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

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The Imperial War Museum Book of the Western Front

By Malcolm Brown
Macmillan Pub Ltd; Revised, Updated edition, 2001
Peter Belmonte, Reviewer

Historian Malcolm Brown has written several books on World War I, including compilations of letters and firsthand accounts. In this fine book, Brown covers the Western Front specifically. To do this, Brown cites accounts from more than one hundred veterans. These accounts, and the accompanying photographs, are taken from the archives of London’s Imperial War Museum. The author uses mostly diary entries or letters written very soon after the actions they describe. While Brown understands the nuances of using various types of eyewitness accounts, he has chosen to use those written soon after the actions they describe. According to Brown, the result is “the better and the more valuable a contribution to the literature of the war, for the sharp focus that has been adopted” (p. xi). The men and women whose memoirs are featured served in all branches and capacities of the British Army (including Commonwealth soldiers), and they range in rank from private to brigadier general.

Brown’s narrative and quotations proceed chronologically, divided into three main sections corresponding to the fighting on the Western Front: Movement, Deadlock, and Break-Out. Interspersed are topical diversions to cover such things as the air war, entertainment, women in the British Army, and Americans. Brown’s selections reveal the wide variety of experiences and attitudes among the soldiers. The quotations are straightforward, and readers are indebted to these men and to the people who kept and preserved their documents. They reveal the boredom, horror, humor, frailty, and bravery of life on the Western Front.

In an interesting Afterword, Brown discusses the enduring controversy among historians and the general public between those who view the war as a senseless, fruitless waste of human life and those who view it as a terrible but necessary endeavor. Brown proceeds to give a series of quotations from the eyewitnesses that support each point of view. The author acknowledges his small sample size but comes to the conclusion that the men had varying views, sometimes switching views themselves; Brown understands that such things are dependent upon each individual and his experiences and background. Like many historical and academic debates, it has no ultimate solution: “It is surely time that a truce was declared between the opposing camps, in that both sides clearly have a part of the truth, but neither can lay claim to the whole of it” (p. 270). 

To sum up, Brown quotes Sergeant Robert Crude, a battalion runner with the Buffs, who, when writing in his diary about life on the Western Front stated: “Must grumble, but carry on” (p. 270).

The author has done a wonderful job of selecting accounts from what must have been a vast trove of examples. Many fine photographs enhance the text. The Imperial War Museum Book of the Western Front is very highly recommended to readers who are interested in any aspect of World War I combat.

Peter Belmonte