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

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A close-up analysis of a pivotal battle of World War I revisits the four-year-long Battle of Ypres, an engagement that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, marked the use of terrible new military tactics and technologies--including poison gas, mines, tanks, and air strikes--and forever changed the way that war would be waged. 50,000 first printing.

276 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2002

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About the author

Winston Groom

54 books535 followers
Winston Francis Groom Jr. was an American novelist and non-fiction writer, best known for his book Forrest Gump, which was adapted into a film in 1994. Groom was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Mobile, Alabama where he attended University Military School (now known as UMS-Wright Preparatory School). He attended the University of Alabama, where he was a member of Delta Tau Delta and the Army ROTC, and graduated in 1965. He served in the Army from 1965 to 1969, including a tour in Vietnam. Groom devoted his time to writing history books about American wars. More recently he had lived in Point Clear, Alabama, and Long Island, New York.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 119 reviews
Profile Image for Dan.
1,135 reviews52 followers
February 19, 2019
To this new concert, white we stood;
Cold certainty held our breath;
While men in the tunnels below Larch Wood
Were kicking men to death.

by poet Edmund Blunden

A Storm in Flanders by Winston Groom, published in 2002, is a history covering the five battles of Ypres in Flanders which spanned the entirety of WW1. Groom is a historian who may be better known as the author of Forrest Gump. More relevant to this book, Groom is a top notch storyteller who has a special passion for WW1. In this case he zeroed in on the battles of Ypres, the most contentious zone of trench warfare on the western front and where there were more than one million casualties on all sides by the end of the war. Groom’s grandfather had fought in WW1 and re-visited the battlefields in the 1920’s. Looking through his bookshelves one day the grandson Winston “found this little, thin paperback book, which was the Michelin guide to the battlefields of Ypres and Flanders” and his grandfather let him have the book. Winston kept it those fifty plus years and finally decided to write about Ypres.

I really appreciate the way Groom planned out this book. He provides a strong frame of reference by focusing on the same geographic area. Although each battle had different tragic outcomes and players, I never felt lost for a moment in the narratives. Groom’s style of writing is narrative non-fiction, so there aren’t excessive numbers of footnotes and quotes, but yet he captures the essence of the soldier’s experiences as well or better than any historian of WW1 that I’ve read. The artillery and trench warfare descriptions were quite good. This read is probably on the opposite end of the spectrum as Margaret MacMillan, equally good. I should also note that this book is in no way a lesson on battle strategies. In fact there are only three or four maps. It is really more of a narrative of the experiences.

Here are some of the most memorable passages in the book, for me, that are roughly in chronological order beginning around the time of the 2nd Battle of Ypres.

Poppies and other flowers were blooming profusely in no mans land and soil fertilized by the remains of so many human and animal carcasses and then rich beyond imagination by nitrates from the high explosive shells.

The novel use of phosgene however added a new dimension to gas warfare. it was found that any food tainted by the phosgene caused severe illness if eaten; that the gas lingered in dugouts and caught men unawares long after they thought the danger had passed. Furthermore the whole country side that was enveloped by the phosgene, nearly 80 mi.² was despoiled of vegetation; all grass, trees, leaves, plants and crops turned an ugly burned shade and died. Cows were killed in their fields far southwest only a couple miles from the French border.

At 6:50 AM some 75,000 British soldiers climbed out of the trenches, some to the tune of bagpipes and others kicking soccer balls across no-man's land toward Loos and the Germans. Initially the attack seemed successful. They were facing no more than 11,000 Germans and these were quickly overwhelmed. But then German resistance began to stiffen from the cellars of cottages and the rims of coal pits German machine guns began to rattle. The reserves that sir John had promised Haig’s men were nowhere to be seen. When they did finally arrive with nightfall coming on, the momentum had been lost. The British managed to take a couple miles of ground including the town of Loos itself but the Germans had constructed an extremely strong second line of defense behind their first. Never content to go away and fight again another day the British continued their assaults. After a month of this and more than 100,000 Allied soldiers killed, wounded or missing the battle was brought to a satisfactory halt by the Allied high command.

And there were worse things too. The Germans as might've been expected were not simply sitting in the trenches on the other side of no man's land like cardboard dummies. They not only were mining themselves but were well aware of the what the British were doing so too. The coal miners from the Ruhr were sinking shafts of their own and digging out from them to try and detect and intercept the British efforts. This they frequently did. And when they broke into the tunnels, what ensued was a series of battles beneath the earth with either man shooting, grappling at grenades and stabbing one another and going at it with picks and shovels. The British even developed a special brass dagger which was strapped to the wrist as they burrowed along at the head of what was called a fighting tunnel where various armaments and bombs were stored in case the Germans broke in

Precisely at 3:10 AM suddenly great leaping streams of orange flame shot upwards. Each a whole volcano in itself along the front. The attack was followed by terrific explosions and dense masses of smoke and dust with gray pillars towering into the sky all illuminated by the fires along a 10 mile front. Some 10,000 Germans were instantly atomized or buried alive by the 19 mines containing 1,000,000 pounds of ammonal. It was a truly spectacular event never before seen and not likely to be seen again. The earth shook for miles around as in an earthquake.

