The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War

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Overview

A highly original and revelatory narrative history of World War I that brings into focus its least examined, most stirring component: the experience of the average man or woman.

To create this intimate picture of what war was really like, Peter Englund draws from the diaries, journals, and letters of twenty individuals. They hail from Belgium and Denmark, Austria and Hungary, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and Venezuela. Some fight on the Western Front, others in the Alps or ...

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Overview

A highly original and revelatory narrative history of World War I that brings into focus its least examined, most stirring component: the experience of the average man or woman.

To create this intimate picture of what war was really like, Peter Englund draws from the diaries, journals, and letters of twenty individuals. They hail from Belgium and Denmark, Austria and Hungary, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and Venezuela. Some fight on the Western Front, others in the Alps or Mesopotamia; some never see a battlefield. There is a twelve-year-old German schoolgirl, an English nurse in the Russian army, a French civil servant, an American woman married to a Polish aristocrat—all of whom will be united by their involvement, witting or otherwise, in The Great, and terrible, War.

A brilliant mosaic of perspectives, the narrative reads with a depth of feeling and an evocation of time and place we might expect of a novel, and allows these twenty men and women to speak for not only themselves, but also for all of those who were in some way shaped by the war, yet whose voices remain unheard.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a brilliant feat of retrospective journalism, leading Swedish historian Englund allows 20 individuals during WWI to convey their experiences through diaries and letters: among them, an English nurse in the Russian army, a British infantryman awarded the Victoria Cross, a German seaman, and a Venezuelan cavalryman in the Ottoman army. Englund’s deft collation provides insights into more than the carnage; for example, a French infantryman at Verdun knows, despite lower figures in newspaper reports, that he went into battle with 100 men and only 30 returned. Lacking only a Turkish Muslim view, this book fleshes out the grim statistics of the Great War. Writing in the present tense as though immersed in the events, Englund describes typhus and malnutrition, the Ottoman slaughter of Armenians, French troops’ mutinies, erosion of European colonialism in Africa, and governments’ suppression of the extent of their armies’ losses. The eloquence of everyday participants—a German schoolgirl describes the war as “a ghost in grey rags, a skull with maggots crawling out of it”—will link the reader to the era when the origins of the ensuing century’s conflicts became apparent. 32 pages of photos. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Englund (The Battle That Shook Europe), a Swedish historian, gives us an intimate "anti-history" generated from the feelings, experiences, and moods of 20 men and women of widely ranging nationalities, ages, and wartime occupations, selected from available published primary sources. The narrative reads chronologically, often paraphrasing the individuals' words, but with actual quotations as well. The effect is riveting, as the entries—contrived from letters, diaries, and memoirs—offer glimpses into the daily lives of schoolchildren, mothers, nurses, infantrymen, pilots, and civilians as they subjectively process events across the whole theater of war and survival. VERDICT Englund adds a rich representation of voice and an opportunity for empathy not found in most studies of World War I. Although the stories seem stacked too dramatically, this is still a rewarding read.—Ben Malczewski, Ypsilanti Dist. Lib., MI
Kirkus Reviews
The Great War, as experienced by 20 ordinary people. There is no shortage of histories of World War I written from the viewpoints of the generals and statesmen who drove the grand strategies. Swedish historian Englund (The Battle that Shook Europe: Poltova and the Birth of the Russian Empire, 2002, etc.) takes a different approach, creating a history of the war as perceived by 20 individuals scattered across the globe. Among them: an Australian woman driving ambulances for the Serbian army; a Venezuelan soldier of fortune in the Ottoman cavalry; the American wife of a Polish aristocrat, whose home was wrecked and then turned into a hospital for typhus victims by the occupying Germans; a French civil servant; a Scotsman fighting Germans in East Africa, a 12-year-old German girl, and a dozen others. The war began for them in an explosion of optimistic patriotism but descended inexorably into cynicism, horror, suffering, privation and exhaustion. Through it all they endured, trying to make sense of it and bear up with their dignity and humanity intact. There are adventures and battles, of course, but also many moments of quiet contemplation with closely observed details of street scenes, restaurants, railway stations and deserted battlefields. Englund unobtrusively includes helpful background information within the text or in footnotes. The text is based largely on diaries, letters and memoirs, from which the author quotes copiously, but most of the narrative is his own, an artful condensation of his source materials into brief passages faithful to the experiences and emotional states of his subjects. Largely written in the present tense to maintain the sense of immediacy, it is by turns pithy, lyrical, colorful, poignant and endlessly absorbing. An exquisite book.
Dwight Garner
…intense and bighearted…What [Englund] has written here is an unusual book, one he describes, not inaccurately, as "a work of anti-history." It contains few big names, major treaties or famous battles…It's not so much a book about what happened, he explains, as "a book about what it was like"…The best books about World War I have often been oblique, like Paul Fussell's Great War and Modern Memory, or novels, like Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, rather than comprehensive histories. Mr. Englund's volume joins an unconventional pantheon.
—The New York Times
Gerard DeGroot
The Beauty and the Sorrow reconstructs World War I through the experiences of a few ordinary participants. Twenty lives, told in parallel, convey the war's complexity better than any of the grand histories so far written…In four decades of studying war, I've never read such a remarkable book…What makes these characters so extraordinary is their eloquence. Englund knits their achingly evocative accounts into a riveting diary of war. He fills in the gaps with background research but grafts this onto his characters' testimony so seamlessly that it seems as if the narrative is theirs, not his.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
Praise for The Beauty and the Sorrow:

