Book Review: The Old Front Line, John Masefield - Kathryn's history blog

Monday, 23 January 2017

Book Review: The Old Front Line, John Masefield

The Old Front LineThe Old Front Line, John Masefield  - £9.99 www.pen-and-sword.co.uk
Pen and Sword Books, 2006 edition with preface by Martin Middlebrook and an introduction on The Battle of the Somme by Col. Howard Green

⭐⭐⭐ - A poetic description of the Somme battlefields, published alongside a narration of the battle.

John Masefield originally published his Old Front Line book in 1917 as an 80 page overview to the landscape of the Somme front line. It is a sweeping narrative of the geography of the ridges and woods which provided the backdrop to the BEF's largest battle thus far.

I started reading this book on the ferry home from my Somme visit in September 2016 and it was the perfect time to pick it up. Masefield describes each part of the Somme in great detail, describing each village with a level of depth and familiarity which can make it difficult to keep up with. However, once you know the battlefields and can picture for yourself the places he is describing, they really come alive through his imagery.

He describes Ovillers-la-Boisselle as follows: 'this hill thrusts out from the knuckle of the big chalk plateau to the north of it like the finger of a hand, in this case the middle finger ... the [trench] lines cross the valley obliquely and run north and south along the flank of this hill, keeping their old relative positions, the enemy line well above our own, so that the approach to it is up a glacis.'

Poet laureate between 1930 and 1967, Masefield's artistry flows through the book, with his illustrative descriptions of all the places significant to the Battle of the Somme. It is this poetic imagery which makes it such an interesting read, making it more than just a verbal description of a map. He captures the prominence and significance of each position on the front line, like Ovillers, in a way which complements any visit to the Somme battlefields.

However, as a stand-alone text, it does not offer much in the way of unique insight into the Battle of the Somme. Masefield had not served on the Somme, but had instead worked for the Red Cross and written for the Foreign Office. Furthermore, he was denied access to the War Office records pertaining to the Somme which meant that his work could not have been more indepth.

In 1972 The Old Front Line was republished with an overview of the chronology of the Battle of the Somme, which Masefield wasn't able to write in 1917. It was written by Colonel Howard Green and while it adds to Masefield's work, providing an easy to read chronology of the battle, it is not particularly detailed or nuanced. Green does fit his lengthy introduction with the tone of Masefield, both are flowing and informal, even if Green's is not so figurative.

That being said, in recommending this book, I would recommend it solely for Masefield's original Old Front Line. I would recommend it for anyone who has spent time on the battlefields of the Somme and would like to read another perspective in order to better understand the landscape. It is a quick and interesting read for anyone building up their understanding of the Somme, but is not a seminal text on the Battle of the Somme.

Kathryn

This book review is in no way affiliated with the authors or publisher of The Old Front Line. I have not been paid and opinions are entirely my own.

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