I just saw Peter Jackson’s excellent documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, at the theater. The film focuses on the British experiences in WW1 and the cinematography is based on restored archived footage. It was remarkable how similar this book was to the film in its views and conclusions.

I’ll end with the fact that Winston Groom, an American, at the outset of the book either half apologizes or thumbs his nose at the Brits, I’m not quite sure which, for writing a book about an arena of WW1 that British historians hold sacred. Aside from the last minor battle there was no significant American connection to Ypres.

5 Stars
Profile Image for Megan Baxter.
985 reviews663 followers
May 19, 2014
This is a very awkward review to write. I've spent the better part of the last ten years turning myself into a historian, see, and so I feel like I should be speaking as an expert, analyzing this book of popular history, pointing out what's right and wrong, speaking from my so-called vast knowledge on the value of a book about Ypres written by the author of Forrest Gump.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.

In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
Profile Image for Sweetwilliam.
158 reviews57 followers
September 1, 2022
“They are not missing. They are here,” said General Herbert Plumer at the 1927 dedication of the Menin gate monument. Plumer was referring to the 90,000 troops of the British Empire that were missing in action within the Ypres Salient.

A storm in Flanders is another great read by Winston Groom. He has a knack for making history read as easy as fiction, accept this is not fiction and nobody could make this up. In a war that produced nine-million plus battlefield casualties, fighting in the Ypres Salient claimed 550,000 lives and 90,000 soldiers of the British Empire are still missing in action here. Groom said he wrote this so Americans could better appreciate the corpse factory that was the Ypres Salient. It surely helped this reader.

It was here that chemical warfare was unleashed for the first time and where the flamethrower made its debut. It was a war in which mechanization outpaced tactics and indirect-fire supplanted line-of-sight artillery and it was artillery that accounted for 75% of the fatalities. The machine gun and barbed wire made mass infantry assaults obsolete and to survive, the men had to live underground in a region of Belgium known as Flanders which Groom said is Flemish for swamp.

There are several stories of men trying to dig trenches or sap only to strike bodies from the previous campaigns. This also may have been the first war that I have ever read of a first-hand account of a soldier dying by drowning in the mud of a shell crater. WWI was a living hell.

I was so moved by my recent unplanned visit to the Ypres that I decided to read this book to get a better understanding of the fighting within the Salient. I dedicate this review to the memory of Pvt. George W. Short and his classmates from Sussex who volunteered to fight for King and Country. Of the 30 that joined 26 made it overseas. Of the 26 that made it overseas, 15 made the ultimate sacrifice. George W. Short died in Flanders.

If you ever visit, make sure that you attend the last post ceremony at Menin Gate and gaze up the 55,000 names of the missing (the other 35,000 names are on another monument nearby. They couldn’t fit them all.) And one more thing: Careful if you are a relic hunter. 30 people are killed a year by accidentally detonating unexploded ordnance.

Thank you Winston Groom for writing a book so that people can relate to the slaughter which happened in the Ypres Salient 100 years ago. This one is tough to put down.

Profile Image for 'Aussie Rick'.
423 reviews214 followers
April 19, 2018
Winston Groom's A Storm in Flanders, offers the reader an interesting and satisfying overview of the fighting around the Ypres Salient between 1914 and 1918. The book is 276 pages in length of which over 260 is text. This account cannot be considered comprehensive in its study of the Ypres Salient in the Great War, for that you will need to look elsewhere. However what Mr Groom does offer is a compelling look at the numerous battles fought around the Ypres Salient, including one of the most dreadful battles of World War One, Passchendaele, the Third Battle of Ypres.

The author has attempted to give you, the reader, an insight into the lives of the soldier huddled in his wet trench under constant artillery fire, where thousands of soldiers lost their lives in daily 'wastage', even during quiet periods. The story is told mainly from the British point of view, with numerous first-hand accounts offered throughout the book. The narrative is fast paced and you never get tired or bored with the story. I have read many books on the Great War and I never cease to wonder why these brave men endured what they did and for so long.

The author provides the reader with details about the introduction of new weapons of destruction unleashed for the first time during the Great War. Stories of how poison gas was utilized by the Germans and then the Allies, followed by accounts of the victims and witnesses to the effects of gas are truly horrendous. Then follows the introduction of massive underground mines and the flame-thrower to combat the trench systems and machine gun posts of the enemy. The author doesn't spare you the details of what happened to men during the fighting in the trenches and the terrible affects of an artillery bombardment or a underground mine exploding under a trench packed with soldiers.

The beauty of this book is that it really gives you an idea what these poor men, from both sides of the conflict, had to live through. The oft told story about Lieutenant General Kiggell viewing the battlefield after Passchendaele fell, breaking down into tears, crying out "Good God, did we really send men to fight in that." still saddens me, regardless of how many times I read it.

If nothing else this, book will offer the first time reader of the fighting around Ypres a good understanding of the terrible battles fought there and will entice many to follow up with further reading. As such I can recommend many good titles to follow through on with for those who may be interested:

In Flanders Fields by Leon Wolff
They Called it Passchendaele by Lyn MacDonald
Passchendaele: The Untold Story by Robin Prior & Trevor Wilson
Passchendaele: the Sacrificial Ground by Nigel Steel & Peter Hart
Passchendaele: The Story Behind the Tragic Victory of 1917 by Philip Warner

Of these Lyn MacDonald's account is one of the more interesting in that she utilises many accounts of the soldiers who fought during that terrible battle. Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson's account also offers much new information and has received much acclaim of late.

