The Beauty and the Sorrow: the First World War, up close and personal

Peter Englund follows 20 individuals, using letters and diaries to fill in the small human blanks so often overlooked in traditional narrative histories.

The Beauty and the Sorrow
Peter Englund
Alfred A Knopf
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The First World War erupted quickly. Almost overnight, the whole of Europe was embroiled, and once soldiers began to mobilise, dozens of peaceful, sleepy hamlets throughout the French countryside were turned into muddy charnel houses. All along the mazework front of trenches and No Man’s Land, an insatiable maw opened up and began to hungrily devour hundreds and then thousands of young men. And the more it was fed, the hungrier it became – on the first day of the Somme alone, it claimed more than 19,000 British troops.

The forces aligned against each other in France quickly changed tack from doing something to doing as little as possible, seemingly content to creep along trenches an inch at a time. “I don’t know what is to be done,” famously commented British commander and living legend Lord Kitchener, before the maw (in his case, at sea) claimed him too. “This isn’t war.”

Kitchener’s baffled reaction dealt specifically with trench warfare, but the war in general evoked that same reaction in the thousands of the people it touched. In retrospect, this seems almost inevitable. Although the aggressive sabre-rattling of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II had increased international tensions (and drastically inflamed the arms race) for a decade, most civilians in the West’s various kingdoms, democracies and autocracies could look at the state of their world with something like calm. The arts were flourishing; scientific advancements made headlines every week and diplomacy was in its heyday – more than one contemporary pundit wondered if mankind had finally outgrown war. The myth of Europe’s last golden summer is of course based in fact, and its idyllic nature made its shattering all the more traumatic.

That trauma is at the heart of Peter Englund’s new book The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, in which he follows 20 individuals – ranging from a 12-year-old German schoolgirl to a 49-year-old Scottish aid worker – through all the phases of the war, starting with its unexpected beginning, which catches glamorous Laura de Turczynowicz, 36-year-old wife of a Polish aristocrat, entirely by surprise. “Laura has never understood this war, let alone welcomed it,” Englund tells us, “She is one of the many people for whom what has happened is like a natural catastrophe, a dark and ultimately incomprehensible tragedy that has suddenly swept down on them from nowhere.” Laura had been an opera singer at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Bayreuth and Munich, and in 1914 she was living “all the elements of a fin de siecle dream” – but a hurried note from her husband sends her and her children scurrying for a safety they would only find years later in the United States.

This is the repeated pattern for most of Englund’s cast, chosen for their everyman qualities and all, Englund asserts, “more or less forgotten” today. This book, we’re told, isn’t meant to compete with the more traditional narrative histories of the First World War but rather to supplement them, to fill in the small human blanks so often overlooked in larger overviews. Yet in the words that link the various letters and diaries of his subjects, Englund manages to provide quite a bit of bigger-picture narrative along the way, too.

We join French civil servant Michel Corday, for instance, in Paris on February 3, 1915, and are informed, by a footnote, that on this same date, three of the men involved in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 were hanged. The actual assassin, Gavrilo Princip, Englund tells us, escaped hanging because he was still under the age of 20 when he committed the crime: “He was to remain [in prison] until he died of tuberculosis on April 28, 1918, still fanatical and still untroubled by what he had caused.”

Englund's reverence for his original sources is evident on every page of The Beauty and the Sorrow, and yet he's often forced to supplement those sources with his own commentary – not only to provide the historical framework of events, but also to dramatise the stories those original sources themselves do not. When William Henry Dawkins, a young Australian army engineer, is wounded, it's Englund, not any of his diarists, who tells us about it: "They rush to him. Dawkins has been hit in the head, throat, and chest. They lift him up from the wet ground and carry him to a shelter. Another shell explodes behind them with a short, powerful crash. They lay him down. Blood and rainwater run together. He says nothing. He dies before their eyes." This kind of poetic, even telegraphic description turns up often throughout the book, as when we join 45-year-old US army field surgeon Harvey Cushing in October 1917 at Ypres: "A light mist. Hazy sunshine. Thin clouds. A chill in the air. There is absolutely no part of him that affirms this war. Quite the opposite. The wrecks it creates pour in waves into his hospital and his daily business is to try to patch them back together ... Hardly a day passes without him washing blood and brain matter from his hands."

Englund's canvas is broad, stretching from Coventry to Constantinople, but it's in the often harrowing small details where The Beauty and the Sorrow comes into its own. When 27-year-old English infantryman Angus Buchanan's battalion is fired upon by German soldiers in Africa in 1917, the shots go high, missing the men but hitting the bee's nests hanging in the trees. "The infuriated insects attack everything and everyone they can find," we're told, "the stings of this species are particularly painful, and when the otherwise reticent Buchanan writes that the pain drives them 'almost crazy' he is not exaggerating." When Captain Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky faces a company of men in Laval who refuse his order to march to the front, he warns them, "Those of you who definitely refuse, step out of the ranks. But I warn you that I will fire at the first man who does so." When the German schoolgirl Elfriede Kuhr hears sounds coming from a dead baby, she wonders if the child might somehow still be alive: "She plucks up all her courage, takes hold and forces the boy's jaw open to give him more air. And she immediately recoils as a large blowfly crawls out of the boy's mouth." These are details that never make it into the big books, and yet they are the very substance of war's depravity.

A good deal of cinematic effect comes from the quality of those original documents, naturally – for every semiarticulate artilleryman on which Englund chooses to focus, there’s another character who left behind a far richer record. Indeed, several of those characters, though “more or less forgotten” today, were hardly anonymous journal-keepers in their own time: Cushing (an Ohio native who Englund bizarrely maintains came from “a sheltered upper-class life in Boston”) was a widely-respected surgeon and researcher even before his service in France during the war and is known even today for Cushing’s Disease, which he discovered; Rafael De Nogales, another of Englund’s characters, was an anonymous Venezuelan cavalryman during the war but a well-known memoirist and groundbreaking historian after it; the British infantryman Alfred Pollard, fairly undistinguished in Englund’s account, became a best-selling novelist after the war. And so on.

This is surely by design (Englund’s concluding paragraphs about each of his cast members deal almost exclusively with where they were when peace was announced rather than their later lives). Of course, chronicling the long and settled lives so many of these people had after 1918 would defeat the purpose of the book, which wants to show us the wild, sudden horror of the war years themselves. Every one of Englund’s characters saw something of that mess. Indeed, years later, Cushing would remember interviewing a front-line soldier who confessed: “The chief trouble now is the dreams – not exactly dreams, either, but right in the middle of an ordinary conversation the face of a Boche that I have bayoneted, with its horrible gurgle and grimace, comes sharply into view.”

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.