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Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I Paperback – May 1 1997

1.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 218 pages
  • Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre; 1st pbk. ed edition (May 1 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1550545779
  • ISBN-13: 978-1550545777
  • Product Dimensions: 15.5 x 1.3 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 340 g
  • Average Customer Review: 1.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #905,520 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

About the Author

Stephen O'Shea is a historian and the acclaimed author of Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World, The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars and Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I. Born in Toronto, he now lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and France.

Customer Reviews

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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The title of O'Shea's commentary only serves to highlight his narcism and ostentatious nature of this book. He is neither a "historian," nor happened to become one "accidentally;" both terms are horribly misconstrued to portray his narrative as one of in-depth study on the grounds of moral righteousness, which in fact is not the case.

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.
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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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 (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars 72 reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A travel guide to the horrors of WWI in Europe July 2 1997
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a fascinating combination of a travel guide, synopsis of World War I, and
blistering tirade against the stupidity of military leaders during that war.

When one thinks of France or Belgium, one usually thinks of fine food, a beautiful and
peaceful countryside, and an Old World elegance and culture far removed from the crudity and
barbarism of the rest of the world. When one thinks of a toxic wasteland, so devastated by the
ravages of mankind as to become uninhabitable, one thinks of Chernobyl or the Love Canal, or
Lake Erie, before the cleanup. When one thinks of a landscape of pure horror, still disgorging
the skeletons of the dead slain on that spot, one thinks of the killing fields of Cambodia, or the
mass graves of Babi-Yar or the Katyn woods. When one thinks of an army attacking in massed
human waves, with the resulting slaughter of tens of thousands of soldiers in a single day, one
thinks of the Communist Chinese in Korea, or the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980's.

In fact, as this book demonstrates in its truly unique way, the countryside of Belgium and
France was and still is all of these things.

As a travel guide, the book takes the reader to the places in France and Belgium that formed
the entire length of the Western Front of WWI. These are for the most part little traveled and
little known to the usual tourists to Europe, and definitely not the first thing to come to mind when
most people think of traveling to France or Belgium. It is easy to imagine that after eighty years,
nature would have healed the scars inflicted upon the countryside of France and Belgium by
World War I, and yet there it is in this book, descriptions of places in both countries where even
today, unexploded artillery shells and the bones of soldiers from the Great War continue to
emerge from the earth, to be casually stacked at the roadside by farmers for pick up by the
authorities. In Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium is a gigantic unexploded mine still left over from
the 1917 Passchendaele offensive; a second mine had exploded in 1955. In France there are
the "Zones Rouge" that remain so heavily filled with unexploded ordinance and so deeply
cratered that they remain uninhabitable. And then there are the endless numbers of military
cemeteries and memorials all along the length of the former Western Front. Most horrific of all
are the gigantic ossuaries around Verdun. The author writes: (p.163) "At the base of the beacon
is an ossuary containing the remains of 150,000 soldiers whose blasted skeletons were found
scattered around the vicinity after the war. You can walk around inside the base, peering
through the windows at the heaps of bones piled high. Femurs go with femurs, tibias with tibias,
skulls with skulls, and so on. Off in the woods, wild boars dig up unrecovered skeletal parts and
make a meal."

The author's retelling of the events of World War I blends seemlessly with the tour through
the present day landscape. It is a rather simplified account, boiled down to one thesis, that
World War I was an endless string of military stupidity of such magnitude as to be beyond
comprehension. An example: (p.129) "The Ypres campaign ended in the ghastly slime of
Passchendaele. Now...perhaps the true scale of the crime can be better understood. Field
Marshal Haig advocated frontal assaults, devoid of surprise, in the rain and the mud of the
Salient, and even spoke of his cavalry breaking through into the open country. He promoted
these tactics after the Chemin des Dames, after Verdun, after the Somme, after Loos, after
Neuve Chappelle, after the Kindermord at Langemarck. It is astonishing that his name did not
become a verb meaning "to learn nothing"."

The author leaves a great many things unsaid, however. In reading the book, swirling along
with the time travel of the author, one cannot but help but link the events of World War I with
later events. The author, a devout pacifist, leaves one large wormhole unexplored in his time
travels. From his retelling, it is apparent that a great many of the surviving soldiers, like his
grandfathers, became confirmed pacifists as a result of the horrors of the war. And yet, there
were many others, like Corporal Adolf Hitler, who drew the opposite conclusion; that yes, there
were military blunders, but the answer was not to avoid war next time, but to do it right the next

The endless suicidal human wave attacks of the European forces during World War I would
seem to be utterly inexplicable to modern-day Western thinking, with our emphasis on the value
of each individual human life. And so, conveniently, we have forgotten that it occurred at all,
and have also forgotten that this senseless slaughter was brought about entirely by the strategy
and tactics of military leaders who were given carte blanche to run the war as they saw fit.
Remember that, next time anyone tries to compare the Vietnam War with the Gulf War - the
moral of that story was not that military leaders should be given control of military operations,
free of constraint by political leaders. The real moral is that military leaders usually try to re-fight
the last war, hoping to do better the next time. Sometimes the lessons of the last war turn out to
be useful for the next war, as it was in the Gulf War. Sometimes the lessons of the last war, in
this case the war of 1870 between France and Germany, turn out to be hopelessly out of date.

