THEY SHALL NOT PASS-The French Army on the Western Front 1914-1918

I read a lot of books and it’s fair to say that a lot of the stuff that passes my eyes leaves something to be desired. I have seen some books lately which are not only badly written, but poorly edited and leave me wondering how they ever get to print, let alone how anyone would pay their hard earned money for them.

A saving grace is to be cherished and here is one of those occasions. Ian Sumner’s brilliant window onto the French army is a book I cannot recommend highly enough.

Full of detail and mixed with vivid personal accounts, the whole package is thoroughly absorbing example of how a history book should be. There is stuff in here that kids should read at school as part of their history lessons. I would rate it that highly.

I am happy to admit a strong affection for the French army of the Great War. Make no mistake, they were excellent troops who developed tactics on many levels that the British army was bound to follow. The horrors of early war naivety were quickly exchanged for the resolve and vigour to see France through to victory. There were mountains to climb, from the charnel house of Verdun to the nightmare of Chemin des Dames to much less appreciated successes on the Somme, the author takes us through the highs and lows of the French experience.

The infamous so-called mutinies of 1917 are thoroughly examined and the eventual march to victory is given excellent coverage.  The book covers everything from uniforms to wages and the ongoing miseries of poorly handled leave allowances and the political attitude of the citizen soldiers who served in their millions.

An important fact the casual observer may wish to take with them is how the frontline soldiers loathed the epithet poilu – meaning hairy one, or bearded one; depending on your translation. They preferred bonhomme – lad; or the traditional le biffin derived from rag-and-bone-man. It may not surprise you that time gave them their own PBI – poor bloody infantry, as the PCDF – les pauvres cons du front – the poor sods at the front. There is a mass of similar detail in this wonderful book.

French war cemeteries are majestic places to remember over a million dead. The great cathedrals of the Western Front at Notre Dame de Lorette and Douaumont spring immediately to mind. I have been to both along with the huge expanse of La Targette and they just blew me away. They are places I urge you to visit.  Tommy Atkins will always be in my heart along with the Canucks, Diggers, Kiwis and other fine men of the British Empire who fought and died for us. But it is wrong to ignore the glory of France. “On les aura!” may have been the stuff of posters and patriotic dogma. But the cry of “Let’s get them!” means so much more in a country that gave so much. This book gives us a chance to understand just what that sacrifice amounts.

Mark Barnes.

The French Army on the Western Front 1914-1918
Ian Sumner
Published by Pen & Sword buy here
ISBN: 978 1 84884 2090

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Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.