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The interest of readers in World War I seems to divide into three main categories: high-level diplomatic threats, promises and communications (as in The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, 2012, or July Crisis by T.G. Otte, 2014;)  life in the trenches, even if barely fictionalized (Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger, 1920/2004, Under Fire, Henri Barbusse, 1917, Soldier on the Southern Front, Emilio Lussu, 1936); and  military strategy, tactics and weaponry (The World War 1 Reader by Michael Neiburg, 2006, The First World War by Cyril Falls, 2015.)  What is largely  missing are the lives of those who, though not soldier, officer or diplomat, experienced the war anyway — as nurse, old man, young girl, wife left on the farm, boy too young to fight.  Several related, recent works begin to fill that gap, and in doing so help us imagine just what the stakes of war are for those not in uniform.

14 –Diaries of the Great War is a pan-European, eight-hour mini-series which does a remarkable job of interweaving documentary footage with segments acted from journals and letters kept by 14 people caught in the war. Seven are women, one of them a young soldier. Of the seven men, all but a young boy, are soldiers — but not only in the usual places.

The first episode sketches the beginning of the war, with background about the Austro-Hungarian empire. Fascinating footage of trains, carriages, celebration of the war.

“People from all countries are convinced that they’re being attacked, and that they must defend their homeland.”

The first to be introduced is a young Cossack girl who eventually  follows her father to war.  Kathe Kollwitz [ played by German actress Christina Grosse,] was even then a well-known German artist.  Against her husband’s strong wishes, and her own beliefs — both were anti-war socialists– she gave permission to their young, and only son, to enlist.  He was killed weeks later in Belgium.

An eight year old French boy, playing with tin soldiers while his parents tremble during nearby shelling is particularly effective. Another character, Vincenzo D’Aquila, an Italian, goes mad. Suspected of malingering he raves that he and he alone can end thewar single handedly.

Rather than progressing through the war by week and month, the series is organized into 8 themes, during which some of those we have seen elsewhere, reappear.  Each opens with a brief recall of the happy days before the war, then pivots on the phrase: “Until the Summer of 1914.”  The opening episode is “The Abyss,” the second, “The Onslaught. ”  Sixth is “The Homefront.”  The period costumes and sets are quite well done.  Film footage of domestic scenes and men at war are skillfully integrated with the acting.  We have a strong impression of watching a movie, not a stitchery of styles and genres.

The third segment, “The Anguish,” focuses strongly on women volunteers, mostly nurses, who after initially being discounted and held far from the lines sorting bandages and making up bundles for the hospital, were suddenly thrown into experiences they had been protected from all their young lives.  There is shocking footage of wounded men, Russian, British and German, being lumbered from trains, cars and horse-drawn carts.  The acting, and set design for the contemporary portions are admirably done.  Journal entries, acted,  of a young nurse stroking a man’s forehead, letting him think she is his sweetheart, as he is dying are very touching.

Jan Peter, the writer and director of the series is the same Swedish writer,  Jan Peter Englund,  who gave us the wonderful book The Beauty and the Sorrow, (see below) translated by Peter Graves, in 2011.  The interviews and historical framework of the film series come from the book. Of the 20 people he presents in great detail, 14 appear in the films.

The series is available on YouTube in good quality images.  Distressingly the spoken languages, which include German, French, Polish, Russian, are not sub-titled.  Voice-overs and summaries in English make it watchable, just. Despite the loss of dialog, we get a good sense of the characters, their experiences in war-time and the decisions they had to make.  A 4 DVD set , re-titled 14 War Stories, which does have subtitles, is also available at Amazon and other outlets.  (Caution, one set is Code 1 for U.S. and Canada, another is Code 2-4 for Europe.) Copies are also available at some Bay Area libraries.



The Beauty and the Sorrow, 2011, a collection of letters, journal entries and interpolated history, collected by Peter Englund and translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves, is a feat of imagination, deep (I imagine sometimes grueling) research,  and reporting.  Unlike the films which came from the book (above), and are arranged in thematic segments, the book begins as the war does, on August 2, 1914.  It follows in date sequence, as the found material is available, the journals revealing both the beauty, as the title says, and the sorrow.

Sarah McNaughton, an English nurse serving with the Russian army says at one point:

“Yet there is a splendid freedom about being in the midst of death–a certain glory in it, which one can’t explain.”

Harvey Cushing, an American army field surgeon, seconds her:

“…the savage in you makes you adore it with its squalor and wastefulness and danger and strife and glorious noise. You feel that, after all, this is what men were intended for rather than to sit in easy chairs with a cigarette and whiskey, the evening paper or the best-seller, and to pretend that such a veneer means civilization and that there is no barbarian behind you starched and studded shirt front.”