In thinking about all this, I have this theory that the real reason for warfare in
modern times is no longer territorial gain, but simply that modern societies with an expanding
population of young males need to periodically explode off a big chunk of this population.
Otherwise the excess numbers of these young males, with their inborn drive for establishing
primacy through conquest, become too much of a societal burden. Witness the problems that
modern Western societies are having today with gangs ("hooligans" in Europe). Gangs never
seem to be a problem during a major war; the potential gangsters are all in the army, and put to
work killing each other in a socially acceptable fashion. Maybe there really is a reason for
massively stupid military leaders to exist after all.

One final link to modern day events. In this book are descriptions of endless numbers of
monuments and plaques scattered throughout Europe with the inscriptions of hundreds of
thousands of names of the individuals - husbands, fathers, brothers, sons - who died in the
battles of World War I. At one time, it was very important to a great many people that these
monuments be put up and that the names of those killed in battle be engraved into stone or
metal and thus be remembered for posterity. Eighty years later, as the last of the living
memories of World War I die out, hardly anyone visits these graves, and no on grieves over the
inscribed names on the monuments. And I think then also of the Vietnam Memorial in
Washington, D.C. What a sad thought.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History is too important to leave to historians Jan. 27 2007
By ExampleMarkTwain - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The book provides a poet's view of World War I, delivering a powerful and refreshing perspective on a story too often dehumanized by political and battle details.

Perhaps elderly generals unfamiliar with newly industrialized warfare could be forgiven for marching men into machine guns the first time... or the second... or third -- but, as O'Shea so exquisitely describes, it happened again and again for the entire course of the war, and yet the generals learned nothing. But the soldiers in the field knew what pointless inevitable doom awaited them, as revealed by O'Shea's poignant quotes of period poetry and letters. And all for a war that did little more than set up even more vicious battles of 20 years later.

In the end O'Shea's book is not about the war, troop movements, politics, or nationalities, but about something much more spooky and universal: the human spirit, and what it leaves behind. We need haunted authors like O'Shea to report to us from the field from which the echoes of old mortar blasts never fully fade...

5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book Feb. 29 2016
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Great Book!
18 of 31 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Mr. O'SHea is no historian Oct. 14 2004
By Colin Povey - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a difficult book to review. I liked many parts of it, and Mr. O'Shea is a very good writer. It's unique, as I have never found another book where the author walked the entire front line of WWI, from the beach at the English Channel to the Swiss Alps.

I hated many parts of it. The author is not a pacifist, as many have described him. He is, without question, the most vehemently anti-military person I have ever heard of. As far as I can tell, Mr. O'Shea thinks everyone in a uniform (including the Boy Scouts and Salvation Army) has a single-digit IQ, while WWI generals had IQ's below that of amoebas.

Mr. O'Shea is the biggest hypocrite I have ever run into-most politicians are rank amateurs by comparison. Mr. O'Shea, a Canadian of Irish background, enjoys living in France, making a living writing for American and British magazines. I seriously doubt that he would enjoy it as much if France was run by people in feldgrau uniforms and pointy helmets (WWI Germans) or if French culture today included saluting flags with swastikas. Yet this is what would have happened if the `morons' (his word, not mine) in the military hadn't beat the Germans twice in the last century.

The book would have been far more enjoyable if his anti-military diatribe wasn't repeated page-after-page-after-page-after-page. In fact, it's hard to find a page in which his personal views are not repeated again and again. And that includes the appendices! And that's the real problem, they are his opinions, not facts, and are not based on the result of learned analysis.

It's obvious that he does not REALLY understand the plight of WWI generals. One hundred years before, at Waterloo (the last major European war before WW I), Wellington and Napoleon both had about 70,000 men and could see and control the entire battle from atop a hill. Thirty years later, WWII generals had radios, reliable spotter aircraft, and other methods of seeing and controlling a battle that stretched many miles beyond his view. WWI generals were in a bad time in history. Weapons were much more deadly than they had been 100 years before, and the range at which they could cause damage had expanded greatly. Machine guns, used extensively for the first time, had swung the battlefield decisively in favor of the defense. High explosive artillery-the cause of more than 60% of the injuries in battles-was much improved in WWI as compared to the common iron shot of Napoleon's day. Armies and battlefields were much larger-at the Battle of the Somme, the allies alone suffered more than a million causalities and used almost 100 divisions. Yet the ability of generals to control battles had not kept pace. Portable radios did not exist, identical signal flares were used by both sides, and phone wires broke as soon as battles started. So what was a general to do? They relied on runners and carrier pigeons (yep, carrier pigeons) to carry messages. This meant that messages often took hours and hours to reach them, if they reached them at all (being a runner was very dangerous-Adolf Hitler spent much of WWI as a runner and was hospitalized three times), and were thus useless to stopping an advance or changing the point of attack. So, generals planned battles, and then had to hope for the best. The generals had the technology to kill, but not control.

Nowhere does Mr. O'Shea bring this up. He never mentions the difficulties that the generals faced. He acts as though the generals were the coldest, cruelest, dumbest people on the earth, and did not care how many people died in battle.

What I hoped I got when I purchased this book was, at least in part, a listing of where and how to best see WWI battle fields, a description of the current appearance of WWI battlefields, where to see real and/or recreated trenches (if they exist) and the like. What I got was a sounding board for a complete and total hypocrite, one who enjoys the fruits of victory while condemning and demeaning those who achieved it.
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Well-Done Dec 9 1999
By Mel Kipner - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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.