“In four decades of studying war, I’ve never read such a remarkable book.”
—Gerard J. DeGroot, The Washington Post
 
"They call them the lost generation, but you'll find their story here."
New York Post
 
"Intense and bighearted. . . . The accounts of [these] lives can be terrifying or stirring, but are most fully alive in Englund's accumulation of small moments, stray details."
The New York Times
 
"History in the raw, an unconventional look at the war that did so much to shape the last century. . . . Englund has uncovered the stories of a myriad of fascinating characters."
The Boston Globe

“An unforgettable and unprecedented view of the war as seen by 20 people who took part in it but, were it not for Englund’s remarkable job of unearthing and arranging their journals, letters, and memoirs, would probably have remained forever faceless, forgotten by time. . . . Lets us in on astonishing details of the war one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. . . . Shatters the mold . . . A beautiful tribute.”
San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Conveys the war’s complexity better than any of the grand histories so far written.”
The Washington Post  
 
“Whether considered as history or as literature—it is, of course, both—The Beauty and the Sorrow is radically original in form and epic in scope.”
—Geoff Dyer
 
“A brilliant feat of retrospective journalism. . . . Englund’s deft collation provides insights into more than the carnage. . . . This book fleshes out the grim statistics of the Great War. . . . The eloquence of everyday participants will link the reader to the era when the origins of the ensuing century’s conflicts became apparent.” 
Publishers Weekly (starred)
 
“An exquisite book. . . . There are adventures and battles, of course, but also many moments of quiet contemplation with closely observed details of street scenes, restaurants, railway stations, and deserted battlefields. . . . By turns pithy, lyrical, colorful, poignant, and endlessly absorbing.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred) 
 
“A wonderfully wide and rich mosaic of personal experience from the First World War.”
—Antony Beevor, author of Stalingrad and D-Day: The Battle for Normandy
 
“Englund covers a lot of ground in The Beauty and the Sorrow, geographically, topically, and in point of view. . . . He succeeds in his goal to humanize the war.”
Dallas Morning News

“Peter Englund is one of the finest writers of our time on the tactics, the killing and the psychology of war. In The Beauty and the Sorrow he superbly and humanely brings to life all the tragedy, chaos, death and gunsmoke of battle.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Stalin and Young Stalin
 
“Powerful and compelling . . . Of the many books about the First World War this is among the most strikingly original. . . . Almost every page of Englund’s book is fresh and revelatory.”
Daily Express (UK)
 
“A literary as well as a historical achievement.”
The Guardian (UK)
 
