Today on Project Gutenberg #43

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Over There with the Canadians at Vimy Ridge by G. Harvey Ralphson

The phrase “over there” is a clue to the subject of today’s book, as is the mention of Vimy Ridge and the appearance of an antique tank on the cover. That’s right, we’re talking about World War One! The author is listed as George Harvey Ralphson, or “Capt. Ralphson” (perhaps to give this military-based book a greater air of authority). But here’s a fun fact for you: Captain Ralphson didn’t exist. It was a pen name used by a collection of people who wrote boys’ adventure novels for M.A. Donohue & Company from 1911 to 1920. The name was usually placed on the popular series of “Boy Scouts” stories, and this book was one of the last times it got used. “Ralphson” also has two other WWI books to “his” name, Over There with the Marines at Chateau Thierry and Over There with the Tanks in the Argonne Forest.

First, let’s talk historical background. What’s so important about Vimy Ridge? Back during the war it was in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the northernmost region of France. Since that region shared a border with Belgium and was a notable source of coal, it naturally became a main theater of conflict and saw multiple large battles. One of these was the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, part of the much larger and lengthier Battle of Arras. From April 9th to April 12th, the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force wrested control of Vimy Ridge from the German 6th Army. The battle became noteworthy in Canadian history because it marked the first instance when all four divisions of the Expeditionary Force fought together, therefore making it a symbol of national unity and sacrifice.

The book, however, mentions exactly none of this. What it does instead is use the time and location as a backdrop for a slow-burn tale of mystery and espionage. Irving Ellis, an American who enlists as a private in the Canadian army, is swept away from the front lines and into a very different battlefield when he accidentally discovers that his superior officer is a German spy. Once the spy is apprehended, Ellis is given a replica of the coded message he was carrying — disguised as a cubist tattoo — and sent behind enemy lines to gather information. He ends up going as far as Berlin itself, where he gets put to work in the Germans’ spy office. If he’s in this deep, how is he ever going to make it back home?

Although flawed and not especially complex, the book is surprisingly readable, a lot more so than some other boys’ adventure novels from this time. The protagonist isn’t some kind of perfect invincible hero who changes the course of the war all by himself: he’s a kid who more or less blunders his way into this situation and has to survive as best as he can. The tension comes from his trying to figure out who he can trust, how much info he can tell the enemy without giving himself away, how much info he can get them to reveal to him. And the book succeeds at making Ellis likeable enough that you want to follow him on this journey and see if he makes it out okay.

“I haven’t given you much of an idea yet what we want you to find out for us at Berlin, or wherever you can get the information,” said the commander of the regiment. “We know, of course, that there is an extensive enemy spy organization in both Canada and the United States, and while we are able to get a few of those fellows now and then, still they’re pretty smart as a rule, and we feel that we have only scratched the surface. We want their names, or the name of every leader of consequence among them. That’s what we’re sending you into Germany for. You must realize, therefore, that the mission on which you are being sent is one of no small consequence. The highest officers in the army have been acquainted with the plan and not only concurred in it, but offered suggestions for its improvement and perfection.

“You have learned from Hessenburg what you are to do when you land on German soil. You will probably be taken to Berlin or some important German military point, and there your message will be read. You will be a hero in the minds of the highest commanders and will undoubtedly be granted any favor you ask. My suggestion is that you ask to be assigned for study to qualify you for the most confidential and important work in the enemy secret service. Tell them you wish to return to America as a leader in the work and call their attention to the fact that, as you have become pretty thoroughly Americanized, or Canadianized, and lost most of the foreign appearance and accent of your father, you can pass successfully as a loyal citizen of the dominion. Then work your way into the confidence of those who are directing the spy system of our enemies and get at their records. Get the names of all the leaders you can find. You may be able to do this openly, for your own information when you return to take up more important work in Canada and the United States. Give special attention to the spy activities in the United States, for we want to show that the pro-German agents in that country are violating its policy of neutrality.

“Now, let me tell you frankly why we have selected you for this work in spite of your youth. Any man,–I won’t call you a boy, for from now on you must be a man in every sense of the word,–any man who can put together the twos and twos you summed up after your experience with Hessenburg, or Tourtelle, and after reading your cousin’s letter, is a natural-born investigator. The average person would have been confused by that evidence; he would not have had the nerve to form the conclusions you formed. I’m not saying this to flatter you. If you feel in the least flattered, you had better say so at once, and give up the whole scheme, for there is great danger of your failing and being shot. Let me tell you why:

“The man who has one second’s time to entertain a conceited or self-conscious thought, devotes just that much time to the undermining of his own strength. Get me?”

Chapter XIX

The book is fairly easy to read and the chapters are short, so you could breeze through this in a few days if you were so inclined. Just don’t expect a satisfying conclusion. Not that things turn out bad for our friend Ellis: I just mean that the author literally did not bother to write a detailed resolution. The book ends with a paragraph that basically says “Here’s what happened to the main character after the climax, we could have written it down in more detail but it wasn’t very interesting.” Rather underwhelming for a book that had been fairly decent up to that point.

If you’re interested in war history and espionage and you’re looking for some light reading, you might find this book to be worth looking at. It’s not great literature, nor is it trying to be. It’s trying to be a piece of easily accessible entertainment, and at that it mostly succeeds.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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