Any person who reads this book will not fail to come away impressed with the stolid courage of the officers and men involved in this terrible carnage and if that's the least this book does then that is more than enough as far as I am concerned.
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
495 reviews80 followers
December 24, 2019
Sometimes what history needs is a good fiction writer. Although he has written other works of nonfiction, Winston Groom is best known as the author of Forrest Gump. I was originally a bit put off by his writing style, with flourishes like, “the only thing either side succeeded in doing was...to keep everybody’s coffin makers busy.” (p. 27) This style serves him well, however, when he starts describing the fighting. Some historians try so hard to be objective that they turn battles into detached descriptions of movements and tactics that sound like a chess match, but Groom's writing is intense and visceral.

He makes frequent use of letters and diaries to add a sense immediacy, but he also chooses his words well. His accounts of the fighting are vivid and memorable, and he does an excellent job recreating the misery, chaos, and horror of the fighting, as battalion after battalion was reduced to company size after a few days in the maelstrom. The fine young men who were expecting war to be the great adventure of their lives found themselves knee deep in mud and gore, eye deep in hell.

Over four years five major battles were fought in and around the Ypres salient, on a line fifteen miles long and three deep. In that small area there were a million casualties among the British, French, Belgian, and German forces, a third of them killed. The British held the salient around Ypres itself, which projected into the German lines and meant they were fired upon from the north, south, and east, and for much of the war the Germans held the high ground around the city, with full visibility of anything that moved during daylight. Much of the British effort during the war was trying to take, or take back, high ground that made their positions so vulnerable, although in every battle Haig kept hoping for a breakthrough that would allow his beloved cavalry to sweep through and win the day.

The first battle of Ypres lasted from 22 October to 14 November of 1914. After the Race to the Sea had ended and the lines stabilized, the Germans launched a major offensive to try to break through the British lines, capture the Channel ports, and roll up the Allied lines from the West. The fighting was bloody and intense. Much of the 200,000 man British Regular Army in Europe had been destroyed at Mons, and First Ypres would destroy most of what was left. Until the Kitchener divisions started arriving in the spring of 1916 the British line would be held by their Territorials (the equivalent of the United State’s Army Reserve and National Guard forces.)

The second battle was from 22 April to 25 May 1915, an attempt by the Germans to reduce the salient and capture Ypres. They were unsuccessful in their primary objective, but did take much of the high ground, pushing their lines to within a mile and a half of the city. Ypres deserved its reputation as one of the most nightmarish stretches of trench on the entire Western Front. Second Ypres also has the grim distinction of being where the Germans introduced poison gas for the first time in France. It was initially a success but their failure to effectively follow up allowed the British time to rush reserve troops forward and seal the gap.

Third Ypres is better known as the Battle of Passchendaele, a horrific slaughter spoken of in the same breath as Verdun and Stalingrad. From 31 July to 10 November 1917 the British attacked again and again in pouring rain and impassable mud. It was such a charnel house that even the estimates of casualties vary wildly, from 400,000 to 800,000. For all that, the British gained only a few thousand yards. In Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory he writes that British soldiers regarded the Somme as a tragedy, but Passchendaele as a crime.

The Battle of the Lys, also known as the fourth battle of Ypres, took place from 7 to 29 April 1918, as part of the German spring offensive. Although the German attacks eventually ran out of momentum and were halted, they pushed as much as 30 miles into the British lines and for a time it seemed that they had won the war. All of the ground taken at Passchendaele, at such an enormous cost in blood, was lost in three days.

And finally, the fifth battle of Ypres was from 28 September to 2 October 1918, part of the valedictory push of the Allies in the closing weeks of the war. The Germans had finally been broken, and the British swept back over the territory they had lost and much more as the German army retreated to the Rhine.

What the British troops in Flanders endured is almost beyond description. In Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer he comments that it was accepted that infantry battalions turned over their personnel every four months, the men killed, wounded, captured, missing, sick, or transferred. When wounded or sick men recovered and came back to their units they found very few men, officer or enlisted, whom they had known from before. Of all the deadly, horrible places along the Western Front that soldiers could find themselves, Flanders was one of the worst. This book does a good job recreating a sense of what it was like to have been there.
Profile Image for David Eppenstein.
699 reviews152 followers
January 19, 2023
This is a really difficult book for me to review. I was introduced to the book by the reviews of other GR friends and was intrigued. I bought the book and began a reading experience that is not easily expressed. The author is something of an amateur historian with his best known work being fiction. This book is so far from fiction as to be in another universe. I have read histories of the marines in the Pacific during WWII and couldn’t imagine worse conditions for men to endure under any circumstances. Then I read this book. I have also read histories of WWI and knew it was bad, even very bad. I never imagined the conditions depicted in this book as the author relates the conditions as recorded in diaries and letters of actual combatants. And this book only covers one segment, the Ypres salient, of the 400 mile long trench system that was WWI’s field of combat. Nevertheless, I had trouble making it through this relatively short book of 262 pages of text. Why?

