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Back To The Front P [Paperback]

Stephen Oshea
2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1 1997

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. On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, armed only with a backpack, a compass and a silver hip flask, Stephen O'Shea set out to walk the trenches of the Western Front. In this account of his 750-kilometre trek, he brings a refreshing sensibility to bear on the peculiar countryside that was once no man's land. Travelling in the company of barking dogs, voluble village eccentrics and the ghosts of battles long past, he seeks a forgotten sense of history and a link to the grandfathers -- both Irish soldiers in the Great War -- he never knew.

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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.

From Booklist

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.

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2.0 out of 5 stars back to the front April 1 2002
Stephen O'Shea is irritatingly self-rightous. O'Shea's historical references to the war and modern France were very jugdmental. I understand the book is a travel journal but, if you are going judge a major historical event such the WWI, one should not just scratch the surface of it.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Stephen O'Shea is irritatingly self-rightous. O'Shea's historical references to the war and modern France were very jugdmental. I understand the book is a travel journal but, if you are going judge a major historical event such the WWI, one should not just scratch the surface of it.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  68 reviews
42 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deeply Moving Dec 2 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
I loved this book. I spent 30 years in the British Army and walked these battlefields many times. To those who know little of war, it is easy to dismiss this author's ideas. But to those of us who have direct experience of military stupidity, the kind of leadership that wastes lives, the kind of foolishness that the common soldier rises above, the author's words ring true. The description of the Western Front is beautifully done and over all this book is quite exceptional.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written book; a pleasure to read Sept. 27 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
An incredibly well written journal of the author's walk along WWI's Western Front. O'Shea doesn't pretend to be a historian, and makes no bones about being a pacifist who distrusts the military. He stumbles upon his interest in the Great War, when a friend takes him to the former front, and the author is shocked to see the land still shows the ravages of the war, 70 years earlier.
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.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Well-Done Dec 9 1999
By Mel Kipner - Published on Amazon.com
An excellently written, thoughtful, and sometimes passionate. I do not accept the author's personal view completely, but he is a sincere observer and a skilled writer. A highly recommended book.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This is an excellent book with almost poetic phrasing. Sept. 15 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
O'Shea doesn't really claim to be a historian. He is a guy who visited the Somme with some friends and was so blown away by the visible scars left by a long ago war that he chose to study the war and then return to look at the sights - as up close and insightfully as anyone I have read. As a retired Marine and amateur military historian, I bridled a little at the pacifist views that seemed to be hailing from an unreconstructed 60s perspective. But he is right about the generals of that war. They were unable to understand the war and their responsibilities. Too many of the sacrifices made by the soldiers of that war WERE needless - complaints about O'Shea's perspective introduced by some reviewers don't make the facts any less real. O'Shea's insight helps bring the war into much better focus. O'Shea's best contribution is the magic of his phrasing. He uses the English language as beautifully as anyone writing. I read the book with a highlighter to identify turns of phrase that deserve to be memorialized. I kept thinking, "Damn, I wish I'd written this." O'Shea is a writer. I hope he keeps doing it
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly a 5 Star Read March 30 2006
By Ozark Trail Outrider - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Can't remember what possessed me to read this book, but I have never regretted it and given many copies of it as gifts. This book is really a bit of a travelogue in many respects. The author walks from one end of the Western Front (WWI) to the other and his engaging, journal style narrative brings you along for a fascinating ride.

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.
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