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Remembered Today:

Behind the Front: British Soldiers and French Civilians, 1914-18

Martin Bennitt

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As all GWF members should know, the time the average British soldier spent in the trenches was only a fraction of his service in France or Belgium. Much of the rest of the time he was interacting with the local population in the military zone behind the front, a population effectively under occupation and with very mixed feelings about the foreign troops they were obliged to put up with.

In this book Canadian Craig Gibson paints a fascinating picture of the relations of the British and Commonwealth forces with the inhabitants of the towns and villages in whose homes they were billeted, whose land they used for training and sport, and in whose cafes and estaminets they relaxed. This forced coexistence gave rise to much friction but also left many of the participants on both sides with fond memories.

Gibson quotes widely from official documents and reports filed by the assistant provost marshals of British units and the French military missions which acted as liaisons between the British and French authorities and provides full sources in footnotes. He relies in particular on the experiences of R.H. Mottram, author of the Spanish Farm trilogy, who spent much of the war dealing with claims by local people against the depredations of British troops, and of Major A.M. Jarvis, APM for the 2nd Canadian Division.

One thing that emerges from this densely researched and very readable book is the way the life of the peasantry and townspeople of northern France and Belgium was completely distorted by the British military presence. In some places farmers deserted the land to set up much more profitable estaminets, in others they relied on the help of the troops to bring in the harvest. They complained vigorously about the behaviour of the military, but at the same time they might provide a home from home away from the squalor and terror of the trenches.

Chapters go from the first contacts of 1914, when the British were greeted as heroes, to the 100 days, when they were welcomed as liberators, through the years of trench warfare, when they were largely grudgingly tolerated, often exploited and sometimes loved or hated. Chapters cover such topics as the administration of the military zone, billeting, agriculture, depredations, discipline and sexual relations.

Gibson's conclusion is that the British occupation was reasonably well managed under the circumstances, a fact he attributes to generally good discipline throughout the war, thanks chiefly to harmonious relations between officers and men. Not that there were no unsavoury incidents, often caused by drunkenness, including robbery, wanton destruction, rape, looting and murder, notably during the 1918 retreat. Many crimes escaped prosecution, either because the offender returned to the trenches and was killed or was protected by officers anxious to maintain the good name of the battalion or regiment.

As Gibson says in his introduction, “This study is concerned with the neglected relationships that developed between British troops and local inhabitants, the organizations and laws that governed them as much as the informal systems of communication that ultimately determined their success or failure, and what they mean for the history of the BEF during the Great War.” As such, it commendably fills a gap.

Behind the Front: British Soldiers and French Civilians, 1914-18, by Craig Gibson.

Cambridge University Press ISBN 978-0-521-83761-3

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Sounds very interesting, Martin, but unfortunately the academic publishing price of £65 for the hardback edition is a bit off-putting, and even the Kindle edition at £39 is a bit OTT.

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Sounds very interesting, Martin, but unfortunately the academic publishing price of £65 for the hardback edition is a bit off-putting, and even the Kindle edition at £39 is a bit OTT.

I didn't notice the price, I'm afraid. I found the book in the American library here in Paris. In fact on rechecking I see the price is not even mentioned anywhere on the end papers.

Cheers Martin B

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  • 3 years later...

Dear Martin (and fellow GWFers), Thanks for the kind words. The many reviews have generally been positive.


For those interested in the strictly military events, I think the topic, for a variety of reasons (the main being the focus on the trenches and combat to the near exclusion of all else), has been a difficult one to get their heads around. That said, I wholeheartedly agree: it remains a seriously under-researched area. I only scratched the surface (perhaps deeply, in some cases - e.g., sex, discipline, economic impacts), but much remains to be done (dumbfounding, to me, at any rate, are the absences of studies devoted to (1) billeting and (2) estaminets).


Admittedly, I arrive a bit late to this thread, but at least I can report that Behind the Front is now, and has been for some time, available in soft back, for the much more reasonable price of £24.99 (shipping included).




I'm attaching a photo of the cover.


Best regards,

Craig Gibson




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On 3/3/2018 at 14:32, charlesmessenger said:



Many thanks for that. I have just ordered it.


Charles M


I hope you find some merit in it. 


I remember your Call to Arms fondly. 


Best, Craig

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