Archduke Franz Ferdinand and wife Sophie in car before assassination

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie moments before before the assassination

The summer was more wonderful than ever and promised to become even more so, and we all looked out on the world without any cares. That last day in Baden I remember walking over the vine-clad hills with a friend and an old vine-grower saying to us: ‘We haven’t had a summer like this for a long time. If this weather continues this year’s wine is going to be beyond compare. People will always remember the summer of 1914.
– Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, 1942

Yesterday marked, as we have been reminded across the media: one hundred years since the assassination in Sarajevo that proved to be the trigger for the First World War.  Recently I finished reading The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund: if you only read one book on the war in this centennial season, I would recommend this one.  Subtitled ‘an intimate history’, The Beauty and the Sorrow tracks the progress of the war through the experiences of twenty unknown eyewitnesses whose letters and journals Englund has drawn upon to create a work that is novelistic in structure and sensibility, elegantly written, deeply humane and gripping.

For Englund’s protagonists, the war begins in an explosion of optimistic patriotism but descends inexorably into cynicism, horror, suffering, privation and exhaustion. Through it all their words reveal how they endured, trying to make sense of it all whilst preserving their humanity.  Among Englund’s interesting cast of characters is Elfriede  Kuhr, a German schoolgirl, twelve years old at the outbreak of war.  On 10 October 1914 Elfriede records in her diary the mood of intense patriotism in her school. Although Englund will sometimes quote selected passages from his sources, more often he paraphrases, as here:

This loud roar whenever another German triumph is announced has become a ritual in her school. Elfriede believes that many of them scream simply because they are hoping that victory will be celebrated with a holiday. Or that the headmaster, a tall, strict gentleman with pince-nez and a pointed white beard, will be so affected by their youthful patriotism that he will at least let them off the last lessons. (When the outbreak ofwar was announced to the school the headmaster was so moved that he wept and found it difficult to speak at times. He is the man behind the ban on using foreign words in school and sinners have to pay a five-pfennig fine: the word is ‘Mutter’ not ‘Mama’, ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ not ‘Adieu’, ‘Kladde’ not ‘Diarium’, ‘fesselnd’ not ‘interessant’ and so on.) Elfriede, too, joins in the shouting about the fall Of Fort Breendonck, not so much because she thinks that they will be excused classes but just because she thinks it is fun: ‘I think it’s wonderful to be allowed to shout and scream for all we’re worth in a place we normally have to keep quiet all the time.’ In the classroom they have a map on which all the victories of the German army are recorded by pinning up small black, white and red flags.  The mood in the school and in Germany as a whole is aggressive, arrogant, chauvinistic and and exultant.

Reading that reminded me of the scene in the schoolroom at the beginning of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front:

Kantorek was our form-master at school, a short, strict man who wore a grey frock-coat and had a shrewish face…Kontorek kept on lecturing at us in the PT lessons until the entire class marched under his leadership down to the local recruiting office and enlisted […]

One of our class was reluctant, and didn’t really want to go with us. That was Josef Behm, a tubby, cheerful chap. But in the end he let himself be persuaded, because he would have made things impossible for himself by not going. Maybe others felt the same way he did; but it wasn’t easy to stay out of it because at that time even our parents used the word ‘coward’ at the drop of a hat. People simply didn’t have the slightest idea what was coming […]

Oddly enough, Behm was one of the first to be killed. He was shot in the eye during an attack, and we left him for dead. We couldn’t take him with us because we had to get back in a great rush ourselves. That afternoon we suddenly heard him shout out and saw him crawling around in no man’s land. He had only been knocked unconscious. Because he couldn’t see and was mad with pain he didn’t take cover, so he was shot down from the other side before anyone could get out to fetch him.

That can’t be linked directly with Kantorek, of course – where would we be if that counted as actual guilt?  Anyway there were thousands of Kantoreks, all of them convinced that they were acting for the best [… ]

But as far as we were concerned, that is the very root of their moral bankruptcy. […] We were forced to recognise that our generation was more honourable than [Kantorek’s]. While they went on writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying: while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater. This didn’t make us into rebels or deserters, or turn us into cowards – and they were more than ready to use all of those words – because we loved our country just as much as they did, and so we went bravely into every attack. But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, all at once our eyes had been opened. And we saw that there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone – and we had to come to terms with it alone as well.

