Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Going back in time - to the Western Front

I’ll be away from the keyboard for a while as my wife and I take a long-planned vacation to visit some of the First World War battlefields in Northern France and Belgium. In anticipation of this trip I have increased my readings on WW I – not so much from the geo-political aspects of the war, but from the personal perspectives of the men (and the few women) who braved the mud of Passchendale, the terror of Vimy, and the atrocities of the Somme in what was then and still remains one of the greatest horrors of the modern age.

To put the scale of the carnage into perspective, consider just these four battles:
  • The Somme – July 1914 – 100,000 Germans dead, 160,000 British, and 50,000 French, including 20,000 allied forces dead and 40,000 wounded on the first day of the battle. The Battle of the Somme raged until November.

  • Vimy Ridge – April 1917 – 10,000 Canadians dead in 4 days of fighting.

  • Verdun – July 1916 – 280,000 Germans dead, 315,000 French. Five months of vicious fighting for virtually no progress.

  • Passchendale – July 1917 – “only” 20,000-25,000 dead on each side on the first day of battle - for an allied advance of about 900 yards. Tens of thousands more perished before that battle ended in October 1917.

These are just numbers – numbers so large as to defy even a mental image of what it must have been like to “lose” 20,000 men in one horrific day of a battle and a war that must have seemed endless at the time. I certainly have been unable to envision it, but I expect visiting the graveyards and looking out upon thousands and thousands of crosses representing the youth of an entire generation will bring it home with a vengeance.

So in some ways I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I anticipate some very emotional moments, but then again, I don’t think I can even begin to understand the enormity of what happened almost 100 years ago without making this trip.
If the reader is interested, here is some recommended reading, mostly stories (some fiction, based on facts) about the men and boys ground up and spit out on the fields of Flanders and environs.

  • The War Walk by Nigel Jones – A journey along the western front.

  • Vimy by Pierre Berton.

  • Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden – The story of two James Bay Cree who became accomplished WWI snipers.

  • Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison – Describes life, and death, in the trenches.

  • Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – Fictional account of the nightmare of Flanders.

Of course there are many, many more, but these are among the most interesting I have read (or re-read) recently.

See you again in a couple of weeks.

1 comment:

Pat Rossiter said...

Try Ben Elton's "The First Casualty". Yes, it's a novel, but the feel is excellent.

Enjoy the trip. We're going in '09.