If I should die: A Foreign Field, by Ben MacIntyre (2002)

This is another book I would have been unlikely to have read unless I had been given it. Once again, it is more narrative non-fiction that history per se. It tells the story of four soldiers, members of the original BEF who were trapped behind enemy lines in 1914 during the retreat from Mons. In microcosm it tells the tale of the many men in similar positions although none appear to have suffered quite such an extraordinary fate.

Like many, they were sheltered by French villagers, only in their case was their fate stranger. Many of these soldiers did not last long – the villagers, believing the threats of the occupying Germans (often with good reason) handed them over, or the soldiers themselves surrendered. But not our four. They survived until May 1916 when they were eventually betrayed and shot as spies. This isn’t giving away anything – it’s on the blurb on the cover of the book.

What I found with this book, even more than with the Janet Morgan I reviewed recently, is that it reads almost like a novel. While these soldiers were real people, they are treated like characters in a plot, and the narrative as if it were a tragedy complete with hero and fatal flaw. The only problem I have with this is that it is being presented in some objective sense as ‘true’ when in fact it’s nothing of the kind. It’s very readable, and very sad, but I’m not sure that it’s history.

I know that some of you who read this blog are either historians or have an interest in history, and I would welcome your views on this type of writing.

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2 responses to “If I should die: A Foreign Field, by Ben MacIntyre (2002)

  1. I like stories like this if only because they spawn greater interest in the actual historical events.

    It’s my position that most people who read historical fiction are not just average readers but people with more than a passing interest in history thus they already know that the story may not in fact be “true.”

  2. That’s true of some readers, although I would doubt it’s the case for many readers of say, regency romances. 🙂 But my point was that this is not historical fiction, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect the book to be aimed at the readers of such, but at those interested in the Great War.

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