• Home
  • /
  • /
  • Flashback | Rétrospective

Uncategorized

Flashback | Rétrospective

crerar.jpeg A Thoroughly Canadian General: a Biography of General H.D.G. Crerar by Paul Douglas Dickson (University of Toronto Press, 571 pages, $55)

More info
Harry Crerar was Canada’s most important soldier during the Second World War, but despite his considerable accomplishments he is an almost forgotten figure.

Crerar had neither the brilliance of his subordinate, the icy Guy Simonds, nor the charisma of Andy McNaughton, his predecessor as commander of the Canadian army overseas. Simonds and McNaughton have received biographies; Paul Dickson’s fine study of Crerar fills a significant gap in Canadian military history.

Crerar, born in Hamilton, Ont. in 1888, was typical of his generation of army officers in that he came from the Protestant upper middle class and attended private school before going to Royal Military College in Kingston. He chose to stay in the army after serving during the First World War. Although salaries were low and promotion prospects limited, Crerar loved the military and possessed a private income.

During the inter-war period there were only 450 officers in a “permanent force” of about 4,000, while the “non- permanent active militia” had about 50,000 men, with 4,000 officers. Training for higher command positions did not exist in Canada. A few Canadians, including Crerar, attended staff college in England or India.

This small cadre of staff college graduates organized and led the Canadian army brought into being after 1939. By 1944 it comprised 495,073 men and women. As chief of Canada’s general staff in 1940-41, Crerar played a major role in planning the army’s vast expansion, demonstrating the political and administrative skills that marked his career.

He was, however, at least partly responsible for two bad decisions. The first was the dispatch of two Canadian battalions to Hong Kong in late 1941, based on a miscalculation by the British that reinforcing the garrison there would restrain the Japanese. The second was the Canadian participation in the raid on Dieppe in August 1942.
Dickson carefully examines these events, pointing out that in both instances Crerar argued that “Canada had a moral responsibility to take the same risks as the British.”

The Dieppe fiasco was launched after he assumed command of the 1st Canadian Corps in December 1941. Crerar believed that combat experience would improve the morale as well as the reputation of Canadian troops. Although he certainly favoured Canadian involvement, and was responsible for selecting the 2nd Canadian Division for the assault, he did not have any part in its planning or execution.

Canadian Defence minister J.L. Ralston, chose Crerar to replace Gen. Andy McNaughton at the head of the 1st Canadian army when McNaughton was sacked in December 1943. The British pushed for McNaughton’s removal because of his inadequate performance in a large training exercise in which Crerar had done well. Another strike against McNaughton was his adamant opposition to the Canadian government’s decision to split the 1st Canadian Army by sending a corps to participate in the Italian campaign. Gen. Alan Brooke, chief of the imperial general staff, was Crerar’s friend and ally. Together they were instrumental in ousting McNaughton.

His ability as a general has been controversial. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of the British 21st Army Group, which included the 1st Canadian Army during the 1944-45 campaign in northern Europe, made persistent attempts to get rid of him. It says a lot for Crerar’s toughness that he was able to stand up to the overbearing Montgomery, who had difficulty accepting that Canadian troops were not simply part of the British army. Although more flexible than McNaughton on the question of keeping the army together, Crerar was nevertheless determined that if possible Canadians should be united and fight under Canadian generals. Furthermore, to Montgomery’s annoyance, he insisted that he was ultimately responsible to the Canadian government.

Dickson’s account of the 1944-45 campaign is mercifully intelligible to the non-specialist. He does not gloss over Crerar’s inexperience as a field commander, making a good case that his generalship improved over time. Fortunately Crerar was cautious. It is to Crerar’s credit that he took care not to waste the lives of his men and felt a deep sense of loss at the carnage of war.

Crerar emerges from this biography as a person of driving ambition and astute judgment. He had a gift for making friends with the powerful, and using these friendships to achieve his ends. Although an adequate commander, his political and organizational talents made him a better staff officer than battlefield general. In Dickson’s words, he was a “cold and remote figure,” with little ability to inspire his troops. He was also a stickler for spit and polish, unlike Montgomery and other British generals. According to Maj.-Gen. Chris Vokes, who served under him, Crerar “stood for shining buttons and all that chickenshit.”

Dickson makes a valiant effort to humanize Crerar by discussing his marriage and attitudes as a father. One is left with the impression that he was a martinet at home as well as in his vocation. If he had an inner life, he never revealed it. The title of the book comes from a Globe and Mail article in 1945, in which Crerar, “a thoroughly Canadian general,” is represented as an example of what “hard work, virtue and modesty can achieve.” Perhaps this is an inflated assessment, but Paul Dickson’s scholarship establishes conclusively that Crerar served his country well.

