Back to the Front

An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I

1996

Critical Reaction

Booklist (US) (1997):

With this ambulant meditation and protest against militarism, O’Shea has created a high-stature addition to the classic works about the Great War.

Darlington Northern Echo (UK) (1997):

The fusion of past and present works very well and O’Shea’s delight in the odd and offbeat — at one point he asks for drink at a roadside truck, to be offered “champagne, brut or demi-sec” — points up, rather than diminishes the horror and pathos of long ago. In the Bill Bryson mould of travel writing — and just as illuminating and enjoyable.

Forbes (US) (1997):

This is not military history. Rather, it is the past as seen through the eyes of a curious traveler, refreshingly aware of his failings and the irony of his surroundings. After a rainy, mud-soaked day of crawling through war pits in the Argonne, O’Shea notes: “Two young women on my way out of town look at me as if I were the Antichrist. I really should buy a hairbrush.” A french-fry truck outside of Reims offers only Coke and Champagne as beverages. The best restaurant in the town of Ste. Menehould sells nothing but pigs’feet.

For O’Shea World War I did not just spark the many political changes that kicked off the 20th century. It marked a turning point in the modern world view, including “the elevation of irony to a standard mode of apprehending the world, the unbuttoning of moral codes and the conscious embrace of the irrational.” Whether you are a dedicated history buff — or a baby boomer who thinks Elvis Presley is ancient history — this is a great read.

Maclean’s (Canada) (1996):

Back to the Front is an account of that journey, enhanced by O’Shea’s wide and varied reading in the period’s military and cultural history. It is extraordinarily fresh and well-written, animated by the author’s caustic intelligence and his tireless outrage against the generals who, as he sees it, threw away the lives of thousands in pointless open-ground attacks against artillery and machine-guns (in the 1916 Battle of the Somme, 20,000 in the British army lost their lives in a few hours). O’Shea is hardly the first to make this criticism. But what is most compelling about his re-creations of the great battles is the way he interweaves them with the landscape of today. Everywhere he looks, O’Shea discovers absurdity, as though the assembly-line slaughter had undermined the meaningfulness of human life right down to the present. On the same ground where thousands died, the regimented tedium of suburbia plods on as, “family men stand in their plot of no-man’s land, washing their cars in the driveways of model homes that resemble oversized shoe boxes topped with steep circumflex accents. It is Sunday morning and this is purgatory.”

The Virginian-Pilot (1997):

Fascination, engaging and informative, a readable and provocative commentary on the Great War and its memory.

Library Journal (USA) (1997):

What does emerge from his narrative is a shocking description of what happened on the battlefields… An engaging and thought-provoking work; recommended for history buffs.

Dallas Morning News (1997):

The Canadian writer walked the 450 miles that made up the front — from Belgium to the Swiss border — and tells of how the past still affects the present. He has written a captivating, uncompromising book.

Kirkus Reviews (USA) (1997):

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.

The Chronicle-Journal (Canada) (1996):

Though everyone should read this book, not everyone will be able to. Too many people have grown up knowing only the photographs of people who died in this war, and too many people will find themselves horrified by the descriptions of how their uncles and grandfathers died. But still, this book should be read. Lest we forget.

The Sun Times (Canada) (1996):

An engaging combination of candid first-person travel writing and absorbing historical narrative, Back to the Front is bound to infuriate the legions of Great War devotees he met on his way. It’s an anti-war book just as All Quiet on the Western Front is an anti-war film.

Back to the Front is about shadows of battles long past. Wherever he walks, O’Shea finds the remains: rusted wire, time-bleached bottles, shells, rotting bits of leather, musty trenches. This is not a book for war buffs. Just the opposite. It is a reminder of what those trenches represent, “the futility of war, the failure of a civilization, the birth of the modern.” The company O’Shea keeps as he walks are the silent ghosts of the dead.

The Edmonton Journal (1996):

[an] exceptionally well-written book… Stephen O’Shea, a Toronto native who has written widely for magazines, combines the linguistic cleverness of a Lawrence Durrell with the sharp acumen of a Paul Theroux to produce a highly readable account of his own “foot-slog” through 700 kilometres of Western Front trenches.