The Great War, as experienced by 20 ordinary people.
There is no shortage of histories of World War I written from the viewpoints of the generals and statesmen who drove the grand strategies. Swedish historian Englund (The Battle that Shook Europe: Poltova and the Birth of the Russian Empire, 2002, etc.) takes a different approach, creating a history of the war as perceived by 20 individuals scattered across the globe. Among them: an Australian woman driving ambulances for the Serbian army; a Venezuelan soldier of fortune in the Ottoman cavalry; the American wife of a Polish aristocrat, whose home was wrecked and then turned into a hospital for typhus victims by the occupying Germans; a French civil servant; a Scotsman fighting Germans in East Africa, a 12-year-old German girl, and a dozen others. The war began for them in an explosion of optimistic patriotism but descended inexorably into cynicism, horror, suffering, privation and exhaustion. Through it all they endured, trying to make sense of it and bear up with their dignity and humanity intact. There are adventures and battles, of course, but also many moments of quiet contemplation with closely observed details of street scenes, restaurants, railway stations and deserted battlefields. Englund unobtrusively includes helpful background information within the text or in footnotes. The text is based largely on diaries, letters and memoirs, from which the author quotes copiously, but most of the narrative is his own, an artful condensation of his source materials into brief passages faithful to the experiences and emotional states of his subjects. Largely written in the present tense to maintain the sense of immediacy, it is by turns pithy, lyrical, colorful, poignant and endlessly absorbing.
An exquisite book.