09 Tuesday Sep 2014
In most determinations of the responsibility for the outbreak of WW I, Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia comes a close second to the German “blank check” that underwrote the adventure. Not a few Hungarians came to think, when the cheering and flowers of the days after the declaration of war on Serbia were over, that war wasn’t quite as festive or glorious as imagined –a process identical to that of their French and British adversaries. Though the numbers of written histories and memories of the war from the smaller participating nations are paltry beside those of Germany, France and Britain, they are worth searching for, and reading. The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 by Hungary’s Béla Zombory-Moldován, translated by his grandson, Peter, is a welcome find, not only for its contribution to writing from the Eastern Front, which mirrors memoirs from everywhere, different only in language and cultural adornments — but for Zombory-Moldován’s wry irony and unvarnished telling of his few months preparing for combat, and single moment of encountering the shell in his skull, millimeters from execution.
War began suddenly. At the end of July 29 year old Béla is at the family summer resort in Novi, Croatia, then part of the Kingdom of Hungary. A friend comes rushing down the beach: war has been declared! A call-up notice is at the beach house. He, as a reserve officer with one year of training, is due in Budapest in 6 days. As an officer he is responsible for much of his own equipment. As a practicing artist, with a studio of his own, he had not thought much about such gear for years.
“Anything I had heard of war had fallen on deaf ears; an anachronism, it held no meaning for me. No one in my family had been in a war. They knew even less about it than I did, and had no experience on which I might draw. Until it confronted us, everyone had regarded war as an absurdity. Now it was a reality. If it was any consolation , the enemy must be having the same problem. Except that they had learned to handle firearms up in the mountains of Serbia. We might pay a price for the blithe and vacuous existence we had led here.”
But spirits are high. Patriotism surfaces everywhere: “Our boys!” “They’ll show ‘em.” “Hungarian valour!” Songs are struck and immediately popular: “Just you wait! Just you wait! Serbia, you dog!”
Noisy crowds gather in front of Buda’s main newspaper for hourly updates.
“Noisy uproar, argument, and grandiloquence. Street urchins running in every direction. “Latest!” … sounds of singing. Enlisted men in military caps pinned all over with flowers. Hurrah! Hurrah! People throwing flowers at them…”
Béla is not so sure. For him, a maze of questions arises: How long will it last? After it’s over, what then?” He notices this, however:
“The more narrow minded a person is, the more easily he finds his way through the maze. He’ll declare confidently, for instance, ‘we’ll soon teach the Serbs a lesson, and that will be that.’ ‘Afterwards, a victorious Hungary will prosper, increasing its influence over the Balkans.’ ‘Hungary will win because it has to; it’s obvious…”
He is made a platoon commander, one of four, under a young company commander. As a warm-up for war — or for who knows what reasons– the entire regiment of some 3,000 men is marched 65 kilometers from the mustering-up town to the point of departure. [65 km is about 40 miles. A long day's march, in full gear, is 10-12 miles; they were to do almost 15.]
“Crowds had turned out to shower us with flowers… by the time we reached our destination, half the regiment had been rendered unfit for action from damage to their feet and general exhaustion.”
During his training several years before, the commands had been given in German; since then Hungarian pride had pushed for the native tongue to be used — which he and his fellow junior officers had to memorize as they could — just one of the several language difficulties in the multinational army. Some spoke a variant of Serbian, a completely different language family than Hungarian, interpreters were needed unless they, themselves, acted as interpreters to Serbian prisoners.
In the early days there was still humor for ribbing and jokes. One of the men has a running string of Weiss and Cohen jokes.
Old Cohen goes to see a doctor, because he thinks he may have diabetes. he doctor tells him to come back the next day with a urine sample. Cohen shows up with a huge jarful. The doctor looks a bit surprised, but examines the contents and says to Cohen: ‘I can put your mind at rest. There’s nothing the matter with you.” Cohen rushes off to a telephone. “Good news! The entire family is healthy!”
Some of them work; some don’t.
