The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of the first world war by Peter Englund

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The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of the first world war by Peter Englund

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An 'alternative' history of the war, based on extracts from letters and diaries of twenty eyewitnesses around the world, some of whom died during the conflict while others survived.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: November 2011
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846683428

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In simple terms the First World War, like most (if not all) conflicts has come down to us largely as a four-year sequence of events, an acknowledgement of defeat by one side, and a peace agreement. Yet there are many different ways of telling its history, and as Englund tells us in his preface, this is not a book about what it was, but about what it was like. Though a series of snapshots in words, he shows us various stages of the conflict and its effect on people. His emphasis is not so much events and processes, but more the feelings, impressions, experiences and moods of individuals caught up in the period.

The focus is on the war years as seen by twenty different eyewitnesses from around the world, all of them ordinary people, who were involved in different ways, and who left letters and diaries. Some of them died during the conflict, while others survived and ended up as heroes.

One of the saddest was Sarah MacNaughtan, a Scottish aid worker who was 49 at the outbreak of war. On that momentous day of 4 August 1914, she noted in her diary that hardly anyone had believed in the possibility of war until they returned from the Bank Holiday at the start of the month and found soldiers saying goodbye to their families at the stations; we were breathless, not with fear, but with astonishment. She went on to serve at the Antwerp field hospital and with the Flying Ambulance Corps, but within a year she had suffered a nervous breakdown, to return home broken in spirit and die a few weeks later. Another not destined to live for long was 23-year-old Kresten Andresen, a Danish soldier in the German army, who believed it was right to go to war not for the sake of goods and gold, not for your homeland or for honour…but to strengthen your character, to strengthen it in power and will. Although records are not clear, it appears that he was taken prisoner in August 1916 and died soon afterwards, perhaps from natural causes.

Others were more fortunate. Rene Arnaud, a French infantryman of 21, was 'jubilant' at the outbreak of war, and his only fear was that it might finish before he reached the front; How humiliating it would be not to get to experience the greatest adventure of my generation! He saw action at Verdun and at the Somme, and despite his initial feelings of euphoria, was equally happy to come to the end of the four years safe and sound, glad he would no longer be pursued by the ghost of death that had preoccupied me in the same way as it preoccupies old men.

Of the same age was a British soldier, Alfred Pollard, who left his insurance company job in London the week hostilities were declared, joined the army, went to the front, and collapsed with Spanish influenza during the epidemic towards the end but had recovered sufficiently to join in celebrations when the armistice was signed. He was one of those who was often torn between revulsion and excitement, particularly when he heard talk of a possible German breakthrough on the Somme in March 1918; after the terribly boring months through which I had just passed the prospect of some fighting was decidedly bracing. Yet another survivor was Rafael de Nogales, a Venezuelan cavalryman in the Ottoman army. He left some stark descriptions of an uprising near Armenia, with burnt churches, scores of people left homeless, and groups of bodies at the side of the road, to say nothing of two great ottoman temples which had stood for almost nine centuries yet were destroyed in a single day in April 1915.

Other eyewitnesses who contribute to these pages are Pal Kelemen, a young Hungarian cavalryman; Elfriede Kuhr, a German schoolgirl; Olive King, an Australian driver in the Serbian army; and Harvey Cushing, an American army field surgeon. Between them, they make up a rich tapestry and a lengthy book, which never becomes wearisome through its 500 pages or so. There are 16 pages of black and white plates, and a brief year-by-year chronology.

As what might be described as 'an alternative history of the war', this book certainly fills a gap. It brings home the atmosphere of those years in a way which is beyond the means of many a conventional account.

Our thanks to Profile Books for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

For further reading on the theme, may we recommend Gallipoli by Peter Hart, about one of the most inglorious campaigns of the war; The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme by Gavin Stamp; the anthology For King and Country: Voices from the First World War by Brian MacArthur; and on the aftermath, The Great Silence 1918-20: Living in the shadow of the Great War by Juliet Nicolson.

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