The book is well written and informative and a book non-academics will be able to appreciate but it affected me in a strange way. After reading page after page of horrific and ghastly conditions these innocent men on both sides were subjected to I found myself becoming dulled by the events described. The incompetence and ineptitude of the leadership was an expected condition of warfare in transition from 19th century formalities to 20th century mechanization and scientific advances. Every advance in military technology usually occurs without the full knowledge and understanding of military leadership and to the detriment of those these leaders command. Consequently, men suffer from the ignorance of their leaders. In WWI these consequences were measured in hundreds of thousands of needless casualties. After reading what amounted to a non-stop litany of barbaric misery for soldiers on the line at the direction of the “chateau generals” I started nodding off. I got bored with a subject that is anything but boring. I wondered if this affect was similar to how these soldiers in this war became immune to the horrors that surrounded them. Was merely reading about this horror enough to dull one’s senses? I don’t know but finishing this book became a chore for me but it was one that I had to complete. I would recommend this book but only for people that can deal with a war fought under conditions beyond imagination. This really should have been the war to end all wars.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
740 reviews91 followers
April 18, 2021
Mr. Groom turns his sights to WWI. He does not disappoint, this is an excellently written and researched piece of history.
Profile Image for Mike.
1,138 reviews151 followers
November 14, 2020
I did not find this one as interesting as I had hoped. On the plus side, his descriptions of the awful conditions the soldiers had to endure is hard to read but you have to admire the grit and determination of the soldiers to take it. He gives a wide but thin history of the Ypres battles and some of the surrounding battles. That was his goal. He spent more time than I hoped on events away from the battlefield, too much given it was a short history. The build up to the main events at Ypres is not very good. A much better account is Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914. I guess I had too high expectations for the book. Good overview and 3 Stars for me.
Profile Image for Jeff Rowe.
132 reviews
October 23, 2014
Here's what I learned from this book: WWI really sucked. The key here is that I already knew this, but the book makes you realize that, no, you didn't know this already because... How about this? At Ypres, you couldn't dig a trench more than a foot or so deep, so when the shells start coming, you're laying in a slight indentation in the earth. Or this? The shelling churned the soil to a depth of more than 10 feet, so when it rained you had 10 foot deep mud that sucked people under. If you tried to rescue them, you get sucked under, so you have to leave your perfectly healthy friend, screaming, to be consumed by the muck. It swallowed entire artillery pieces. I love the part where the British dig 20+ mines under the German trenches and blow them simultaneously. They attack right after, but the high-ground they were trying to capture is now a field because they just blasted an entire hill sky high. Even better, 2 of the mines didn't explode. Of course they forgot exactly where they were located so bummer. Turns out one of these blew in 1955 making a huge crater in some poor farmer's field. The other one is still waiting to this day. Pretty crazy stuff.
Profile Image for Philip.
1,439 reviews75 followers
December 13, 2018
I feel kind of guilty saying I "really liked" a story this horrific, but I just learned so much from it, and it was so well written. Yes, Winston Groom is the same guy that wrote Forrest Gump, but he also served as an officer in Vietnam and was nominated for a Pulitzer for Conversations With the Enemy, about POWs in Vietnam - so he's more than the "life is like a box of chocolates" guy.

Groom tells a "war is hell" story that strips away the cliche and exposes in gruesome detail one of history's - and certainly "modern" history's - greatest slaughters. It also drives home the senselessness and political cynicism of war: just read the brief and absolutely chilling paragraph on page 219 describing how at the very height of the carnage, (i.e., the Battle of Passchendaele, a full four years into a virtually non-stop fight over the same useless strip of territory), the British Government was all but ignoring the struggle, "apparently on the reasoning that it would soon die out on its own due to the onset of winter" (which itself then killed additional thousands).

At the same time, I also happen to be reading Monuments Men, and taken together I'm surprised to see what consistent a-holes the Germans were in both conflicts. I say that coming from a long line of Jungs, Irmschers, Huttles and Shmutzes, but compared to the Allied forces in both wars, their behavior was just so much worse in the treatment of prisoners, abuse of locals, and introduction of new and nightmarish weapons of war, (what is it with Germans and their love of poison gases?). In fact, I'm so mad at the Germans right now that I'm going to read All Quiet on the Western Front next, just to give them a fair chance to present their side of the story.