“These lives are anything but ordinary, and the stories are absolutely riveting. . . . A fresh, varied, thoroughly convincing picture of the war. . . . There are some wonderful details. . . . Englund has chosen his voices with great care, and the resulting picture of the war in the round, with all its sorrows but also its joys, is made all the more vivid by the eloquent translation from the Swedish by Peter Graves.”
The Telegraph (UK)
 
“Englund frees individual experience from the collective cloak of history and geography [in] this extraordinary book. . . . The details build like a symphony.”
Mail on Sunday (UK)

“[There are] hundreds of eerie, moving, upsetting, and surprising incidents from the First World War within this extraordinary book. . . . Like a great novel, The Beauty and the Sorrow manages to be both more universal and more particular [than other books on WWI]. Peter Englund frees individual experience from the collective cloak of history and geography. . . . The details build like a symphony. . . . Englund writes with a calm clarity, beautifully conveyed by his translator.”
Mail on Sunday (5 stars, UK)
 
“Anthologies of war reminiscences are often lazy stuff, mere compilations of extracted passages from diaries and letters. . . . [But] Englund’s choice of witnesses and his use of their material are admirably judged. This is an anthology well above the common run. . . . This is a book about men and women living at the outer edge of human experience.”
Sunday Times (UK)

The Barnes & Noble Review

The great nineteenth-century historian Thomas Carlyle wrote that history, ideally written, should be "the essence of innumerable Biographies." "What good is it to me," he grumbled, "though innumerable Smolletts and Belshams keep dinning in my ears that a man named George the Third was born and bred up, and a man named George the Second died?" What was needed, he insisted, were true accounts of the "Life of Man," accounts that should convey the very fabric and essence of life in the past.

Prizewinning Swedish historian and war correspondent Peter Englund has triumphantly followed the course prescribed by Carlyle with The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War. Englund presents the tragic and exceedingly complex events of 1914-18 not through the traditional "battles and generals" formula but by showing us key scenes in the war through the eyes of twenty individuals who took part: military and civilian, male and female, young and middle-aged. Rather than focusing primarily on the Western Front, as so many of our war historians have done, Englund writes of nearly every area to which the conflict extended: Russia, the Balkans, the Alps, Turkey, Mesopotamia, Jerusalem, even East Africa. "This is, in a sense," Englund writes in the introduction, "a work of anti-history, an attempt to deconstruct this utterly epoch-making event into its smallest, most basic component — the individual, and his or her experiences."

One might be tempted to call these twenty correspondents from the past "ordinary" men and women. In one essential quality, though, none was ordinary: each of them, even the fourteen-year-old German schoolgirl Elfriede Kühr, possessed an uncommon gift for expressive writing. Whether their letters and journals are quoted verbatim or reshaped by Englund for his own narrative purposes, their words are so powerful and immediate that the reader feels instantly transported to the scenes they portray. Rafael de Nogales, for example, a Venezuelan volunteer in the Ottoman army who witnesses the Turkish massacre of Armenians, delivers an unforgettable image of the atrocity.

