Monday, April 2, 2012

Reading the "Great War" as it was lived

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
by Peter Englund

My Rating: 4 of 5 stars

If historical fiction is your cup of tea, The Beauty and the Sorrow is for you. Don't be put off because it's a hefty work of nonfiction or because its author helps choose the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Beauty and the Sorrow reads like fiction and is gripping throughout. It presents the war as it unfolds through the eyes of 20 more-or-less ordinary people whose letters, diaries and postwar memoirs are the meat of the book. Englund provides necessary background and context, but the story is all theirs.

And this isn't the First World War you think you know. It's not all rain and trenches, incompetent generals and lambs-to-the-slaughter troops.Those elements are present, of course, but Englund takes pains to show us that the Great War was more than just the Western Front. It was a truly global war, one in which factories and railways were no less crucial than battlefields, and one that involved and affected civilian populations as none before.

The soldiers and sailors you'd expect to see are all there, but among them are a Belgian, a Dane, a Hungarian, an Italian and an Italian-American, a pair of Russians and even a Venezuelan in addition to all the stock Western Front types. And they are joined by women Red Cross volunteers, a Scottish suffragette, a German schoolgirl, and an American opera diva turned Polish aristocrat's wife. The action sprawls length and breadth of the Old World, from France and Belgium in the west to Poland and Russia in the east, south through Hungary, Romania and Greece, then east again into the the heart of the Ottoman Empire, modern day Palestine, Turkey and Iraq. Not even Africa is spared: Egypt's Suez Canal was a tempting prize, and—as fans of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa will recall—Great Britain coveted Germany's African colonies and took this opportunity to help itself to them. Maps would have helped the reader follow the action, but the list of dramatis personae at the front of the book was positively invaluable.

Englund reveals the horror and the boundless stupidity of the Great War but never denies the allure that war holds for some or the sometimes sublime experience of combat.This paradox surprises and clearly disturbs even the men and women whose letters and diaries he quotes. Anyone interested in the actual experience of the war and its lingering effect on European (especially British) consciousness would be well advised to seek out Paul Fussell's Great War and Modern Memory.Likewise, readers piqued by the first-person accounts of the war in The Beauty and the Sorrow might want to follow it up with a more traditional "big picture" history. Both Gilbert's First World War: A Complete History and Keegan's First World War are excellent overviews.

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