A somber portrait of early modern war in one of its most hellish manifestations.
Best known for the novel Forrest Gump (1986), Groom is also a seasoned writer on historical subjects (Shrouds of Glory, 1995, etc.). The present study brings us little that other histories do not—Stanley Weintraub’s recent Silent Night, for instance, focuses on the famed Christmas truce of 1914, while John Keegan’s The First World War gives extensive coverage on the Ypres Salient—but it relates the terrible events of four years with fluency and sometimes unpleasant vividness. From Groom we learn that a single 1917 battle along the Belgian front “enriched the Flanders earth with the corpses of some 228,000 Englishmen and Germans, not to mention about 20,000 French, all in an area not much longer than Manhattan Island.” He adds that we still do not have an accurate number of total deaths in the Ypres area, and that statisticians can only posit the true, and staggering, extent of the bloodshed. All those corpses over four years lent the trenches on both sides an infernal aspect, which Groom evokes with well-chosen quotes from the combatants: a Canadian soldier relates that the “whole salient had an odor beyond description,” which does not stop Groom from doing his best to describe the smells, sights, and sounds of a battle that seemed to go on forever. (Another Canadian soldier, John Macrae, wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields,” the Ypres front’s best-known literary monument.) Groom’s account, full of detail and the smell of gunsmoke, is expertly paced and free of dull stretches, unlike more technical studies of the Ypres Salient: he knows just when enough is enough, when it’s time to pull his lens from close-ups of hand-to-hand fighting and exploding Germans up to the big picture of Ypres in the overall context of WWI.
A fine narrative that will be of much interest to students of military history.