Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I Paperback – May 1 1997
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From 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 month?only 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 a 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.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
In places the Western Front still slashes across Belgium and France, visible among the cemeteries, ossuaries, and monuments as grassy, cratered terrain, zig-zagging trenches, crumbling pillboxes and forts. O'Shea, while working in publishing trenches in Paris, grew curious about the war's physical aftermath, and in several trips gathered his observations for this sensitively nuanced tour. For preparation, he steeped himself in the war's history and got reacquainted with the trench experience of his two Irish grandfathers. Both motifs contribute to the book's structure, which unfolds geographically as O'Shea hoofs it from the sea to Switzerland, encountering formerly muddy slaughterhouses euphemized as Ypres, the Somme, or Verdun. At each battle area O'Shea summarizes what generals hoped would happen and how they seemingly never learned from what did happen, a mulish obstinacy that palpably angers him. His contemporary vignettes vividly animate the trip, as do his reflections about the meaning of monument making. With this ambulant meditation and protest against militarism, O'Shea has created a high-stature addition to the classic works about the Great War. Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
What one should note before considering reading this book (if you must) is it does not propose profound new insights as O'Shea may lead you to believe. O'Shea has reduced the complex and horrific war, and its major actors, to a simple morality play to fuel his self-conceived smugness of what constitutes the "truth." This is especially evident when he constantly lambasts situations in his travel through Europe, where the locals 'just don't seem to understand' the depth of horror that occurred beneath their feet several decades ago.
Mr. O'Shea, (I am glad I do not have to write "Dr." as I would feel horrified knowing my history professors have to share a title of distinction with you) contemplating the depravity of World War I is certainly an insightful moment for one's moral character, but such contemplation is demeaned when you cry crocodile tears of how no one seems to feel compelled to "study" the Western Front as you do.
To even have the audacity to state "I disagree" in response to a veteran's statement of "Nobody learned anything from the war," as if you hold the one biblical-like truth is an insult to the veteran's statement; it was individuals with the mentality of complete and utter confidence in their narrative that perpetuated World War Mr. O'Shea. We grow as a people when we become less condescending of the past, and so reassured in our present superiority.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
He is an avowed Baby Boomer, whose mindset must have been shaped by living in a peaceful time and when it was normal to look at authority in a negative light. However, even with his pacifist views, his conclusions about WWI are right on the mark. To those who know anything about the history of WWI, like it or not, O'Shea places the blame on the old world generals who allowed their men to be slaughtered and never changed their strategy. Some have read the book and come away feeling that O'Shea holds the men who fought it in contempt. I found completely the opposite, as he mentions several times how few war memorials commemorate the real heroes of the War, the men in the trenches. But because he feels that their lives were wasted in a meaningless conflict, it is natural to come away with the feeling that he is painting all in uniform with the same brush.
His anti-military, pacifist views DO get a little heavy at times, but in all, I found this book to be: poetic in nature; always interesting; and an excellent companion to all who are interested in WWI history as well as those who simply enjoy literate discourse.
Seeing how other readers have found his pacifism impossible to deal with, I noted several times in the book how he almost purposely avoids mentioning WWII. There are several spots when he mentions areas prominent in both wars, namely the Argonne forest. References to WWII are not made, although you'd think they were there for the making. His only fleeting remarks refer to his dismay upon noting Jewish-German graves, saying that these men died in service to a country that would work to exterminate their ancestors only 20 years later.
It might be that O'Shea believes WWII to be a more justified war. While there were still debacles, the Allies certainly showed more concern for their men than they did in WWI. But who knows; maybe O'Shea will surprise me a come out with a diatribe against WWII as well.
After spending decades walking battlefields of the American Civil War, I found it intriguing to follow O'Shea's journey through the terrible battlefields of the War to End all wars. His experiences as he traverses ordnance and relic filled trenches and forests to the many memorials are really insightful and differ greatly from the kind of lionization of American Civil War battlefields that is so prevalent today.
In fact, the battlefields of the Great War seem to lie in a wierd sort of isolation. O'Shea frequently stumbles upon long deserted villages (this in the heart of Europe) and the experience is discomforting. And this is perhaps as it should be. These tortured fields of the Western Front were the scene of the greatest mass slaughter of armed humanity the world has yet experienced. Indeed, his journey and experiences are in fact lighter and more sanguine than dark and despairing.
O'Shea never strays too far in over-moralizing the futility of war, but of course the evidence he encounters conveys the true waste of war more than written words ever can.
I would like to have walked with O'Shea and in rereads of this excellent book, do so frequently.