Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I

Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I

Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I

Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I


World War I is beyond the memory of almost everyone alive today. Yet it has left as deep a scar on the imaginative landscape of our century as it has on the land where it was fought. Nowhere is that more evident than on the Western Front—the sinuous, deadly line of trenches that stretched from the coast of Belgium to the border of France and Switzerland, a narrow swath of land in which so many million lives were lost. For journalist Stephen O'Shea, the legacy of the Great War is personal (both his grandfathers fought on the front lines) and cultural. Stunned by viewing the "immense wound" still visible on the battlefield of the Somme, and feeling that "history is too important to be left to the professionals," he set out to walk the entire 450 miles through no-man's-land to discover for himself and for his generation the meaning of the war. Back to the Front is a remarkable combination of vivid history and opinionated travel writing. As his walk progresses, O'Shea recreates the shocking battles of the Western Front, many now legendary—Passchendaele, the Somme, the Argonne, Verdun—and offers an impassioned perspective on the war, the state of the land, and the cultivation of memory. His consummate skill with words and details brings alive the players, famous and faceless, on that horrific stage, and makes us aware of why the Great War, indeed history itself, still matters. An evocative fusion of past and present, Back to the Front will resonate, for all who read it, as few other books on war ever have.


"I went back to the Front."

My dinner companion frowned slightly. He'd asked the simple, classic question -- what did you do last summer? -- and the answer he received was a puzzle. Now he'd have to play along.

"What front?" he said at last.

"The Western Front."

He nodded, relieved to have heard something vaguely familiar. "Is that like the Maginot Line?"

"Close," I said helpfully. "But you've got the wrong war." We ate in silence for a few instants. I could almost hear the wheels spin: Western Front, Western Front . . .



His sunny California countenance creased in embarrassment. Here he was, a fellow freelancer in Paris, and some major European conflict had escaped his notice. What if he could interview me, get an assignment out of it? What if he could write our meal off as a research expense?

I relented. "The Western Front . . . All Quiet . . . the trenches . . . World War I . . ."

He almost spat a mouthful of couscous at me. "World War I," he said witheringly. "That's history!"

Ah yes, the ultimate put-down. a Baby Boomer lowering the boom. If a thing is history, it is a loser. Been there, done that, let's move on.

I felt bad for spoiling a pleasant conversation, because I knew that mentioning history in some company betrays a serious character flaw, like torturing canaries in your spare time. I understood his contempt: I too had started life with the view that history was something that began as a . . .

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