A Book Review: Back to the Front by Stephen O’Shea

With Back to the Front Stephen O’Shea has written a very interesting, non-fiction book that crosses a variety of genres. It is a travel book, a personal journey, and an anecdotal history of World War I. Instead suffering from a staggering number of facts, Back to the Front provides historical information on a more personal, more immediate level. It is the story of the Western Front; it is also the story of discovering that story. Back to the Front tells the story of what O’Shea experienced while walking the route of the World War I trench lines from Nieuport, Belgium to the Swiss border 450 miles to the south and east.

Throughout the summer of 1986 O’Shea walked through the length of the infamous no man’s land that separated the German Army and the Allied Armies from 1914 through 1918. During his journey O’Shea recorded his thoughts, and collected bits of information and scraps of memories not only of his journey, but of the First World War and its impact and relationship to its future, our present day. He augments these with detailed research not only of the battles of World War I, but with information of other wars that allows the reader to make comparisons with events he or she may be familiar with.

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O’Shea wrote Back to the Front in a simple, easy to read style. He seems to anticipate the reader’s experience and provide resolution to difficulties the reader may have. When he enters Ypres, that difficult to spell and harder to pronounce city in Belgium, O’Shea provides the pronunciation for the reader: ee-pruh; and provides an interesting anecdote where he claims the English occupying forces struggled with the same difficult and decided to call it “Wipers” (O’Shea, 31).
Back to the Front relates not only the details of his physical journey highlighted with interesting and amusing anecdotes, it provides graphic details of the enormity of the war. Some of these facts are staggering. To the Boomers whose primary war experience is Vietnam with its approximate fifty thousand United States troops killed and to later generations that have seen 3,000+ American deaths in Iraq, it is difficult to internalize how the French could have had 210,000 soldiers killed in the month of August 1914. Such tragic losses were not unusual in the Great War.
Time and again the military leadership of France and England ordered soldiers forward in open attacks on the well entrenched German soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of men were killed as they bravely, but foolishly followed their orders. O’Shea tells of a German officer who described the British soldiers as “lions led by donkeys” (O’Shea, 30). Stephen O’Shea is a Canadian writer and journalist who has lived in Paris since the early 1980s. Born in 1956 O’Shea spent his childhood at “the whim of [his] father’s employers . . . bopping from city to town to city every two or thee years” (O’Shea, 3).
Consequently he is like many members of the generation that lacks roots because of the mobility the automobile provided to North American families in the Twentieth Century. Previous to his walk across Europe, O’Shea had visited the site Battle of the Somme and had become aware just how little impact the “war to end all wars appeared to have on his generation, the Baby Boomers. O’Shea tries to overcome the attitude common to members of all generations that his generation is somehow special and that the experiences previous generations were of limited value and should be ignored and dismissed “. . .
as a sort of tedious overture humanity had to endure before the real divas stepped on stage” (O’Shea, 2). He tries to overcome the attitude that “[i]f a thing is history, it is a loser. Been there, done that, let’s move on” (O’Shea, 1). What results is not a just history although one certainly learns history, nor is it just a travel book that describes far away places for the armchair traveler to enjoy. Back to the Front is the story of not only O’Shea’s walk through the trenches, but it is the story of the Baby Boomer generation searching for its place in the world, but searching for its place in history.
Undoubtedly, O’Shea’s book is not unique, perhaps not even special, it is a book, about a generation’s search for its place in history. However it is a good book and a thoughtful book that should be read not only by Baby Boomers, but later generations as well when these generations approach middle age and are trying to locate their place in the past, present, and future. Works Cited O’Shea, Stephen. Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I. New York: Walker and Company,1996.

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