Ottawa Writers festival: First World War historian Tim Cook reveals secret culture of trenches

Tim Cook is certainly one of the most prolific historians working in Canada today. He’s published five books in the past five years. But none of them have been quite like his latest. 

The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War is not a story about a battle or a military campaign. This one focuses on the time between the killing, when the men would share a smoke, tell a dirty joke, sing a song, make a piece of trench art out of a brass shell or write something for a trench newspaper.

“This (book) has been sitting with me for (more than) 20 years,” Cook said. “I have been thinking about  it and working away and gathering evidence. Meanwhile I have written 10 other books.”

In The Secret History, Cook is revealing the private world of the men on the Western Front.

“The First World War is the first time that we really start to see into this secret world of soldiers. You can’t get at it through the official record.”

To achieve this he had to try “to get the story out of the man. In my case all of them are dead, so it’s coming from their personal diaries and letters.”

Tim Cook is the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum. Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz

This was a letter writing society in the second decade of the 20th century. A lot of Canadians fought in the war, about 620,000 in all, or one in three adult males. “They kept diaries and wrote letters home. Many of these have survived. 

“One of the great legacies of the First World War are these letters and diaries.” For Cook, drawing on this material has helped him tell a very different story of the war than the one that exists in the official record.

Life between battles was strikingly mundane and, frankly, he said, kind of weird.

It is in human nature to band together when under a difficult circumstance. Within that forced group, a mode of behaviour emerges and becomes a culture.

Teenagers do this, Cook said.

“They insulate themselves. They find ways to “other” people and create their own little societies. I have a 14 year old daughter and I am seeing this first hand.

“That’s maybe not a great revelation except, if we think that the accepted view of most people, as seen in film and novels and plays about the First World War, is about these guys suffering and stumbling from one disaster to another and very much dehumanized by the war.

“If my book does anything, It really shows that they are holding onto their humanity.”

Cook says he’s not trying to minimize their experience of war.

“I, more than most, know about the absolute brutality and violence that they encountered. But they find ways to cope and that is one of the key questions. 

“We often focus on (conditions such as ) shell shock. It’s in every play and novel but, actually, most guys don’t break down.” 

He says this unique soldiers’ culture is how they preserve their sanity in the hell of the front.

“Even the most mundane things were a big deal in the trenches. That next cigarette, dry socks and a letter home may have made the difference in being able to go on for another day.

“We haven’t paid much attention to this culture, in part, because the soldiers themselves didn’t really want to share it with outsiders or they couldn’t share it.” 

Cook has situated his exploration of the secret soldiers’ culture on the Western Front “that unique site of destruction, death and violence” in a time and place in a zone of death. “It took me some time to figure out that this is a culture situated in death and violence.”

When he did, the book started to come together. In fact, he even has a chapter on the death culture of the trenches. 

“It’s about ghosts and the supernatural experiences of the men in the trenches. They have premonitions.”

This is new stuff, said Cook, who has spent 23 years reading tens of thousands of letters and diaries. He said that when you do that, the picture of the soldiers’ culture emerges.

In terms of the death culture, there is even a link back to the society at the time which was exploring spiritualism.

There are other amusing thing such as how the men expressed their culture. That required a look at slang and swearing and bawdy songs.

“The ribald songs were absolutely crucial.” This was a singing war and the songs served to bring men together.

“They sang everything from hymns and the latest hits to songs of drink and women and sex and everything in between. We have to acknowledge the songs. It was a very masculine culture.

“These guys are rough. The places where they live are rough and the things that they do from manual labour to killing the enemy require a coarseness of spirit and that is part of their culture. One of great challenges for these guys, if they survive and come home, is to try to reintegrate.”

The last chapter of Cook’s book deals with the years at home in the aftermath of war.

“Next to the supernatural, that last chapter is really crucial. People haven’t written about this. I thought maybe the book would end on Nov. 11, 1918. but then I decided to look at how the culture comes back to Canada.”

It was more difficult to research because the letters home stopped. And the veterans kept their secrets.

There was, and is, power in nostalgia, in camaraderie. There is the pride of service, Cook said.

“And there is the uniqueness of having run the trial by fire and come out the other side. If we don’t acknowledge that, if we just reduce the war to a senseless futile slaughter then we are missing an important part of the experience and the history,” Cook argues.

He thinks the veterans of the First World War did  transform Canada when they got home.

But there is also disillusionment when Canada doesn’t change as much as they would want.  The camaraderie of the trenches isn’t necessarily there in the homeland. And then the Great Depression wrecks everything.

“Many historians and I am one, argue there is a sense of Canadianness that emerges out of this. It’s not the same Canadianness that we have today, but it was very different from the old colonial attitude which was very prevalent then.

“There is a lot that is uniquely Canadian here. Isn’t it interesting that this (soldiers’ culture) is not in any of our books on Canadian culture. When we talk about the era, we talk about the Group of Seven, and maybe a few small political movements, but here is a great nationalizing experience and it’s not in our books. This too is part of the secret history.”

Today we hear hear a lot about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that has affected many who served in war zones such as in Afghanistan.

Cook says we have to assume that large numbers of soldiers came home suffering from PTSD.

“You have to assume that these guys came back emotionally and psychologically scarred. Not all of them but certainly there were a good number of them.”

This too is hard to get at, he said.

“My argument is not to diminish that PTSD because it happened. We talk about it quite bit, but we don’t talk about the camaraderie and culture.

“Now that we know about PTSD understanding that culture is crucial to understanding how soldiers cope. The soldiers need to be around others and they need to talk about it. But they  don’t (or won’t) talk about it with people who weren’t there.”

You can understand then, he said, why the local Royal Canadian Legion hall became so central.

“Singing an old raunchy song and drinking glasses of draft beer helps one forget.”

Cook, who has had his own battles with cancer over the past few years, feels very close to this book. He wrote much of it while going through treatment.

“People will note that I was going through my own battle.” Even though he sticks pretty “close to the evidence, you will find bits of me in this book.”

This book brings him back to a central theme in his thinking and writing about war.

“It brings me back to the soldiers who, in one way or another, I have been trying to understand for almost 25 years now. I find this generation fascinating. How did they survive, how did they cope and endure and not break down? This has fascinated me.”

The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived The Great War
Tim Cook (

In Town: The author will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 28 at 2 p.m. For more information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.