Edited by John Bickersteth (Vanwell, 332pages, $52.50)
In Back to the Front, his engaging book about walking the old killing grounds of the First World War, Stephen O’Shea recounts a story that captures the now scarcely credible innocence with which Europe went to war in 1914.
He describes how early in the conflict—before it had settled into the murderous stalemate of trench warfare—a British officer told a sergeant to post four lookouts to watch for the German army, which was advancing through Belgium. Later, the officer discovered that the sergeant had posted only three. Asked to explain his lapse, the soldier said he had judged a fourth guard unnecessary. “The enemy would hardly come from that direction,” he explained, “it’s private property.”
Four years and 10 million dead later, the
cozy, moralistic view behind those words had been shattered forever. If the modern world had a single birthplace, it was in the bloodbath of the trenches. Men signed up in a fervor of patriotism, with the conviction that God was on their side. But by the war’s end, thousands of disillusioned survivors carried their cynicism like an acid into the heart of society, where it rapidly created a revolution in everything from moral standards to art and literature. O’Shea, a Canadian journalist working in Paris, sees himself as an inheritor of the postwar sensibility. His Irish grandfathers had fought in the British army, and although both survived, they inculcated the family with, as O’Shea puts it, “a family animus [to militarism] that verged on the fanatical.” Yet he himself had always felt remote from the Great War until, early in the 1980s, he made a trip to the scene of one of the battles and was moved by the scars still visible in the landscape. Over the next 10 years, he slipped away from Paris whenever he could to hike along the sinuous line of the trenches, which stretched 750 km from the Belgian coast to Switzerland.
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 wellwritten, animated by the author’s caustic in-
telligence and his tireless outrage against 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.” Nothing could be further from O’Shea’s bitter, often mordantly funny narrative than The Bickersteth Diaries. The writer is Ella Bickersteth, the wife of a Church of England canon, four of whose six sons served on the Western Front. Two of them—Julian, an Anglican chaplain, and Burgon, a cavalry officer and machine-gunner—were indefatigable correspondents. Their letters, incorporated into the diary by their mother, form the bulk of this fascinating view of life in the trenches.
The Bickersteths were very much an Establishment family, who entered the war out of a vigorous sense of duty, and a corresponding hatred of “the Boche.” But after only a year of burying the dead, accompanying deserters to their executions, and attempting to comfort shell-shocked, ruined men, Julian lamented: “The whole thing is utterly devilish and the work of all the demons of hell. It will take generations to eradicate the evils done to civilization by it. I feel that our whole moral outlook is being systematically lowered.” Burgon was also revolted and yet, at the same time, he could not entirely suppress his youthful exuberance at the great adventure. In 1918, when the Germans finally broke and ran, he enthusiastically described how, as his unit gave chase on horseback, “tanks by the score were snorting along beside the cavalry.” A great admirer of the Canadian troops he met, Burgon emigrated to Canada after the war. For 26 years, he served as a popular and highly effective warden of Hart House at the University of Toronto. Largely as a result of their war experiences, both brothers became socialists. And when he retired to England in 1947, Burgon began a second career visiting prisoners. Unlike many too broken or bitter to care, the Bickersteths salvaged something of their Christian idealism from the conflict. But as with O’Shea’s soldier grandfathers, their trust in the established order had been broken for good.
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