The Secret History of Soldiers

A nonfiction book by Canadian historian Tim Cook.

Tim Cook

There have been thousands of books on the Great War, but most have focused on commanders, battles, strategy and tactics. Less attention has been paid to the daily lives of the combatants, how they endured the unimaginable conditions of industrial warfare: the rain of shells, bullets and chemical agents. In The Secret History of Soldiers, Tim Cook, Canada's foremost military historian, examines how those who survived trench warfare on the Western Front found entertainment, solace, relief and distraction from the relentless slaughter. 

These tales come from the soldiers themselves, mined from the letters, diaries, memoirs and oral accounts of more than 500 combatants. Rare examples of trench art, postcards and even song sheets offer insight into a hidden society that was often irreverent, raunchy and anti-authoritarian. Believing in supernatural stories was another way soldiers shielded themselves from the horror. While novels and poetry often depict the soldiers of the Great War as mere victims, this new history shows how the soldiers pushed back against the grim war, refusing to be broken in the mincing machine of the Western Front. (From Allen Lane)

From the book

In the soldiers' songs, the patriotic discourse of the home front, with its exalted speech-making of one more push, was buried under a chorus of deliberately shocking satire, anti-conformity, relentless vulgarity and merry-making. This was the grousing of everyday soldiers put to song. The cynicism expressed in the songs did not mean that the soldiers were willing to give up or embrace defeat. In fact, to sing about the army discipline, which in its extreme form was much hated, or about escaping the trenches, was a way of coping with the strain at the front and finding strength to go on. 

From The Secret History of Soldiers by Tim Cook ©2018. Published by Allen Lane.