The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund, translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves, uses the diaries, journals, and letters of 20 individuals who lived during and participated in The Great War to highlight their different experiences. We already know the outcome of the war, about the massacres that took place, and how horrible life in the trenches was for the soldiers, but these individuals weren’t aware of all this when they were writing. Englund gives readers a unique perspective of World War I, thrusting them into the moment amidst all the chaos and confusion at the beginning of the war and the hunger, exhaustion, and sadness toward the end.
Englund describes the war as seen through the eyes of a German schoolgirl, the American wife of a Polish aristocrat, a Scottish aid worker, a seaman in the German High Seas Fleet, a Hungarian cavalryman in the Austro-Hungarian army, a Russian army engineer, an English nurse in the Russian army, a Danish soldier in the German army, a French civil servant, two British army infantrymen, an Australian army engineer, a French army infantryman, a Venezuelan cavalryman in the Ottoman army, an American army field surgeon, a Belgian air force fighter pilot, an Australian driver in the Serbian army, an Italian-American infantryman in the Italian army, a New Zealand artilleryman in the British army, and a trooper in an Alpine regiment of the Italian army. These individuals differ by sex, age, nationality, and occupation, so the assortment of experiences is both tremendous and fascinating.
The Beauty and the Sorrow reads like narrative non-fiction, with Englund giving some backstory and then inserting the individual’s actual words. Readers learn about preparations for the war, how troops were mobilized and transported, what the soldiers carried, how the soldiers and locals interacted with one another, and what people ate as food became scarce. Some of the individuals served on the front lines and/or witnessed hangings and massacres, while others tended to the wounded. Some grew tired of the monotony and had nervous breakdowns. Readers see how the early writings were by people excited and even eager to experience war, and the later writings by people who have seen too much and wish it would end already.
One of the most striking passages is from the diary of the German schoolgirl, Elfriede Kuhr, written in June 1917:
This war is a ghost in grey rags, a skull with maggots crawling out of it. New, hard battles have been raging in the west in recent months. We are fighting at Le Chemin des Dames, at Aisne and in Champagne. The whole region is a field of ruins, blood and mud everywhere. (page 369 in the uncorrected proof; final version may be different)
What I found most interesting in The Beauty and the Sorrow was how people perceived changes in women because of the war. There is talk about how women were engaging in less-than-moral behavior, sometimes out of pity for the soldiers who were probably going off to die. There was an increase in extra-marital pregnancies and illegal abortions, along with a rise in prostitution and sexually-transmitted diseases. Some blamed the change in women’s behavior on the fact that they were taking over jobs once held by men who had since gone off to war and that they were being “masculinized.” Meanwhile, with troops amassing in certain areas, it is not surprising that the sex industry in these areas was given a boost. What I found interesting were stories about how the men actually chose infected prostitutes over healthy ones so they would catch a venereal disease and not have to serve on the front lines. A trade in “gonococcal pus” began as a result. (Nasty!)
The Beauty and the Sorrow‘s strength is that it details the experiences of a diverse group of people, but this strength is also its biggest weakness. Though the book was interesting and informative, it was also tedious and even boring at times. Its structure also makes it difficult to follow. Rather than tell the story of each person separately, Englund divides the book into sections, one for each year from 1914 to 1918, and assembles their diaries, journals, and letters chronologically so that there is a constant shift from one individual to another. If there hadn’t been a list of the individuals at the beginning of the book, I would have been completely lost; I was constantly flipping back and forth to keep track.
Moreover, I don’t have extensive knowledge of the various armies that fought during World War I, the politics of the countries involved, the movement of the troops, or the numerous battles that took place. This information is detailed through the writings of the individuals included in the book, but there is little explanation from the author as to what is going on. So I felt a little lost and bored when it came to military strategy.
However, The Beauty and the Sorrow succeeds in showcasing the experiences and hardships of different people during wartime, from those who fought on the front lines to those who did their part at home. I felt like I got to know who these people were, and I was saddened when I found out over the course of the book that certain people were killed or went missing. I liked how Englund tells where each of the people were when the war ended, so all the ends were tied up. I have a great respect for the author because sorting through the writings of 20 people over a period of years and putting it into some kind of order must have been a colossal undertaking. Even though I was a bit overwhelmed by all the information, I believe it’s an important book. Given that the start of the war was nearly 100 years ago, it’s crucial that we preserve the experiences and stories of those who lived it.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.