12570 Mike Kennedy: The Reckoning

“All Ex-Cadets past and present owe Nathan Greenfield a gigantic “Bravo Zulu” for this exceptional contribution to the literature on Canadian military history.”

Book ReviewThe Reckoning – By Nathan Greenfield -Published by Harper Collins – 374 pp. $33.99

Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

It is a well-documented fact that Canadians paid a heavy price for their support of the Mother Country during the Great War. Out of a population of approximately eight million people in 1914, nearly 620,000 enlisted for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Of that total, nearly 61,000 died, and another 172,000 were wounded. One soldier, Curley Christian, was badly wounded by an artillery shell at Vimy Ridge, and would eventually become the only quadruple amputee to survive the war. He returned to Toronto, where he apparently lived peacefully until his death in 1954 at the age of 70.

Far fewer Canadians became prisoners of war, but for the approximately 3,000 who did, their experiences as guests of the Kaiser would prove to be a harrowing exercise in deprivation that would test their fortitude to the very limits. In The Reckoning, Ottawa historian Nathan Greenfield recounts the story of these soldiers who, even though they found themselves removed from the chessboard of battle, still remained very much men at war during their time in captivity.

The treatment of Great War POWs was supposedly governed by the Hague Convention of 1907, with laid down detailed instructions for their conditions of incarceration, and stressed that they should be cared for in a humane manner. These stipulations, however, were rapidly ignored by the Germans. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that during the early months of the war, the Germans were overwhelmed by the massive numbers of prisoners that they took. Another part of it was that the Germans held their British foes in some disdain, believing that they lacked the Teutonic martial spirit and did not want to fight.

Perhaps, however, the most important contributing factor was that as the war progressed, Germany found itself increasingly starved for both food and manpower. Because of this, POWs were looked upon as a readily available source of labour, and one that was expected to share the same hardships that the German population was suffering.

As a consequence of all of the above, POWs found themselves held in atrocious conditions that steadily worsened as the war dragged on. Food was in short supply and of universally poor quality, and the men were kept from starving only by the precious parcels they received from the Red Cross. With the exception of officers, all POW’s were also compelled to work. Some were lucky enough to be assigned to farm work similar to what they had done at home, where, depending on the good nature of the farmer, they might be decently treated and well fed.

Many others, however, were required to work in war-related industries, where any resistance to the back-breaking labour that was involved would bring instant and severe punishment. The worst off were those who were sent to work in the salt mines or coke plants; an assignment to the latter invariably meant being sentenced to spend day after day working in scorching heat and breathing noxious fumes, all without the benefit of any protective clothing.

As trained combat soldiers whose mettle had already been tested in the trenches, not surprisingly many of the Canadians tried to escape. Unlike their successors in the Second World War, for whom the journey to potential freedom involved a lengthy and hazardous trek across occupied Europe, for escapers in the Great War liberty lay tantalizingly close, just across the border in neutral Holland. To get there, however, fugitives had to brave the elements, survive on what little food they could either hoard or steal, and skillfully evade the numerous German patrols that stood between them and freedom.

Through a combination of audacity, resourcefulness, and sheer luck, some Canadian POW’s actually made it. One notable success story was that of Major Peter Anderson of the 7th Battalion, who was destined to become Canada’s first successful, and highest ranking, escapee. Captured at Ypres in April 1915, Anderson spent six months in captivity biding his time before making a run for it in early October.

Posing first as a Swede and subsequently as a Danish bricklayer trying to get home, Anderson spent the next several days travelling through Germany. At one point, he enjoyed his first real meal in months dining in Berlin’s ornate railway station, all the while surrounded by enemy soldiers who were completely unaware of his true identity. On the night of October 9, he finally tasted freedom after cutting through a wire fence and slipping across the border into Denmark. When Anderson finally made it back to England, British intelligence officers found his tale so extraordinary that they initially suspected him of being a German plant!

Many other would-be escapees weren’t so fortunate. The Reckoning recounts the stories of numerous failed escape attempts, such as that of one luckless pair who, after believing they had made it across the Dutch border in the dead of night, pressed on just to be sure. Arriving at a large town in the morning, the hungry and exhausted runaways turned themselves in to the local police, believing that a hot meal and a warm bed awaited them. Much to their subsequent chagrin, they discovered that they had in fact crossed into Holland the previous night – and then had wandered back into Germany, where they were promptly dispatched to the local guardhouse.

Escapees who were recaptured could expect little mercy from the Germans, and most were invariably consigned to a lengthy stretch in a punishment cell. But the prospect of the severe disciplinary action they knew might face did little to deter some Canadians from persisting in their efforts. As an example of this, The Reckoning tells the story of one solider, the apparently indefatigable Private Arthur Corker of the 7th Battalion. Taken prisoner at Ypres in April 1915, Corker made no less than six failed escape attempts before he finally made it on his seventh try, crawling through a turnip field into Holland with a comrade in the summer of 1918.

To Canada’s eternal shame, the privations and indignities that the POWs had endured while in captivity were further compounded by the parsimonious treatment they received from their own government after the war had ended. Though the ill treatment they had suffered left many POWs with lasting health problems, their claims for financial assistance were regularly denied, oftentimes for the most spurious of reasons. Sadly, not much is known of what became of these men once they returned to civilian life, but Greenfield makes it clear that the callous treatment that many of them suffered at the hands of the bureaucrats who were entrusted with their care is a dark chapter indeed in this country’s military history.

I really enjoyed The Reckoning, and found this to be a truly extraordinary book. As was the case with previous works such as The Damned and The Forgotten, Greenspan’s meticulous research and smoothly flowing prose combine to do a superlative job of putting a human face on the experiences of Canada’s Great War POWs. The men whose stories appear in these pages were not professional soldiers, but rather in many cases somewhat naïve amateurs who had eagerly flocked to the colours, and who could not possibly have conceived of the ordeals that subsequently awaited them. But The Reckoning vividly shows, once they found themselves in the clutches of their German captors, the Canadians refused to be beaten into submission, and carried on the fight with remarkable tenacity.

All Ex-Cadets past and present owe Nathan Greenfield a gigantic “Bravo Zulu” for this exceptional contribution to the literature on Canadian military history. The stories recounted in The Reckoning provide proof beyond any doubt that, even behind the barbed wire of a POW camp, the Canadian soldier remains a dogged, loyal, and utterly fearless fighting man, to the very end.