In December 1920 David Lloyd George, the Liberal prime minister who had just led Britain to victory in the first world war, observed that Europe’s nations had “glided, or rather staggered and stumbled” into the conflict. His assessment set the tone for the way that every subsequent generation has interpreted the war. In fiction and popular memory, the central themes include blundering politicians, callous generals, indiscriminate slaughter on the battlefield, futile suffering, lost youth and the unhinging of European civilisation.
Wilfred Owen, the poet killed just a week before the armistice of November 1918, wrote of “the pity of war”. Eighty years later, the historian Niall Ferguson chose the expression as the title of his excellent general account of the conflict, one of many for which publishers continue to find a lively market.
Peter Englund works in the same vein, but from a different angle. Appointed in 2009 as the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the body that chooses the annual Nobel literature laureate, Englund is a Swedish historian whose previous books include a bestseller on the 1709 battle of Poltava, which marked Russia’s displacement of Sweden as a European power. The Beauty and the Sorrow was published to much acclaim in Sweden in 2008 and has already been translated into various European languages. It deserves its success because it is perceptive, humane and elegantly written. It never fails to keep the reader’s interest.
In Englund’s version of the war, towering statesmen such as Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson and Georges Clemenceau barely figure at all. He describes the conflict in several hundred snapshots drawn from the diaries, memoirs and letters of 20 individuals who experienced the conflict, ranging from two British infantrymen and a German seaman to a French civil servant and – the most curious case – a Venezuelan adventurer who served with the Ottoman forces on one of the war’s less familiar fronts and witnessed the deportation and massacre of the Armenians.
The book is not about the “what” of the war – its causes, course and consequences – but the “what it was like”: the sentiments, impressions and experiences of these 20 soldiers, nurses and civilians. Englund calls it “a work of anti-history, an attempt to deconstruct this utterly epoch-making event into its smallest, most basic component – the individual, and his or her experiences”. Although many Europeans welcomed the onset of war in August 1914, historians today recognise that the enthusiasm was far from universal. Michel Corday, a French socialist employed in the commerce ministry, reflected: “Every thought and event caused by the outbreak of war came as a bitter and mortal blow struck against the great conviction that was in my heart: the concept of permanent progress, of movement towards ever greater happiness. I had never believed that something like this could happen. It meant that my faith simply crumbled.”
More complex were the emotions of Kresten Andresen, an ethnic Dane who served in the German army but was no friend of German imperialism. He wrote in his journal that a man should go to war not for his homeland or to kill other human beings, but “to strengthen your character, to strengthen it in power and will, in habits, custom and earnestness”. After watching his Danish comrades fall one by one, Andresen disappeared at the Somme in August 1916.
Alfred Pollard, a London insurance clerk, appears at first to be the classic Englishman with the stiff upper lip. In December 1916 he writes to his mother from the western front: “Dearest Mater, I hear you have not been very well. I hope you are all right again now. The post is absolutely up the stick, probably owing to Christmas. I have received the footer [football] clothes and the uniform and Perk’s cake: all very acceptable.”
Pollard turns out to be an incredibly brave soldier, repelling a German attack with just a handful of men and some hand grenades. He is awarded the Victoria Cross, the British empire’s most distinguished military honour, at Buckingham Palace by King George V himself.
It is the high point of his life, but Pollard is a contradictory figure. In another letter to his mother, he writes: “Best of spirits and having a good time. By the way, I have killed another Hun. Hurrah!” Yet, by the time he publishes his memoirs in 1932, he strikes a different note. “When I saw the Hun corpses killed by our shellfire I was full of pity for the men so suddenly cut off in their prime. Now I was a man with no hope of the war ending for years.”
Englund presents these contrasts with little attempt to resolve them or to question the reliability of memory. It is a point the reader needs to keep in mind. A second reservation is that its author intersperses the first-hand accounts of the war, often put in indirect speech, with his own judgments of their wider significance. The boundaries between the two modes of writing are not always clear.
Where they are clear, Englund’s arguments are at times open to question. Commenting on the 1916 battle of Jutland, the war’s only large-scale naval clash, he writes: “Quite soon, and with some justification, the confused battle is being described as a German victory. It had no impact on the war.” This is quite a sweeping statement. The Germans certainly knocked out a few more British ships than vice versa, but the key point is that the inconclusive result enabled Britain to continue enforcing its blockade of Germany, strangling the German economy and making a substantial contribution to victory in 1918.
One charming feature of the book is its footnotes, which give fascinating insights into topics such as the use of tobacco in the war. It ends on a sombre note, quoting Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf as saying that it was the shame of German defeat and hatred for those who had caused it that prompted him to go into politics. In this sense the war’s legacy was catastrophic.
As Paolo Monelli, an Italian soldier, remembered: “This is going to be our evil inheritance, or our good inheritance, in any case our irrevocable inheritance – and we are going to be fettered by our memories forever.”
Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor
The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, by Peter Englund, Profile Books, RRP£25, 544 pages