[The hillside] was crowned with thousands of half-naked and still bleeding bodies, lying in heaps, tangled, as if in a last embrace in death. Fathers, brothers, sons and grandsons lay as they fell from the bullets or the murderers' yatagans. Heartbeats were still pumping the life-blood out of some slashed throats. Flocks of vultures sat on top of the heap, picking the eyes out of the dead and dying, whose rigid gaze still seemed to mirror terror and inexpressible pain, while carrion dogs sank their sharp teeth into entrails still pulsing with life.
Richard Strumpf, a young seaman in the German High Seas Fleet, starts the war as a Christian ultra-nationalist but is radicalized by his experiences in the military, where he is given a close and unedifying look at the rigidly ossified German class system. On his battleship the officers' mess, he wrote,
resembled a lunatic asylum. But what was even more scandalous was to see the seamen begging beer, cigarettes and schnapps off these drunkards. I could have screamed out loud at the way they humiliated themselves. Some of them lost all self-control and assured the officers that they were good sailors and good Prussians, and as a reward they got an extra glass of beer. It finally reached the stage where they were cheering individual officers and their generosity.
Paolo Monelli, a member of the elite Alpini mountain infantry, depicts a scene that might have come right out of a Bosch painting: he and his comrades try to rest in their bunker while surrounded by enemy corpses. One, who in life had been an Austrian medical officer, seems to look at him accusingly. Monelli addresses the defunct man in his journal:
It wasn't me who killed you — and you were a doctor, so why did you go and take part in that nocturnal attack? You had a loving fiancée who wrote you letters, perhaps untruthful, but so comforting, and you kept them in your wallet. Rech took the wallet from you on the night they killed you. We've also seen her picture (a pretty girl — and someone made indecent comments) and photos of your castle and all the cherished possessions you had there. We piled everything in a little heap and sat around, ensconced in our bunker with a bottle of wine as reward for our toils and happy to have beaten off the attack. It wasn't long ago that you died. You are already nothing, nothing more than a grey lump crumpled against the cliff, destined to stink.
Not all of the images are dreadful, nor all the experiences traumatic. Alfred Pollard, a restless London insurance clerk, joins up joyfully in 1914 and survives four years on the Western Front, winning the Victoria Cross for heroic action at Gavrelle: Englund uses Pollard's diaries to provide a dramatic soldier's-eye view of the action, even making us understand what war must feel like for the fortunate few who, like Pollard, find complete fulfillment in battle.

Olive King, an energetic young Australian, is another who thrives. A girl from a family of means, she purchases her own ambulance and joins a women's hospital unit. Stranded in Salonica after the retreat of the Allies, she takes her ambulance and joins the Serbian army, making long and dangerous trips on narrow mountain roads. At night she and her friends "crawl through the wire and go to a small café just behind the camp. It is often empty and there they drink lemon juice and soda and dance for hours to the rasping tones of a wind-up gramophone. There are only two records of dance music — 'Dollar Princess' and 'La Paloma' — and they play them time after time." Her resilient spirit stands in stark contrast with the melancholy soul of Sarah Macnaughton, an older woman - - nearly fifty at the outbreak of war — who signed on as a nurse in one of the many private medical units that sprang up in late 1914. A firm patriot and very much a product of the Victorian age, Macnaughton finds the received ideas according to which she has so far regulated her life shaken badly after she witnesses the fall of Antwerp, in which far too many people (even including British troops!) have demonstrated cowardice and brutality. "I have found that just to behave like a well-bred woman is what keeps me up best," she confides sadly to her journal. "I had thought that the Flag or Religion would have been stronger incentives to me."

Some of the most fascinating material in the book comes from Englund's civilian observers. The reflections of Michel Corday, a senior civil servant in a Paris ministry, are among the most moving writings that Englund includes.
Every thought and event caused by the outbreak of war came as a bitter and mortal blow struck against the great conviction that was in my heart: the concept of permanent progress, of movement towards ever greater happiness. I had never believed that something like this could happen. It meant that my faith simply crumbled. The outbreak of war marked my awakening from a dream I had nourished ever since I started thinking.
A humane pacifist, Corday is appalled by the hysterical war fever - - "One dare not say anything bad about the war. The war has become a God" — and the increasing grossness and venality on the home front, with Paris now dominated by war profiteers and black market nouveaux riches. A 1916 visit to the legendary Maxim's is particularly shocking to him: prostitutes ply their trade openly and loud drunks hurl insults at one another across the restaurant's elegant interiors. Attending a performance at the blacked-out Comédie Française, Corday notices the famous statue of Voltaire tucked into a hallway and surrounded by sandbags. A more fitting metaphor for the current extinguishment of reason could hardly be imagined.

The book's most interesting scenes are those that take place in late 1917 and 1918. "[T]he people are demanding to know why their rulers are forcing them to fight," observes Corday. "It has taken four years for this legitimate desire to come to the surface." The Russian Revolution and the subsequent disintegration of the tsarist army are recounted with particular drama, and a scene in which one of our twenty correspondents, a young Russian officer, fends off a potential mutiny is one of the most powerful in the book. The captain of Richard Stumpf's battleship, SMS Helgoland, delivers an angry and impassioned speech that clearly indicates the political direction Germany will take after the collapse of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Revolutions break out throughout the old Austro-Hungarian Empire as the Habsburg regime collapses. As ever, individual participants in these events must struggle to make sense of them; the press is both censored and irresponsible, and communications are poor.