As the battle nears, on the eastern side of the Carpathian Mountains, his platoon is on parade, final inspection
Gyenes, the battalion commander, surveys the ranks. I give my platoon report. He roars at me.
Ensign! You will present your sword when you report! Perhaps you’re not aware that you’re in the field of battle?”
I yank my sword out, and endeavor to comply sufficiently with Regulations to stop us from losing the war.
The center part of the book, only a week or so, is his first, and final experience of battle, against Russians.
A flash of light straight ahead. A howling noise above our heads, then the curtain of heaven is rent apart. Shrapnel shells.
Now all hell is let loose. Artillery fire in salvos. All twelve (Russian) guns firing at once. It starts behind us, at the edge of the woods, and works its way towards our positions. So that no one can escape to the rear…
(Later:) Solti raises his hand; he’s had two fingers shot off. I signal him to go back, but he has other ideas. He’d rather live without two of his fingers than get himself shot to a sieve.
(Later:) Gyori appears from behind a tree and takes a quick look at the dead. One of them is lying with his head towards me. The top of his skull is gone and the grayish-yellow brains are showing. … I trudge slowly off. I must have gone about three hundred paces when I hear the howling of shrapnel directly above me. They’re shelling individuals now. With the last of my strength, I flop down by the thick trunk of a chestnut tree beside the road.
The next instant it feels as though the earth has collided with another planet, and I am caught between the two.
There is a silence so deep that I think I’ve gone deaf.
As I come to, there is blood running from around my eyes and from my nose, into my lap.
He is evacuated, along with dozens of others, in a two-pony cart, jolting and bouncing along a road. Men next to him in the cart die, and are left behind with perfunctory burials. Eventually, they reach a hospital train and he, finally, arrives back in Budapest. It’s a measure of the different era that, of all things, he is able to go home and be tended by the family doctor. After a few days he goes to the military hospital. When he is able to walk on his own he goes back to the familiar streets he had left only months before — now utterly strange. He picks up a newspaper:
“‘Report from the battlefield! Glorious weather! Battle-readiness of our troops unbreakable! They await the Russian attack from new positions, etcetera.’ It had evidently been composed by the armchair generals of the Pest coffeehouses. I leafed through the paper, looking mostly at the headlines. How alien it was! How far removed from the agonies, the mortal fear as the shells explode around you, the marches that exhaust to the limits of consciousness, the mangled dead, their open eyes staring into oblivion. Yes, far away, and with no conception of the reality of war. Of being unwashed, with clothes soaked for weeks in the tired body’s every humid exhalation, and so filthy that they stick to the skin; of lice, or of when a man gets scabies and itches day and night, scratching his tormented body until it is bloody.”
He is given three months leave, to recuperate and begins to pick up his brushes and palette again. We get interesting glimpses into the life of the family, the meals, time spent together and of course, arguments about the war, and its likely duration. Like the Germans, like the French, like the British, Hungarians spoke of “before Christmas (1914)!”
As a treat to himself, before returning to duty, Bela takes a trip to the shore, where the memoir began. News comes that Italy has just exited the Triple Entente and the German speaking family he stays with in Novi, Croatia, Hungary is worried. Their part of the world had long been a holding of Italy, and is considered occupied territory by many Italians. If they are no longer allies they will certainly be enemies. “Things could become very difficult for us here.”
Here the book stops, with a brief epilogue. His memoir, from vacation, to mustering in, to fighting, being wounded, hospitalization and recuperative leave has taken just over eight months. According to his grandson, who was given the original hand-written pages by his father and decided to translate them, there is more, but even they end in mid-sentence. He has edited as he translated, to good effect I think. We get short intense episodes of the experience of army life and of being under artillery fire, and enough detail of life outside the war to see how similar it was –at least bourgeois life– to that in England, France and Germany; how fair it might be to understand WW I, as Russell Jacoby suggests, as a civil war, between those whose separation was marked more by near proximity than great difference.
