Book Review – Denis Winter, Death’s Men (London: Allen Lane, 1978)

Denis Winter’s Death’s Men is a classic of the new type of ‘bottom up’ history the emerged in the late 1970s. This new genre aimed to explore the Great War from the perspective of the average combatant and a series of books were published that aimed to do this notably, Martin Middlebrook’s First Day on the Somme and John Keegan’s The Face of Battle.

Winter’s book takes a thematic approach to life and experience of a soldier on the Western Front, from training through to returning home after the conflict. As a consequence, it exams the trip of the new recruit to France, life in the trenches, the strain of trench life, home leave, battle and what happened to men after the war.

The book is dated and, in many ways, has not aged well. It is very much of the Butchers and Bunglers school of history that was pioneered by John Laffin, Norman Dixon and Alan Clark that blamed the generals in charge for being incompetent fools wasting lives unnecessarily.

It also portrays soldiers as mute passive victims with no agency. In the face of the army, most men were beaten into the submission. Winter argues that ‘many memoirs reflect a bewildered acceptance and silence of an antagonist holding all the aces…Faced with the impossibility of sustaining dignity in a situation so often degrading, most accepted the official line’[1]

Winter argues men carried on fighting because of their stoic passive endurance which meant they were obedient to authority and made the best of a bad situation. Given that the majority were used to poverty, monotonous work, most accepted their lot.[2] While there is something in this argument, overall its impact is to portray soldiers as unfeeling robotic victims.

Finally, the book contains some pretty amazing statistics. For example, it states that between December 1915 to June 1916, 5,845 men were killed and 119,296 men were wounded conducting raids. This figure is not referenced but seems a massive over estimation.[3]

This book is still worth reading. It was highly innovative for its day, has some good research and is nowdays relatively inexpensive. However, for a more scholarly and balanced examination of the British soldier on the Western Front, the works of Charles Messenger (Call to Arms) and Richard Holmes (Tommy) are a better and more academic read.

[1] Denis Winter, Death’s Men (London: Allen Lane, 1978), p.43.

[2] Denis Winter, Death’s Men (London: Allen Lane, 1978), pp.230-233.

[3] Denis Winter, Death’s Men (London: Allen Lane, 1978), p.92.