A Mosaic of WWI: ‘The Beauty and the Sorrow’

This book can only be described as epic. Epic in scope, in breadth of detail, in intent—and happily, in its success as well. The Beauty and the Sorrow is a history that sets out to capture the entirety of World War I one snapshop at a time, and the marvel is that it succeeds so well.

This is not to say that every battle is reconstructed, every advance and reversal detailed. Not at all; in fact, large swathes of the ebb and flow of trench warfare are glossed over, or referred to only obliquely. If you want to find the logistics of Verdun or the Somme, or a detailed report on the hopeless Italian offensives along the Isonzo or the Russian retreat from Persia, you had best look elsewhere. This is not, however, the result of oversight on the author’s part, but rather the inevitable effect of Swedish historian Peter Englund’s unique method and approach.

Englund’s methodology is simple on the surface but betrays an enormous amount of work. He has chosen 20 participants in the Great War, and—using journals, letters, diaries and the accounts of others—reconstructed their individual trajectories from August 1914 through November 1918. Rarely does any one incident stretch for longer than a page or two before the focus shifts to another individuial, often in a completely separate theatre of conflict. Arranging these vignettes in chronological order, Englund achieves a kind of bewildering totality denied the participants themselves, a whirling stew of experiences that reflects the disorientation and immediacy of experience of those involved.

Like many brilliant ideas, Englund’s approach only appears obvious after the fact. To my knowledge, no historian has ever approached the subject in such a way, and the result is simultaneously intensely personal and wide-ranging. By relying on the individual observations and responses of an array of participants, Englund is able to both show the unprecedented scale of the war and its intensely personal effects, relying as he does on the individual moment, the disillusionment and heroism of the particular men and women who are so often overlooked in the reconstruction of tactics and troop movements.

The subjects he chooses vary widely in age, social station, expectations, and degree of enthusiasm for the war. There is Willy Coppens, a good-natured Belgian pilot present at the very dawn of air warfare. Kresten Andresen is a Danish soldier fighting in the German army, and none too happy about it; Sarah MacNaughton is a Scottish aid worker, aged 49 at the start of hostilities, who feels called to the Continent to do her part for the war effort. René Arnaud is a French infantryman surviving the hell of trench warfare; Rafael de Nogales is a Venezuelan soldier of fortune who winds up fighting for the Ottoman Empire not out of idealism but because the other side had no use for him.

The list goes on, men and women, young and not-so-young, civilian and military. They all have two things in common: involvement in the war, and a legacy of written documentation which has survived them.

The advantage of the author’s approach is that it allows the reader to dip in and out of every major theatre of war, from air battles over Belgium to jungle fighting in Tanzania to the bitter trenches of northern France to the mauling of Serbia. Such flitting might feel contrived or random were it not for the human participants in each theatre who anchor the reader to this or that particular situation. As individuals, they provide a microcosm of a particular moment in the war, but taken together they serve to create a mosaic-like big picture.

That big picture is also served by Englund’s fine writing. He avoids overstatement and melodrama with this, the most melodramatuic of subjects. Instead he limits his perceptions to reflect the power of the individual moment, the striking—and sometimes heartbreaking—detail.

Inevitably, as the war staggers into 1918, the individuals we are following begin to break down, both mentally and physically. Combatants are wounded, limbs are amputated, and many simply suffer from the bewilderment of watching civilization collapse around them. Societies crumble and new orders rise to take their place. Such moments are effortlessly captured in Englund’s precise prose: “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.”

It’s worth noting that not every participant in World War I ended up hating it. There are moments of heroism here, of exhileration and even of joy; the book’s title is well chosen. There were plenty of soldiers ready to give up and go home at the end of things—indeed, masses of French troops mutinied in 1917, and desertion in all the armies was not uncommon. But there were significant numbers who were ready to fight on, notwithstanding the massive loss of life and destruction of cities and livelihoods. War was a narcotic for some; it’s a lesson worth remembering.

In his brief introduction, Englund states that, although The Beauty and the Sorrow is about World War I, “it is not, however, a book about what it was” but rather “a book about what it was like.” To that end, he has succeeded admirably. Given how much of the 20th century—and the 21st—was shaped by this worldwide conflagration, interested readers should take note. In fact, even uninterested readers should do so. “You may not be interested in war,” as Trotsky famously reminds us, “but war is interested in you.”

RATING 9 / 10