Authors: Stephen O'Shea
An Accidental Historian Walks
the Trenches of World War 1
Copyright © 1996 by Stephen O'Shea
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from
Originally published in Canada by Douglas & Mclntyre in 1996; this edition published by Walker Publishing Company, Inc., in
hardcover in 1997 and in paperback in 2001.
Grateful acknowledgment is made for the assistance of the Canada Council and of the British Columbia Ministry of Tourism,
Small Business and Culture.
Excerpts from the following are reprinted with permission:
The Russian Album
by Michael Ignatieff. Copyright © 1987 by Michael Ignatieff. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books
Good-bye to All That
by Robert Graves, reprinted by permission of A. P. Watt Ltd. on behalf of the Trustees of the Robert Graves Copyright Trust;
by Rupert Brooke reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd.;
Tender Is the Night
by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Copyright 1933, 1934 Charles Scribner's Sons. Copyright renewed © 1961, 1962 by Frances Scott Fitzgerald
Lanahan. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster,
The Ghost Road
by Pat Barker. Copyright © 1995 by Pat Barker. Used by permission of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.;
The Lost Voices of World
War I: An International Anthology of Writers, Poets and Playwrights,
edited by Tim Cross.
Copyright © 1990 by Tim Cross. Used by permission of the University of Iowa Press.
Every reasonable care has been taken to trace ownership of copyrighted material.
Information that will enable the publishers to rectify any reference or credit is welcome.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Back to the front: an accidental historian walks the trenches of World War I/Stephen O'Shea.
Originally published: Vancouver: Douglas & Mclntyre, 1997.
ISBN 0-8027-1329-7 (hardcover: alk. paper)
1. World War, 1914-1918—Campaigns—Western Front. 2. O'Shea, Stephen—Journeys—Europe. 3. Battlefields—Europe—History
eISBN 978-0-802-71909-6 (paperback)CIP
Original book edited by Barbara Pulling
Maps by Scott Blair, Mitchell Feinberg, and DesignGeist
Typeset by Brenda and Neil West, BN Typographies West
Printed in Canada
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
To my parents
1111111 the trenches of
" 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 . . .
. . . The trenches . . . World War I . . ."
He almost spat a mouthful of couscous at me. "World War I," he said witheringly. "That's history!"
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
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 test pattern on a TV screen. Nothing of much importance had occurred before then.
Moses, Christ, Columbus,
The Wizard of Oz
maybe, but nothing that could possibly rival the broadcast here and now.
In that we were not entirely unusual. Every generation is said to dismiss the experience of its predecessors as a sort of
tedious overture humanity had to endure before the real divas stepped onstage. Ignoring, even forgetting, the past is much
better than the alternative: being trapped by it, condemned to viewing current events as recurring events and thus fighting
the same old feuds and wasting time in learning how and whom to hate. "History,"Joyce had Stephen Dedalus say in
"is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."In my childhood years my peers and I were all fully awake;history wasn't
even the ghost of a dream.
I grew up in North America, physically far from the quaint, the old, and the musty, where a sense of a past had almost been
obliterated in the cause of the new. I write "almost,"because vestiges of an earlier time had managed to survive. If I do
a bit of personal archaeology, I can still hear a playground chant from the very cusp of memory, sung by my older brothers
and me on dusty summer days in I960:
Whistle while you work,
Hitler is a jerk,
Mussolini has no weenie,
Eisenhower has no power,
Diefenbaker is a faker,
Khruschev is a mischief maker.
How this geopolitical version of a Disney ditty got to preschoolers in southern Ontario is not important here. The Diefenbaker
line showed we were Canadians;the Mussolini one, that we were little boys with the usual anxieties. That we judged this doggerel
worthy of our repertoire meant that we had some idea of the enormities that had recently occurred in the adult past. We were
letting intruders into our world away from time.
There were our parents, too. They could always be trusted to inject some cryptic reference into the normal day's round of
weightless novelty. I once reached across the dinner table for an extra helping and was checked by a gentle paternal remark:
"Austria was Hungary, so it took a piece of Turkey."I now know that the line, as playfully political as our rhyme on Khruschev,
refers to the era around the Great War, the incomprehensible adult enormity preceding my father's childhood. At the time,
however, the comment seemed to be just another example of the uncrackable code in which my parents chose to communicate. Like
many children occasionally baffled by their elders, I put down such incidents to their not being me.