Paolo Monelli spoke, I think, for millions who endured this war on and off the battlefield. "It is not the risk of dying," he wrote, "not the red firework display of a bursting shell that blinds us as it comes whizzing down?, but the feeling of being a puppet in the hands of an unknown puppeteer — and that feeling sometimes chills the heart as if death itself had taken hold of it." Yes, these people must surely have felt like puppets, powerless cogs in a giant machine. And yet their writings reveal each of them to have been thinking, reflecting individuals, free moral agents in whom the human spark was never extinguished. If war is a dehumanizing institution, Englund's work has proven a profoundly rehumanizing project, giving voice to twenty of its forgotten, but exceedingly eloquent, participants.

Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Brooke Allen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307593863
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/8/2011
  • Pages: 560
  • Product dimensions: 6.62 (w) x 9.72 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Englund is a Swedish historian who has received numerous prizes in his own country and whose works have been translated into fourteen languages. He has also been working as a war correspondent. Englund is a member of the Swedish Academy (which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature), and in 2008 was appointed its new permanent secretary, an office he still holds.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

1914

Go to war not for the sake of goods and gold, not for your homeland or for honour, nor to seek the death of your enemies, but to strengthen your character, to strengthen it in power and will, in habits, custom and earnestness. That is why I want to go to war.

KRESTEN ANDRESEN

Chronology 1914

28 June Murder of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo.

23 July Austria-Hungary delivers an ultimatum to Serbia.

28 July Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.

29 July Russia mobilises against Austria-Hungary in support of Serbia.

31 July Germany demands that Russia cease mobilisation but Russia continues.

1 August Germany mobilises, as does Russia's ally, France.

2 August German troops enter France and Luxembourg; Russians enter East Prussia.

3 August Germany demands passage for German troops through Belgium. The demand is refused.

4 August Germany invades Belgium. Great Britain declares war on Germany.

6 August French troops enter the German colony of Togoland.

7 August Russia invades German East Prussia.

13 August Austria-Hungary invades Serbia. The campaign is ultimately unsuccessful.

14 August French troops enter German Lothringen (Lorraine) but are pushed back.

18 August Russia invades the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia.

20 August Brussels falls. German armies sweep south towards Paris.

24 August The Allied invasion of the German colony of the Cameroons begins.

26 August The Battle of Tannenberg begins. The Russian invasion of East Prussia is pushed back.

1 September The Battle of Lemberg begins. It turns into a major defeat for Austria-Hungary.

6 September Start of the Franco-British counter-offensive on the Marne. The German march on Paris is checked.

7 September The second Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia begins.

11 September Start of the so-called Race to the Sea in the west.

23 September Japan declares war on Germany.

12 October The first of a series of battles in Flanders begins.

29 October The Ottoman Empire enters the war on the German side.

3 November Russia invades the Ottoman province of Armenia.

7 November The German colony of Tsingtao in China is conquered by Japanese and British troops.

8 November The third Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia begins.

18 November The start of an Ottoman offensive in the Caucasus.

21 November British troops occupy Basra in Mesopotamia.

7 December The second battle for Warsaw begins.

Sunday, 2 August 1914

Laura de Turczynowicz is woken early one morning in Augustów

What is the worst thing she can imagine? That her husband is ill, injured or even dead? That he has been unfaithful?

It has been a perfect summer. Not only has the weather been perfect- hot, sunny, wonderful sunsets-but they have also moved into a newly built summer villa, tucked away by the lakes in the beautiful Augustów Forest. The children have played for days on end. She and her husband have often rowed out on the lake during the short, white nights of June to greet the rising sun. "All was peace and beauty...a quiet life full of simple pleasure."