I can't believe I didn't learn more about this when I actually lived in Belgium for two years. But apparently there has just been so much fighting there over the centuries - the Low Countries have been the go-to place for the major European powers (France, Germany, England) to fight their battles since at least the Hundred Years War - that all that history is just kind of, like, there. (I used to drive past the Waterloo battlefield on my way to work every day, and it was basically one really big field with a hill and a single statue on top; compare that to Gettysburg, often referred to as "the largest sculpture garden in the world.") Anyway - certainly fascinating to learn about it now, and I'll definitely spend some time in Ypres next time I pass through the area.
Profile Image for Joe.
331 reviews7 followers
November 29, 2021
I know nothing about World War I. This was a good introduction to one part of it. And yes, this is the same author who wrote Forest Gump, so there's that.
Profile Image for Koen .
315 reviews4 followers
October 27, 2014
I read Keegan, Strachan, Macdonald specifically about Ypres and a couple of other books about the big war. Most are, as i remember them since it's been a while, more comprehensive than Groom is here. As he states in the beginning this book is written for Americans who might not have had the same exposure to the 14-18 stories as Europeans in general and Brits specifically might have. That, i must say, makes for a good read. The author keeps the narrative going and nowhere gets boring like some of the other books sometimes are. No extensive strategies and troop movements.
I read it to refresh my knowledge as i will visit Ypres in a couple of weeks. I thought the book perfect for that but and i think the book is as good a starting point as any for someone who hasn't read about World War I. The focus is certainly on Ypres but the author gives enough background information on the start of the war and the other big battles all in a very readable narrative.
I could imagine, after reading this, you'd want to pick up another book about Verdun, the Somme or a more comprehensive book about the leadout to this war.
Of course, the topic itself is gruwesome beyond comprehension. The grotesque, and seemingly senseless, loss of life never ceases to amaze me.
6 reviews
November 30, 2016
I discovered this book in my father's cabinet one day and, being a history-lover, I decided to start reading it. Groom does a great job detailing the horrors of the Ypres Salient (in Belgium) during World War I and dabbles a bit into how the war was started. Many of the chapters detail what it was like living in the trenches, some of the largest battles in the Salient, and what this did to the men who fought during the war. There are multiple meaningful quotes from well known soldiers at the time along with gallows humor poems that detail an average soldier's experiences. Much of the book is powerful, well written, and constantly mindful of the human perspective of war. A definite recomendation for people who enjoy war history that is told in a much more relatable view.
Profile Image for Brandon Carter.
107 reviews
February 7, 2018
Honestly this is one of the best World War I books I've read. Winston Groom effortlessly moves back and forth between the perspective of soldiers on the ground at Ypres and the larger picture of what was happening in the Great War as a whole. His powers of description are second to none, so much so that I had to set the book aside a couple of times, especially when the author describes the "hellscape" that was Passchendaele.

A very readable and accessible account from the author of "Forrest Gump."
Profile Image for Earl Grey Tea.
654 reviews34 followers
May 31, 2021
This was a surprising find on Audible's list of free books with a membership. While a very Anglo-centric work, the author stated that this is for an American audience to help them understand why visiting the battle sites in Flanders from World War I is the British version of Americans taking trips to Civil War battle sites.

Winston Groom takes the reader over a high level timeline of Britain and Germany's involvement in World War I centered around the four major battles of Ypres. Over this four year period, the author discusses major changes in the war such as technological advancements or other key events around the world. Instead of the usual narrative of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, this book focuses on Germany's political and international situation as it entered the war.

What stood out to me the most was the British planting large amounts of mining explosives under the German trenches. The subsequent explosions would vaporize the defensive lines and allow for an assault on the German positions. It turned out not all of it was fired and there are sites containing thousands of pounds of ammonal left under the Belgium countryside. One of which was accidently detonated by lightning in 1955.

Overall, this book provided the right amount of depth and width of information that I look for when learning about history. If you are newer to World War I, this is a great place to start. If you are looking for something more detailed, there are other more suitable books out there. I am putting other works by Winston Groom on my reading list based on the excellent job he did here.
5 reviews
August 22, 2021
This was the first time I’ve read a book that focused on a location and told the story of what the war was like at that one spot.

I’d not realized to what extent the majority of my war reading thus far has not done this, until I tried to figure out why I was having a harder time getting in and thru this book.
Usually the stories follow one man, or one division, and the narrative moves with our hero/s from place to place, from event to event, from glory to glory.
This was a slog in one space for pages and pages and chapters and chapters.

It stunk.

And that was just reading about it - I cannot begin to fathom what it was to live and die in.

Apart from the descriptions of gas warfare, trench warfare, war and it tactics changing as lives are turned to grist in a mill - apart from these the phrase “according to the official history” kept popping up. In a way that always caused me to wonder what the story was “off the record”.

This was a hard book to get thru - but I don’t think I can lay that at the authors feet. The opening and closing chapters were much more readable, and enjoyable - but they had the least to do with the meat of the book.

A good book - don’t know that I would reread for pleasure but worth having read all the same.
Profile Image for Noah Goats.
Author 8 books22 followers
October 11, 2019
Constant shelling, shattered corpses rotting in the mud, courage, soldiers pathetically defending themselves against gas attacks by holding urine soaked rags to their mouths, incompetent generals ordering hopeless attacks, brotherhood, shell shocked men going insane, the Christmas truce, living day after day in mud and stinking muddy water, rats, desperate fights in the darkness underground between miners and counter-miners, a couple thousand deaths along the front even on quiet days, Tommies kicking soccer balls as they charge German positions, whole towns reduced to rubble and wiped off the map, shattered men with missing limbs being brought to filthy hospitals in a world that hadn't invented antibiotics yet... and repeat for month after agonizing month. There is a monotony to books about the First World War that doesn't apply to books about any other war. The meat grinding monotony of WWI is what makes it so horrible. More men died in the Second World War, but at least there was usually a sense of progress, or the hope that progress was possible. The First World War was just day after miserable day of bloody hopelessness.

Winston Groom does a solid job with this account of the Ypres Salient. He's best known for writing Forest Gump, (which I haven't read) but he's an accomplished popular war historian. I loved his books on Vicksburg and Shiloh, and his group biography of Lindbergh, Doolittle, and Rickenbacker was unputdownable. A Storm in Flanders is good, but there's nothing here to make it markedly better than many of the other books I've read about the war.

