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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

After the Ruins
Reviewed by Ron Drees

After the Ruins: Restoring the Countryside of Northern France 
After the Great War

by Hugh Clout
University of Exeter Press, 1996

Imagine the countryside of a major nation that produced some of the finest crops known to Europe. Now imagine this same land going through three wars. In the first, millions of men did everything possible for four and a quarter years to destroy the land, using bombs, artillery, the digging of trenches, killing hundreds of thousands, unleashing poisonous gas, destroying drainage and topsoil, leaving the debris of human bodies and millions of horses and millions of tons of explosives and barb wire to forever threaten those who would approach too close.

The second war was of 12 years where tens of thousands tried to undo what the millions had done. They fought with legislation, bureaucratic inertia, maps, paper, court orders, shovels, tractors, shortages of labor, building materials, and petrol, a surplus of stubbornness, and the love of what they once had. Experts claimed that they knew how to make things better, while the indigenous knew that what they once had was the best. Others would lie, cheat, swindle, and leave them with nothing but more frustration.

No Man's Land, Ypres Salient, 1919

In the end, much of what was destroyed and rebuilt was destroyed a second time as not enough had been learned from the first war. That is for another book. Hugh Clout is a professor of geography in England who lost an uncle in the Great War and wrote this book because so little had been written about what happened after the Armistice. Yet he managed to fill this book with tables, charts, maps and photographs that give us a fair idea of what happened to reconstruct northeast France. He recounts the legislation that was passed beginning in 1915 to help those who had suffered; the assistance of Americans, individuals and organizations who assisted; and the recovery of 1918 that was overrun by the German spring offensive. He discusses the recovery in almost mind-numbing detail by department and commune.

First the land had to be made habitable and fit for cultivation. Over 305 million cubic meters of trenches had to be filled in, 345 million square meters of barbed wire removed, and 21.1 million tons of explosives had to be removed, a task that continues to the present day. At first, those who suffered tried to go it alone, only to be defeated by paperwork they could not understand. Then the farmers of a village would band together, but even that was inadequate and groups of villages would join forces. For a while even German POWs were put to work before being repatriated.

Farm Land and Rebuilt Village, Ypres Salient, 2017

The shortages of building materials were exacerbated by the shortages of skilled labor and then by the lack of transport and then the setting of priorities—what to rebuild first. People were living in shacks left behind by the British Army. Some areas progressed faster than others, so there was much suffering due to terrible housing for years. It was all compounded by stubbornness, lack of interest in proposed improvements, distrust of architects, and an officialdom which could not communicate. Boundary markers had been swept away by the war and German tractors used to cultivate the land under occupation. Yet perseverance, flexibility, and a gradual understanding of the benefits of proposed improvements resulted in villages being rebuilt with new residences, schools, churches, libraries, and town halls. Agricultural production reached near prewar levels, especially accounting for changes in crops planted, animals raised, and a general modernization of how things came to be done.

In After the Ruins Professor Clout has done a good job of telling this story, but it would have been helpful if he had provided translations of the names of French organizations and legislation. When citing sources, he uses a shortened form of the name, also in French, instead of footnotes, thus putting up roadblocks for readers.

Part of the tragedy of this story is that tourists wanted to see the battlefields as early as 1919 and would wander into unsafe areas and die, almost daily, from ordinance which had not detonated during the war. Clout tells of 36 farmers dying even as late as 1991 from ordinance they accidentally detonated.

We as students of history spend so much time attempting to understand the battles that a book such as this is useful for understanding the personal price paid long after the white flags have been raised. May we all remember the ordinary people who didn't want to go to war, weren't in combat, but paid a price anyway.

Ron Drees


  1. Excellent. Finally a book that shows just how destrctive war is. Cheers

  2. A fascinating story, and nicely reviewed. Thank you! I wish the book wasn't so expensive...

  3. One of the most intriguing photographs I have ever seen was from this time period. A destitute woman with no legs is seen in the foreground handling a UXO in no mans land. One can assume she is going for the metal to scrap, so she can feed herself. The point is driven home by two co-workers who are able body men watching her intensely, ready to dive for cover at the slightest moment.

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