And they most definitely weren't. They had emigrated from Ireland in 1949, and were thus bearers of a sensibility at odds
with the budding Boomers in their home. They, or at least their origins, represented History. Of the two main families of
Irish immigrants to the Americas, the clannish keepers of the rebel flame and the clear-eyed seekers of assimilation, my parents
belonged to the latter. Yet the mere fact of their "Irishness"contradicted the don't-look-back ethos reigning in North America
at mid-century. They subverted the here and now simply by being themselves. Through them the reality of another place, Ireland,
with connections, complications, and, however retrograde it seemed, a past that mattered to the present, could not be denied.
No matter how many times we changed the channel, the shadow of something permanent always flickered on the screen.
We O'Sheas were a textbook example of an uprooted nuclear family. A large, extended clan lived inaccessibly across an ocean,
and the whim of my father's employers sent us bopping from city to town to city every two or three years. Toronto, Montreal,
Ottawa, Calgaiy, and a string of smaller towns in southern Ontario—Oshawa, Kingston, St. Thomas, Cornwall — formed the itinerary
of our nomadism. Since there was never a hometown to which we could attach some fleeting identity or loyalty, we developed
a virtual sense of place. It worked well with our approximate sense of time. I never dreamed that the two would come apart
when I glimpsed the Western Front of the First World War. After that moment, the worm of context got into my ahistorical apple.
But not without difficulty, and not as successfully as the worm can penetrate, for better or worse, the overripe fruit of
a European sensibility. Of the First World War I knew, vaguely, that my two Irish grandfathers had gone to France to fight
the Germans for the British. This knowledge only confirmed my customary personal calculus: Europe = Confusing = Irrelevant.
Others conspired to strengthen the notion of an indecipherable world. In late 1963, my second-grade music teacher in Calgary
had her charges at St. Pius X elementary school stomp around a classroom and sing, "We Are Marching to Pretoria."Just why
we little western Canadians were supposed to be enthused about going off to war—in this instance the Boer War of 1899 — is
as confusing to me now as it was then.
Adults were always springing surprises, some of which came from as far out of left field as my father's remark about Turkey.
A week or so before having to feign martial ardour about those impudent South Africans, we were solemnly sent home from school
in the middle of the day because the slain young president of the United States had been a Catholic. We didn't understand,
but we didn't complain, either. A week or so before that, we were instructed to bring big bars of Ivory soap to class. These
we carved into crosses, not out of parochial school piety but out of a yearly duty to change the art table at the back of
the room into a soapy graveyard. The full implications of this grotesque exercise didn't occur to us, just as the macabre
meaning of Halloween may never really dawn on most of us until the very end of life. In fact, November u seemed to be a sequel
to Halloween, only far less fun and far more puzzling. There usually was some sort of poetry reading over the PA system in
the morning, often John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields,"followed by an extended art period, then a recess during which we got
to compare who was wearing the best paper poppy. By eleven o'clock, the kid who had carved the most symmetrical soap headstone
would get to arrange the cemetery in the back of the class. At lunch, all was mercifully forgotten, and this inexplicable
intrusion—what could a "Flanders"possibly be?— into our cocoon would be, in the new sense of the word, history.
Things might have remained at that stage for me, at least with regard to the First World War, had I not been drawn back across
the ocean that my parents had crossed at mid-century. In 1981, I moved to Paris and eked out a picturesque existence teaching
English, subtitling French movies, and writing articles on trends, imaginary and real, for magazines and newspapers. The Boomer
millennium had come and gone in the intervening two decades, and history, despite our reflexive indifference, had not stopped
or ceased to count. From Washington in the mid-1980s came news of a theory grandly known as the End of History, but that turned
out to be nothing more than an ideological chortle over the mounting problems of Communist regimes. The past, with its nightmare
of nationalisms and ethnic hatreds, had stubbornly refused to give up its ghosts.
It was about this time that a friend and I took a winter weekend away from Paris to visit the barren fields of the Somme.
He had let the worm gnaw all the way to the core of his apple: an Ohio Boomer, he had somehow landed up on the Left Bank as
a graduate student of French history. I, fresh from reading an account of the battles of 1916, was the dilettante, out for
a field trip away from the city. Although I had lived for about three years amid the old stones and streets of Paris, I still
thought of history, whenever I did think of it, as something chat happened in books, or, at best, on plaques affixed to buildings.
My undergraduate education, the usual liberal arts mix of literature and history, had led me to believe that the past existed
in the stacks of the university library. My graduate student friend thought otherwise—for him, it seemed to exist on maps.
On the train ride north from Paris to Amiens, and thence to Albert, he unfolded for me a masterwork of anally fixated exactitude
on which he had carefully shaded the positions occupied by the English, German, and French armies on different days in July
of 1916. If we didn't see anything of interest, at least we'd know precisely where we were.
