Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Storm in Flanders:
The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918

Reviewed by Bruce Sloan

A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918, 
Triumph and Tragedy on the Western Front 

By Winston Groom
Published by Grove Press, 2002

Winston Groom, who also wrote Forrest Gump, explains that he first became interested in Flanders due to his discovery of the 1920 Michelin Guides to the Battlefields: Ypres that he found on his grandfather’s bookshelf many years ago. He is an American writing about the British war in the Ypres salient, and having no national axes to grind, he tends to call a spade a spade. His analysis and criticism appear complete, fair and balanced—even though he refers to “the brave though butt-headed French” who counterattacked and lost over 300,000 casualties in the Ardennes. (He periodically employs some Americanisms in describing the antagonists.)

The background and conduct of the war is well summarized, and other areas of the conflict are continuously referenced, thereby keeping the Ypres salient in context throughout the narration. After touching on the Race for the Sea when the War becomes more static, the author narrows his scope to Flanders and describes the geography, weather, crops and culture of the area. Flanders, in Flemish, evidently means “flooded land.” This realization set the stage for me to better understand the horrors that followed. Trench warfare?

Groom divides the 1914-1918 action in the salient into the major “battles” that took place there. This division allows the reader more understanding of the time-line even though the author periodically points out that there were many hundreds of casualties daily during the non-battle, or “quiet” times—so much so that many of the “battles” might better be termed major “flare-ups.” Reinforcing our understanding are a few good maps showing movements, territory taken or lost, and well-annotated place names.

As can be imagined, with the scope of this misery there are many individual stories. Two of these are of the “crackpot” Canadian war minister who insisted on the Ross rifle (one officer reported that it took four men to keep one rifle working), and of the Irish major William “Willie” Redmond, who had fought for an amicable solution to the “Irish Problem” and who insisted on advancing and attacking Wytschaete even though he was wounded. Helped by a Protestant soldier from the Ulster Division, he later died. The next day, his funeral was attended by four generals while condolences arrived from all corners of the globe: from the Pope, the King and Queen of England, prime ministers and presidents.

Included in this book are two sections of very good photographs, reminding one of Groom’s early fascination with the Michelin Guide. All in all, I now better understand the British fixation on this part of the war, including such famous names as Hill 60, Messines Ridge and Passchendaele. So many casualties under such horrendous conditions. It boggles the modern mind.

Bruce Sloan


  1. "It boggles the modern mind." And so it should. . . .

  2. In my opinion this book is pretty good but no classic. It has at least one ‘butt-headed’, glaring error that will be blatantly obvious to any Canadian reader and should be obvious to most Americans too. I quote from page 103; (he is referring to the Canadian 10th Battalion) “ These were mostly composed of westerners, men from the wild and woolly provinces of Calgary, Winnipeg and Alberta”.

    Say what!! That ranks right up there with the US Marines colour party flying the Canadian flag upside down at the World Series game in Atlanta. Not as publicly visible but just as ‘butt-headed’. I still sell and recommend this book to my customers, here in Ypres. It does give them a good overall picture of the events that happened here between 14 and 18.

    Steve Douglas