Frontline Books 2018
Reviewed by Jim Graham
Hero on the Western Front is 343 pages long, including the index and footnotes, which are extensive. There are numerous illustrations, photos and maps which are generally very clear but the odd one is unclear. It is a solid book, well researched and comprehensive, it is however an odd book. Some will find it fascinating while others will struggle to get past the first couple of chapters, this is not a fault of the contents of the book but a reflection of the narrow appeal of it. The book is not about Alvin York, the action which lead to his award of the Medal of Honor or even the Great War, it is a book about the search to pinpoint exactly where the famous action took place. Kelly is a historian who is chronicling the work of Thomas J. Nolan, another historian, and his team as they try to debunk earlier attempts while validating their own theories.
The action which lead to York’s award is dealt with in a few pages as the author, quite rightly, asserts that it is well enough known and the subject of so many other books that repetition is unnecessary. Kelly then covers the evidence going through the US affidavits and after action reports as well as the German evidence. He then moves on to the main subject of the book the quest to accurately locate where the action took place. This is where many readers, and I suspect I would be one of them, will start to tune out. The writer begins by comparing the contemporary descriptions by both the AEF and their Germans opponents along with York’s own words and photos of his return to the area in 1919. These are contrasted with earlier attempts to locate the site by US officers walking the terrain and applying modern military tactics and the projects of other academics in both the US and France all of which lead to the generally accepted location. Kelly then takes us through Nolan’s expedition and the various techniques he used to ascertain what he believes is the true location.
Kelly does this by using maps, aerial photos, overlays and a thorough sweep by metal detectors mapping the finds. Using these Dr Nolan examines the fired and unfired bullets, the whereabouts of German equipment (usually abandoned when a man surrenders) and so on using these locations to deduce what happened at each site. He then built up a picture of what likely happened at each point and compared this to the narrative of events.
From a historical viewpoint the thesis holds together but I am not qualified to speak to the value of the archaeology. The book is an interesting exercise but I am not really sure what purpose it serves to try and move the site of the combat a few hundred meters. And it really is no more than that. No historical wrongs were righted, no skeletons (literal or metaphorical) were uncovered and there is no new insight into York’s actions. The book seems to be little more than academic point scoring. While interesting enough there is nothing here for a wargamer or modeller