I read this on Kindle with whispersynch, and the narrator for the audiobook was solid.
Profile Image for Don S.
192 reviews1 follower
September 22, 2023
Books about battlefield maneuvers are boring. So are those that focus on the horrid battlefield condition the combatants face. Unfortunately this book primarily focuses on both.
Profile Image for Claire.
156 reviews1 follower
March 10, 2019
Excellent primer for the uneducated American reader. Author gives great cultural and historical context while staying focused on the Ypres Salient. Absolutely nowhere near an exhaustive history but great for learning the basics before visiting Flanders or for getting your feet wet in the Great War.
Profile Image for Fredr.
80 reviews3 followers
July 9, 2021
This is a fascinating study on the Flanders section of the Western front in WWI. It is incredible the magnitude and devastation in this area of Belgium.
Barbara Tuchman’s “Guns of August” gives a broader description of the early part of the war, but Groom’s book shows the madness of the war for all four years. His descriptions of the four year campaign from the hand to hand fighting, to the gassing of soldiers, and the new modern weapons (i.e. - machine guns, flamethrowers, tanks and planes) is frightening and hard to comprehend.
Profile Image for Rich.
161 reviews12 followers
May 4, 2013
Powerful book, well written, worthy to be read by everyone. But check your heart as you begin. It is not pretty.

Groom provides an overview of the conduct of the war regarding Flanders, such that the reader gains an appreciation of all factors weighting upon decisions that at times seem brilliant, more often idiotic, and usually puzzling. The ranking officers in the British Army had their own agendas and battled the political leaders (especially Gen. Haig vs. David Lloyd George). In addition, Groom adds the view from the trenches that shows the heroism, despair, and futility of fighting in the trenches. The contrast between what the Generals knew and what the men experienced comes through in this perspective from General Haig’s chief of staff after the battle of Passchendaele (in 1917).

The day that Passchendaele fell, Haig’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Launcelot Kiggell, went forward to see the battle area for the first time. Nearing Ypres in his big Rolls-Royce staff car Kiggell was first amazed, then dismayed, and finally horrified at the breathtaking morass where the battle had taken place: an almost indescribable sea of mud littered with the bloated, rotten carcasses of artillery horses, smashed guns and wagons, and other detritus of war. He is reported to have broken into tears, crying out, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” His companion, an officer who had been in the battle, told Kiggell, “It’s worse further on up.” (pp. 224-5)

The brutality of war comes through as the mud intensified the drudgery of daily life. And in this case brought horrendous choices.

One sergeant related: “We heard screaming coming from another crater a bit away. I went over to investigate with a couple of the lads. It was a big hole and there was a fellow of the 8th Suffolks in it up to his shoulders. So I said, ‘Get your rifles, one man in the middle to stretch them out, make a chain and let him get hold of it.’ But it was no use. It was too far to stretch, we couldn’t get any force on it, and the more we pulled and the more he struggled the further he seemed to go down. He went down gradually. He kept begging us to shoot him. But we couldn’t shoot him. Who could shoot him? We stayed with him, watching him go down in the mud. And he died. He wasn’t the only one. There must have been thousands up there who died in the mud.” (pp. 214-5)

The ghastly image cuts through any civility that anyone tried to put on the war and the consequences.

This is a hard book to read, but a necessary read. We get immune to the ugly, harsh realities of life, if we only watch what we want on TV/internet, etc. This book opens our eyes at several levels to challenge the status quo of indifference.
Profile Image for Marks54.
1,367 reviews1,160 followers
August 29, 2015
This book presents a short overview of the Flanders campaign in WWI. It is the history of one long and destructive battle -- written by the author of Forrest Gump. Groom is a good story teller and succeeds in this book. It is claimed that this is a book about a campaign in Belgium that was British rather than French but also a book written for Americans to provide an introduction to WWI, a war that has not received the attention it should in the US relative to WW2, Vietnam, and other conflicts. I don't know that I would have been persuaded by this overall motivation had I not visited the area last year. The Ypres area and especially the Menon Gate is immensely popular with British tourists (war tourists?) to a much greater extent than other WWI battlefields we visited. That may change next year, owing to the centennial of the start of the Somme campaign. So I am convinced that the fighting in this area has a British focus. The need for a book to reintroduce WWI to Americans is also plausible. I noticed this last year when we visited several large American grave sites and war memorials in the area and saw few if any other American visitors.

While the material is this book is well known - although Groom makes good use of memoirs and diaries -- the greatest value of the book is in conveying the brutality and unnarural nature of WWI in Flanders, with scenes and stories that seem like they took place on another planet. The sense of continuous fighting for years along a broad front where thousands died even on quiet days is hard to imagine today, even if one visits the battlefields and looks at the scene direcctly. The more accounts I read of this time, the more ghastly and complex it seems. It is difficult to imagine how regular people survived it.

