Listen to this article
The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914, by Béla Zombory Moldován, translated by Peter Zombory Moldován, New York Review Books, RRP£8.99/$16.95, 184 pages
To Fight Alongside Friends: The First World War Diaries of Charlie May, edited by Gerry Harrison, William Collins, RRP£16.99, 304 pages
Poilu: The World War I Notebook of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918, translated by Edward Strauss, Yale University Press, RRP£25/$35, 472 pages
The canon of first world war reminiscence was established early. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front blazed the trail, selling nearly 2m copies in 1929. An avalanche of testimonials followed, several – including those by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Vera Brittain, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) – having stayed in print ever since.
During the first postwar decade, the memoirs of politicians and commanders had filled publishers’ schedules, and there had been little market for the worm’s eye view. What the “ war books boom” offered, in contrast, was witness testimony written from the perspective of the junior officer (or, in Brittain’s case, from that of a bereaved civilian and army nurse) that highlighted not grand strategy but ground-level chaos and suffering. The most enduring memoirists were skilled and often practised authors, who at the distance of a decade used literature as a tool of therapy, for themselves as well as others. In addition, they established a standard trajectory – from innocence to disenchantment, via black humour, horror and the grotesque – that set the mould for later testimony to conflicts ranging from the second world war to Vietnam.
After the 1930s, there was a lengthy pause. Many others among the millions who saw front-line service between 1914 and 1918 – far more of whom than in previous conflicts were literate – had also put pen to paper, breaking regulations by keeping a record during hostilities. But then, lacking access to publishers or simply through choice, they withheld their manuscripts, leaving later generations to rediscover them. The three memoirs reviewed here all fall into this category. They form just a fraction of the hundreds of examples now entering the public domain, many accessible on the Europeana 1914-1918 website (europeana1914-1918.eu). The current centenary commemorations ride on the back of deeper developments – such as the boom in family and local history and a fascination with collective memory – that have been gathering momentum for decades.
Béla Zombory-Moldován was 29 and holidaying on the Adriatic coast when he received his orders to enlist as a junior reserve officer in the Royal Hungarian Army. A painter and an instructor at the Budapest School of Applied Arts, he still – as was common with bachelors at this time – lived with his parents. Little evidence of war enthusiasm emerges from his pages: on the contrary, the call-up threatened to disrupt his artistic and professional prospects and his principal concern was to survive it, while performing his duties with as much propriety as he could muster. Although he had done peacetime military service, nothing had prepared him for the shock of combat, which came quickly.
The date of Moldován’s manuscript is uncertain, as he showed it to no one, locking it in a strongbox. His widow also kept it secret, which is how it remained until it reached his grandson in 2012, and it was the latter who translated it. The Burning of the World is written with a painter’s eye for colour, for example when the author’s unit marches through an August wood: “The boughs were a deep green, but the springs of barberry, the wild rosehips, and the leaves of the sumac were already glowing in the flaming colors of carmine, cinnabar, minium, and orange.” But the text matters not only for its literary qualities but also as an evocation of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian army and of the Austro-Russian theatre (for which we have very few accounts) during the more mobile opening phase of campaigning, when casualty rates were among the highest of the war.
Moldován fought in the battle of Rava-Ruska (today located in Ukraine), which became an Austro-Hungarian rout. At the climax of the book, his unit is shelled with shrapnel and explosive from formidably accurate Russian field guns. The Hungarians, armed with four guns per brigade against the Russians’ 12, were trapped in the open without entrenching tools and had to scrabble burrows in the sandy soil with mess tins. Moldován was hit in the head, and evacuated on a peasant cart in scenes reminiscent of the campaigns of Napoleon. And yet from here on, as he returned to an indifferent Budapest, was diagnosed as suffering from “traumatic neurosis”, and revisited the coast to resume painting, the tone of the narrative lightens. He returned to military service but not to combat duties; later, in 1944, he would risk his own life by sheltering a Jewish family. Under the communists he was stripped of his job, and died in genteel poverty in 1967. Nonetheless, his story was one not only of madness and massacre but also of regeneration.
Captain Charlie May was less fortunate. In 1914 he was 26, having moved to Britain from New Zealand to work in his father’s fire alarm business. That October he joined the volunteer surge and signed up with the 22nd Manchester Pals Battalion; a year later he went out to France, and began the diary on which To Fight Alongside Friends is based. The picture May paints is one more familiar from the classic memoirs of the period, although he was full of anger against the Germans for having started the war, and proud of his unit and of his country, whose cleanliness and comfort he contrasted with the squalor of French farmyards and villages. The editor juxtaposes May’s remarks with the similar comments of his comrades, one of whom, the economic historian RH Tawney, would publish his own remarkable description of the battle of the Somme.