German soldiers on way to front, 1914

German soldiers on their way to the front, summer 1914

But it wasn’t just patriotic-minded schoolmasters who were swept along by the wave of patriotic fervour. ‘How the hearts of all poets were on fire when war came!’ Thomas Mann wrote that summer. ‘It was a cleansing, a release that we experienced, and an incredible sense of hope.’  When the call-up came the poet Ernst Toller rejoiced, ‘We live in an ecstasy of feeling.’  At the beginning of the war, patriotic sentiment was widespread in Germany, and extended to many German and Austrian Jews – such as Stefan Zweig,whose memory of the glorious summer of 1914 at the top of this post forms an epigraph to Peter Englund’s book.

In August 1914, war fervour swept all the belligerent countries, not just Germany. In Britain two million volunteered in the first six months. Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV captured this mood looking back from the 1960s with a sense of nostalgia for a world that was about to be swept away:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheats’ restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

There were those who felt differently.  The German poet Alfred Lichtenstein wrote Leaving for the Front on 7 August 1914.  Seven weeks later Lichtenstein was dead, fatally wounded in an attack at Vermandovillers on the Somme on the 24 September. Ironically, Vermandovillers was retaken from the Germans four years later (nearly to the day) by Wilfred Owen’s regiment.

Before I die I must just find this rhyme.
Be quiet, my friends, and do not waste my time.
We’re marching off in company with death.
I only wish my girl would hold her breath.
There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m glad to leave.
Now mother’s crying too. There’s no reprieve.
And now look how the sun’s begun to set.
A nice mass-grave is all that I shall get.
Once more the good old sunset’s glowing red.
In thirteen days I’ll probably be dead.

Few suspected what was to come. ‘It is not to be supposed,’ wrote a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian on 29 June 1914 analysing the significance of the assassination in Sarajevo, ‘that the death of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand will have any immediate or salient effect on the politics of Europe.’ Thirty-seven days later, Britain declared war on Germany and Europe was plunged into a worldwide conflict in which more than 16 million people died in four years.  In another book read recently, The Sleepwalkers, historian Christopher Clark shows how all the key players were sleepwalkers, ‘watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring in the world’.

Sunday, 2 August 1914

Laura de Turczynowicz is woken early one morning in Augustów

What is the worst thing she can imagine? That her husband is ill, injured or even dead? That he has been unfaithful?

It has been a perfect summer. Not only has the weather been perfect- hot, sunny, wonderful sunsets-but they have also moved into a newly built summer villa, tucked away by the lakes in the beautiful Augustów Forest. The children have played for days on end. She and her husband have often rowed out on the lake during the short, white nights of June to greet the rising sun. “All was peace and beauty…a quiet life full of simple pleasure.”

It has to be said that the simplicity of her life is relative. The large villa is superbly furnished. She is surrounded the whole time by servants and domestics, who live in a special annexe. (Each of the five-year-old boys has a nanny and the six-year-old girl has her own governess. The children are taken round in a special pony-trap.) They move in the society of the best noble families in the region. They have spent the winter on the French Riviera. (The journey home was fast and simple: European borders are easy to cross and there is still no need for passports.) They have a number of residences: as well as the summer villa and the big house in Suwalki, they have an apartment in Warsaw. Laura de Turczynowicz, née Blackwell, has a sheltered, comfortable existence. She screams at the sight of a mouse. She is frightened of thunder. She is modest and rather shy. She scarcely knows how to cook.

In a photograph taken a summer or so earlier we can see a happy, proud and contented woman, dark blonde, wearing a wide skirt, a white blouse and a large summer hat. We see someone used to a privileged and tranquil life, and a life that gets steadily better. She is by no means alone in that. Though there have been rumours of unrest and distant misdeeds, she has chosen to ignore them. And she is not alone in that, either.

So it really has been a perfect summer and it is still far from over. This evening they are supposed to be holding a lavish dinner party. But where is her husband? He has been working in Suwalki for several days and should have been back yesterday, in time for the party. They held back dinner for him but he did not arrive. This is not like him at all and she is growing more and more concerned. Where can he be? She waits, watches. Still no sign. She has not been this worried for a long time. What can have happened? She does not fall asleep until it is almost morning.

