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 23, 2022

The Western Front: A History of the Great War, 1914-1918

By Nick Lloyd
W.W. Norton & Company, 2021
David F. Beer, Reviewer

As soon as I saw inside this book’s back cover that the author is “one of Britain’s new generation of military historians,” I decided to read it. I was also impressed that Lloyd had already authored four books and that The Western Front is the first of “a three-volume history of the First World War. Subsequent volumes will concentrate on the Eastern Front (including Italy and the Balkans) and the wider war (the struggle in Africa and the Middle East)” (xx).

Having read quite a few standard histories of the war, I was curious about how a "new generation" historian might handle the material. What struck me most is that the book is very much an inclusive study. Lloyd has gone to great pains to not emphasize one army over another but to include all the main protagonists neutrally and equally: Germany, Britain, France, and the United States. As a result, I was pleased to find much more information on the contributions of the French and American armies than one usually finds in histories by British authors.

This doesn’t mean that Britain and Germany aren’t given their full due in this 657-page volume. As the author points out, the book is an interwoven narrative dependent on a considerable range of sources and viewpoints, including official histories and collected documents published after the war. Worth noting is the following:

Although the United States never published an official history, a seventeen-volume collection of selected documents of the history of the American Expeditionary Force (United States Army in the World War, 1917-1919) ensured that the enormous contribution that the doughboys made towards ending the war has not been forgotten (xxiii).

Lloyd’s approach to the senior commanders of the combatant armies is also notable and to many would be refreshing. He admits that this history “has been written primarily through the lens of those senior commanders who fought the war at what modern militaries refer to as the operational level.” He has little truck with some traditional views that the war’s leaders were "butchers" or donkeys.

Direct quotes in the text often give a sense of immediacy and loss. For example, a German officer unsuccessfully attempting to move his men forward at Verdun under “horrific machine-gun fire” writes:

We sought refuge in a shell-hole, but it was full of water. We lay flat on the ground behind the piles of earth created by the shells. No one dared stir or lift their head. The machine-gun fire was constant. A grenade exploded in front of us; a splinter shattered the thigh of the man to my left…We pressed even closer to the ground. It was impossible to bandage the wounded. We lay for five hours on the hard, cold ground in the face of this relentless fire. In the evening, one survivor and I managed to rejoin the battalion (p.185).

Later in the war, with Operation Blucher under way, both sides had considerable reservations and doubts. The use of American troops was hotly debated, as is well known. Disagreements within the French was rife as all were under stress. When General Fayolle was ordered to draw up plans to attack in the Amiens-Montdidier sector, his response was

There is always disagreement between Pétain and Foch…The latter would like to attack, the former would not. Pétain exaggerates the power of the Boche. Foch does not appreciate its true value. They are both right and wrong. If the two were combined, they would create a true and complete leader (p. 426).

This substantial book is divided into three Parts. Part 1 covers Liege to the Second Battle of Champagne; Part 2, Verdun to the Second Battle of the Aisne; and Part 3, Messines Ridge to Compiègne. Each Part consists of seven or so chapters, each titled by a relevant quotation. There are 41 excellent black and white photos, and the 14 maps are clear and usable enough. We also get a two-page glossary of military terms up front and a ten-page Cast of Characters at the back, followed by full reference notes, a bibliography, and an index.

I might not recommend The Western Front as a first read to someone who is just beginning to study the Great War. The information is detailed, and it helps to already know the rough outline of the war. Nevertheless, the prose is flawless, and the book is a pleasure to read. The front and the back material are helpful, especially the long "Cast of Characters." I very much look forward to the remaining two books of this trilogy.

David F. Beer


  1. Looks like a good read!! Thanks for the post!

  2. Please review the eastern front volume as well. I am particularly interested in the Austro-Hungarian armies. Thank you!
    Joe Unger