Yet if May’s attitudes were often conventional, he was both reflective and acute, and, as his diary continued, it grew more sombre. He became frustrated with the army’s staff and senior officers, and unsettled by the mounting casualties as the summer offensive approached. The thread that remained unbroken was his devotion to his wife Maud and infant daughter (whom he visited only once after going abroad): “If it be that I am to go, I am ready. But the thought that I may never see you or our darling baby again turns my bowels to water.”
By July 1 1916, when the last diary entry was entered at 5.45am, the reader feels that they know Charlie May, and what follows comes as a shock, as if a cinema film had broken in mid-reel. May was hit by shellfire 10 minutes into the assault, and died in No Man’s Land. Characteristically, he had asked a fellow officer to visit Maud if he died, and that officer later married her. May’s batman brought back his body and gathered his possessions, which included the pocket books in which his diaries were written. They would be locked in a suitcase until his daughter died, her cousin forwarding them to the regimental archive and eventually publishing them.
Louis Barthas was another who served on the Western Front, but whereas May’s depiction of trench warfare is at times almost reassuring, the Frenchman’s is unrelievedly bleak. Barthas also kept a diary, which he modified little. His son showed it to a lycée teacher, and in 1978 Professor Rémy Cazals arranged for its publication. In France it has now sold nearly 100,000 copies, and its translation as Poilu – into fluent American English that preserves the original’s combination of colloquial flashes with vigorous descriptive prose – is overdue. Although not educated beyond elementary school, Barthas was an accomplished writer, steeped in the French literary classics, with a talent for invective. In 1914 he was 35, a barrel maker in Languedoc (he took pride in his regional identity), with a wife and two sons. He was also a socialist activist, exemplifying how the French left’s roots lie in the radical small towns of the south as well as in the industrialised northeast.
Although a reservist, Barthas saw front-line service with the infantry from November 1914 until April 1918, an extraordinarily long term of duty. It was 14 months before he first returned home. Whereas May both hated the war and yet accepted its necessity, Barthas condemned it as an unmitigated disaster, fought for militarists and profiteers on both sides. He detested the tub-thumping and the demonisation of the enemy that he witnessed. He never rose above the rank of corporal – though also never aspired to – and, while respecting officers who showed courage and cared for their men, he had no time for the army’s senior ranks or for the many in authority who shirked in the rear, devised senseless attack plans, deceived subordinates and luxuriated in comfort while their troops suffered. He was emphatic that the common soldiers with whom he served continued because they had no choice, because they had been stripped of their humanity, and out of mute resignation.
In 1914-16, Barthas saw action in the French army’s worst sectors – Artois, Notre Dame de Lorette, Verdun and the Somme – and he narrowly escaped being sent up to the Chemin des Dames during the disastrous 1917 Nivelle offensive. His comrades died anonymous deaths in appalling numbers, and one of the book’s most striking features is the callous neglect shown by the French Republic towards the men who gave their lives for it, whether in respect of medical services, accommodation or simply food. It is unsurprising that Barthas records episodes of fraternisation, as well as the mutinies of May 1917, in which he helped to draft a manifesto but with his customary canniness refused the invitation to become the spokesperson for a soldiers’ soviet. Throughout the war, in fact, Barthas benefited from a sixth sense that spared him from death or even serious injury. In his final year he occupied quieter sectors, and after being moved on grounds of exhaustion to duties behind the line he returned to his family and his village, where he continued as a pacifist activist and would be obliged to endure a second war before his death in 1952.
Barthas, like May and Moldován, took from the army a greater appreciation of simple pleasures. “I feel tender happiness about things which, before, I didn’t pay attention to: sitting at home, at my table, lying in my bed, putting off sleep so I can hear the wind hitting the shutters, rustling the nearby plane trees, hearing the rain strike the window, looking at a starry, serene, silent night or, on a dark, moonless night, thinking about similar nights spent up there . . . ” All three of these books contain such passages, and all three linger in the memory. All deserve to be made available to a wider audience. They testify to how the 1914 generation drew on literary expression to order and to mediate what is commonly supposed to have been an incommunicably dreadful experience. The reviewer is left to wonder how many more such testimonies still gather dust in silent attics and basements.
David Stevenson is professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His most recent book is ‘With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918’ (Penguin)
Get alerts on First World War centenary when a new story is published