The Beauty and the Sorrow, Peter Englund’s magnificent history of World War One, begins with Laura de Turczynowicz, the American wife of a Polish diplomat, waiting for her husband to come home from work on a Sunday afternoon in August 1914. Laura has a privileged life. She and her husband employ servants and domestics in their Suwalki villa and their Warsaw apartment. They and the children spend winter holidays on the French Riviera. She feels stress only when she sees a mouse or hears thunder. But her life changes when her husband’s manservant bangs on a window at four o’clock the next morning. He hands her a note from her husband. War has been declared, the note says. Have the servants pack our things, and come as soon as you can.
Once the war is underway, Laura volunteers at a mobile field hospital near the family manor. One afternoon, she meets a bandaged soldier who speaks educated Polish. The voice coming from within the bandaged head calls to her and asks her for water. When she sits on the edge of the soldier’s bed, flies soar up from his body. Only then does she notice that the man’s hands have burned away and are now little more than pus and gangrene. Just as startling to her as the putrefaction of the soldier’s body is her stoic reaction. A woman who once ran from the sound of thunder is now able unflinchingly to confront evidence of the most horrible wartime atrocities imaginable.
Englund’s book is filled with powerful images like that of the soldier. Englund, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy and a former war correspondent, has a talent for integrating historical detail into a narrative that has the sweep and tension of a good novel. He has culled information from the letters and journals of twenty ordinary people and arranged their stories chronologically to give us compelling portraits not often found in war histories. We meet Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky, a war-hungry lieutenant in the Guards who studied in Petrograd, Paris, and Nice and whose passion is French literature. Pál Kelemen is a young Hungarian cavalryman who went to the Latin School in Budapest and studied violin under Fritz Reiner. When we follow him into battle north of Turka in November 1914, we think not of a soldier but of a young violinist, and we wonder whether the postponement of his musical studies will be momentary or permanent.
There are others, such as Florence Farmborough, governess to a Russian heart surgeon, nursing a soldier who dies not from the kick to the head he receives from a horse but the brain tumor discovered only as a result of his injury. She is with the soldier as he dies, and as sugar lumps are placed upon his eyelids to keep them closed. In France, Michel Corday, a government employee who writes literary criticism and novels, is at a seaside resort as children on the beach play an army hospital game, with girls as nurses and the boys as wounded soldiers. Harvey Cushing, a 45-year-old American brain surgeon trained at Harvard and Yale, serves in a French military hospital and witnesses examples of “secondary projectiles” that get in along with the original wound: clothing, wood, cartridge cases, even pieces of other men’s body parts. He also learns, to his horror, about “souvenir surgery”—men who want projectiles removed so that they can show them off and brag about them later.
Englund’s book builds considerable tension by shifting among the different narratives to show how the events of the war affected these twenty participants, both those on the battlefield and those on the periphery. His style is dry and concise, the type of get-to-the-point prose you might expect from a former war correspondent. Adhering to the chronology of the journals and letters has its drawbacks. Some of the characters, such as Laura de Turczynowicz, disappear from the book once the fighting is at its most intense. We’re left to wonder what happened to them until a one-chapter summary at the end. For the most part, however, this is a wonderful book. The Beauty and the Sorrow belongs with John Keegan’s The First World War: An Illustrated History, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy as one of the better volumes ever written about the Great War.
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