Back to the Frontby Stephen O'Shea
A rich and sobering exploration of war -- and of the meaning of history -- that will engage general readers and military buffs alike. The Western Front, the sinuous, deadly line of trenches that stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland during the First World War, also formed a scar on the imaginative landscape of our century. Back to the Front chronicles author, Stephen O'Shea's, 500-kilometre walk down what was once no man's land. In the process of making this singular trek through the old battlefields, O'Shea ruminates on the many meanings of the Front and on the nature of his own generation's - the Baby Boomer's - indifference to the past.
A Paris-based correspondent for Elle, Interview, and other periodicals, O'Shea began hiking the centerpiece combat zone of the so-called Great War almost by chance during the mid-1980s. The serpentine path (to which he returned time and again) begins around Nieuport on the Belgian coast, winds through the French countryside, and ends abruptly at the frontier of neutral Switzerland. Between the two extremes, the blood-soaked track of the trenches, from which Allied and German troops rose to slaughter one another by the millions during the 52-month conflict, twists through scores of storied venues. Cases in point range from Flanders (Ypres, Passchendaele) through Artois (Armentières, Arras, Vimy Ridge), Picardy, Champagne (Chemin des Dames, Reims), and Alsace-Lorraine (St. Mihiel, Verdun, the Argonne Forest). In his commentary as a tour guide, the author is by turns informative and censorious. Interspersing his point-to-point travelogue of abandoned redoubts, burial grounds, disputed barricades, monuments, museums, and ossuaries with short takes on the campaigns that earned hinterland villages a place in military history, he offers unsparing critiques of commanders on both sides of the fray (notably, Falkenhayn, Foch, Haig, Joffre, Nivelle, Pershing, and Pétain). O'Shea also recalls his two Irish grandfathers, who survived the senseless carnage (as soldiers of the British Crown), albeit at considerable cost in mental and physical pain. Antiwar by conviction at the start of his explorations, he's something very like a militant pacifist at the end of a decade-long journey.
A tellingly detailed account of a trek through yesteryear's killing fields, which unites past with present in affectingly evocative ways and with no small measure of art.
- Douglas and McIntyre (2013) Ltd.
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.50(d)
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