The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War – A Review

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
Peter Englund

Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War is the history of World War I told from the perspective of 20 average participants. Combing the diaries, letters, and published memoirs of soldiers and civilians alike, he eschews a military history that focuses on generals, or even those in command  and lets these usually unheard voices speak. For good and for bad, this is not exactly an oral history, but history focused on the participants. I was actually a little disappointed by the lack of quotes. Englund will take short quotes from the participants, but he prefers to summarize the participant’s experience and place it within the larger context of the battle or event they were participating in. It makes for a very readable history, but looses some of the character that might have come if he’d given us larger quotes. This is especially true with the lives of the soldiers on the eastern front who are seldom heard from. In his defense, I once read the journal of Dr. Harvey Cushing (From A Surgeon’s Journal) one of the participants he follows and it was a little dull in parts. That said, The Beauty and the Sorrow offers a different, and much need, way to look at the experience of World War I. Englund is adept at blending the big picture with the personal narratives of the participants. What is paramount in any history in this style is if the writer can capture some of the motivations of the participants. In this he has succeed quite well. The motivations are often quite conflicted. The young Dane Andersen who is conscripted by the Germans is not really interested in the war and would like to miss the whole thing. Whereas the young sailor in the German navy is completely frustrated by the lack of action and the great class divide between the officers and the men. What might strike one is that only there of these participants die, but more to the point, few fight in the famous battles of any of the fronts. Perhaps it’s because not as many survived or they did not present enough of a rounded account. Englund’s focus is the breadth of the war, from France to Italy to Russia to Africa to the Ottoman Empire he wants to show that it is more than a war of the trenches. Ultimately, a reader will come away not with the full horror of the war, but an understanding of the personal costs, in both life, property, and most importantly, optimism, that they paid. No one leaves the war untouched, even the Venezuelan adventure seeker who witnesses the anti-christian killing in Turkey nor the British Victory Cross winner who Englund paints as someone who actually likes the war. I wouldn’t recommend this as a first look at the war, but it is certainly a solid addendum to other histories, especially if they only focus on strategy and the trenches.