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

The Beauty and the Sorrow; An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund. Knopf, 2012 paper. (781)


A wonderful book. Peter Englund has woven together the experiences of twenty individuals to form a narrative of the “Great War.” Drawn from diaries and memoirs, they suggest the sorrow and something of the beauty experienced by those men and women caught up in a world at war. Englund has provided excellent explanatory footnotes to give these accounts their context.


The author follows a chronological order, traveling from one front to another: France and Belgium, the Russian front, Italy, Mesopotamia, East Africa, the Caucasus, and back. He reinforces the common view that this vast waste of human life was never guided by any intermediate objectives, only the ultimate ‘total victory.’ Initially the war was popular; by 1917 war weariness and the huge loss of life were fomenting revolutions.


We can comprehend the sorrow emanating from this seemingly senseless slaughter. Less so the beauty. But in fact the diarists often remark on the beauty encountered: the landscape, the sunsets, the sacrifices, the sense of comradeship. When fighting, soldiers experienced the thrill of combat. Their low-paying civilian jobs offered no future; the war provided them with purpose.


Most of the time, however, they are not fighting but waiting, waiting and having time to think about and dread the next enemy engagement. They had no idea of the significance of their battlefield nor knowledge of what is happening elsewhere. They were exhausted, bored, depressed, and in some cases hungry.


Englund’s war experiences include two women, volunteer nurses caring for the bodies and souls of the wounded and dying. The wounds are horrendous; infections that would now be stopped with drugs usually meant death in World War I. Soldiers died of the Spanish flu, dysentery, and typhus and suffered from malaria, trench foot, and dengue fever. Although the care of the wounded and sick became more organized over time, it remained mostly a volunteer effort.


Many soldiers suffered a cluster of symptoms resulting from the trauma of battle; a dazed stare, shaking and stammering, difficulty walking, dizziness, vomiting, sever headaches, buzzing in the ears, a yellowish mist in front of the eyes, amnesia. This phenomenon was called ‘Shell Shock’ in World War I. In our later wars ‘Combat Stress Reaction’, ‘Battle Fatigue’, and ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.’


Several of the diarists were from the New World. Harvey Cushing was a doctor from Boston who went to France to study war surgery. He reflects on the field hospitals and their care. He is struck by the amount of wastage in the war. After a battle, the field would be strewn with dead bodies but also the detritus of warfare.


Rafael de Nogales was a Venezuelan who did not wish to miss the excitement ‘over there.’ His first choice was the German army. Rejected he offered his services to “heroic little Belgium,” then to Serbia and Russia which likewise rejected his offer. He finally settled on the Ottoman Army first serving on the Caucasus front and ultimately Mesopotamia. The Ottoman Army proved a bad choice; De Nogales openly disapproved of their shooting the wounded, prisoners, deserters, and all partisans. He tried on several occasions to save the lives of enemy airmen. He feared for his own safety.


Much has been made of the mutinies of soldiers and sailors. Mutinous behavior began with the tendency of soldiers to adopt a strategy of live-and-let-live. The famous ‘Christmas truce’ in 1914, for instance. By 1916 indiscipline was becoming serious. The contagion spread from the Austrian to the Russian army and then to the western front. On the home front there were strikes in factories and dockyards. The diary entries in the last two years of the war are much less poetic. Rumors that the war would soon be ending did not help with the willingness to fight on.


Paolo Minnelli, a trooper in an Alpine regiment of the Italian army, tells the story of an execution of two deserters in those last years, soldiers from his own unit.  The first is tied to a tree and the adjutant orders the squad to fire. Nothing happens. A second order to fire. Nothing happens again. The adjutant claps his hands, a threat to the reluctant executioners. A third command works. The second soldier’s death then follows. The firing squad is dismissed, having made its statement about the war and its commands.


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