Book Review: Living on the Western Front: Annals and Stories, 1914-1919


by Chris Ward

London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Pp. vi, 290. Maps, gloss., notes, biblio. $39.95 paper. ISBN: 1441109307

Life at the Front in “BEF-land”

Living on the Western Front is a difficult work to categorize.  It tells the story of "BEF-land", the British “colony” in France and Belgium during the First World War.

Chris Ward, who lectures at Cambridge, uses 107 “narremes” to bring to life the everyday of existence at the Front.  These are self-contained little narratives, mini-stories, or anecdotes, drawn from letters, memoirs, and other first hand accounts, which have occasionally been edited, conflated, or fictionalized.  They are linked into a dozen broad themes, which look at how British, Imperial, and Commonwealth personnel, military and civilian, experienced the war, lived their lives, coped with a new environment, met the enemy, related to their allies, and more. 

These themes are:

  • Aspects of Identity
  • Centres
  • Colour, Sound, & Smell
  • Ease & Privacy
  • Enemy
  • Fauna
  • Flora
  • Food & Drink
  • Journeys
  • Landscapes
  • Natives
  • Settlement

But the narratives are identified with one or another of these themes, they are presented in chronological order.  The design of the work makes it possible to read the “narremes” in chronological order, or to skip easily from one entry in a category to the next some pages on, or even to just open the book randomly and read whatever one finds, thus “annals and stories.” 

Living on the Western Front, while not a history, gives us an interesting look at how fairly ordinary people experienced history, and can be read with profit by layman or scholar alike.

Note: Living on the Western Front is also available in hardcover for $130.00, ISBN 978-1-4411-2502-6. 

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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