Book Review, May 2000:

Eye Deep In Hell:  Trench Warfare in World War One
by John Ellis
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, Softcover, 
215 pages 
ISBN 0-8018-3947-5
Eye Deep In Hell:  Trench Warfare in World War One

Most works of military history  deal with grand strategies, and the movement of battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions, and armies.  These books remove war from that most crucial, human element that strikes a chord in all of us.  The authors seem to neglect the fact that wars are not fought by statistics, but by men.  And, perhaps tragically, that the toll of war is not measured in real estate gained or lost, but by lives shattered and lost.  Not without good reason, however – it is extremely difficult to capture the humanity of history, and, conversely, it is easy to fall back upon the comfortably numb history of statistics and organizational movement.

While this is true of military history in general, it is particularly evident in books about World War One.  If you have been looking for a book that will get you beyond the historians' flirtation with numbers and maps, one that depicts the day to day life of the average soldier fighting in the trenches of World War I, John Ellis’ Eye Deep In Hell is the book you want.  You will not read about the battles or the strategies involved,  but you will come to understand what it was like to live in and survive the trenches.

From the first chapter, Eye-Deep in Hell:  Trench Warfare in World War I overwhelms the reader with the sheer magnitude of the world of the trenches.  Originally built as a series of shallow, temporary shelters where troops could regroup before the next attack, the trenches evolved into a massive network of dizzying sophistication.  While some were little more than muddy ditches, others, particularly the officers’ dugouts, were practically luxurious, being finished with timbers and furniture.

Mud and stench were ubiquitous features of the trenches. WWI was fought during some of the wettest years on record in the area, leaving many men standing in water as they waited for orders to go “over the top.”  The rain also uncovered many corpses which had been hastily buried or merely left in shallow bomb craters and pulled into the mud.

Each trench was constructed with multiple right angle turns to minimize the potential for the enemy to shoot their way straight along the line if they were to overrun the line.  No man’s land, the area between the trenches, was covered with barbed wire from each side attempting to keep the other from doing so.  Listening posts were dug forward of the main line where men would sit and listen for any sign that the enemy was about to attack.  Late at night in the stillness, the men assigned to the listening posts would jump at every sound, convinced that the wind in the grass was really an attack.

Eye-Deep in Hell is packed with photographs and diagrams—at least one graphic per two-page spread.    John Ellis’ choice of illustrations and first person accounts the war draw the reader into time period.  At times, however, Mr. Ellis’ attempt to show the life of an average soldier on either side of the war leaves the reader wishing for more military detail.  Although you will not find out what guns they were carrying as they went over the top, you will gain an understanding the manifold factors that  created the essential esprit that buoyed mens’ spirits, and carried them out of the trenches and into machine gun fire one more time.

Eye Deep In Hell:  Trench Warfare in World War One  is available from  Click on the image to order:
Eye Deep In Hell:  Trench Warfare in World War One

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