Although l though it appears at first glance a far stretch for the author of Forrest Gump to write an in-depth detailed history of the ugliest and most bloody battle of World War I, when you consider the historical background of Mobile-native Winston Groom, you realize that he is just the man for the job. His Shrouds of Glory: From Atlanta to Nashville: The Last Great Campaign of the Civil War was an outstanding piece of historical reporting. His first novel, Better Times Than These, was a brilliant dramatic novel of the Vietnam war.
In A Storm in Flanders Groom lays the groundwork for the world war. He outlines the history of the ruling families of Europe. He shows how German unification of 1870 led to the Franco-Prussian War that resulted in Germany taking Alsace and Lorraine from France, which led to alliance-forming followed by a series of political disruption. Groom explores the facts deftly and succinctly. It was that unification -- and the ascension of William II to Kaiser in 1888 -- that led the leader to organize “the most powerful military machine in the world.”
Tackling such a subject, which European military historians believe impossible for any American, is courageous in itself. And when Groom pulls it off, building the drama through a multitude of facts, which he lays out in orderly fashion, building from a sturdy foundation, the results are disturbing and powerful.
After a young Bosnian-Serb ignited the spark by assassinating Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, Groom marches his reader through the details that ultimately lit the fuse of war on August 4, 1914, when Germany launched a two-million-man army -- the largest ever -- to invade France through Belgium. That day, the German army crossed the Meuse river and attacked the city of Leige, held by 40,000 Belgian troops.
While Germany prepared a six-week timetable to take over France, French troops attacked their old provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. At first, the Germans were pushed back. Then they not only held but pushed the French back with artillery and machine-gun fire, initiating a new style of violent warfare.
Up in Belgium, where the French marched into the Ardennes Forest, some 300,000 casualties were lost in initial attacks. By September, 3,100,000 German soldiers crossed the Rhine. It was reported that as they invaded, they burned towns, executed citizens, raped and mutilated women, pillaged, took hostages, and imposed war taxes.
Grooms peppers his narrative with tiny tales of people involved: British poet Rupert Brooke, a lieutenant who wrote “If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England” and who was killed six month later; 25-year-old Adolf Hitler who eagerly marched into battle; 62-year-old General John French who planned to drive the Germans out of Belgium by brute force with his British troops; 27-year-old Lieutenant Willie Fraser, a kilted soldier of the Gordon Highlands regiment killed to the tune of bagpipes; young American private Harold Ross, who later founded The New Yorker magazine, witnessed the shelling of Paris by the huge German gun known as Big Bertha.
On a larger scale, the historian draws portraits of General Douglas Haig, who led the British army time and again into the Ypres battlefield, and German General Erich Ludendorff, who led his German troops through Belgium and into France and who launched a final attack on Paris in the spring of 1918.
Throughout the final year, American doughboys arrived in France at the rate of 300,000 a month, breathing new life into the Allied armies, yet sustaining great losses almost instantaneously. Grooms provides apt descriptions of the horror, calling it a “death dance” around the tools of destruction in this first great 20th Century war. In the end, he writes, “The Great War did not end neatly; there was too much squabbling to do.” All toll, nine million military died, among them 1,800,000 Germans, 1,700,000 Russians, 1,400,000 Frenchmen, 615,000 Italians and about 50,000 Americans. Winston Groom has written a well-researched, chilling, earth-shattering saga of neurotic nations embroiled in a chaotic, torturous time of turmoil. He lays it out for us as a master historian, unfolding the events as they happened nearly a century ago.
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