Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Review of Peter Englund's History, "The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of WWI"

Let me preface this review by saying I am a believer in the just war theory and counter the bumper sticker I believe war is sometimes the answer (and not just to questions like, “Aside from frat parties, what human activity is most like to bring out man’s depravity?

But much in this book is a reminder that WWI in particular was blundered into and neither side truly went about the work of preventing evil, but the actions of war on both sides were ultimately futile and only helped lead to another great war in barely a generation’s time.

Englund takes an interesting approach in this book, following the war histories of various soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict, from a German school girl to an Australian army engineer to a Danish soldier to a French civil servant.
Their stories are compelling on a variety of levels. Though the book does not attempt to provide an overview of the war, it does bring out many fascinating details.
Here is some of the details I enjoyed learning about:

*The word “tank” come from a deception employed in the weapons construction when they were passed off as “water tanks”.
*Trenches were at times decorated with furniture (chairs, coaches, even beds) looted from homes.
*Prostitutes in France sometimes charged hire rates if they could pass along an illness that might get a soldier away from the front.
*German soldiers would not sing the second verse of “A Mighty Fortress” (Ein Feste Burg) because it might be perceived as a lack of faith in the military (Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing).
*Censorship in French papers led to large blank spaces when stories were removed at the last minute. (Because the Spanish papers were more free, the reporting on those papers on disease led to the name “Spanish Flu”, though the illness struck other nations first.)
*Pigeons were used as message couriers because horses and dogs panicked in battle when tried. (Of course humans were used as runners. Such as Adolph Hitler.)
*Ernest Hemingway’s account of the battle of Caporetto in “Farewell to Arms” was written in Kansas City, a year before he went to Italy.
*Leon Trotsky led a Russian delegation in peace talks and drove Germans crazy with the saying, “Neither war or peace.” (So he should never be mistaken for Leo Tolstoy.)
*American forces had a strict ban on alcohol (and this was before prohibition in the states.)

I enjoyed learning such trivia. But the real riches in the book are the lives Englund brings to life through his diligent work of digging through letters, journals and reports that are now nearly a century old. Sadly, the true war to end all wars is yet to come.

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