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.”