This fabulous book is haunting and at times almost unbearably sad. There may be beauty here in the resilience of the human spirit but the sorrow of this war is all but overwhelming.
Most of us may know from our school history that World War I was terrible, but the horror of that conflict tends to be overshadowed by the conflagration of World War II and the Holocaust. The toll of human misery exacted by the First World War should not be forgotten, however, and Peter Englund’s brilliant book will do much to keep its memory alive.
Englund is a Swedish historian and now permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize for Literature. He collected the personal journals and private letters of 20 individuals who experienced World War I, and has culled these documents for a contemporary eyewitness chronicle of this war. It is not, the author makes clear, a history. It doesn’t tell you what World War I was, but “what it was like.”
And it was truly horrible. This is not a book for the squeamish. There is the misery ― the deprivation, the hunger, the separation from loved ones ― told in agonizing, day-by-day detail. There is the despair and the desperation, not only on the fronts (Englund’s 20 participants are in several different military theaters), but also among the civilian population. Despair that events have spun so terribly out of control, and desperation to salvage some remnant of hope.
Englund does not merely string together a series of excerpts. For the most part, he summarizes individual accounts in a flat, lucid prose, lending the book a narrative coherence while preserving the essence of the source documents. He tells the story in the present tense because these documents were written in the present tense. In this context, the excerpts themselves are amazingly articulate and touching.
Who are these eyewitnesses? The soldiers include, on the side of the Central Powers, a Dane in the German army, a Hungarian cavalryman in the Austro-Hungarian army and a Venezuelan adventurer fighting with the Ottoman forces. On the Allied side: an Australian army engineer, a British army infantryman and an Italian-American volunteer in the Italian army. Civilians include the American wife of a Polish aristocrat, a Scottish aid worker and an English nurse in the Russian army.
They recount events not only on the familiar Western Front but also in East Africa, Mesopotamia, the Alps and the Eastern Front. Three of the 20 do not survive the war, though their deaths, while related to the deprivations of the war, don’t always come in a battle.
The accounts provide insight into life and death in the trenches, and into the often hopeless task of caring for the wounded in hospitals, the monotonous waiting for action that seems to never come, the casual indifference of the politicians and generals and even the population on the home front. Those who experience the war most directly, soldiers and civilians alike, grow so inured to death and hardship that they simply become indifferent to whether they live or die.
One of the British soldiers comes upon some of his countrymen held as prisoners of war in such a famished state that one man he mistakes for dead is actually still alive even though a mass of flies has already invaded his mouth (“the beehive phenomenon”). The desperation to avoid the conflict reached such levels that there was a black market for gonococcal pus that men smeared on their genitals in the hopes of acquiring disease, or in their eyes though it could mean permanent blindness.
Even the humor is dark. The overwhelming sense of despair and the absence of husbands in civilian life led to a general breakdown in morality, Englund relates, so that soldiers on leave in cities entered casual liaisons with abandoned wives. One cinema owner announced at intermission that a soldier returning home unexpectedly had just entered the theater to catch his wife and her lover who he knew were there, but that the guilty pair could leave discreetly by the side entrance. Some 320 couples, the story goes, availed themselves of the opportunity.
In addition to the context he provides for his witnesses in the text, Englund includes a wealth of supporting information, explanations and anecdotes in the footnotes (these are real notes at the foot of the page, not buried in the back of the book). Only the reader in a real hurry should neglect these notes because they add to the richness of the narrative.
Sometimes it is difficult to know when Englund is summarizing the views or perceptions of these eyewitnesses or bringing his own historical knowledge to bear. The plentiful excerpts from the documents themselves, however, quickly put the reader back in touch with these individuals.
The book includes 32 pages of photographs, an enormous help in bringing the events to life. By the same token, reading these genuinely intimate accounts imbues the contemporary black-and-white photos with unexpected poignancy. The portraits of the 20 individuals telling their story make it all that much more personal.
The photos of the fronts, particularly in theaters unfamiliar to most American readers, also make the accounts more concrete. There is no map, however, which will be missed by any reader not that familiar with West European geography, let alone East African, Mesopotamian and Galician. While the Dramatis Personae at the front helps keep track of the 20 individuals, a map showing their locations in the conflict would also have been useful.
The real tragedy of World War I is that normal people with their modest ambitions of living a happy, fulfilling life are the inevitable victims of conflicts dreamed up by politicians and generals often following their own ambitions. Even those of Englund’s witnesses who initially welcomed the war quickly realized that it was a terrible mistake. Englund writes a cautionary tale for all of us. We cannot afford to ignore what is going on in distant capitals, in our own country or others, because flawed individuals running governments can wreak inestimable havoc in our lives. We cannot count on them doing the right thing.
Darrell Delamaide is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C. His new novel, The Grand Mirage, takes place in the Ottoman Empire just before World War I.