I have a long-standing interest in history in general and military history in particular. After reading dozens if not hundreds of these books, I have found that the ones that stick with me are the ones that are beautifully written.
"A Storm in Flanders" is such a book, focusing on the British experience in the Ypres Salient during World War I. Groom wrote "Forrest Gump," as well as several history books. He knows how to put a sentence together and how to tell a gripping story. Once I picked this book up and started reading, I was hooked.
Much as Stephen Ambrose has done in his elegant books about World War II, Groom moves seamlessly between the generals in their chateaus and the grunts in their trenches. He makes use of diaries and poetry to tell the human story of a struggle that is all too often reduced to an abstract description of maneuver and battle. And he is very fair in his assessments--he acknowledges the criticisms of General Haig and many of the other leaders of the war, but he is always careful to balance these views with other considerations. The result is a well-told tale, fair and sympathetic to everyone involved.
The story of the Ypres Salient is not pretty. Groom does not pull his punches and does his best to give the reader, sitting in a comfortable armchair, some sense of just how horrible the Great War was. In a passage that I found especially memorable, Groom quotes Lieutenant Alfred J. Angel of the Royal Fusiliers during Third Ypres: "The stench was horrible, for the bodies were not corpses in the normal sense. With all the shell-fire and bombardments they'd been continually disturbed, and the whole place was a mess of filth and slime and bones and decomposing bits of flesh."
How anyone could live and fight in this hell on earth without going mad is simply beyond my comprehension, yet many British, French and German soldiers managed to do just that for four years running. Groom doesn't delve too deeply into the psychology of the soldiers, observing that "the search for 'why' and 'how' remains elusive and any effort to reason it out is to fashion a mirror of hell itself." He is probably right in saying that "[a] truly sobering thing would be a glimpse of what was actually going on in their minds during the fighting. That would not only be sobering; it would be perfectly frightening."
If you like a "A Storm in Flanders," I would recommend two other books. The first is "Face of Battle" by John Keegan, which tries to explain how soldiers keep fighting despite the horrors of war and the threat of instant death. The second is Sir Martin Gilbert's "The First World War," which describes the entire war using a relentless chronology that is truly compelling. Neither of these books is as well written as Groom's "A Storm in Flanders," but both are well worth the effort to read.