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An evocative fusion of past and present, Back to the Front will resonate as no other book on World War I ever has. Journalist Stephen O'Shea walked the 750 kilometers along the Western Front--the sinuous, deadly line of trenches that stretched from the Belgian coast to Switzerland--to create this remarkable combination of vivid history and eloquent travel writing. 216 pp.
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.
Posted December 14, 2011
It's hard to believe that O'Shea had never written a book before. The book is a seamless blend of reading-between-the-lines-history and personal memoir about the endless horror of WWI. Yet O'Shea is no knee-jerk pacifist, but a rare historian ("accidental" or not) not afraid to throw the mainstream, simplistic, patriotic and jingoistic schoolbook history out the window in favor a exposing the jaw-dropping callousness, ineptitude, and senselessness of the WWI generals and politicians and their latter-day apologists. He follows the trenches geographically, chronologically, and personally, bringing the reader each step of the way into the grinding, pointless charnel house of war on the Western front. It is the common soldier, not the brass, who are his subjects, consistently and unapologetically, and they come alive in his narrative. The book doesn't delve too deeply into the larger causes of the war (it was over land and profits, after all), but the ideological vacuousness of the war, and how that affected him, are on every page (and yet he knows how to wield humor in his observations throughout). The lessons for the war, or wars, of today in the Middle East and around the world are not lost here, and it's just an incredible read. Popular, populist, and anti-authoritarian history at its most well written. One of few books I ever wished was longer.
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Posted September 12, 2011
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Posted January 12, 2014
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