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Peter Englund, Stridens skönhet och sorg. Första världskriget i 212 korta kapitel (The Beauty and Sorrow of War: The First World War in 212 Short Chapters)

Atlantis,  2008. ISBN: 9789173532440

Reviewed by Peter Graves in SBR 2010:1

English Translation: The Beauty And The Sorrow, translated by Peter Graves. Profile Books, 2011. ISBN 9781846683428.

Given the number of television series and books over the last decades most of us in Britain, anyway, probably think we are familiar with the First World War and its horrors. We might also feel, given recent coverage of the deaths of the last living participants in the carnage, that some kind of romantic glow has begun to spread over the events of almost a century ago. Peter Englund’s book, however, shows that there is still much to be said and new perspectives to be taken – and that we should certainly not allow any hint of romance to hang over the years 1914-1918. Englund has taken nineteen individuals, ordinary people of many different nationalities – a schoolgirl, nurses, a driver, infantrymen, a doctor and so on (notably, no grand commanders and politicians) – all of whom have left diaries, journals and letters and from their accounts he has woven his narrative of ‘the everyday life of war’. He also reminds us of the extent to which this was a ‘world war’: with our tendency to think of the Western Front (with an occasional reference to the disaster in the Dardanelles) as the main theatre of operations, we frequently overlook or forget the Eastern Front, the Balkans, the Italian war, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia and East Africa. As Englund writes in his preface to the reader: ‘This book is in a sense a piece of anti-history in that I have tried to bring this utterly epoch-making event back to its smallest, atomic component – the individual and the individual’s experiences. The melancholy scepticism about my own profession that has led to this approach is something I shall perhaps give an account of on another occasion.’ The book is a magnificent achievement in every respect. To read it is to alternate between rage and tears: rage at the stupidities of leadership on all sides, at the unfeelingness of the higher command, the meaninglessness of most of the objectives – and tears at the sufferings of the ordinary people, both civilians and soldiers. In one of the many harrowing and often almost unbelievable vignettes in the book, for instance, Englund allows us to witness the failure of the Italian attack on Monte Santa Lucia in the Alps. We see it through the eyes of Vincenzo D’Aquila, a young Italian-American volunteer in the first stages of a complete mental breakdown brought on by his experiences in the trenches and attached at this point as a clerk to the headquarters’ staff. Vincenzo has what is almost literally a grandstand view since the senior officers have set up an observation point at a safe distance on a mountain on the opposite side of the valley: from there, seated in comfortable armchairs and watching through binoculars while being served toast, chocolate and wine, they order one suicidal attack after another. Towards the end of the day Vincenzo overhears a call on the field telephone: ‘The captain of a company of Alpini rings and asks for his men to be permitted to cease attacking. His elite troops have stormed the mountain slopes fifteen times that day and fifteen times they have been driven back. Of his two hundred and fifty men only twenty-five are left. The Commanding Officer refuses his request and orders the orderly taking the call to remind the captain of the oath he has sworn to the crown and to Italy’. Englund’s achievement is also technical. The danger of his approach, the simultaneous juggling of so many individuals and so many theatres, is a lack of coherence, but here, thanks to his linking narrative and sophisticated use of footnotes as an integral part of the text, the context remains clear even though the spotlight is moving from individual to individual and place to place. And these are people we very rapidly come to care about and become involved with. Most of them enter the war with some sense of enthusiasm, whether personal or national, and most of them are soon the victims of disillusion and boredom as well as straightforward physical danger and hunger: above all, perhaps, as one of them puts it, they are overwhelmed ‘by the feeling of being puppets in the hands of an unknown puppeteer’. We learn to know them and feel with and for them in the way we do for the characters of the great novels – and this book frequently feels like a great novel, which is perhaps what Englund means by anti-history. But, of course, it is not a novel, these are real people and these are real events which will have implications in the future: Englund chooses to end this wonderful book with an extract from Mein Kampf, with Hitler expressing his rage at the armistice in 1918 and stating – ‘I decided to become a politician’.

Peter Graves

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