BACK TO THE FRONT by Stephen O’Shea


An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I
Email this review


 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 (Armentiäres, 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 PÇtain). 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. (maps)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-8027-1329-7
Page count: 216pp
Publisher: Walker
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1997


NonfictionTHE ALPS by Stephen O’Shea
by Stephen O’Shea
NonfictionTHE FRIAR OF CARCASSONNE by Stephen O’Shea
by Stephen O’Shea
NonfictionSEA OF FAITH by Stephen O’Shea
by Stephen O’Shea


NonfictionSOMME by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
NonfictionFIRE AND MOVEMENT by Peter Hart
by Peter Hart