Highlanders Without Kilts – Review by Mark Barnes

My dad did not like a lot of fiction and more or less directed me to read military history from a young age. I like some and occasionally take a break from the past to read bits but I am happier with people and events and cannot see this changing at my time of life.

Book lists and hopeful notes from publicity departments tell me there is a broader appetite for historical fiction out there and this book gave me an opportunity to test the waters.

Dee Dauphinee’s book has kept me occupied for several train commutes into London and I am happy to have read it. But he hasn’t changed my mind. Having said that this book is a fine example of mixing fictional characters with actual events and the author knows he dare not make any serious mistakes with the history he uses for a canvas. He doesn’t.

The book takes us from distant Nova Scotia to the Western Front and we follow the young protagonists to the summit of Hill 145, better known today as Vimy Ridge. The author has done his research and describes a battle I recognise from the powerful imagery of Pierre Berton and other sources. Inevitably the author seeks to address the place of Vimy Ridge within the national consciousness of a Canada reaching for nationhood. These are somewhat awkward things to approach, because nothing is ever so cut and dried and Mr Dauphinee recognises that much more than Vimy made Canada, but it is a convenient talisman.

Vimy Ridge is one of my treasured spots on the Western Front. As much for the place itself and what it represents within the context of the war as for the wider implications for the spirit of Canada. As a place of art and glorious sculpture it is magical. I mark it as a ‘must see’ destination for anyone who claims to have a soul. The battle for the ridge was not just a Canadian affair but the ground belongs to Canada and there is an end to it.

Away from France the author’s other characters of interest are in Halifax when the disastrous explosion of the French ammunition ship SS Mont Blanc destroyed the city laying waste to hundreds of buildings and killing over two thousand people. It was the largest man made explosion before the advent of nuclear weapons. One of the Mont Blanc’s guns landed three and half miles away. The facts of the explosion and its impact on Halifax are not for this review but I have to say I appreciated the author’s description of the tragedy and learned a lot from it. To me this is the best section of the book although I warmed to many of his characters, in or out, of khaki.

Mr Dauphinee bases the majority of characters on his ancestors and I find this element endearing. He connects us with them and this ties in totally with my feelings towards the act of remembrance.

So, can I recommend this book to you? I need to choose my language carefully here. If you are a fan of historical fiction then the answer is a clear yes. If you don’t, then I suppose you should suck it and see. If you waver between the two, then I would definitely give this one a go; it might make your mind up for you. There will always be bits in any book like this that history buffs do not like. The authors know it, reviewers know it – we all know it. You just have to pull your finger out and get on with it.

Mr Dauphinee writes from the heart and I salute him for the generosity his book exudes for our collective history. He honours the men who fell at Vimy and the tragic victims of the Mont Blanc in equal measure. Beyond that he keeps faith with the people of that era who are part of who is. Anyone who does that with conviction will always get my vote.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.

One Canadian family’s loss on the slopes of Vimy Ridge, and one nation’s altered sense of self.
By Dee Dauphinee
Kicking Pig Press
ISBN: 978 0 9863089 0 1

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.