Moved by the extraordinary experiences of ordinary people, Tim Cook began studying the First World War. The author, who published his fifth work on the subject in September, writes history alive, magnifying the dramatic feuds and simmering controversies of the period
When Tim Cook was in Grade 11, his parents took him on a trip to Europe to visit important First World War sites along the Western Front. “I was very sullen and didn’t want to be there,” he recalls. Actually, young Tim spent much of the trip through the French countryside with his nose buried in Stephen King’s 1986 novel It, a creepy tale about a mysterious child killer.
At one point, Tim set aside the make-believe horror to view the landscape where thousands of soldiers were killed during events far worse than anything King concocted.
Tim became interested enough in the soldiers’ ghosts populating the French battlefields that his parents bought him a book about the First World War. “I kind of feel, to some degree, I haven’t put it down.”
Indeed, more than two decades later, Tim Cook does not just read about the First World War; he writes dramatic, prize-winning history books about the supposed War to End All Wars. He has five books to his credit. The newest hits stores this fall through Penguin publishers.
The Madman and the Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie chronicles the toxic feud in Parliament, the press and ultimately the courts between a seemingly mentally unstable politician and the general he accused of needlessly sending Canadian troops to slaughter.
Madman launches a Penguin prestige imprint called Allen Lane that will publish works by Henry Kissinger, Adrienne Clarkson and other stars of the non-fiction world. Diane Turbide, who heads the imprint, calls Cook a happy cross between an academic and a popular historian. “His academic credibility is unassailable,” says Turbide. But his ability to write “great narrative” is “a very rare quality” for historians.
Cook’s main day job is as First World War historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, where he heads research into the Great War. Cook is also an adjunct research professor with Carleton’s history department, leading seminars for fourth-year and graduate students on military issues. This year’s topic is Canada and the world wars; last year it was prime ministers at war. Brian McKillop, while serving as the history department chair, lavished praise on Cook. “I’d break legs if I could get him teaching full-time,” says McKillop, a prize-winning author himself.
What got me interested in the First World War was the story of ordinary people stuck in incredible trials, tribulations, deprivation, death and destruction.
Tim Cook was born in Kingston in 1971, but spent most of his childhood in Ottawa. While studying history at Trent University in Peterborough, Cook immersed himself in the First World War. “What got me interested in it was the story of ordinary people stuck in incredible trials, tribulations, deprivation, death and destruction. How did they deal with it?” Cook went on to do a master’s degree at the Royal Military College in Kingston and a doctorate at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. After working for the National Archives, Cook moved to the Canadian War Museum, where he oversaw creation of the First World War exhibits.
Talk to Cook about the First World War, and inevitably he mentions that 60,000 Canadian soldiers were killed. That figure has haunted Cook since that day as a teenager in France. Canada had only about one-quarter of its current population in 1918, so an equivalent number of deaths today would be 240,000.
In Cook’s research, he analyzes the wounds to the Canadian psyche caused by those deaths, in addition to the lighter sides of war, including soldiers’ slang, theatricals and trench culture. The experiences and emotions of the ordinary soldier have been at the heart of Cook’s writing. His last two books, At the Sharp End and Shock Troops, comprise a two-volume history of Canada’s participation in the First World War from the viewpoint of those men in the muck of the trenches. At the Sharp End won the John Wesley Dafoe Book Prize for non-fiction in 2007 and the Ottawa Book Award in 2008. The next year Shock Troops won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and was nominated for the Ottawa Book Award, where one of Cook’s rivals was McKillop for a biography of author Pierre Berton. Another rival was Cook’s War Museum colleague Peter MacLeod, for a book on the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. The competition sparked some good-natured ribbing. “With regards to Peter,” Cook said mischievously mere days before the winner was announced, “I refuse to walk in front of him when we go down stairs. One sharp push and we’re down to four finalists.”
In the end, those three historians lost to Kerry Pither for Dark Days, the accounts of four Canadians imprisoned in the Middle East. But Cook was pleased that four of the five titles on the shortlist were history books. “Perhaps it’s a sign that historians are heeding the call of writing for all Canadians, not just those in the ivory towers. Readers certainly want it.” That’s what Cook aims to deliver. Unlike some academic historians, Cook lavishes praise on the late Pierre Berton. That populist historian, one suspects, would also have approved of Cook.