Book Review: After the Ruins: Restoring the Countryside of Northern France after the Great War


by Hugh Clout

Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996. Pp. xviii, 332. Illus., biblio., index. £75.00. ISBN: 0859894916

Rescuing the Land from the Great War

Imagine the countryside of a major nation that produced some of the finest crops known to Europe. Now imagine this same land going through three wars. In the first, millions of men did everything possible for four and a quarter years to destroy the land, using bombs, artillery, the digging of trenches, killing hundreds of thousands, unleashing poisonous gas, destroying drainage and topsoil, leaving the debris of human bodies and millions of horses and millions of tons of explosives and barbed wire to forever threaten those who would approach too close. The second war was of twelve years where tens of thousands tried to undo what the millions had done. They fought with legislation, bureaucratic inertia, maps, paper, court orders, shovels, tractors, shortages of labor, building materials, and petrol, a surplus of stubbornness, and the love of what they once had. Experts claimed that they knew how to make things better while the indigenous knew that what they once had was the best. Others would lie, cheat, swindle and leave them with nothing but more frustration.

In the end, much of what was destroyed and rebuilt was destroyed a second time as not enough had been learned from the first war. That is for another book.

The author is a professor of geography in England who lost an uncle in the Great War and wrote this book because so little had been written about what happened after the Armistice. Yet he managed to fill this book with tables, charts, maps and photographs that give us a fair idea of what happened to reconstruct northeast France. He recounts the legislation that was passed beginning in 1915 to help those who had suffered, the assistance of Americans, individuals and organizations, and the recovery of 1918 that was overrun by the German spring offensive. He discusses the recovery in almost mind-numbing detail by department and commune.

First the land had to be made habitable and fit for cultivation. Over 305 million cubic meters of trenches had to be filled in, 345 million square meters of barbed wire and 21.1 million tons of explosives had to be removed, a task that continues to the present day. At first, those who suffered tried to go it alone, only to be defeated by paperwork they could not understand. Then the farmers of a village would band together but even that was inadequate and groups of villages would join forces. For a while even German POWs were put to work before being repatriated. The shortages of building materials were exacerbated by the shortages of skilled labor and then by the lack of transport and then the setting of priorities; what to rebuild first. People were living in shacks left behind by the British army. Some areas progressed faster than others so there was much suffering due to terrible housing for years. It was all compounded by stubbornness, disinterest in proposed improvements, distrust of architects, and an officialdom which could not communicate. Boundary markers had been swept away by the war and German tractors used to cultivate the land under occupation. Yet perseverance, flexibility, and a gradual understanding of the benefits of proposed improvements resulted in villages being rebuilt with new residences, schools, churches, libraries and town halls. Agricultural production reached near pre-Great War levels, especially accounting for changes in crops planted, animals raised and a general modernization of how things came to be done.

Clout has done a good job of telling this story but it would have been helpful if he had provided translations of the names of French organizations and legislation. When citing sources, he used a shortened form of the name, also in French, instead of footnotes, thus putting up roadblocks for readers.

Part of the tragedy of this story is that tourists wanted to see the battlefields as early as 1919 and would wander into unsafe areas and die, almost daily, from ordinance which had not detonated during the war. Even as late as 1991 Clout tells of thirty-six farmers dying from ordinance they accidentally detonated.

We as students of history spend so much time attempting to understand the battles that a book such as this is useful for understanding the personal price paid long after the white flags have been raised. May we all remember the ordinary people who didn’t want to go to war, weren’t in combat, but paid a price anyway.


Our Reviewer: Ron Drees is an archivist, retired from processing the collection of Dr. Michael DeBakey, the world-famous cardiologist at the Baylor College of Medicine. His interest in history dates back to junior high school with an emphasis on American military history, particularly the Civil and World Wars. He has written several reviews for Michael Hanlon's blog "Roads to the Great War", about the catastrophe that still shapes the world. His favorite WWI book is Margaret MacMillan’s Paris, 1919 which tells how the tragedy was compounded by setting the stage for even greater misery. He lives in Houston with his wife of 42 years, Lin, a retired librarian, and their Sheltie, Hannah. He had a grandfather who was a teamster on the German side in WWI, his first boss had been a Marine at Iwo Jima, virtually the only survivor of his company, and his brother-in-law had been at Inchon. Ron’s previous reviews include Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918, Beneath the Killing Fields: Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front, Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy, Between Mutiny and Obedience: The Case of the French Fifth Infantry Division during World War, The Kaiser’s U-Boat Assault on America, This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing, and 1918: Winning the War, Losing the War.




Note: After the Ruins is still available at the list price from the University of Exeter.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Ron Drees   

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