It has to be said that the simplicity of her life is relative. The large villa is superbly furnished. She is surrounded the whole time by servants and domestics, who live in a special annexe. (Each of the five-year-old boys has a nanny and the six-year-old girl has her own governess. The children are taken round in a special pony-trap.) They move in the society of the best noble families in the region. They have spent the winter on the French Riviera. (The journey home was fast and simple: European borders are easy to cross and there is still no need for passports.) They have a number of residences: as well as the summer villa and the big house in Suwalki, they have an apartment in Warsaw. Laura de Turczynowicz, née Blackwell, has a sheltered, comfortable existence. She screams at the sight of a mouse. She is frightened of thunder. She is modest and rather shy. She scarcely knows how to cook.

In a photograph taken a summer or so earlier we can see a happy, proud and contented woman, dark blonde, wearing a wide skirt, a white blouse and a large summer hat. We see someone used to a privileged and tranquil life, and a life that gets steadily better. She is by no means alone in that. Though there have been rumours of unrest and distant misdeeds, she has chosen to ignore them. And she is not alone in that, either.

So it really has been a perfect summer and it is still far from over. This evening they are supposed to be holding a lavish dinner party. But where is her husband? He has been working in Suwalki for several days and should have been back yesterday, in time for the party. They held back dinner for him but he did not arrive. This is not like him at all and she is growing more and more concerned. Where can he be? She waits, watches. Still no sign. She has not been this worried for a long time. What can have happened? She does not fall asleep until it is almost morning.

Laura is woken by a violent banging on the window.

It is four o'clock in the morning.

She leaps up to quieten the noise as quickly as possible, before it wakes the children. She can see a figure down below the window. Her first, confused thought is that it is one of the servants on the way to the market and in need of something-money or instructions, perhaps. To her amazement she is greeted by the pale and earnest face of Jan, her husband's manservant. He passes her a card. The handwriting is her husband's.

She reads: "War is declared. Come immediately with the children. Let the servants pack up what you wish to bring and come on later in the day."

Tuesday, 4 August 1914

Elfriede Kuhr watches the 149th Infantry regiment leaving Schneidemühl

A summer evening. Warm air. Faint music in the distance. Elfriede and her brother are indoors, at home at Alte Bahnhofstrasse 17, but they can hear the sound. It slowly grows louder and they realise what is happening. They rush out into the street and away towards the yellow fortress-like railway station. The square in front of the station is swarming with people and the electric lighting is on-Elfriede thinks that the drab white light makes the leaves on the chestnut trees look as if they are made of paper.

She climbs up on the iron railings that separate the station building from the crowded square. The music is coming nearer. She sees a goods train standing waiting at Platform 3. She sees that the engine is steamed up. She sees that the wagon doors are open and through them she catches a glimpse of reservists, still in civilian clothes, going off to be mobilised. The men lean out and wave and laugh. Meanwhile the sounds of the music are growing louder and louder, ringing out clearly through the air of the summer evening. Her brother shouts: "They're coming! Here comes the 149th!"

This is what everyone has been waiting for: the 149th Infantry Regiment, the town's own unit. They are on their way to the Western Front. "The Western Front"-a very new term indeed, and Elfriede has never heard of such a thing until today. The war is about the Russians, isn't it? Everyone knows that. The German army is mobilising in response to the Russian mobilisation and everyone knows that the Russians are going to attack soon. It is the threat from the east that is occupying the minds of people living here in Pomerania, and Schneidemühl is no exception to that. The Russian border lies less than a hundred miles away and the main railway line from Berlin to Königsberg runs through the town, which will presumably make it a self- evident target for the powerful enemy in the east.

The same thing is true, more or less, of the people of Schneidemühl as of the politicians and generals who, fumbling, groping and stumbling, have led Europe into war: information exists but it is almost always incomplete or out of date, and for lack of facts has been padded out with guesses, suppositions, hopes, fears, idées fixes, conspiracy theories, dreams, nightmares and rumours. Just as in tens of thousands of other towns and villages all over the continent, the picture of the world in Schnei-demühl these days has been formed out of hazy and deceptive material of that kind-rumour, in particular. Elfriede Kuhr is twelve years old, a restless and intelligent girl with sandy- coloured hair and green eyes. She has heard people say that French planes have bombed Nuremberg, that a railway bridge near Eichenried has been attacked, that Russian troops are moving towards Johannisburg, that Russian agents tried to murder the Crown Prince in Berlin, that a Russian spy attempted to blow up the aeroplane factory on the edge of town, that a Russian agent tried to infect the communal water supply with cholera and that a French agent has tried to blow up the bridges over the River Küddow.

