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

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.