Laura is woken by a violent banging on the window.

It is four o’clock in the morning.

She leaps up to quieten the noise as quickly as possible, before it wakes the children. She can see a figure down below the window. Her first, confused thought is that it is one of the servants on the way to the market and in need of something-money or instructions, perhaps. To her amazement she is greeted by the pale and earnest face of Jan, her husband’s manservant. He passes her a card. The handwriting is her husband’s.

She reads: “War is declared. Come immediately with the children. Let the servants pack up what you wish to bring and come on later in the day.”

This is the passage which opens The Beauty and the Sorrow. One of the great achievements of Peter Englund’s book is to give a substantial jolt to what is perhaps a British preoccupation with the western front. By carefully selecting the stories of twenty men and women of a dozen nationalities Englund provides a vivid impression of the war’s geographical scope, taking in Mesopotamia, east Africa, the Dolomites, the Balkans and Russia as well the more familiar locations of Flanders and Verdun.

Among those whose wartime experiences Englund follows is Laura de Turczynowicz,the American wife of a Polish aristocrat, whose experience of war arriving at her doorstep opens the book. Soon her home is wrecked and then turned into a hospital for typhus victims by the occupying Germans. Among the rest are: an Australian woman who drives ambulances for the Serbian army; a Venezuelan soldier of fortune in the Ottoman cavalry; a French civil servant; a Scotsman fighting Germans in East Africa; a Belgian air force pilot, a fighter ace who wins medals but is finally shot down and badly wonded just days before the war’s end; and Elfriede Kuhr, the German schoolgirl diarist who lives near the eastern Prussian border in Schneidemühl (now Pila in Poland). She remains one contributor whose vivid observations of life on the home front begin with her descriptions of the mood of swaggering confidence at the outset of war, but soon shift to recording the daily hardships and increasing mood of pessimism. By the summer of 1917 she is writing in her diary: ‘This war is a ghost in grey rags, a skull with maggots crawling out of it.’

In 1918 she starts volunteering at a children’s hospital and describes the privations that war has brought; Englund narrates:

They do what they can. When the babies cannot get any milk they give them boiled rice or porridge or just tea. […] Ersatz, everywhere ersatz. Substitute coffee, fake aluminium, imitation rubber, paper bandages, wooden buttons. The inventiveness may be impressive but the same cannot be said for the resulting products: cloth made from nettle fibres and cellulose; bread made from flour mixed with potatoes, beans, peas, buckwheat and horse chestnuts (which only becomes palatable a few days after being baked); cocoa made from roasted peas and rye with the addition of some chemical flavouring; meat made of pressed rice boiled in mutton fat (and finished off with a fake bone made of wood); tobacco made of dried roots and dried potato peel; shoes soled with wood.

Elfriede Kuhr

Elfriede Kuhr

It took Elfriede Kuhr some time to get used to work in the hospital, to suppress her feelings of nausea at the sight of blood or pus or bedsores. Almost all the children are suffering from malnutrition or have a disease, many of them handed in by their mothers, young soldiers’ wives who have reached the end of their tether. Elfriede senses that these children are just as much war victims as the men killed at the front. Child mortality in Germany has doubled in the last fewyears. She writes:

Oh, these babies! Just skin and bone. Little starving bodies. And how big their eyes are! When they cry it is no louder than a weak little whimper. ‘Ihere is a little boy who is bound to die soon. He has a face like a dried-up mummy. The doctor is giving him injections of cooking salt. When I bend over his bed the little one looks at me with those big eyes that remind me of the eyes of a wise old man, but he is only six months old. There is clearly a question in those eyes, a reproach really.

A few weeks later a little boy of six months dies in Elfriede’s arms:

He simply laid his head, which seemed much too big for his skeletal body, on my arm and died without as much as a rattle or a sigh.

Several hours later she goes back to look at the body, and thinks she hears a noise coming from the dead boy’s half-open mouth, as if he is trying to breathe.  Plucking up her courage, she takes hold and forces the boy’s jaws open to give him more air. She recoils in shock as a large blowfly crawls out of the boy’s mouth.

