Nathan M. Greenfield, Baptism of Fire: The Second Battle of Ypres and the Forging of Canada, April 1915 (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2007). 474 pages.
Reviewed by Caitlin Dyer (University of Western Ontario)
Nathan Greenfield’s Baptism of Fire outlines the part played during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 by Canadian forces which “filled in after the French lines were broken by the first poison gas attack in history, and then withstood the second” (p. xx). As Greenfield states, if the lines had not been reinforced by the fresh-faced Canadians, the potential existed for the Germans to force the British Expeditionary Force from the continent much the same as at Dunkirk twenty-five years later.
Greenfield recounts the battle chronologically, detailing nearly every aspect from the movement of individual units to the overall scene. Occasionally Greenfield gets bogged down in the details, however, each section of the book begins with a few maps of the trenches, which units held them and their relation to major landmarks. The visual representation of the territorial gains and losses is essential for full comprehension of the battle.
Baptism of Fire is a spectacular example of a battle history. It is an incredibly human portrayal of events through the broad range of sources consulted. Greenfield utilizes official military records and communiqués to the letters, diaries, and interviews of soldiers in the trenches. Most impressive is his use of Canadian, British, French, and German sources, all of which aid tremendously in elucidating the “fog of war” and reconstructing key moments of the battle.
The one question the reader wonders throughout the book – “how does the battle relate to the forging of the Canadian Corps wartime reputation and post-war legacy?” – is finally addressed in the epilogue. Here Greenfield argues that the romantic image of Canada and her soldiers most often associated with Vimy Ridge can be traced to the respect won on the field at the Second Battle of Ypres. While Greenfield has touched on an interesting point, the minuscule discussion presented precludes the formation of a definite conclusion on this important question. Nonetheless, Greenfield’s skillful use of primary research materials, coupled with his honest and lucid prose, makes Baptism of Fire an interesting and engaging read.