In his compelling new history, The Beauty and The Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, historian Peter Englund has chosen firsthand accounts from 20 very different and disparate individuals who either fought in the war or were touched in some fashion by “The Great War,” as it has been called. The result is a masterful retelling of the 20th Century’s first slaughterhouse, a comprehensive and extremely personal look at the massive madness that took the lives of millions of people and left untold numbers permanently deranged and shattered.
Englund’s chronicle of World War I, which often reads like a work of historical fiction, includes the words of a soldier in the British forces who saw the war as an “opportunity for advancement,” letters from a female French volunteer serving soup in the infamous trenches dug all over the French countryside, a 22-year-old Russian army engineer and a 35-year-old Venezuelan cavalryman in the Ottoman army, plus testimony from 16 others.
Throughout this strangely prosaic history, what is most striking from these journals and letters is their, at times, utter ordinariness.
In “The Beauty and The Terror,” we read of the seemingly endless days and nights of rain and rodents and unceasing terror. Halfway through the Great War, 27-year-old Florence Farmborough, an English nurse, writes, “The dead are still lying around, in strange, unnatural postures — remaining where they had fallen: crouching, doubled-up, stretched out, prostrate, prone…”
Time and again, Englund uses testimony like this to paint a blood- and dirt-smudged picture of the insanity of World War I, a crazed war of attrition that left more than 9 million men, women and children lying dead and dismembered in fields where flowers should have been left to grow. This is a stunning and important new addition to an already vast crop of books on The Great War.