Saturday, October 15, 2005

A Storm in Flanders

As I mentioned in my previous post, context interests me. I like to see how we arrived at where we are now, and I'm fascinated with the cyclical nature of history. Sometimes it seems like we are encountering the very worst of times, or the most interesting view on life and culture, only to find that it's just new to us-- that really, people have experienced similar things in centuries gone by, just in different, well, contexts. Sure we have technology and all these other "advances" that puts us in a unique time, but really, we're just more sophisticated (or so we think) in how we experience similar life events.

This book is about World War One. It was written by Winston Groom whom you may know better as the author of Forest Gump. Groom writes this book for Americans who know little about the first World War. As he says, most people's reference point to war (and indeed how the world has been shaped as a result for decades after) starts from World War Two.

Part of what I enjoyed about this book is how Groom gives us some pre-history. Setting the stage briefly in Europe from about the 1880's forward, and all the political, social, and economic factors that made Europe "ripe" for an eruption.

The main part of the book, however, is about the Belgian battlegrounds, commonly referred to as the "Western Front." (The name is understood from a German perspective since they were also fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front). The area of Flanders is a below sea level region that was a far less-than-ideal place for a battle ground. It rained there a lot, and the water table was so high that battles were more often than not fought in mud than on dry ground. Dogs, horses, mules and men died from being drowned in the water or stuck in the mud.

World War One represents a collision of old style war-fare and modern war fare. The use of the machine gun was new in this war. Airplanes were first used in this war; first for surveillance, then for firepower. Tanks were first used in this war, and in the end played an important role. Yet at the beginning of the war, American civil war style troop deployment and fighting was the default. This quickly changed as men were mowed down by machine guns and heavy artillery. It was in this environment that trench warfare was born.

If you have a moderate interest in history, or wonder how WW I relates to WW II, this is a great read and I highly recommend it!