Tuesday, 12 February 2013

They shall not pass

They shall not pass: the French Army on the Western Front 1914-1918 by Ian Sumner, translations by Margaret Sumner (Barnsley, Pen and Sword, 2012; ISBN 9781848842090)

An account of the First World War as experienced by the ordinary French soldier and civilian, using first-hand accounts of their experiences, taken from letters, diaries and memoirs, most of which have never before appeared in English.

'I have read extensively on the British experience of the First World War, so seeking a different angle I became interested in the
experiences of the French, especially Verdun: this book delivered! Ian Sumner evokes the experiences of the first clashes in 1914, through the mincer that was Verdun, to the fluidity of 1918 and eventual victory by painstakingly painting a vivid picture directly through the testimonies of those who fought. It threw up some good insights on how the French viewed and perceived their British allies which was a revelation. Well worth a read for anyone interested in the history and humanity of WW1.' D. Cooper on amazon.co.uk. 5*

'This is the sort of book you pick up and wish you had found twenty years ago. The experience of the French Army during the Great War is still not very well covered in English and even less has been published on the individual thoughts and experiences of the roughly 8.5 million men who were eventually mobilized. For anyone who is interested in such things and has wished for years that someone would write about them, this one is for you. The author describes his aim in writing this work as being to tell the soldier’s story in his own words. The result is a series of wide ranging and lively contemporary accounts which take the reader through the thoughts and experiences of French soldiers and, to a lesser extent, civilians between August 1914 and the Armistice. The text is skilfully put together and moves seamlessly from one voice to another while illuminating the flow of events that affected Frenchmen and women during the Great War. The documents quoted provide trenchant and frequently amusing views on matters great and small, including life at the front and rear, the staff, food, gas, injury, fear, nursing, relations with the enemy, leave, the mutinies and – a frequently overlooked topic – the return to civilian life and its effect on wives and families. It is, of course, a book dependent upon translation and here I must congratulate Ian Sumner. Ian Sumner is to be applauded for this work, which is highly recommended.' Christina Holstein in Stand To! The Western Front Association




 'It is about time the stories of the millions of Frenchmen who fought in the First World War were told in an accessible English-language book, and thanks to this volume from Ian Sumner that is now the case for this book tells the history of the French Army and its battles mainly using countless translated snippets from the letters and journals of French soldiers never published before in English. An absolute must for any English-speaking students of the First World War looking to expand their understanding of the conflict beyond the narrow British view.' Bruce Officer on expertscolumn.com

'We very rarely receive books which provide us with something of a French view on the war, so this comprehensive and well researched work is doubly welcome. Much of the testimony here, published in English for the first time, comes from French soldiers serving on the Western Front. From their letters, diaries and memoirs the author constructs an honest and graphic account filled with the emotion and perception of war as seen by those who experienced it first hand. This pioneering work is to be greatly applauded and offers readers another perspective on the war. - Add it to your GW library.' Great War Magazine

'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.' War History Online

'Sumner helps the reader to understand the mentality of the French soldier of 14-18 by presenting extracts of letters and diaries from dozens of soldiers. The book is not definitive in its scope and I would have liked to see more content on the daily life in the trenches. Yet with such a lack of English-language works on the subject, They Shall Not Pass is a welcome addition to any scholar of the Great War.' Johnathan Bracken on amazon.co.uk

'A good insight to the French experience of the war and is worth getting by anyone interested in the wider war apart from British front.' Tim on amazon.co.uk

'The cover was striking - and the idea of WWI book written from another side. Being an English speaker, I had not come across an English-language book of the French view. This is a soldiers' tale of the war and, while it does broadly follow a chronology, do not expect any behind the desk views or insights into the French high command. I am currently in the middle of Verdun - so book not finished yet. It is built up on extracts from soldiers' letters and remembrances. You meet the same guys, sometimes, several times only to find a few pages later that they were killed. There is a deep sense of sadness and you wonder how any of them survived the artillery barrages, the gas and killings. And you wonder what state they were in years later. There is warmth and good humour and a lot of little snippets and anecdotes. The links back to family through mail and parcels is very inteersting - lots of real human life. The soldiers come from all walks of French life - mainland and colonial. Most are ordinary punters but there are padres, intellectuals, anti-war guys and the ordinary punters. There are no extended soliloquays on war but sometimes a guy gives a simple description that sums up so much in a few simple words - the desccription of the looks on the faces of guys being shipped back out of Verdun to resting areas is so easy to visualise.' John Gerard Shadman on amazon.co.uk

