"Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures," Emerson wrote, a thought that underpins 46 short pieces assembled by Ayrton (The Alphabet Garden, 1995) to define the "treacherous blundering tragi-comedy" that history labels World War I.
Ayrton has drawn from writings of major authors recognized for work of that era—William Faulkner, Erich Maria Remarque, Siegfried Sassoon—but readers seeking a new perspective will also find fiction set in the Balkans, Gallipoli, and among mountain campaigns where Serbs, Croats, Greeks, Turks and Romanians fought and bled, froze and died. Most striking are pieces written by former Volunteer Aid Detachment workers, mainly upper- and middle-class women who left lives of privilege to find themselves among shot-off faces, gassed lungs and amputated limbs in "stinking yellow water and grey-green foaming soap, with bloody bandages and cotton wool floating in it. Suppurating, nauseating cotton wool." Mary Borden was a wealthy Chicago woman who personally financed a field hospital. Borden also worked as a nurse, and her pieces range from the melancholy to a spare dialogue script of doctors crammed into an operating tent—a lung lacerated by three bullet holes is patched, a gangrenous leg is amputated, and a man with a mortal stomach wound begs for water. Some pieces are reportorial. Some are surrealist. Others are grotesque, such as Faulkner’s "Crevasse," in which marching troops plunge into a mass grave. And then there are the absurdist, such as Hašek’s "Švejk Goes to the War." Every piece gives voice to the "timeless confusion, a chaos of noise, fatigue, anxiety and horror" that is war on the industrial scale. American readers will appreciate the perspectives of writers who focus on the experiences of colonial troops or the celebrated German Ernst Jünger, or Vahan Totovents, who explores the origins of Armenian genocide.
It’s a book to be read at random, too intense to digest in a single reading, but a worthy addition to any history buff’s library.