A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918 Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front – A Review

A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918 Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front
Winston Groom

I never imagined I would read a book by the author of Forest Gump, let alone liking it, but Winston Groom’s history of the Ypres Salient in World War I is a good readable account of the battles in Flanders. I’m not going to spend much time detailing the history, but briefly, the Ypres Salient was a battle field in Flanders, Belgium near the Flemish city of Ypres, now called Iper. There were three battles there of the course of the war, the third and most famous also known as Passchendaele. The second battle gave us the first use of poison gas in battle, a lamentable first. It is also where Adolph Hitler served. As a reader of military history I’m not particularly interested in tactics and evaluations of strategy. Yes, that is part of military history and I’m aware of the importance, but it is the experience of the soldiers and what it was really like that interests me most. In this regard, Groom does an excellent job in describing what it was like there. I think his novelist’s eye helps him as he describes in great detail the mud, the battle conditions, especially how the dead and parts of the dead, were left everywhere. How the constant shelling made for several hundred casualties per day. This is during the calm times. His descriptions of the warfare that happened amongst the tunneling squads that were digging under the German lines to lay mines is particularly horrific. There were whole companies below ground digging huge tunnels all the while the Germans were listening for them, hoping to find them, breakthrough the tunnel and start fighting. The mines that were laid at Ypres were perhaps the most emblematic of the war and had the greatest success in immobilizing the German lines. Putting a million pounds of explosives under the German lines is an impressive and terrifying feat. When it comes to describing the generalship, he is definitely impressed with Plummer and not Haig. Since I find Haig wanting, I don’t have much to quibble with here, and as I mentioned earlier, this isn’t an area I’m particularly interested in. While the book is very good at describing the overall shape of the battles and the experience of the soldiers, he does leave the battle to occasionally give context. While these aren’t bad digressions, I’m not sure he really needed to to that. My only other real issue is the lack of end notes. However, since this isn’t aiming to be a scholarly work, I’m not going to hold it against him.