Groom's book is a good introduction.
Profile Image for Alex Crowther.
21 reviews1 follower
July 29, 2013
When you think your life is bad, you need only to read a chapter of so of this book to realize how good you have it. The Ypres Salient was formed at the end of the first German advance in WWII during the "Race to the Sea" where both sides entrenched their positions. When the Germans realized that the war had changed from a war of manoeuvre to a war of static position, they chose the best terrain available for their positions. As such, they took the high ground which dominated Ypres to the north, east and south. The British occupied the town or Ypres which was in the low ground in the center of the German positions. From their positions on the high ground, the Germans could see everything. It is a truism of modern combat that "what can be seen can be hit" and the Germans took advantage of that to turn the British positions in the Ypres salient into hell on earth. For years the British attacked the high ground in hopes to push the Germans off. For years the Germans poured fire onto the British and maintained their positions on the high ground. There were five Battles of Ypres, including the well-known Passchendale in 1917. The British were not able to push the Germans off the high ground until 1918 when the Germans were essentially in retreat everywhere.
Casualties for the Ypres Salient are not even known. Estimates of casualties for Passchendale, for instance, vary from 200,000+ to 400,000+ for each sides. So Ypres cost over 1 million casualties for the five battles. At times the 'wastage' (British killed during normal operations, not in the offensive, i.e. people who died from sniper fire, slipping and drowning in mud etc) was 1,000 a day.
Not for the faint of heart, this is a very good book about what human beings can do in the face of adversity.
1,001 reviews4 followers
July 8, 2015
3 1/2. I have read enough military history to know that if you are well-versed in this war the book is really not great at drilling down. I am not entrenched (sorry) in this subject matter yet, so I found it fairly enjoyable.
Profile Image for Carlee.
151 reviews33 followers
July 8, 2017

Winston Groom, most known for Forrest Gump, tells the sombre story of the battle at the Ypres Salient from an American perspective. Groom provides historical details and personal accounts of the "gigantic corpse factory" that the Belgium land became during the four year battle.

The Ypres Salient in Belgium Flanders was the most notorious and dreaded place in all of the First World War, probably of any war in history.

Written with flourishes and cringe-worthy imagery often found in fiction, Groom relates the terrible events that occurred over the course of four years (1914-1918). Everything from the German's first use of poisonous gas in warfare to Britain's detonation of mines in the Battle of Messines, A Storm in Flanders doesn't skip a beat. The land becomes littered with corpses throughout the tug-of-war for control of the land to the extent that statisticians can only estimate the total number of lives lost. Groom's detailed narrative has reader's seeing, hearing and smelling the battle on a physical level.

It was said you could smell the battlefield miles before you ever reached it.

Groom gives enough background story to make the cause of the war understandable without giving too much detail to lose the reader in politics. Incorporating soldiers' diaries and personal letters to home is a constant reminder of the truth in the horrific details.

It was in this small confine of Belgium from 1914 to 1918 that more than a million soldiers were shot, bayoneted, bludgeoned, bombed, grenaded, gasses, incinerated by flamethrowers, drowned in shell craters, smothered by caved-in trenches, blown to pieces by artillery shells. It became one of the most vast graveyards on earth.

Readers learn of what the soldiers on both sides had to endure and the grave cost of a country at war. The tactics and strategies that were born in Flanders would be used again in future wars. If history books were written in a similar fashion, even the most unenthusiastic scholar would have no difficulty recalling historical events. The result is known beforehand, but the path to the destination is haunting and a tale that needs to be told and remembered because the consequences of war are long-lasting.

Today Belgian farmers are still plowing up tons of old shells and explosives each year.

My personal reflection:
I'm not one to typically read historical nonfiction only because every single time I've tried, I get bored and find myself daydreaming while reading. I'm not a history buff and don't pretend to be and that is, in part, due to the fact that I lose interest when reading history texts. Movies, there's enough explosions to keep me watching, but books the explosions are a little different.

Winston Groom, however, is a wonderful writer. He knows just when to provide terrifying images and just when to insert personal accounts of the war. The balance of those along with the details of the battle that can be found in any history book had me turning pages (clicking my Kindle if we're being honest) until the wee hours of the morning. 

I had heard of the Ypres Salient, but did not know much about what happened there or how difficult the battle had been or the large number of lives lost. I knew it was one of the moments that changed the war and all future wars because strategies, like using flamethrowers and poison gas, were first used in the Ypres Salient, but repeated later on in history. 

Honestly, there were parts of this book that gave me nightmares. I cannot even begin to relate to what those soldiers must have felt when they saw walls of flames from flamethrowers coming their way or the constant barrage of artillery shells. The near escapes from being blown to bits and pieces by grenades and the fear of watching men slowly suffocate because of inhaling poison. 

The images in this book are not only haunting because of their descriptions but also because they're real. These events really happened. It is a part of history and it should never be forgotten. 

Groom truly did an amazing job telling the story of the Ypres Salient in a way that had me on the edge of my seat and cringing while I read.

Profile Image for Hannah.
532 reviews6 followers
February 7, 2021
WW1: Ypres

If my WW1 reading project has shown me anything, it's that I'm a popular history kind of girl. I tried reading The Guns of August back in the fall, to get a fuller picture of the Marne/First Battle of Ypres, but it proved too tedious and sent me searching for an alternative account. Enter Winston Groom. He offers a readable summary of events that covers not only the First Battle of Ypres, but of all four offensives along the Salient (bulge) from 1914-1918. Some things I learned:

**Ypres was a town in western Belgium that became one of (if not the) worst fronts of the war. The BEF remained there during all four years of fighting, and it's estimated that nearly every British soldier passed through Ypres at some point during the war. Although it's pronounced Ee-pra, the British (in characteristic Tommy-fashion) christened their new home "Wipers" instead.

