, being partly responsible for the first Hague Peace Conference in 1899, but military leaders, to their later shame, dismissed it out of hand. In 1914, his prediction was realized.
Dyer moves on to Canada’s participation in all the European Wars and the Korean one, up to 2014, starting with the Boer war (1899-1902). In none of them, at least until World War II, was Canada threatened and then only tangentially, and there is a very good historical question as to why Canada should send troops to help solve foreign problems not of our making and where our interests are not involved. The British, well aware of this, tried to set a precedent for Canadian aid by requesting an expeditionary force to the Boer War, a war totally unjustified and evil according to the then Governor General Lord Minto and which was waged to benefit private British industrialists. What was somewhat of a surprise in the book, was the lengths to which Canadian Prime Ministers went to try to limit our involvements, particularly of men, but they were politically incapable of keeping us out, even when we were in a position to make our own declarations of war (not so in the Great War of 1914-18) because of the emotional attachment of English Canadians and particularly the English Canadian business elite to the idea of helping out the motherland. It is the French Canadians who very sensibly thought that this was not our war and we should not be sacrificing our men to it. The conscription crisis in the First World War caused riots in Quebec and has never been forgotten.
Perhaps to dyed in the wool historians, this is all old hat but I found this book very interesting and full of vignettes from individuals that brought it to life. Dyer brings to the subject an insight well beyond the narrow view of even the 20th century. This is a long game and until wars began claiming lives in the many millions, war was a regular occurrence among the major powers on European soil, many of them based on human folly and greed. What is also revelatory is how long it takes to stop a war once the outcome is clear. It was evident in 1941, when the United States entered the Second World War and Germany was fighting on two fronts, that Germany would lose the war. That is only two years after it started, but it took until 1945, four more years and many more deaths of soldiers and civilians to finish it.
Canada in the Great Power Game is published by Random House Canada