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Behind the Front
British Soldiers and French Civilians, 1914–1918


Part of Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare

  • Date Published: June 2016
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781316612217

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About the Authors
  • Until now scholars have looked for the source of the indomitable Tommy morale on the Western Front in innate British bloody-mindedness and irony, not to mention material concerns such as leave, food, rum, brothels, regimental pride, and male bonding. However, re-examining previously used sources alongside never-before consulted archives, Craig Gibson shifts the focus away from battle and the trenches to times behind the front, where the British intermingled with a vast population of allied civilians, whom Lord Kitchener had instructed the troops to 'avoid'. Besides providing a comprehensive examination of soldiers' encounters with local French and Belgian inhabitants which were not only unavoidable but also challenging, symbiotic and uplifting in equal measure, Gibson contends that such relationships were crucial to how the war was fought on the Western Front and, ultimately, to British victory in 1918. What emerges is a novel interpretation of the British and Dominion soldier at war.

    • Re-evaluates the life of British and Dominion troops on the Western Front, and how and why the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) won the war
    • Dispels popular perceptions of the BEF as a self-contained and self-absorbed entity, with neither interest in France and Belgium nor contacts with the inhabitants
    • Proposes a new understanding of military occupation set in the context of total war
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'Although the front became increasingly militarized and the [local people] removed either by their own choice or forcibly, they continued to play a vital part in the billeting, feeding, entertainment and [care] of the troops. It is a little curious, then, that the relationship between the two does not seem to have been explored too much by historians. Craig Gibson's Behind the [Front] is an excellent corrective and goes a long way to fill the gap … It adds much to our understanding and is a good read. I recommend it.' Chris Baker, The Long, Long Trail (1914–

    'Hellish trench warfare was only one part of World War I soldiers' experiences … Drawing on official archives, letters, diaries, memoirs and even survivors' novels, the book tells of liquor-filled Belgian chocolates that got around alcohol bans; prostitution, within and outside brothels that had official approval, that spread sexually transmitted diseases; civilian thefts of military supplies; and mutual suspicions fueled by language barriers and property damage.' Allan Wallace,

    'Gibson is to be congratulated for bringing back the French and Belgian character of the British sector of the Western Front.' Jay Winter, The Times Literary Supplement

    '… a vivid account of life out of the trenches … Gibson reminds us that the mud, blood and sacrifice of the trenches was just one aspect of the British experience of the Western Front.' Stephen Brumwell, The Wall Street Journal

    'Gibson's work incorporates an impressive array of primary and secondary sources and does an excellent job of illuminating the most overlooked side of World War I.' Ellen J. Jenkins, Choice

    '… 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 … densely researched and very readable … [this book] commendably fills a gap.' Martin Bennitt, Great War Forum (

    'Gibson's portrayal of the complexity of relations between the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and local populations is excellent, and should appeal to military historians and lay readers alike owing to his accessible language and descriptive writing style. For those seeking to expand their understanding of the operational challenges faced by the BEF regarding the civilian populations of France and Belgium, it is a thorough and important contribution to the Western Front experience.' Christopher Schultz, Journal of Military History

    '… this book would be a welcome addition to the reading lists of all civil affairs officers and those military professionals who wish to understand the challenges of operating in the 'human terrain'.' Lt Col Richard S. Faulkner, Military Review

    '[An] astounding book.' Yves Tremblay, historian, Department of National Defence, Ottawa

    'While there has been considerable new work on how the French and Belgian populations experienced German occupation in the war zone, this is the first scholarly book to examine what Gibson describes as the other 'occupation': that of the British Army in the surreal war hinterland of half-ruined villages, farms, and towns behind the Allied lines … Paying detailed attention to billeting, socializing, trading, farming, and army damage recompense, Gibson succeeds in revealing a more rounded image of the Western Front experience … This study has truly mined a remarkable amount of previously unused French, Belgian, British, Canadian, and Australian archival sources. The accounts by Major Arthur Murray Jarvis and Ralph Hale Mottram are particular finds, as is Gibson's excavation of French postal censorship records.' Heather Jones, The American Historical Review

    'In Behind the Front, Canadian historian Craig Gibson invites us to broaden our understanding of British and Dominion soldiers' wartime experience … Gibson explores the multifaceted relationships that developed between … soldiers and civilians, and, far from relegating them to footnote status in the history of the conflict, sees them as an integral part of the Allied war effort and a contributing factor to ultimate victory in 1918.' Anthony J. Minna, Canadian Military Journal

    'What emerges is a different picture of war experience, one in which fighting is not the whole part. Gibson goes beyond J. G. Fuller's pioneering study of the army-directed leisure opportunities (Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies, 1914–1918) aimed at sustaining troop morale to consider men's use of other avenues for recreation that had served the local civilian population prior to the war.' Krista Cowman, War in History

    'The book showcases the rarely studied military administration of the assistant provost marshals, tasked with troop discipline, and the Claims Commission, established to adjudicate civilian claims for damages.' Margaret H. Darrow, The Journal of Modern History

    'By his focus on encounters with civilians as a crucial element of British soldiers' motivation and morale in the Great War, Craig Gibson has shed new light on the willingness of millions of men to endure the war's attritional grind. In so doing, he also persuasively refutes the common notion that only severe discipline and coercion kept soldiers in line. His masterly control of the relevant archival sources and secondary literature makes Behind the Front an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to gain a foothold in the historiography of the British experience of the Western Front.' Sebastian H. Lukasi, Michigan War Studies Review

    'I've been waiting for this book for a long time - and so have my students. We haven't been disappointed by Craig Gibson's important and fascinating study. It is the first, and so far the only, major study of a unique phenomenon: the biggest ever experience of 'abroad' by British men, in which nearly 5 million spent time in France, and 600,000 lost their lives on French soil. Gibson shows the hugely varied human side of this encounter between British (and Empire) soldiers and French civilians, in which the latter (mainly women) were outnumbered by the vast influx of men in khaki. Reactions covered the whole gamut of life: love, companionship, sex, money making, food and drink, with much mutual misunderstanding, frequent resentment, but often at the final analysis a human community in circumstances of shared suffering and danger.' Robert Tombs, University of Cambridge

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    Product details

    • Date Published: June 2016
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781316612217
    • length: 480 pages
    • dimensions: 229 x 152 x 25 mm
    • weight: 0.64kg
    • contains: 49 b/w illus. 4 maps 37 tables
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Part I. Mobile Warfare, 1914:
    1. The first campaign
    Part II. Trench Warfare, 1914–17:
    2. Land
    3. Administration
    4. Billet
    5. Communication
    6. Friction
    7. Farms
    8. Damages
    9. Money
    10. Discipline
    11. Sex
    Part III. Mobile Warfare, 1918:
    12. The final campaign

  • Author

    Craig Gibson
    Craig Gibson has published widely on Allied relations in the First World War and the role of military discipline in troop/inhabitant relationships. He has received awards from the Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne, Somme; the Australian War Memorial, Canberra; and the Camargo Foundation, Cassis, Bouches-du-Rhône.

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