- The Smell of War: Three Americans in the Trenches of World War I by Virginia Bernhard
Virginia Bernhard describes the origins of her new book, The Smell of War: Three Americans in the Trenches of World War I, as a happy archival accident. While researching, Bernhard noticed that three men who composed extensive primary source material shared wartime experiences in the region of Bois-le-Prêtre, a World War I battlefield known as "the wood of death." The finished product is an interesting glimpse into the wartime perceptions of three very different men recording the Great War from the same vantage point.
The Smell of War is based on the writings of Henry Sheahan, a volunteer ambulance driver for the American Ambulance Field Service; Mike Hogg, a captain leading American soldiers in France; and George Wythe, who fought in the war and also composed a history of his division. The first section of the book focuses on Sheahan's writings, which are engaging. We are fortunate that Sheahan had a background in English, as his rich work [End Page 233] seems to transport the reader to another time with its markedly beautiful literary style. Sheahan's knowledge of the French language makes his accounts particularly compelling for anyone seeking a better understanding of relationships between Allied soldiers and the perceptions of the French concerning American contributions.
The second section of the book focuses on Hogg's and Wythe's letters and writings. Readers interested in a deep, detailed military account will be most pleased with this section. Additionally, those seeking a connection to Texas history will be pleased to learn that both Hogg and Wythe are Texans, trained in the state, and served near one another in Europe. Those seeking to evaluate the American contribution to victory in World War I will enjoy Wythe's detailed battle accounts that describe full American military effectiveness during late August and September 1918.
Readers will certainly enjoy this grouping of fascinating accounts, which Bernhard has successfully edited into a single volume. An endearing aspect of the book is how each account seems to encompass both the horror and the normality that even the most terrible wars offer to those enduring them. Detailed conversations surrounding food, music, hygiene, weather, and clothing, among other subjects, give the book a vivid, realistic quality. Overall, Bernhard's wonderful book will be of interest to a large and varied audience of scholars and other readers.