HE FIELDS EAST
of the town of Albert were newly plowed. It was a cold December day, clear and crisp, and no snow lay on the
deep brown earth. We stood on the crest of a long ridge that sloped eastward, down to the village of La Boisselle about half
a mile distant. On each side of La Boisselle there were slight depressions—from the map we knew these sunken fields formed
what the attacking British troops had called Sausage and Mash valleys. From our vantage point atop the ridge, the gently rolling
countryside between the Somme and Ancre Rivers stretched out like a dark rumpled blanket. There was a jagged pattern on it.
In some fields the soil gave way to skittish traces of white, slashes of brilliance against the dun landscape of Picardy in
the winter;in others, the chalk had completely taken over, changing what should have been a long swatch of moist dark earth
to a blinding rectangle of whiteness. We looked at the fields stretching to the horizon in front of us, then back at the map.
Then back at the fields. There was an uncanny similarity between the shading on the one and the splotches on the other. Wherever
the fighting had been heaviest, the shelling hardest—wherever the murderous standoff of trench warfare had taken place—the
ground was bleached with tiny chalk pebbles plowed up from its shattered subsoil.
The earth had not yet recovered from the Great War. This angry band of white, though irregular and intermittent in places,
snaked across the land as far as we could see, as if someone had taken a styptic pencil to an immense wound. The chasm between
us and the past vanished. We were looking at the Western Front.
I was stunned. This slice of history was not the safe, irrelevant stuff that gathers dust in some archive. This was staring
me right in the face. We walked down the hill toward La Boisselle, across the ground, I would later read, where the soldiers
of the Tyneside Irish division marched on the morning of July 1, 1916. Of the 3,000 who left the trenches that day, struggling
under the seventy-five pounds of equipment with which the British army saw fit to saddle each attacking soldier, only about
200 survived unscathed. By the time we reached the village of La Boisselle the litter of war had become apparent everywhere.
On a hedge sat two tattered gas masks that looked as if they had been recently disentangled from some piece of farm machinery.
In muddy trails scored with the twin tire ruts of heavy tractors lay a cache of rusting bullets and barbed wire embedded in
the earth. Beside a fence post at the corner of a field, a small group of unexploded shells stood to attention, still laden
with menace after a lifetime spent underground. Farmers had left them there, as part of the so-called Iron Harvest that every
season's plowing yields. A government explosives unit eventually carts all the shells away—several hundred tons a year—and
detonates them in quarries.
The village itself was a familiar succession of tan-colored bungalows of recent construction—French real estate developers
grandly call them
—that marked La Boisselle as a newly resettled hamlet. Only here the bland predictability of European exurbia suddenly took
a turn for the ominous. In the midst of the bungalows with their backyard swing sets stood a vacant lot that could not be
anesthetized into the present. It was an expanse of tall tortured mounds rising in unlikely and unnatural ways from a heaving
plane of pockmarks and craters. The pale green fuzz of grass and weeds that covered each contour did not hide the violence
that had once been done there. It looked as if a raging sea had been frozen, then made land. In between the Danger and Keep
Out signs I spotted a small mountain bike, lying there as if some heedless boy had just popped a wheelie and then been dragged
home for a spanking. The rear wheel turned slowly in the slight wind, its spokes glinting in the cold December sunshine. Seeing
it comforted me.
That weekend on the Somme—we trudged all over the map—gave me a strange sort of thrill that I didn't fully welcome. I feared
I'd fallen victim to the exuberant nihilism of the battlefield enthusiast, and that soon I would be whooping with joy at coming
across a trench in the forest, or a skeleton behind a barn. There is a sort of macho romance to the futility of war, an attraction
to seeing things fall apart, born of the same impulse that makes setting fires or watching the wrecker's ball such a fun pastime
for so many men. Visiting sites of significant bloodshed—braking to gawk at humanity's biggest smash-ups—seemed a habit better
left to groupies of the military. And I knew, or at least I thought I knew, that infatuation with uniforms and battles was
entirely foreign to me, given a family animus that verged on the fanatical. A reflexive hatred of the army formed the sole,
unarticulated legacy of my grandfathers'Great War experience. In our home, career soldiers were routinely referred to as "professional
assassins,"and in the Vietnam War years of the 1960s and early 1970s our mother, her three sons in their teens, daily congratulated
herself for not having chosen to immigrate to the land of the domino theory and the draft. Even the Boy Scouts had been suspect,
their badges and uniforms seen as the thin edge of the warrior wedge.