Henry Roper is vice-president (publications) of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society.

Harry Crerar was Canada’s most important soldier during the Second World War, but despite his considerable accomplishments he is an almost forgotten figure.

Crerar had neither the brilliance of his subordinate, the icy Guy Simonds, nor the charisma of Andy McNaughton, his predecessor as commander of the Canadian army overseas. Simonds and McNaughton have received biographies; Paul Dickson’s fine study of Crerar fills a significant gap in Canadian military history.

Crerar, born in Hamilton, Ont. in 1888, was typical of his generation of army officers in that he came from the Protestant upper middle class and attended private school before going to Royal Military College in Kingston. He chose to stay in the army after serving during the First World War. Although salaries were low and promotion prospects limited, Crerar loved the military and possessed a private income.

During the inter-war period there were only 450 officers in a “permanent force” of about 4,000, while the “non- permanent active militia” had about 50,000 men, with 4,000 officers. Training for higher command positions did not exist in Canada. A few Canadians, including Crerar, attended staff college in England or India.

This small cadre of staff college graduates organized and led the Canadian army brought into being after 1939. By 1944 it comprised 495,073 men and women. As chief of Canada’s general staff in 1940-41, Crerar played a major role in planning the army’s vast expansion, demonstrating the political and administrative skills that marked his career.

He was, however, at least partly responsible for two bad decisions. The first was the dispatch of two Canadian battalions to Hong Kong in late 1941, based on a miscalculation by the British that reinforcing the garrison there would restrain the Japanese. The second was the Canadian participation in the raid on Dieppe in August 1942.

Dickson carefully examines these events, pointing out that in both instances Crerar argued that “Canada had a moral responsibility to take the same risks as the British.”

The Dieppe fiasco was launched after he assumed command of the 1st Canadian Corps in December 1941. Crerar believed that combat experience would improve the morale as well as the reputation of Canadian troops. Although he certainly favoured Canadian involvement, and was responsible for selecting the 2nd Canadian Division for the assault, he did not have any part in its planning or execution.

Canadian Defence minister J.L. Ralston, chose Crerar to replace Gen. Andy McNaughton at the head of the 1st Canadian army when McNaughton was sacked in December 1943. The British pushed for McNaughton’s removal because of his inadequate performance in a large training exercise in which Crerar had done well. Another strike against McNaughton was his adamant opposition to the Canadian government’s decision to split the 1st Canadian Army by sending a corps to participate in the Italian campaign. Gen. Alan Brooke, chief of the imperial general staff, was Crerar’s friend and ally.Together they were instrumental in ousting McNaughton.

His ability as a general has been controversial. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of the British 21st Army Group, which included the 1st Canadian Army during the 1944-45 campaign in northern Europe, made persistent attempts to get rid of him. It says a lot for Crerar’s toughness that he was able to stand up to the overbearing Montgomery, who had difficulty accepting that Canadian troops were not simply part of the British army. Although more flexible than McNaughton on the question of keeping the army together, Crerar was nevertheless determined that if possible Canadians should be united and fight under Canadian generals. Furthermore, to Montgomery’s annoyance, he insisted that he was ultimately responsible to the Canadian government.

Dickson’s account of the 1944-45 campaign is mercifully intelligible to the non-specialist. He does not gloss over Crerar’s inexperience as a field commander, making a good case that his generalship improved over time. Fortunately Crerar was cautious. It is to Crerar’s credit that he took care not to waste the lives of his men and felt a deep sense of loss at the carnage of war.

Crerar emerges from this biography as a person of driving ambition and astute judgment. He had a gift for making friends with the powerful, and using these friendships to achieve his ends. Although an adequate commander, his political and organizational talents made him a better staff officer than battlefield general. In Dickson’s words, he was a “cold and remote figure,” with little ability to inspire his troops. He was also a stickler for spit and polish, unlike Montgomery and other British generals. According to Maj.-Gen. Chris Vokes, who served under him, Crerar “stood for shining buttons and all that chickenshit.”

Dickson makes a valiant effort to humanize Crerar by discussing his marriage and attitudes as a father. One is left with the impression that he was a martinet at home as well as in his vocation. If he had an inner life, he never revealed it. The title of the book comes from a Globe and Mail article in 1945, in which Crerar, “a thoroughly Canadian general,” is represented as an example of what “hard work, virtue and modesty can achieve.” Perhaps this is an inflated assessment, but Paul Dickson’s scholarship establishes conclusively that Crerar served his country well.

Henry Roper is vice-president (publications) of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society.