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276 pages, Hardcover
First published January 1, 2002
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.