Elfriede Kuhr (right) with sisters and children at the Municipal Children's hospital, Pila, 1918

Elfriede Kuhr (right) with sisters and children at the Municipal Children’s hospital, Schneidemühl, 1918

Englund is a Swedish historian and journalist, and now permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. What he has written here is, in the words of the New York Times, ‘an unusual book:

It contains few big names, major treaties or famous battles; there are almost no ambassadors, dashing journalists or discussions of tactics and materiel. It’s not so much a book about what happened, he explains, as “a book about what it was like.” It’s about “feelings, impressions, experiences and moods.”

There are many First World War books which are collations from letters, diaries and journals, but none are like Englund’s.  What Englund does here is to allow his twenty protagonists to tell their stories, whilst quoting only sparingly from their own words. Instead he paraphrases them, in elegant and elegiac passages that skilfully condense his source materials that remain faithful to the experiences and emotional states of his subjects. Largely written in the present tense to maintain the sense of immediacy, Englund unobtrusively includes helpful background information within the text or in footnotes as the threaded narratives progress chronologically through the war years.  Occasionally, Englund makes his own sharp observations, writing, for example, that ‘the conflict has increasingly become an economic competition, a war between factories.’ He notes the arrival of what he calls ‘a new species in the bestiary of the young century: the articulate and ideologically convinced mass murderer in well-cut clothes who performs his butchery while sitting behind a desk.’

On his personal website, Peter Englund writes that the most difficult part of the project was finding the form of the book:

I have written several shorter pieces on WW1, I have taught on that subject at my old University in Uppsala, and so I was familiar with the subject. But I was also quite determined that I didn’t want to write a book following the standard format, i.e. with an over-arching grand narrative that contains snippets of individual experiences, mainly because that has already been done, and often quite well. Instead I was interested in the war as an individual experience, to give some kind of sense on how it was (and is) to experience history from below and within, without the hindsight and the rationalisations that inevitably comes afterwards.

There he also explains what it is about the First World War that fascinates him:

What made me interested in World War One in the first place, and still has a grip on me is not just that it is THE big disaster of the 20th century, the one that started all the other ones (without WW1 no Hitler or Stalin, no WW2, no Cold War even), actually the single most important historical event in European history after the Fall of Western Rome 476AD. It is also that this war can’t be reduced to a story with a simple moral, like WW2. In 1939-45 everything was much more clear cut: light against darkness, good against evil, democracy against fascism, etc, and even the story itself is so exciting, almost archetypal in its narrative curve: at first the monster rises, sets out to conquer to world, but after much hardship is forced back into his lair and eventually defeated…

Asked whether there are any lessons from the war that we can reflect on at the 100th anniversary, he responds:

One important lesson is about how easy it can be to start a war, especially in a frenzy of emotion, and how terribly difficult it can be to end it. Because the horrible logic of human conflict makes men lose control over it: wars follow their own, supremely unpredictable course, almost never achieving those goals that they set out to achieve originally. And sometimes war even destroys those very things people originally set out to defend.

Some of the most interesting personalities in Englund’s book are women. One such is Olive King, an energetic and restless Australian who drives the ambulance she has paid for herself, and placed at the disposal of the Scottish Women’s Hospital, one of many private medical units started in the first wave of enthusiasm in 1914.  Unusually, this one was founded by radical suffragettes and is staffed exclusively by women. In October 1915 King sailed with the unit to Salonika, where their role was to provide medical assistance to the Serbs in their fight against the Austro-Hungarians, Germans and Bulgarians. King maintained and repaired the unit’s three ambulances herself, something highly unusual for a woman at the time.

Sarah Macnaughton is a Scottish aid worker who experiences hardship, first in Russia and then in Persia.  There, in April 1916, seriously ill, weak and disheartened, she writes in her diary:

It is such an odd jump I have taken. At home I drifted on, never feeling older, hardly counting birthdays – always brisk, and getting through a heap of work – beginning my day early and ending it late. And now there is a great gulf dividing me from youth and old times, and it is filled with dead people whom I can’t forget. In the matter of dying one doesn’t interfere with Providence, but it seems to me that now would rather an appropriate time to depart.