None of this is true, but that emerges only later. Just now people seem prepared to believe anything, the more unbelievable the better.

For the people of Schneidemühl, as for the majority of Germans, this is ultimately seen as a defensive war, a war that has been forced on them and which they have no choice but to see through to its conclusion. They and their counterparts in similar towns and villages in Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Belgium and Great Britain are filled with both fear and hope and, not least, with a warm and powerful feeling of self-righteousness because they are now facing a momentous struggle against the forces of darkness. A wave of emotions surges over Schneidemühl, Germany and Europe, sweeping everything and everyone before it. But what we perceive as darkness is to them light.

Elfriede hears her brother shouting and then she sees it for herself. Here they come, row upon row of soldiers in grey uniforms, short boots of pale, untanned leather, huge knapsacks and pickelhaubes with grey cloth covers. A military band is marching in front and as they approach the great crowd of people at the station they strike up the tune that everyone knows so well. The soldiers sing it and, when they come to the chorus, the spectators immediately join in. The song roars out like thunder in the August night:

Lieb' Vaterland, magst ruhig sein

Lieb' Vaterland, magst ruhig sein

Fest steht und treu die Wacht, die Wacht am Rhein!

Fest steht und treu die Wacht, die Wacht am Rhein!

The air reverberates to the sound of drums, the tramp of boots, the singing and the cheering. Elfriede notes in her diary:

Then the 149th marched up shoulder to shoulder and streamed onto the platform like a grey tidal wave. All the soldiers had long garlands of flowers around their necks or pinned on their breasts. Asters, stocks and roses stuck out of the rifle barrels as if they were intending to shoot flowers at the enemy. The soldiers' faces were serious. I had expected them to be laughing and exultant.

Elfriede does, however, see one laughing soldier-a lieutenant whom she recognises. His name is Schön and she watches him bidding farewell to his relations and then pushing his way through the crowd. She sees the bystanders patting him on the back, embracing him and kissing him. She wants to shout to him, "Hello, Lieutenant Schön," but she doesn't dare.

The music plays, a sea of hats and handkerchiefs waves above the crowd, the train with the civilian-clad reservists whistles and pulls away, and everyone in the crowd cheers, shouts and waves. The 149th will soon be leaving too. Elfriede jumps down from the railings. She is swallowed up by the throng and feels as if she is being smothered. She sees an old woman, eyes red with weeping, who is screaming in heart-rending tones: "Little Paul! Where is my little Paul? Let me at least see my son!" El-friede, standing there crushed in this jostling and jolting mass of backs and arms and bellies and legs, does not know who Paul is. Shaken, or possibly simply thankful to have something to focus on in this overwhelming confusion of images and sounds and emotions, Elfriede says a quick prayer: "Please God, protect this Paul and bring him back to the woman! Please God, please, please, please!"

She watches the soldiers march past and a little boy alongside her sticks his hand pleadingly through the cold bars of the iron railings: "Soldier, soldier, goodbye!" One of the grey-uniformed men reaches out and shakes the hand: "Farewell, little brother!" Everyone laughs, the band plays "Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles" and some of the crowd sing along with it. A long train, decorated with flowers, puffs into Platform 1. At a call on the bugle the soldiers immediately begin to climb aboard to the sounds of oaths, jokes and commands. A soldier hurrying to catch up with the rest passes Elfriede as she stands there behind the railings. She plucks up courage and stretches out her hand to him, shyly mumbling, "Good luck!" He looks at her, smiles and takes her hand as he passes: "Until we meet again, little girl!"

Elfriede's eyes follow him and watch him climb into one of the goods wagons. She sees him turn round and look at her. Then the train jerks into motion, slowly at first and then faster.

