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The Egregious Historian

Stephen O’Shea, Back To the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I (Douglas & McIntyre, 205 pages, 1996)

In 1996, when I was a juror for Canada’s non-fiction Governor General’s Prize, one of the books I read was an account of walking the trenches of World War I. The author was an expatriate magazine journalist by the name of Stephen O’Shea. I read three or four chapters of the book, found the prose overwrought and the authorial voice irritatingly personal in an unearned sort of way, and set the book aside, well distant from the short-list. Most of the 180 or so books I’d read or glanced through I ended up giving to a senior’s centre in Welland, Ontario, but this one I kept for my father-in-law, whose own father, now dead, had fought and been wounded at Vimy Ridge in 1917. I thought he’d be interested in the detail even though I hadn’t been taken by the book myself.

In 1999, I discovered that an uncle of mine had been killed in that war, and reclaimed the book from my father-in-law, who hadn’t read any further into it than I had, no doubt for similar reasons. Over the next year or so, I read the book through to the end. I still didn’t like the author or his magazine-paced prose, but I found the subject matter of greater interest than in 1996, and the book itself a better piece of work than I’d first thought. O’Shea had done the leg-work—considerably more than the 750 kilometres of the Western Front—and he’d also done his homework, having compiled a sizeable and judicious bibliography of the vast array of historical sources now available, about a dozen of which I’d read by that point. My only argument with O’Shea’s research was that he thought that the great—and frightening—German battlefield analyst, Ernst Junger, was a novelist.

Where, at first reading, I’d also been puzzled by Shea’s over-the-top judgment of what had happened during the war and why so many had died—a judgment that, on the basis of my subsequent reading now seems far less extreme—this time I was merely irritated by his supercilious view of his co-tourists and amateur historians, toward whom he was at once contemptuous and, it seemed to me, oddly territorial. He called military history buffs “War pornographers”, and other terms of non-endearment poured from the pages.

In early October, 2003, I made my own journey to the battlefields of World War I. Mine was nowhere near as extensive, but I quickly came to understand O’Shea’s irritation. At each place I visited—the Menin Gate at Ypres, Sanctuary Wood, Vimy Ridge, and several locations deeper in Picardy, I encountered the pornography consumers. They were usually loud-talking British couples who appeared to be knowledgeable and even regular visitors, or busloads of bored school-children from Britain and France who acted as if they were visiting a Disney facility. At Vimy Ridge, where the signage asks for respectful silence and the somber monument commands it, I grew irritable enough to tell a chattering family of Brits to shut up. The only respite from these nitwits was at the innumerable and marvelously-tended Commonweath Graves Commission sites, which were invariably empty and silent.

That these military cemeteries were deserted points to one of the peculiar schisms of popular culture, one that is as likely the product of Hogan’s Heroes as CNN’s sterilized coverage of the two Gulf wars: war is entertaining if not exactly fun. Death, on the other hand, is neither. That happens to point right at where O’Shea’s journey went wrong, and why, for all its unique information and largely accurate analyses of the whos, wheres and whys of World War I, he strays damningly close to the war pornography he so loathes. He’s a dilettante among millions of dead men, unable to give up his own voice to record the whispering silence of theirs.

At one point, O’Shea quotes Voltaire as a kind of liefmotif for his book: “We owe respect to the living; but to the dead we owe nothing but the truth.” Despite providing a fine battlefield guide, O’Shea fails at the first task, and spends too much time waving his hands in the face of his reader to succeed at the other.

December 18, 2003, 723 words

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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