'As a student of WW1 I found this a fine and interesting book on a subject which is not often seen printed in English. Very good.' Malcolm McGarrigle on amazon.co.uk

'I have to admit that I normally do not buy Pen & Sword books because they are consistently "capped" or limited to 250 pages per topic. In my personal opinion, many promising millitary history topics cannot adequately be captured in less than 350 pages. Ian Sumner has categorically disabused me of that notion, at least in this instance. His book They Shall Not Pass adds life to the French Poilu experience in World War One like no other english language book that I have come across. A quick glance at the sources he has mined to collect the stories found within They Shall Not Pass should suffice even the most critical professional historian. He has been writing about the French Army for some time and his indepth knowledge of the subject is clearly on display in this book. The book is organized with an introduction, maps, five chapters entitled 1.) To Berlin! 1914; 2.) Nibbling at the Enemy, 1915; 3.) They Shall Not Pass, 1916; 4.) Hold, 1917; and 5.) Victory!, 1918. Bibliography and Sources add another 16 pages. Each of the central narrative chapters are approximately 40 pages in length. Though it may be hard to believe, Sumner does justice to the French Army with chapters devoted to an entire year. He demonstrates an ability not only to choose the most relevent soldier stories, but he also explains changes in tactics, weapons, and the home front. Want to find out who the first and last French soldiers killed in WW1? Their stories are in this book. Want to read about the French perspective on the Mutinies? That story is in here also, in great detail. Highly recommended.' Writing Historian on amazon.com

'While there have been many books published on the "Tommy," "Yank" and "Jerry" in World War I, comparatively few English-language books are available on their French counterparts, the lowly 'Poilu.' Fortunately, English author Ian Sumner has penned a number of excellent books on that very subject. His latest book - They Shall Not Pass - the French Army on the Western Front 1914-1918 - is a fascinating chronicle of the French soldier at war. They Shall Not Pass, a 2012 Pen & Sword Books release, utilizes letters, diary entries, memoirs, official reports and other material to paint a compelling portrait of the lot of French infantrymen in combat. Initial enthusiasm for war was replaced by the soul-crushing reality of horrid living conditions, inept leadership, endless combat with little hope of victory, etc. Incensed by the senseless slaughter, various units mutinied in 1917, forcing French commanders to make needed changes. Yet the French infantrymen never lost their grim determination, triumphing over the German invaders after four horrendous years of struggle. Having little knowledge of the subject, I found They Shall Not Pass a compelling, up-close-and-personal look at the valiant Frenchmen who fought - and often died - in the trenches. The first-person reminiscences which run throughout Sumner's book brought the grim world of the poilu to vivid life. They Shall Not Pass is a great read...and an eye-opener. Highly recommended.' Michael O'Connor on Amazon.com.

'I found this book very helpful. in giving me an idea of the hardships that soldiers. no matter the time or place often go through. Very well researched and insightful. This book does much to dispel the ignorant stereo-type of "french cowardice".' Bianca on Amazon.com.

'While this book is very detailed regarding the battles of WWI is is more interested in how the common Frenchman behaved as a soldier. I think they have been given short shrift over the years regarding the sacrifices and heroism they displayed during WWl and this author seems to have focussed his work on this issue. Just started it and like it. Not too detailed on specific battles - there are other books for that.'  Tom Kennedy on Amazon.com.

'A brief history of the French experience in the European theater of World War One told primarily through excepts of primary source material: letters, journals, contemporary journalism, memoirs. Although as a history this is fairly short and limited in scope, Sumner has done a very, very good job of putting together a huge array of sources to make this an illuminating read.' Brendan Hodge on Goodreads.com

