Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War 1 [NOOK Book]


World War I is beyond the memory of almost everyone alive today. Yet it has left as deep a scar on the imaginative landscape of our century as it has on the land where it was fought. Nowhere is that more evident than on the Western Front-the sinuous, deadly line of trenches that stretched from the coast of Belgium to the border of France and Switzerland, a narrow swath of land in which so many million lives were lost.

For journalist Stephen ...
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Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War 1

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World War I is beyond the memory of almost everyone alive today. Yet it has left as deep a scar on the imaginative landscape of our century as it has on the land where it was fought. Nowhere is that more evident than on the Western Front-the sinuous, deadly line of trenches that stretched from the coast of Belgium to the border of France and Switzerland, a narrow swath of land in which so many million lives were lost.

For journalist Stephen O'Shea, the legacy of the Great War is personal (both his grandfathers fought on the front lines) and cultural. Stunned by viewing the "immense wound" still visible on the battlefield of the Somme, and feeling that "history is too important to be left to the professionals," he set out to walk the entire 450 miles through no-man's-land to discover for himself and for his generation the meaning of the war.

Back to the Front is a remarkable combination of vivid history and opinionated travel writing. As his walk progresses, O'Shea recreates the shocking battles of the Western Front, many now legendary-Passchendaele, the Somme, the Argonne, Verdun-and offers an impassioned perspective on the war, the state of the land, and the cultivation of memory. His consummate skill with words and details brings alive the players, famous and faceless, on that horrific stage, and makes us aware of why the Great War, indeed history itself, still matters. An evocative fusion of past and present, Back to the Front will resonate, for all who read it, as few other books on war ever have.

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ghosts of the Western Front's needless dead remain for O'Shea, a Canadian jounalist working in Paris: "The extent of the carnage, let alone its horror, is nauseating to contemplate." In the summer of 1986, O'Shea walked 450 miles of trenches, from the ocean dunes of Belgium southward to the border of France and Switzerland. The reader follows O'Shea through the fields, forests and no-man's land as he searches for the snaking trenches, many of which have been lost to farmland or to a cliff's drop; sometimes the trenches vanish all together. As he travels the now deserted lands dotted with cemeteries and monuments or through villages, he slides into a still pertinent and horrifying chronicle of incompetent generals, poor battle planning or execution and the thousands of men killed on battlefields with names like Somme, Verdun and Argonne. O'Shea, a journalist who is Variety's film critic for French cinema, displays a poet's gift of description and a sorrowful, contemplative pacifism in expressing the horror and futility of the Great War. Author tour. (June)
Library Journal
Paris-based journalist O'Shea walked the length of the Western Front of World War I during the summers from 1986 to 1995. The journey was a personal one: both his grandfathers had fought on the front lines. O'Shea began his journey in Nieuport, Belgium, and followed the remains of the trenches some 450 miles to the border of France and Switzerland. Because the tactics of war usually consisted of massed infantry assaults against machine guns and artillery, O'Shea doesn't provide much historical context. What does emerge from his narrative is a shocking description of what happened on the battlefields. Generals often began offensives that lost some 100,000 men in one monthonly to begin the same process the following month. Despite the talk of glory, the war came down to crushing personal losses. The author briskly moves the narrative along, though photographs comparing the battlefields la William Frassanito (Early Photography at Gettysburg, Thomas, 1995) would have been helpful. An engaging and thought-provoking work; recommended for history buffs.Mark E. Ellis, Albany State Univ., Ga.
Kirkus Reviews
A Canadian journalist who has walked the weary length of WW I's western front reports movingly on his experiences and more.

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802719096
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 5/26/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 216
  • Sales rank: 378,338
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Toronto-born author and journalist Stephen O'Shea moved to France in the early 1980s. There, he took up journalism, shortly after completing postgraduate degrees in politics at the Université de Paris 1 (Pantheon-Sorbonne) and the prestigious Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris. In 1989, Elle magazine relocated O'Shea to New York to be a senior features editor of their American edition. In 1993, he returned to Paris, where he worked as Variety's film critic, and published articles on French culture and politics for American, British, French, and Canadian magazines, including The Observer, The Times of London, Harper's Bazaar, Interview, Allure, and Mother Jones. To research The Perfect Heresy, O'Shea moved to Perpignan in southern France in 1997, where he spent two years immersing himself in Cathar lore. In addition to The Perfect Heresy, O'Shea is also the author of the widely acclaimed Back to the Front (Walker & Company, 1997), a hiker's meditation on the trenches of World War I. Stephen O'Shea currently lives with his wife, Jill Pearlman, and two daughters in Providence, Rhode Island.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 14, 2011

    Gripping tale of pointless slaughter

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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