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In simple terms the First World War, like most (if not all conflicts) has come down to us largely as a four-year sequence of events, an acknowledgement of defeat by one side, and a peace agreement. Yet there are many different ways of telling its history. As Peter Englund, a Swedish historian, informs us in his preface, this is not a book about what it was, but about what it was like. Though a series of excerpts from writings, or if you like snapshots in words, he shows us various stages of the conflict and its effect on people. His emphasis is not so much on the events and processes, but more on the feelings, impressions, experiences and moods of individuals who were caught up in the period. In doing so, he is able to focus primarily on the everyday aspects of the war.
The emphasis is thus on the four years as it was seen by twenty different eyewitnesses from around the world. All of them were ordinary people, involved in different ways, and who left letters and diaries on how it affected them. Some of them died during the conflict, while others survived and ended up as heroes. Not all were soldiers, and some of them never even saw a battlefield in their lives.
One of the saddest of these was Sarah MacNaughtan, a Scottish aid worker who was 49 at the outbreak of hostilities. On that momentous day of 4 August 1914, she noted in her diary that hardly anyone had believed in the possibility of war until they returned from the Bank Holiday at the start of the month and found soldiers saying goodbye to their families at the stations, and even then felt there was a strange air of unreality about them; 'we were breathless, not with fear, but with astonishment'. She went on to serve at the Antwerp field hospital and with the Flying Ambulance Corps, but within a year she had suffered a nervous breakdown, possibly complicated by some unidentifiable tropical disease, to return home broken in spirit and die a few weeks later in a room filled with flowers sent by well-wishers who are certain she will recover.
Another who was not destined to live for long was 23-year-old Kresten Andresen, a Danish soldier serving in the German army. He was one of many who believed it was right to go to war 'not for the sake of goods and gold, not for your homeland or for honour...but to strengthen your character, to strengthen it in power and will'. Although the surviving records are not clear, it appears that he was taken prisoner in August 1916 and died soon afterwards, perhaps from natural causes.
Others were more fortunate. Rene Arnaud, a French infantryman of 21, was one of the many who felt 'jubilant' at the outbreak of war, and his only fear was that it might all be over before he had a chance to reach the front and be part of the action; 'How humiliating it would be not to get to experience the greatest adventure of my generation!' He saw action at Verdun and at the Somme, and despite his initial feelings of euphoria, soon lost his naivety as a result of his experiences. He was equally happy to come to the end of the four years safe and sound, glad he would 'no longer be pursued by the ghost of death that had preoccupied me in the same way as it preoccupies old men'.
Of the same age as them was a British soldier, Alfred Pollard, who left his insurance company job in London the week hostilities were declared, joined the army, and went to the front. Although he collapsed with Spanish influenza during the epidemic towards the end, he had recovered sufficiently to join in celebrations when the armistice was signed. He was one of those men who was often torn between revulsion and excitement, particularly when he heard talk of a possible German breakthrough on the Somme in March 1918; 'after the terribly boring months through which I had just passed the prospect of some fighting was decidedly bracing.' Yet another survivor was Rafael de Nogales, a Venezuelan cavalryman in the Ottoman army. He left some stark descriptions of an uprising near Armenia, where he saw a landscape of burnt churches, scores of people left homeless, and groups of bodies at the side of the road, to say nothing of two great Ottoman temples which had stood for almost nine centuries, yet were destroyed in a single day of conflict in April 1915.
Other eyewitnesses who contribute to these pages are Pal Kelemen, a young Hungarian cavalryman; Elfriede Kuhr, a German schoolgirl; Olive King, an Australian driver in the Serbian army; Harvey Cushing, an American army field surgeon; and Paolo Monelli an Italian prisoner-of-war who observes at the end that the war years were their 'evil inheritance'; 'we are going to be fettered by our memories for ever.' Between them, they make up a rich tapestry and a lengthy book, which never becomes wearisome through its 500 pages or so. There are 16 pages of black and white plates, and a brief year-by-year chronology.
As what might be described as 'an alternative history of the war', sometimes in places generally neglected by other histories, this book certainly fills a gap. With its sense of immediacy in quoting so many varied eyewitness reports, it brings home the atmosphere of those years in a way which is beyond the means of many a conventional account which is basically a narration of battles and other events year by year.
[This is a revised version of the review I originally posted on Bookbag and ciao]