Book Review: R. Engen, Strangers in Arms (Montreal, 2016)

Historian Robert Engen’s book convincingly explains what motivated Canadian soldiers to fight and endure during the Second World War campaigns of Sicily, Italy, Normandy and North West Europe in the face of intense combat, heavy casualties and adversity.[1]

Since World War 2, much of the scholarship on what persuaded soldiers to fight in combat was explained by ‘primary group theory’.[2] This posited that strong social interpersonal relationships between men in small teams (primary groups) cohered them together to fight for each because of shared camaraderie, friendship and group solidarity. Recent historians have questioned primary group cohesion as an explanation for combat motivation. Sir Hew Strachan has contended such cohesion sits on a paradox. The ability and will of a group to sustain itself in action rests on the morale derived from group members and their relationships but this is eroded in heavy fighting through casualties. This, in turn, disrupts the very associations the group depends on for their collective will.[3] Historians have suggested alternative ideas to explain soldier motivation in conflicts. Jonathan Fennel, in his recent thought provoking book, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign, proposed that men in the 8th Army during 1942 were influenced by a combination of factors including good leadership, coercion, education and belief in the ‘cause’.[4] Omer Bartov‘s classic book on the German Army in Russia during the Second World War argued the Wehrmacht soldiers on the Eastern Front were enthused by Nazi ideology.[5]

Engen’s book is a counter balance to the views of Fennel, Bartov and Strachan, advocating that primary group relations were an important motivator for Canadian soldiers. However, instead of ‘classical’ primary group cohesion based on emotio-social relationships, he suggested group bonds in Canadian units were based on ‘swift trust’. This idea was first set out by Israeli academics in 2005. Uzi Ben-Shalom and colleagues suggested that cohesion can develop very rapidly in specific circumstances. In a study of Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) during the 2000 Al-Aqsa Intifada they found that instead of cohesion being based on long developed close personal relationships, it was instead built on ‘loose coalitions created ad hoc for specific tasks’. Organic IDF units were ‘split into components deployed in diverse areas and under the command of different commanders’ and ‘units were temporarily joined together according to the task at hand.’ Sub units worked well together and Ben-Shalom and colleagues argued that ‘traditional military ways of bonding [were] not useless’ but that ‘the dynamics of trust develop[ed from their observations] in a different way’. Groups were brought ‘together…with a clear goal and their success depends on a…coordinated coupling of activity’ and the result being ‘an intensification of time through the constraints of carrying out assigned missions’.[6]

Engen argues a similar process of ‘swift trust’ happened with Canadian forces in the Second World War. Heavy casualties sustained throughout the Canadians’ engagements disrupted unit memberships. Also, Canadian units were dismantled and reorganised on a regular basis for specific tasks and jobs, which further disrupted bonds between soldiers. As a result, combatants were often ‘strangers in arms’, fighting beside men they hardly knew. However, this fact did not stop Canadian divisions performing effectively and consistently throughout the war.[7] Men formed ‘swift trust’ with others based on a mutual need to survive. The locus of their primary group cohesion was task based, focused around their collective work and jobs.  Soldiers were able to co-operate with others they did not know because they had a shared training, army experience and operational doctrine. While traditional ‘band of brothers’ types associations did exist, they were rare.[8]

Though ‘swift trust’ was important, Engen argues other influences also motivated men such as personal leadership, regimental esprit, effective training, frequent mail and plentiful food. He also points to contextual factors as being situational motivators for soldiers. For example, when Canadian forces were the under command of Field Marshall Montgomery during the 1943 invasion of Sicily, many soldiers were highly motivated by Montgomery’s inspirational style of leadership.[9] Also, during the invasion of Germany, the discovery by Canadians of Wehrmacht atrocities against civilians influenced some Canadian soldiers not to take German prisoners.[10]

Lick Them Over There

This publication is impressive. It has made use of new qualitative and quantitative archival material, much of which has never been examined, such as Canadian morale reports. It importantly shows how factors that influenced motivation changed over the course of the war and how different contextual conditions at the local level, such as geography and climate, were also important. The book provides a new perspective on how primary group relations functioned on the front line and helped sustain Canadian combatants during World War Two.

[1] R. Engen, Strangers in Arms (Montreal, 2016), p.7.

[2] S.A Stouffer et al. The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath, Vols.1&2 (Princeton, 1949). S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire (New York, 1947). E.A. Shils & M. Janowitz, ‘Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II’, Public Opinion Quarterly 12 (Summer 1948).

[3] H. Strachan, ‘Training, Morale and Modern War’, Journal of Contemporary History 41:2 (2006), p.212.

[4] J. Fennell, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign (Cambridge, 2013), pp.241-281.

[5] O. Bartov, Hitler’s Army (Oxford, 1992).

[6] U. Ben-Shalom, Z. Lehrer & E. Ben-Ari, ‘Cohesion during Military Operations: A Field Study on Combat Units in the Al-Aqsa Intifada’, Armed Forces and Society 32:1 (10/2005), pp.63-79.

[7] Engen, Strangers, p.127.

[8] Ibid., p.205.

[9] Ibid., p.83.

[10] Ibid., p.181-182.