Michael Corday, a French Civil Servant, is soon disgusted:

“The French press has never revealed the truth, not even whatever truth is attainable under censorship. Instead we have been subjected to a heavy bombardment of fine-sounding prattle, of limitless optimism, of a systematic vilification of the enemy, of a determination to hide the horrors and sorrows of war — and ll this has then been concealed behind a mask of moralizing idealism!”

Elfriede Kuhr,  a twelve-year-old school girl when the war began, observes, after news of the German advance is heard:

“…the mood in the school is aggressive, arrogant, chauvinistic and exultant…”

Because the excerpts are in date order, a difficulty arises. On some dates, two or three excerpts, from different people, appear; between other dates are gaps.  At times one person will appear on several pages, and dates, in a row, then go missing for many, reappearing when the name has been all but forgotten.  To some extent this can be a bit confusing. We move say, from an English nurse with the Russians along the German front, to an Englishman in Iraq during the siege of Kut, to a French civil servant in Paris.   A helpful editing choice would have been to put with each individual’s text the page numbers of his or her preceding and succeeding texts.  We could then have easily followed the narrative of a given person, as well as the way it is presented, all in date order, over months or years. [Not all of them make it to the end, dead by wounds or illness.]

It is not easy to pick out a ‘favorite’ among those Englund has selected; I imagine his settling on these 20 out of all those he found was no easier.  Perhaps the most unusual is Laura de Turczynowicz, a Canadian born, New York raised opera singer.  She is thirty-five years old, the wife of a Polish aristocrat, and within weeks becomes a nurse to wounded German prisoners. Her three children, being born in Krakow, are subjects of the Austro-Hungarian emperor; her husband is a subject of the Czar, and she subject of the British king.  One can imagine an entire film devoted to her.


Somewhat in the same vein is Sebastian Faulks, “A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War,“(2014.)  Faulks, a very accomplished writer, most especially in the context of the films and books here, of Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War, 1993, (from which a very good film was also made.) His research took him not only to interviews and journals but to published work as well.  Excerpts from D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, and others  are included, but only once excerpt from anyone.  His collection, contrasted to the 20 contributors to Beauty and  the Sorrow, is of over 116 people.  We get a far wider view though not with the depth and continuity of the other.

Neither does his organization of the material follow a chronological order.  As he explains in the  introduction, he and the editors decided to sort them by “place,” not as geography but thematic place with respect to the war.  So, the first section is Distant Hammers: Hearing and Imagining from Afar, which includes, a bit startlingly, reminiscences of Armistice day, long before we have read about the war itself. Once the organization is accepted, and paid attention to, the excerpts join together in their own affinity.   Part two is Mind and Matter: Experience at Close Quarters, where we enter the lives and thoughts of the soldiers themselves.  Two more sections and an afterword come to a tidy 279 pages.

As Englund found, so did Faulks: war has its thrills.  From a young woman translator in London writing her mother about the first German Zeppelin attack and the “magnificent” searchlights.  Shells are going off all around the zeppelin  “It was a magnificent, the most thrilling scene imaginable.”

It also has the unimaginable. A man at the front, reports:

“They had had their legs blown off. All I could see when I got up to them was their thigh bones.  I will always remember their white thigh bones.  The rest of their legs were gone.  I lay alongside one of them and said ‘Can I do anything for you, Bob?’  He said, ‘straighten my legs, Jack’ but he had no legs.  I touched the bones and that satisfied him.  ‘Get my wife’s photograph out of my pocket,’ he said….”

The final section, White Spots: Searching for What Was Lost, is a heartbreaking collection of very short, simple, sometimes unschooled letters.


I enclose a photo of my late Husband Dennis Murphy.  I shall like him to be with others that have helped in this war. He was a good man and the best of Husbands their for I want to do all I can so that he shall not be forgotten. … I have a baby girl year and two months which is a great comfort to me, but nothing can take the place of one so dear as my Husband.

Yours truely

Ethel Murphy

While Englund interprets more, giving us summary and research of particular places and times, with generous excerpts from letters or journals, Faulks casts a wider net for smaller excerpts. Both are effective, drawing us in to lives of others.  Each may appeal to different readers: Englund,  the more historically anchored, following through time the experiences of a few;  Faulks for those who appreciate the clustering of similar situations to build and give weight.  We get to know the soldiers. We get to know those far from the front, or even in time, together.


Faulks’ Birdsong is one of a trilogy of his war-related fiction.  The other two, The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Charlotte Gray  I’ve not read.

Relevant to today, Englund wrote a piece for DN Kultur on 2/21/17 about Donald Trump – the most dangerous leader ever.