Some events are so vast and complicated as to render them ultimately unknowable. Since its end in 1918, the First World War has generated a dizzying 25,000 books and scholarly articles, each attempting to explain, describe, or understand a conflict that, a hundred years after it began, we are still trying to grasp. Long lens treatments, such as Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, The Guns of August, sweep their arms around the macrocosm of monarchies and statesmen, commandants and generals, and the vast territories under dispute. Peter Englund’s engrossing, moving, and surprisingly lyrical The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War draws history closer to us by narrowing the aperture and gazing at the small, the overlooked, and the touchingly mundane. It’s that “Intimate” in the title that does it. After all, the most personal is the most universal.
Englund, a Swedish historian, who is now Permanent Secretary to the Swedish Academy, the bestowing body of the Nobel Prize, has crafted a work that is not, “…A book about what [the war] was…but a book about what it was like.” This “anti-history,” as he calls it, focuses on the immediacy of the experiences of twenty relatively ordinary individuals who each played his or her part in the war effort. Their contributions, says Englund, “no more than tiny specks of light.” And yet, each was extraordinary, if only because these twenty men and women kept a record of their war, and kept it with a faithfulness of the artist. These “found” narrators range in age from twelve to forty-nine, and represent the full spectrum of warring citizenry: German, British, Belgian, French, Russian, Danish, Hungarian, Australian, Italian, and even a Venezuelan cavalry officer in the Ottoman army. America is represented not by General Pershing and Doughboys, but by an Italian-American soldier who crashed the party on the Italian front well before the US entered the war, the New Yorker wife of a Polish aristocrat, and Harvey Cushing, a surgeon specializing in brain injuries.
Drawn from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Beauty and the Sorrow bears witness through simplicity, humility, clarity, candidness, and an unstudied eloquence. Of course, the twenty personalities were culled from the more educated, poetically inclined, and naturally expressive classes, and their keenness of perception is rivaled only by their desire to share it. The book is organized to maximum effect by charting the war year-by-year and month-by-month, and by alternating the voices. Interwoven is Englund’s own voice, as deft translator and editor of the source materials from their original languages into Swedish. Peter Graves’s translation from Englund’s Swedish into this edition in English is a remarkable feat of syntactical elegance and emotional nuance that, when taken as a whole, produce the satisfying harmony of a chorale. This surely starts with Englund, who assumes the role not only of translating from the original French or Hungarian, he also extracts with care and sensitivity the unifying thematic threads between his subjects. This act of narrative unification through type of experience allows the war itself to be unified. The tens or hundreds of millions affected by the war shared in it as singular event, no matter where they were. As Englund is able to demonstrate through the evolving story of 1914-1918, over time it was “The War” that populations were eventually oppressed by, not the Germans or the Russians or the French.
And so, back to Englund’s elegant premise. What was the war like? Well, war is food, clothing, weather, beds, exhaustion, odors and noise. War is the yearning for warm, fresh bread, for butter and jam. War is the longing for home, for the memories of summer days in one’s youth. Edward Mousley, a New Zealand artilleryman in the British army and articulate steward of his King’s English, observes, “We are all full of longings; and the chief blessing of civilization is that it supplies the wherewithal to quieten them. Lord! For a glass of fresh milk and a jelly.” Indeed, in this version of war, in terms of hardships it is the mundane longings that stand out. Fear is overwhelmingly outweighed by the misery of sleep deprivation. French army infantryman René Arnaud is sent to relieve fighters on the front line at Verdun, one of the war’s longest and bloodiest battles. The march to the trenches takes all night, and when the company finally arrives its members are so worn out from the effort that they immediately lie down in a shallow ditch and go to sleep. Writes Arnaud, “I was on the battlefield of Verdun but was hardly conscious of the fact.”
And then there are the tears. What is also evident through the long years of war, and present throughout The Beauty and the Sorrow, is the role that weeping plays in the human story. Weeping as signifier of experience, understood by all, and not easily translated into any language. Weeping in wartime is public as well as private, and the need to weep is so universally recognized that one diary entry by Danish soldier Kresten Andresen remarks admiringly on the restraint of a pair of female French refugees who befriend him and who rarely weep, “Though they have every reason to.” The diaries are filled with recorded instances of weeping. Documented weeping, it turns out, adds to the connections the reader forms with each individual. The intimacy of the act of weeping is increased by the confession of what it was that made the writer weep. And always “weep,” never “cry.” The choice of words lends dignity in a realm in which dignity is clung to as the last hope for mankind. Twelve-year-old German schoolgirl Elfriede Kuhr weeps when she is awoken to the sound of distant voices singing a sad song in the night. Alfred Pollard, a British infantryman, weeps even before he enlists, watching a line of soldiers marching through London, “His tears were tears of envy. He wanted so much to be one of them. ‘How could he be left behind?’”
In the end, what The Beauty and the Sorrow argues so persuasively and affectingly is that war’s great evil is not what it does to people, but what it does to each person. Englund’s achievement is to make concrete a fine awareness that the statistics—over 10 million men killed in battle, likely twice that number injured, and the number of civilians who died or were scarred in other ways too high to be counted—represent an equal number of personalities, hopes, likes and dislikes, and senses such as we too possess. Early in the war Kresten Andresen writes:
We are so benumbed that we march off to war without tears and without terror and yet we all know that we are on our way into the jaws of Hell. But clad in a stiff uniform, a heart does not beat as it wants to. We aren’t ourselves, we’re hardly human any longer, at most we are well-functioning automatons who do everything without any great reflection. O, Lord God, if only we could become human again.”
The Beauty and the Sorrow hears his plea, and grants it.
About the Reviewer
Alison Powell is a freelance writer, book curator, and Literary Advisor to the Oxford Exchange in Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and is working on a memoir about The Crash of 2008. Alison divides her time between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.