on 22 February 2013
The cover was striking - and the idea of WWI book written from another side. Being an English speaker, I had not come across an English-language book of the French view. This is a soldiers' tale of the war and, while it does broadly follow a chronology, do not expect any behind the desk views or insights into the French high command.
I am currently in the middle of Verdun - so book not finished yet. It is built up on extracts from soldiers' letters and remembrances. You meet the same guys, sometimes, several times only to find a few pages later that they were killed. There is a deep sense of sadness and you wonder how any of them survived the artillery barrages, the gas and killings. And you wonder what state they were in years later.
There is warmth and good humour and a lot of little snippets and anecdotes. The links back to family through mail and parcels is very inteersting - lots of real human life.
The soldiers come from all walks of French life - mainland and colonial. Most are ordinary punters but there are padres, intellectuals, anti-war guys and the ordinary punters. There are no extended soliloquays on war but sometimes a guy gives a simple description that sums up so much in a few simple words - the desccription of the looks on the faces of guys being shipped back out of Verdun to resting areas is so easy to visualise.
Interesting now to get a German view! Probably only the uniforms are different......
on 30 April 2012
Ian Sumner's newest work on the French army of 14-18 marks a more sociological turn for the author. Whereas his other works under the Osprey publishing company fall in-line with the concise campaign and material narratives so ubiquitously associated with those series, They Shall Not Pass provides a deeper look into the hearts and minds of the average French soldier, le poilu.
Using a outlining chronological framework of events, the author sheds light on the experience of the men who did the lion's share of the fighting on the Allied side of the Western Front. Roughly 8.5 million men served in the French army from 1914-18, of whom 1.5 million were killed and 4 million wounded (with nearly a million of these severely disabled). The sacrifices made by the French people are difficult to fathom today.
Sumner helps the reader to understand the mentality of the French soldier of 14-18 by presenting extracts of letters and diaries from dozens of soldiers. The book is not definitive in its scope and I would have liked to see more content on the daily life in the trenches. Yet with such a lack of English-language works on the subject, They Shall Not Pass is a welcome addition to any scholar of the Great War. For those interested in similar works, I would also recommend reading Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau's Men at War, 1914-1918 and Anthony Clayton's Paths of Glory.
on 7 October 2014
DURING the height of the Battle of Verdun the fire-eating French general Robert Nivelle defiantly declared ils ne passeront pas ¬- they shall not pass.
This symbolic phrase is the title of Ian Sumner's study on the French Army's struggle on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918.
Other than a handful of specialist books there is, generally speaking, a dearth of material on this topic in English.
Sumner allows the French soldier - the Poilu - the tell the story in their own words, from letters, diaries, newspaper reports and accounts written during or shortly after the events they describe.
What makes the book particularly noteworthy is that the vast majority of this material has never been translated - until now.
This makes Sumner's study a welcome addition which helps to explain the role Britain's ally played in defeating Germany.
The conflict 'took a massive toll' on France, Sumner writes. From a pre-war population of 38 million, 8.5 million men were mobilised.
Of these, 1.5 million were killed, 800,000 severely disabled and 3 million wounded. The butcher's daily bill was 890 French soldiers.
The Great War for France was a pyrrhic victory, such was the devastation to its industry and manpower that France did not want to wage another war like it..
The Poilu who celebrated victory in 1918 was not the same man who dreamed of advancing to Berlin four years earlier.
Failed offensive after failed offensive saw to that, according to Sumner.
But even during France's darkest hours during mutinies of 1917 there was the determination to resist and to hold the line.
This is an interesting, well-written and informative book which would goes a long way to explaining why the French army mounted the staunch defence of its homeland that it did.