'During the height of the Battle of Verdun the fire-eating French general Robert Nivelle defiantly declared ils ne passeront pas - they shall not pass. This symbolic phrase is the title of Ian Sumner's study on the French Army's struggle on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918. Other than a handful of specialist books there is, generally speaking, a dearth of material on this topic in English. Sumner allows the French soldier - the Poilu - the tell the story in their own words, from letters, diaries, newspaper reports and accounts written during or shortly after the events they describe. What makes the book particularly noteworthy is that the vast majority of this material has never been translated - until now. This makes Sumner's study a welcome addition which helps to explain the role Britain's ally played in defeating Germany. The conflict 'took a massive toll' on France, Sumner writes. From a pre-war population of 38 million, 8.5 million men were mobilised. Of these, 1.5 million were killed, 800,000 severely disabled and 3 million wounded. The butcher's daily bill was 890 French soldiers. The Great War for France was a pyrrhic victory, such was the devastation to its industry and manpower that France did not want to wage another war like it. The Poilu who celebrated victory in 1918 was not the same man who dreamed of advancing to Berlin four years earlier. Failed offensive after failed offensive saw to that, according to Sumner. But even during France's darkest hours during mutinies of 1917 there was the determination to resist and to hold the line. This is an interesting, well-written and informative book which would goes a long way to explaining why the French army mounted the staunch defence of its homeland that it did.' Mark McKay on Amazon.co.uk

'Outstanding book. Must have for all WWI buffs and especially those studying the French Army.' Charles W. Clark jun on Amazon.com

'This is the first book I have ever read re. the French disposition in WW I. It chronicles the sacrifices, inept leadership, patriotism and hardships especially of the common soldier as trench warfare became the norm. It is both informational and moving interspersed with letters and stories of mostly common soldiers doing mundane and heroic actions with the backdrop of extreme suffering.' Bill on Amazon.com

'Using first hand accounts of the French "poilus" (soldiers), Ian Sumner has created a marvelous compendium which superbly enlightens the experience of the French Army during World War One! I found this book to be very informative and revelatory! Summer states in the introduction that, "On average, 890 French soldiers died each day of the war." This gives the reader an idea of the immense sacrifice made by the French nation's manhood. Their perceptions and emotions as well as that of civilians are discerned in this tome. I highly recommend this volume as well as Sumner's "Kings of the Air: French Aces and Airmen of the Great War"!' P.A. Panozzo on Amazon.com

'I found this book very helpful. in giving me an idea of the hardships that soldiers. no matter the time or place often go through. Very well researched and insightful. This book does much to dispel the ignorant stereo-type of "french cowardice"' Bianca on Amazon.com

'T’s Rating System: 0 to 5 with 0 the lowest score and 5 the highest and NA for not applicable:
Content 4, Coverage of topic 4, Adequacy of descriptions 3, Detail 5, Accuracy 5, References 5, Illustrations 3, Size 3, Detail 3, Captions 2, Sufficient Maps NA, Sufficient Drawings NA, Sufficient Photos 4, Product worth the price - Yes, 3. Good description of French soldiers at war. Not a detailed history of the campaign.
' Te Bada on Amazon.com


'Good book on the French Army during the First World War. My only complaint is that the book could have been twice as long and with much more detail.' Reginald N Buchanan on Amazon.com

'The cover was striking - and the idea of WWI book written from another side. Being an English speaker, I had not come across an English-language book of the French view. This is a soldiers' tale of the war and, while it does broadly follow a chronology, do not expect any behind the desk views or insights into the French high command. I am currently in the middle of Verdun - so book not finished yet. It is built up on extracts from soldiers' letters and remembrances. You meet the same guys, sometimes, several times only to find a few pages later that they were killed. There is a deep sense of sadness and you wonder how any of them survived the artillery barrages, the gas and killings. And you wonder what state they were in years later. There is warmth and good humour and a lot of little snippets and anecdotes. The links back to family through mail and parcels is very inteersting - lots of real human life. The soldiers come from all walks of French life - mainland and colonial. Most are ordinary punters but there are padres, intellectuals, anti-war guys and the ordinary punters. There are no extended soliloquays on war but sometimes a guy gives a simple description that sums up so much in a few simple words - the desccription of the looks on the faces of guys being shipped back out of Verdun to resting areas is so easy to visualise. Interesting now to get a German view! Probably only the uniforms are different...... ' John Gerard Shadman on Amazon.co.uk

'Very well constructed history as told from first hand accounts of WW1 from the French point of view. Having read much of British actions in WW1this book has given me a fuller understanding of this conflict with its in depth description of the immense sacrifices made by France and how the ordinary people of this nation were effected by this terrible conflict.' Amazon Customer on Amazon.co.uk

'First rate account of the French perspective of the first world war . Well presented and full of interesting anacdotes.' Gary Machin on Amazon.co.uk

 

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