Florence Farmborough is a 27-year old English nurse in the Russian army, a woman who until the war had lived a fairly sheltered life.  She came to Russia in 1908 to work as a governess to the daughters of a well-known Russian heart surgeon in Moscow. She serves on the Russian western front and experiences battles as the front line shifts between German and Russian forces. In March 1916 she is in Chortkov, a town which at the beginning of the war lay in Austrian Galicia (and is now in Ukraine).  A year ago, Russian forces occupied the town and set fire to many buildings before being driven out.  Now they are back and, as Florence observes in her diary, life has taken a turn for the worse for the substantial Jewish population of Chortkov:

The position of the Hebrews living in Chortkov is most pitiful.  They are being treated with vindictive animosity.  As Austrian subjects they enjoyed almost complete liberty, experiencing none of the cruel oppression poured out on to the Russian Jew.  But under the new Government their rights and freedom have disappeared and it is obvious they resent the change keenly.

In January 1918, she returns to Moscow, a city which she records has changed enormously in the two months since she was last there.  In Englund’s words:

The darkened streets are patrolled by all-powerful and trigger-happy soldiers wearing red armbands. (Many of the people she knows intentionally dress in shabby clothes so as not to bring themselves to the attention of these patrols.) Gunfire can often be heard at night and her host family sleeps fully dressed so that they might leave the house quickly if necessary. Food shortages have grown much more severe and have reached famine proportions. The guaranteed daily ration consists of three and a half ounces of bread or two potatoes. It is now impossible to obtain even a simple basic like salt. There are still restaurants open but their prices are astronomical and the meat is usually horse flesh. The atmosphere is one of fear and uncertainty.

Famine, lawlessness and imminent civil war force Florence to leave Moscow on a dangerous 27-day trek by railway to Vladivostock, from where she sails home.

The Beauty and the Sorrow is dedicated to ‘Carl Englund, private in the Australian Army [who] died in the fighting outside Amiens, 13 September, 1918. His place of burial is unknown.’ His relationship to the author is not specified. The book’s odd title may be explained by the words of one of the individuals whose stories form Englund’s narrative.  ‘War is beautiful – to the eyes of generals,’ writes French infantryman René Arnaud as he marches away from the front line at Verdun with 30 survivors out of his unit of one hundred who had marched towards the trenches.

In an online discussion of The Beauty and the Sorrow Geoff Dyer praises the book, but notes something strange about it:

He has uncovered and found out about the lives of 20 different people from different parts of the world – some are combatants, one is a doctor, there’s this cast of characters – and he narrates the war chronologically through their experiences of particular days. This gives a real sense both of people being at the mercy of history – they’re not major actors in what’s going on – but they’re also completely shaping our view of what’s going on. I should say also that each person’s experiences are narrated with novelist-like techniques. The prose is very like that which we encounter in fiction. He also quotes a lot from their diaries.

But then quite an interesting thing happens. We have in our heads a pretty well-defined narrative of the First World War, and there are certain events that are obviously key. But one of the interesting things about this book, and perhaps one of its shortcomings, is that for us the absolutely key day of the First World War is the 1st of July 1916 – the first day of the Somme, 60,000 casualties – and in the context of this narrative it never happens, because coincidentally none of the people he’s chosen are there.

Englund’s book has a devastating ending. On the very last page a new character emerges – a young soldier recovering in hospital. A priest comes to the ward with news that the Kaiser has abdicated, and a republic has been declared.  The soldier, who has served as a runner of messages for the Austrian forces, laments the defeat of his homeland. He writes:

The days that followed were horrible, and the nights worse. […] My hatred grew during these nights, my hatred for those responsible for this evil deed.  During the days that followed I recognised what my mission was to be. […] I decided to become a politician.

The soldier was Adolf Hitler.  The words are from Mein Kampf, published in 1925.

All the suffering and torment wrought at places of execution, in torture chambers, madhouses, operating theatres, under the arches of bridges in late autumn – all these are stubbornly imperishable, all these persist, are inaccessible but cling on, envious of everything that is, stuck in their own terrible reality. People would like to be allowed to forget much of it, their sleep gliding softly over these furrows in the brain, but dreams come and push sleep aside and fill in the picture again. And so they wake up breathless, let the light of a candle dissolve the darkness as they drink the comforting half-light as if it was sugared water. But, alas, the edge on which this security is balancing is a narrow one. Given the slightest little turn and their gaze slips away from the familiar and the friendly and the contours that had so recently been comforting take the sharp outlines of an abyss of horror.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, 1910 (epigraph to The Beauty and the Sorrow)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.