The cheering rose to a roar, the soldiers' faces crowded in the open doors, flowers flew through the air and all at once many of the people in the square began to weep.

"Until we meet again! We'll be home with you soon!"

"Don't be afraid! We'll soon be back!"

"We'll be back to celebrate Christmas with Mum!"

"Yes, yes, yes-come back in one piece!"

And from the moving train comes the sound of a powerful song. She can catch only part of the refrain: "...in der Heimat, in der Heimat, da gibt's ein Wiedersehen!" Then the wagons disappear into the night and are gone. Into the darkness and warm air of summer.

Elfriede is deeply moved. She walks home, choking back tears. As she walks she holds the hand the soldier touched out in front of her as if it contains something very valuable and very fragile. As she climbs the badly lit steps to the porch of Alte Bahnhofstrasse 17 she kisses her hand, quickly.

Sarah Macnaughtan returns to London today, 4 August, after a long and enjoyable stay in the country. The summer this year has been unusually hot and sunny and there has been nothing to disturb the profound peace that she and her friends have enjoyed. (The news of the double murder in the Balkans, which reached them at haymaking time, was quickly forgotten, or repressed, or simply filed away as yet another of those regrettable but distant events that unfortunately occur from time to time.) She writes:

Hardly anyone believed in the possibility of war until they came back from their August Bank Holiday visits and found soldiers saying good- bye to their families at the stations. And even then there was an air of unreality about everything, which rendered realisation difficult. We saw women waving handkerchiefs to the men who went away, and holding up their babies to railway carriage windows to be kissed [...] We were breathless, not with fear, but with astonishment.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2012

    Recommended

    A fascinating look at the "Great War," from people who were actually in it on both sides. The information is taken from diaries kept by both civilians and combatants; homebodies, Red Cross nurses, doctors, enlisted men, officers, It takes a some getting used to the cutting back and forth from one narrator to another but you are soon swept up into the horror of it all. The chronology at the beginning of each year makes it very helpful for those not so well versed in the history of this period.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 12, 2012

    I highly recommend this book to any history enthusiast!

    This book gives its reader a far beeter understanding about what the people of that era were actually feeling and experiencing. It delves into the lives of people from differant countries, cultures, and occupations. They were all drawn into the war for differant reasons, and all experienced it in differant ways. I've been told that only humans wage war, and to truley know and understand war you must know the human experience. You WILL know and understand WWI after reading this book.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 28, 2012

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    An enduring portrait of human lives in war

    Beautifully written, Englund does the best kind of writing by telling the story of WWI through the eyes of numerous people; one twelve, several in their 20s and some in their 40s. The cast of characters is referenced in the beginning and is highlighted by timeless black and white photos. What is most striking is the innocence of those portrayed; not knowing what to expect with the shadows of war looming and eventually how war changes all of them. The book is dedicated to a soldier who was killed in the Iraq war in 2005. Englund, a historian, is also on the Swedish academy which awards the Nobel Prizes.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2011

    An intense reading experience!

    The idea that WWI was fought entirely in the trenches of Europe is so ingrained in us that many feel calling it a world war is a mistake. In fact, it involved people from every continent but Antarctica, and Peter Englund's new history brings that home in an insightful, readable and personal way. He draws on the experiences of 20 men and women whose diaries and letters cover their experiences in various theaters from 1914-1918: an American wife of a Polish aristocrat vacationing with her children outside Warsaw; a Danish solider drafted into the German army; a Belgian fighter pilot; a Venezuelan cavalryman in the Ottoman army; an Australian woman driving for the Serbian army; a British infantryman in Africa; a New Zealander under siege in Baghdad, etc. Some die, some disappear, some survive, but each has a story rich in detail and emotion. Read it; you won't forget it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    Peter Englund has created a small miracle.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2014

    The Beauty and the Sorrow is quite simply one of the best non-fi

    The Beauty and the Sorrow is quite simply one of the best non-fiction works I've ever read. The style of writing is atypical for a history. It's compelling. It draws you in and makes you understand the realities they faced whether participants or non-combatants in an unrelenting, grinding war that was unlike any war that had gone on before it.

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