**Geography played a major part in the hellish living/fighting conditions that developed around Ypres. Most of Belgium's coast, like its neighbor the Netherlands, is made up of reclaimed land. The water table is no more than two feet below ground, which is less than ideal when you're trying to dig trenches. In addition, constant artillery barrages created a moonscape of craters that filled with- you guessed it- water, especially from fall/winter rains. At Passchendaele the trenches and craters filled with mud, which frequently swallowed men whole.

**-1st battle of Ypres (Oct-Nov 1914) = the "battle lines" aka trenches were drawn
-2nd battle of Ypres (Apr-May 1915) = the Germans unleashed their new weapon, poison gas
-3rd battle of Ypres (Jul-Nov 1917) = Passchendaele, a horrific scene of mud, chaos and loss of life
-4th battle of Ypres (Apr 1918) = the Germans last offensive push, which (thanks in large part to the newly arrived Americans who were not nearly as battle weary as the Brits) ended in defeat

**Random trivia worth remembering:
-The Belgian king flooded the land to stop the German advance
-Old Bill comics
-Fake trees used by snipers
-Talbot House, the "every man's club"
-Clay kickers
-The Paris guns/Big Bertha

Reading this made me thankful for my nice warm bed, clean clothes and quiet neighborhood—blessings I'm sure none of the soldiers who fought at Ypres ever took for granted again.
Profile Image for Ken.
31 reviews
June 7, 2017
After my earlier trysts with the subject of WW1 (Catastrophe and partially in The Iron Kingdom), I finally found a book that I hold in high regard in equal footing to the book that gave me a boost from curiosity to outright fascination: The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. And if I could clarify on what I said, I mean fascination as in the attention to detail in all aspects of the war in terms of its scope, brutality and yes, tragedy. What I mean by detail is the just as Ms Tuchman used the opening month of the conflict as an anchor in describing the events that led to the war as well as the first year's momentous events, Mr Groom uses the battlefield of Ypres in the same manner but continues to the whole war and the personalities within. From private letters of lowly privates of both sides to the highest levels of personages in the military command and political office. The battles both within the Flanders front as well as in some minor yet useful narratives of the battles outside that fateful front and how they affected the war in general (Dannenberg, Gallipoli, Verdun, Somme and Cambrai) so did not suffer from any forms of myopia or even the lack of a link. Obviously, the focus was on the British and German perspectives but the participation of the other allies and foes most especially the Canadians and the Americans were given their due. The collapse of the Russian front gets a good treatment as a prologue to the final German offensives as well as to the last year that saw the Ypres gains of 1917 virtually evaporate and then finally recaptured for the last time. The end is also sanguine as it tells of the fate of all the participants including Adolph Hitler. If anyone has any interest in the Great War and from the writer of Forest Gump nonetheless, this is a must read!
Profile Image for Charles Moore.
257 reviews2 followers
March 18, 2020
Every time I start one of these war books I tell myself that I am not interested in tactics. I want to read story. And everytime I find myself still in the end reading tactics. Groom is a lot better than some of the stuff I've read and would recommend his history (for which he is not given credit) and tries his best to tell stories.

My probem (and it is my problem) may be that like many of us we've been hammered by endless articles, TV documentaries, and book about war and history to the extent that we've given up on finding something new and different. I suppose, from the publisher's point of view, there is always a new market of readers, which there is, and which is good for the publishers, but us oldsters will just have to get over it. War is endless. Books about war are just as endless.

If you like WWI history this might be a good place, in my limited opinion, to start. His other book I've read, about Shiloh, (as well as Shelby Foote's book on Shiloh) is hard to beat but you still have to wade through an awful lot of detail to glean the horrible truth of war. In fact, it might even be said, by me, at least, that Groom's Shiloh and WWI studies dove tail each nicely which I think is his greatest contribution. I'm sure he didn't think of them as having any connection but he manages to establish one. Read them both instead of just one.

There is a constant stream of "new" editions that promise a greater understanding of WWI but mostly all they offer is a new glimpse. I can't say that Groom is better or worse simply because I don't have that many selections under my belt.

42 reviews
October 21, 2020
My knowledge of WW1 almost exclusively comes from my education - both through history and English literature classes from school - so this is the first time I've deep dived into one specific aspect of the conflict. I chose Flanders as I was due to be making a trip to the area and wanted to read up on the experience for soldiers ahead of time. This book was a stunning introduction to both the area and the ebbs and flows of the Western Front there during the war. It provided exactly what I was looking for and, had I been able to actually make the trip (thanks COVID-19) it would have made a superb companion to discovering the area.

I've left one star off for two reasons. Firstly, whilst there are a lot of examples of the first hand experience of soldiers I feel there could have been a little more. It was very focussed on the likes of Haig, French and other higher military personnel and not enough from the front lines for me. That's the same for the inclusion of German experiences. There were certainly elements of insight on how things were going for German soldiers, but I was looking for a little more.

That being said, this is an eye-opening book and I fully recommend it for anyone hoping to learn more about the devastating and harrowing conditions those in Flanders went through.
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