Of the several memoirs I have read, Sigfried Sassoon’s [British] Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Gabriel Chevallier’s [French] Fear, William March’s [American] Company K, The Burning of the World impresses in ways the others don’t — in part because of its compression and balance between war and civil life. Fear, at over twice the length, is almost entirely at the front, and though powerful in its evocation of trench-terror, the effect is necessarily dulled by sameness. Sassoon, second only to Wilfred Owen in literary fame, is an important read, though his Memoirs, at least this third of them, are too little balanced by the war experience — even though he was at, and writes of, the Battle of the Somme. He spends a surprising amount of time while an officer in command of others, walking in the fields behind the camp, going back to his Aunt’s country home on sick-leave, extending the life he had known as a fox-hunting gentleman before the war.
They are all memoirs of course — writers remembering– perhaps based on in-the-moment field notes, but written some ten years after war’s end, and so leavened with passing time, forgetting, inventing, injuries sustained, shell-shock, or not, friendships lost or loves found; perhaps the writing taking on its shape and tone from time spent talking memories through before writing them down. [Sassoon spent several months at Craiglockhart Psychiatric Hospital with W.H.R Rivers, an early believer in talk-therapy for trauma. See Pat Barker's 1991 Regeneration for a fictional treatment of this.] All have some degree of fictionalization in them. In Sassoon’s Memoirs, he becomes an officer of a different name, George Sherston; Bertrand Russell becomes Thornton Tyrell. Zombory-Moldován seems the least aided by fictionalization though certainly his words and memories have been dried nicely by time and salted by an ironic after-view.
In the forest I had seen only a single bird: an exhausted crow sitting on a broken branch. At the sound of gunfire it, too, had flown off somewhere. “There are humans here, I must escape and save my skin,” he had thought to himself.
What is of most interest to me as I read these, fiction or memoir, is to understand what the men (almost all men) felt about the war: why they were at the front; if they began to doubt the claims about the fighting, and if so, when? What did they do with such doubt? Almost all speak of fear and courage in anticipation and in battle. All speak of exhaustion, filth, lice, hunger. All have pretty standard military grousing about the higher-ups and those away from the battle-lines. Except for Sassoon, who does publish a ‘Finished With the War’ declaration while still in uniform, what does not appear in any of these is serious resistance to the war, even in discussion. For all the fear and misery, the combination of national feeling, youthful attraction to excitement and self-proving, repulsion at cowardice and shame, all gather together to act as a kind of natural catastrophe from which one has no idea of escaping — except at the bottom of a trench; it simply must be borne.
At no time in The Burning of the World, does Béla speak as though he, or anyone he comes in contact with, feel the Serbs — whom the Empire was attacking– are a threat. In fact, he doesn’t mention the assassination of the Crown Prince, much less speak about feelings of, or talk about, vengeance. He is not, as his Uncle suspects, much of a patriot though there is plenty of that, at least in the early days, mostly he says “among the children and the old.” He is in the army, as so many are, because he has been called up, and hasn’t chosen, or been able –as some are– to find a way not to go. Even by late fall, 1914, however, a silent passive resistance begins to take hold.
“Gradually I was beginning to see the unadorned and harsh reality behind all the sympathy and the solemn extolling of heroism: “I’m glad you’re back but I’m even gladder that I didn’t go, and I’ll do whatever it takes not to to.” Below the surface and despite all show to the contrary, the reality was that everyone had become engaged in a determined, sullen fight for life. It was a fight waged in complete silence and secrecy, but was none the less fierce for all that.”
Once in the army, and under fire, he fights as almost all do because –despite heroic declarations of conscientious objection by some British soldiers– there seems to be no choice: it’s either face the enemy and take your chances or face the surety of a firing squad.
Though the book ends as Béla returns from the Croatian coast to Budapest and further service we are told in the preface that he served in uniform for the rest of the war, though not again in battle. Despite his ironic view and sometimes expressed despair at the war, he contributes uplifting, romantic, posters to lift morale. Though conservative in his political views, he was appalled by Hitler’s rise and then, following WW II, was at odds with the communist regime. It would have been good to have more from his pen. His first love, however, was paint and the graphic image – -and he leaves us that.