Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I

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9780802713292: Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I

World War I is beyond the memory of almost everyone alive today. Yet it has left as deep a scar on the imaginative landscape of our century as it has on the land where it was fought. Nowhere is that more evident than on the Western Front—the sinuous, deadly line of trenches that stretched from the coast of Belgium to the border of France and Switzerland, a narrow swath of land in which so many million lives were lost.

For journalist Stephen O'Shea, the legacy of the Great War is personal (both his grandfathers fought on the front lines) and cultural. Stunned by viewing the "immense wound" still visible on the battlefield of the Somme, and feeling that "history is too important to be left to the professionals," he set out to walk the entire 450 miles through no-man's-land to discover for himself and for his generation the meaning of the war.

Back to the Front is a remarkable combination of vivid history and opinionated travel writing. As his walk progresses, O'Shea recreates the shocking battles of the Western Front, many now legendary—Passchendaele, the Somme, the Argonne, Verdun—and offers an impassioned perspective on the war, the state of the land, and the cultivation of memory. His consummate skill with words and details brings alive the players, famous and faceless, on that horrific stage, and makes us aware of why the Great War, indeed history itself, still matters. An evocative fusion of past and present, Back to the Front will resonate, for all who read it, as few other books on war ever have.

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About the Author:

Toronto-born author and journalist Stephen O’Shea moved to France in the early 1980s. There, he took up journalism, shortly after completing postgraduate degrees in politics at the Université de Paris 1 (Pantheon–Sorbonne) and the prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris.

In 1989, Elle magazine relocated O’Shea to New York to be a senior features editor of their American edition. In 1993, he returned to Paris, where he worked as Variety’s film critic, and published articles on French culture and politics for American, British, French, and Canadian magazines, including The Observer, The Times of London, Harper’s Bazaar, Interview, Allure, and Mother Jones.

To research The Perfect Heresy, O’Shea moved to Perpignan in southern France in 1997, where he spent two years immersing himself in Cathar lore. In addition to The Perfect Heresy, O’Shea is also the author of the widely acclaimed Back to the Front (Walker & Company, 1997), a hiker’s meditation on the trenches of World War I.

Stephen O’Shea currently lives with his wife, Jill Pearlman, and two daughters in Providence, Rhode Island.

From Kirkus Reviews:

A Canadian journalist who has walked the weary length of WW I's western front reports movingly on his experiences and more. A Paris-based correspondent for Elle, Interview, and other periodicals, O'Shea began hiking the centerpiece combat zone of the so-called Great War almost by chance during the mid-1980s. The serpentine path (to which he returned time and again) begins around Nieuport on the Belgian coast, winds through the French countryside, and ends abruptly at the frontier of neutral Switzerland. Between the two extremes, the blood-soaked track of the trenches, from which Allied and German troops rose to slaughter one another by the millions during the 52-month conflict, twists through scores of storied venues. Cases in point range from Flanders (Ypres, Passchendaele) through Artois (ArmentiŠres, Arras, Vimy Ridge), Picardy, Champagne (Chemin des Dames, Reims), and Alsace-Lorraine (St. Mihiel, Verdun, the Argonne Forest). In his commentary as a tour guide, the author is by turns informative and censorious. Interspersing his point-to-point travelogue of abandoned redoubts, burial grounds, disputed barricades, monuments, museums, and ossuaries with short takes on the campaigns that earned hinterland villages a place in military history, he offers unsparing critiques of commanders on both sides of the fray (notably, Falkenhayn, Foch, Haig, Joffre, Nivelle, Pershing, and P‚tain). O'Shea also recalls his two Irish grandfathers, who survived the senseless carnage (as soldiers of the British Crown), albeit at considerable cost in mental and physical pain. Antiwar by conviction at the start of his explorations, he's something very like a militant pacifist at the end of a decade-long journey. A tellingly detailed account of a trek through yesteryear's killing fields, which unites past with present in affectingly evocative ways and with no small measure of art. (maps) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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