The Private Lives of Privates

Trench culture helped our soldiers survive

Canadian soldiers in the Great War, huddled in mud-­filled trenches along the Western Front, had multiple words or euphemisms for death. A dead comrade may have “gone under,” “copped a packet,” or been “knocked out” or “buzzed.” Others may have been “napooed” or “kicked‑in.” In a macabre super­stitious twist, touching a body part of a dead soldier, whose limbs might be protruding from the crater walls, could be a stroke of good luck. To carry money into battle could be asking for trouble. In a frightfully brutal world, where death was common, random, and everywhere, it is not surprising that infantrymen found their own ways to rationalize and describe the indescribable. Tim Cook’s The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War is a study of their endurance and resilience.

Already established as one of the most popular historians working in Canada today, Cook blends rigorous...