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

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Back Over There: One American Time-Traveler
Reviewed by Clark Shilling

Back Over There: One American Time-Traveler, 100 Years Since the Great War, 500 Miles of Battle-Scarred French Countryside, and Too Many Trenches, Shells, Legends and Ghosts to Count

by Richard Rubin
St Martin's Press, 2017

American Soldiers "Just Off the Boat" Break from Their Marching, 1917

If you are a student of America's part in World War I, you may already have heard of Richard Rubin. In the early part of this century, he interviewed the last few surviving American veterans of World War I, compiling these interviews into a book published in 2013 entitled The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. (This book was reviewed on this website in 2013. If you would like to read that review, type Rubin in the search box, and it will be displayed.)

Rubin had insisted that all of his interviews for The Last of the Doughboys be on a face-to-face basis with his subjects. He felt a phone interview would not enable him to get all the nuances of the stories that these elderly veterans had to tell about their war. After writing The Last of the Doughboys, Rubin still felt a sense of incompleteness. He had listened to these stories, but to completely understand them he decided that he needed to see where they took place. He would go to France and explore the Western Front to see the areas where his Doughboys fought; this became the basis for his latest book, Back Over There.

Doughboy Raiders in No-Man's-Land Carrying Sacks of Grenades

In the first quarter of his book Rubin visits the major battle sites that were fought before the U.S. entered the war—Verdun, the Somme and Ypres—and he includes his impressions of each. He was moved by the ossuary at Verdun and the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres, but for the most part, these battlefields left him cold. Except for Verdun, they had been changed too much. He viewed Flanders as a "posh suburb" and the Somme as a "pastoral countryside." He writes that these places were no longer battle sites but rather "sites where battles once took place."

The balance of this book is then spent with the author looking for the "trail of the A.E.F." Rubin calls his method of exploration "bushwhacking"—traveling down tractor roads, logging roads and cow paths, and when necessary, hiking through trees and undergrowth to discover the remains of the Western Front and the places where the A.E.F. fought. He was able to do this by networking with a number of locals who were experts on various sections of the Western Front. With names like Giles, Jean-Paul, Denis, and Christophe, these hobbyists, enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs guided Rubin to some amazing places. Rubin stood on the hill where Americans fired their first shot at a German position. He then provides the trivia that the French 75 cannon that fired that shot is now located at West Point. He visited the site where the first three Doughboys were killed in action. Bookmarking the American experience in the war, he found the monument marking the site where the last American Doughboy, Private Henry Gunther, was killed in the war a minute before the Armistice took effect at 11 a.m. As American troops began to train in the trenches,some were quartered in chalk mines that lay under the famous Chemin des Dames. While there, they covered the walls with graffiti, leaving behind their names and units. Rubin went into the mine and recorded many of these names and then researched their fate, telling us whether they were later killed in battle or whether they survived and were able to return home to live out their lives.

The French province of Lorraine is home to the site of the two largest battles fought by the AEF: St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Rubin describes Lorraine as a backwater, largely agricultural, undeveloped and as a result relatively unchanged since the end of the war. The Germans held this area from 1914 to 1918, and German engineers, the masters of reinforced concrete, built many structures that have survived the forces of time and the efforts of the French to remove them. With the help of his network of locals, Rubin explored many of the numerous German block houses and trenches that remain there. His conclusion was that the Germans thought of everything. Not only that, they also were smart enough to occupy the best positions.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are his explorations of several German rest areas called Lagers, camps where thousands of German soldiers were allowed to rest and relax after serving in the front lines. These facilities included swimming pools, bakeries, bath houses, libraries, theaters, hospitals, brothels, and more, everything to help a German soldier unwind after combat. Rubin was able to tour the once sumptuous bunkers built for Crown Prince Wilhelm, as well as for the Crown Prince of Bavaria, structures that still stand in the undergrowth in Lorraine.

There are many more adventures in the book. The author visited virtually every major battle site that involved the A.E.F. I often find myself reading very long books. Usually by the time I get close to the end, I have had more than enough and look forward to completion and moving on to another. That is not the case with this all too brief book. When I got to the end, I wanted more. Rubin writes about his adventures with ironic humor and self-deprecation. His writing often reminds me of Bill Bryson in his books such as The Mother Tongue and Letters from a Small Island. He has a great eye for details and shows a reverential respect for the soldiers of the Great War. I found his research and conclusions to be spot on and could find no fault with his knowledge on any aspect of the war.

German Prisoners Carrying a Wounded American Soldier

Next year will be the last year of the Centennial and will mark the 100th anniversary of the key American battles in World War I. If you plan to focus your reading on the A.E.F. in 2018 as I plan to, I recommend you add this book to your reading list. In addition, I would point out that the author made an hour-and-a-half presentation about this book at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in May of this year, where he expands some on the book. The book contains numerous black-and-white photos, but in his presentation at the National World War I Museum, you can see the pictures in color. It can be found on

Clark Shilling


  1. Richard Rubin writes great books. I've done the Western Front exploring as he details and writes about and it was like being back in France; all the little villages, roads, and fields come alive as if I was there again. Mr. Rubin is also eager to share his knowledge, photos, and insights on social media. Last I heard, he was planning a trip back to the Front this summer with those willing to follow. I highly recommend his books and social media pages.

  2. I've read the book and this is an excellent description of it. I was amazed that there are still so many places one can go to find traces of the US activity in WWI. Thank you, Clark!

  3. I too have read it and it was an interesting read. The evidence of WW1 still litters the countryside - shell holes, trenches, shrapnel, caves and tunnels, and a surprising amount of still UN-exploded ordnance. Ruben talks about the terrain and attempts to find strong points he describes in various battles. I've only started reading "Last of the Doughboys" so I'll not comment about that.

  4. My wife and I have paralleled Richard on many of his visits to France. We have used the same guides and have explored the caves and trenches that Richard has written about. Reading his narrative is re living our experiences. He trully is one of us and he eloquently explains who we are and what we do. I also wanted more.

  5. Both this and his first book are among my favorites about the war. He's fantastic.