The Madman and the Butcher: Better Butcher than Madman

                              

Tim Cook’s popular history, The Madman and the Butcher tackles the biographies of Canadian WWI figures, Sir Sam Hughes and Sir Arthur Curries, respectively. For those of you not up-and-up on your Canadian history, Sam Hughes worked as the Minister of Militia and MP before/during/after WW1, and Arthur Currie served first in the war as a brigadier general and eventually as the Lieutenant General of the Canadian Corp (the first Canadian, rather than a British soldier, to command a corp of Canadian soldiers).

While Cook’s history purports to be about balancing the historical record in terms of the “reputations” of each man — Hughes and Currie, have both at various points between 1914 and the present been libeled as the titular ‘madman’ and ‘butcher’ respectively — it is tilted much in favour of redeeming, and in some respects resurrecting the fading history of, Arthur Currie.

I am not at all opposed to this move on the part of Cook, I just wondered whether the book might have benefited (a great deal) from making Currie the explicit focus, rather than including the oftentimes strained and repetitive chapters on Hughes. While I appreciate the desire to set up an opposition between the two men (an opposition mirrored by Hughes’s eventual and aapparent hatred of Currie), the chapters on Currie are by far the more engaging (particularly the section on the famous libel trial).

I admired Cook’s efforts to refract growing Canadian nationalism and the successes of the Canadian corps through biography. I’m not sure the effort was successful in the case of Hughes, as his nationalist vigour to mount an impressive Canadian civilian-soldier army is tempered by his imperialist vision and the relatively minor impact he played after 1916. In the case of Currie, however, Cook does well to demonstrate the parallel struggle of Currie to establish his individual authority and the Canadian Corps’s growing recognition both home and abroad as an identifiable (and formidable) unit.

I am less impressed by the repetition in the middle section of the book, in particular, (as mentioned) with reference to Sam Hughes’s ego, lies and slander. I do think that rather than describe each battle the Canadian corps participated in, Cook might have done better to select several battles that represented key points in Currie-cum-Canada’s development, rather than the (sometimes exhausting) description of each movement of artillery.

The last third of the book that deals with the libel trial is engaging and engrossing, and does a terrific job of getting at Cook’s purported intent of addressing the “war of reputations.” Again, this “war” has nothing to do with Hughes, and everything to do with Currie. Hence, a book that is far better at dealing with the butcher, than the madman.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011

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