Books Noted

This is not meant to be a formal or, certainly, comprehensive review of recent books on the Great War. In fact, few of the notes will be full reviews – although I will certainly consider writing full reviews if publishers send me review copies (hint mode off). Basically, I just wanted to point out some of the interesting books I come across in the course of things. If you have any suggestions for books that should be featured in this section, please contact me through the email form on this site.

 


Bull, Stephen. Trench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front. Oxford: Osprey, 2010. 272 p. $19.95   See This Book

From the Belgian city of Nieuport on the coast of the English Channel to the Swiss border, just a few miles west of where the Rhine crosses the frontier, a web of trenches had been established along a crooked, 475-mile-long line by the end of 1914. Counting multiple lines – firing, second-line, reserve and communication trenches on both sides of No Man’s Land – an estimated 25,000 miles of trenches were dug and used from late 1914 until the final breakout in 1918 on the Western Front. As statistic military defense lines, as well as points from which attacks were launched, these trenches became – and remain, still – the iconic element of the Great War.

Despite their importance, both militarily and as an enduring image of that war, few details about the trenches have entered popular literature. Wet, muddy, rat-infested, yes, that is understood, but who dug them and how? Were they just raw slashes in the landscape? How did men live, eat and sleep in them while waiting for the next assault (or attack by the enemy)? More than that, why did the Great War lend itself to this new type of warfare?

As Curator of Military History and Archaeology for Lancashire Museums, Stephen Bull is particularly qualified to answer these questions, providing a detailed description of the history, engineering, military design, use and even sociology of trench warfare. First, he points out, that the war was originally intended to be one of rapid maneuver, and only devolved into static lines when the German attack was slowed and then blocked by British, French and Belgian forces. Far from being an innovation, the use of trenches dates back many centuries and their modern design was developed from lessons learned during the American Civil War and the Boer War, in which they were used extensively.

More than just muddy ditches, trenches were carefully designed and constructed, with features that allowed front-line troops to effective defend themselves and mass for attacks against the enemy. Bull’s descriptions, supplemented by photographs (both contemporary to the war and of modern trench reconstructions), line drawings and maps, reveal the details of trench warfare on the Western Front. Published in association with the Imperial War Museums, Trench fills an important gap in the literature of the war.

[December 23, 2015]

 


firstworldwar.com

Web sites offer a great resource for people who are interested in the history of the Great War. They are as varied in scope and quality as published books, which isn’t surprising, but unlike traditionally ink-on-paper publications, they can be updated frequently. This web site, firstworldwar.com, is a personal project of Michael Duffy and it is a gem. Although Mr. Duffy states on the main page that it is not an academic site, the range and quality of information and resources is extraordinarily valuable. Definitely worth bookmarking and checking in frequently.

[August 20, 2014]

 


Mayhew, Emily. Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 275 p. $22.19   See This Book

It can be easy to become caught up in the casualty statistics of the war: this number of British wounded at the Battle of the Frontiers, versus that number of Germans, or the war total wounded for each nation (many figures obviously only estimated and, awfully, rounded to the nearest thousand). As with all statistics, they obscure the suffering of individuals. Ms Mayhew, a Research Associate at Imperial College, avoids this trap. Instead, she provides a series of revealing descriptions of individual experiences on the Western Front. They are not just stories of the wounded, but of people filling all the roles in the system that developed to deal with the huge number of wounded. As stretcher-bearers, regimental medical officers, surgeons, nurses, orderlies, chaplains and staff members on the ambulance trains, railway stations and ambulance columns, each person’s story fills out the picture of how the British dealt with the numbers of wounded throughout the war. Highly recommended.

[August 1, 2014]

 

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