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Authors: Peter Englund

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The building of the cadet school was still unfinished when he and the rest of the first cohort of aspirant officers moved in. The place itself had been a bit of a disappointment: the location was dry, cold and isolated
and they lived in prefabricated, single-storey barracks with asbestos cladding. But the education was good and Dawkins, who was ambitious, achieved the highest grades in both theoretical and practical subjects. He is, however, rather small, only about five foot six inches and slightly built, and that—together with his intellectual abilities—pushed him in the direction of a specialisation in which the mind is more important than brute strength. The majority of the thirty-seven men in the passing-out class of 1914 went on into the infantry or the cavalry, whereas he and one other high-performing cadet ended up in the engineers. That particular branch of the forces probably suited his temperament best; even though Dawkins is pleased to be part of the Australian Expeditionary Force and just as happy as all the others to cheer British successes, it is clear that he is not afflicted by war fever in its most intense form. The character that emerges from his letters is that of an ambitious, quiet, slightly prim young man—an elementary school teacher in uniform. He is a keen churchgoer and the eldest of six brothers and sisters, the two youngest of whom—the twin girls Zelma and Vida—he is particularly fond of and pays a lot of attention.

The outbreak of war did not come as a complete surprise to him, since rumours had preceded it. Few people, however, had taken the rumours too seriously: if anything was going to happen it would literally happen on the other side of the world, where it would affect foreign places of which few people had ever heard and even fewer could pronounce. When the news finally reached them and they understood that their country too had been dragged into it in some incomprehensible way, Dawkins and his fellow cadets had existed in limbo for the first few confusing days. What was going to happen to them? They still had four months’ education and training left to do. Then they heard they were to take their examinations early so they could join the expeditionary force that was being put together. They had happily packed their possessions and given away or sold everything surplus to requirements, and a grand and emotional dinner had been given in their honour. Now they are on their way.

Even though Europe still lies far ahead, Dawkins has already seen something of war. Or almost, anyway. When they were passing the Cocos Islands four days earlier the convoy took the eastern route instead of the more usual western route because they were afraid of encountering the most notorious and feared of the German freebooters, the light
cruiser SMS
Their caution proved justified: the
was, indeed, lying in wait. A telegram informed the convoy of this fact and the largest of the convoy’s escorts was dispatched to deal with it: a message—“Attacking the enemy”—reached the
at 10:25 and “the boom of the gun was heard by some on board our ship.” The
, which was severely outclassed, was shot to pieces before being beached.

The rumour is now going round the
that the wounded and prisoners from the twenty-five-minute naval engagement are to be brought on board. Dawkins is really looking forward to this. The convoy is now approaching Ceylon, where he hopes to be able to post the letter to his mother:

I hope you are in the best of health. I am splendid and in perfect health. I do hope Aunty Mary is improving. Give my kindest regards to all who may enquire of me. I will close now—looking forward to getting your letter at Colombo. Best love to all, From Willie xxxxxxxxxxxxxx to the girls.
, 19
Kresten Andresen goes through his kit before travelling to the front in France

One by one Andresen’s friends have gone. Since he has carefully refrained from stepping forward as a volunteer he has managed to remain in the barracks for some time—a furtive, uncertain existence waiting for the inevitable. But the disappearance of the others—most recently his namesake Thöge Andresen—has had an effect on him. Thöge, unlike Kresten, volunteered for front-line service. His reason? Thöge wanted “to undergo his baptism into manhood in war.” Kresten Andresen can certainly understand how Thöge and others like him feel. He writes in his journal:

Go to war not for the sake of goods and gold, not for your homeland or for honour, nor to seek the death of your enemies, but to strengthen your character, to strengthen it in power and will, in habits, custom and earnestness. That is why I want to go to war. But I refuse to learn that lesson voluntarily since I believe that the aim can also be achieved in another way.

Andresen knows that it cannot be much longer, but he is nevertheless grateful for the extra time he has won.

They were vaccinated against typhus and cholera yesterday. Today they are being injected against diphtheria. He is going through his kit, which is now all complete:

    Grey uniform with red piping and bronze buttons
    Dark cloak, army issue
    Pickelhaube with green cover, R86
    Grey uniform cap
    Own boots, bought in Vejle
    Laced boots, yellow, army issue
    Rucksack, calfskin
    Yellow Belgian belt
    Ditto ammunition pouch
    Ditto leather items and straps
    Tent and tent pegs
    Mess-tin, aluminium
    Mug, ditto
    Flask, ditto
    Grey gloves
    Bread bag
    Two tins of coffee
    Tin for rifle grease
    Iron rations, consisting of two bags of biscuits, a can of meat and a packet of peas
    Two first-aid bandages
    Rifle, Model 97
    Two woollen jerseys
    Two shirts
    Two pairs of underpants, one blue
    Thick, navy-blue jersey Grey scarf
    Two belts
    Pair of knee-warmers
    Pair of gloves
    Identity tag, ANDRESEN, KRESTEN K.E.R.R. 86.
    Four pairs of socks, one of them in open work (love gift)
    White armband for use in night-fighting
    Bag of salt with a silk ribbon
    Half a kilo of ham
    Half a kilo of butter
    Tin of fruit spread
    New Testament
Flight of the Stag
    Field Postcards, 30
    Writing paper
    “Something for the Troops”: Anise oil
    Sewing kit
    Three notebooks
    A Danish Flag (Lacking at the moment)
    150 rounds live
    Half a kilo of bacon
    One Speckwurst sausage
    One loaf of bread (army issue)

All in all his pack weighs about thirty kilos, which (as Andresen writes in his journal) “can be said to be quite enough.” The newspapers are writing about some units composed of young students who went into the attack at Langemarck singing “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles.” Winter is approaching.

, 28
Michel Corday lunches with two ministers in Bordeaux

There are six of them in the party and they talk about this and that. Given the huge gravitational pull of the topic, however, the conversation always comes back to the war. There is the fact, for instance, that although there is a word for a woman who has lost her husband (“widow”) there is no word for a woman who has lost her child. Or that it is almost certainly possible for German Zeppelins to reach and bomb Paris. Or that they have begun putting up special lampshades on the street-lights in London and that the person who invented them is the famous choreographer Loie Fuller. Or there is the business of these peculiar chain-letters containing prayers that have started circulating: the recipient is urged to copy the prayers and send them on to nine other people or “misfortune will strike you and those you love.”

No, the war is a difficult topic to avoid, particularly when two of the men round the table are in the government.

One of them is Aristide Briand, Minister of Justice and an old political animal if ever there was one, an adroit pragmatist (some would say opportunist), vaguely pinkish in outlook and outspokenly anti-clerical. The eloquent Briand is becoming an increasingly important figure in politics and many other ministers are envious of him because he has visited the front. This month he has come up with a particular idea: since
the war in the west seems to have bogged down, why not send a Franco-British army elsewhere, the Balkans, for instance. The other politician is Marcel Sembat, Minister of Public Works, a lawyer, journalist and one of the leading figures in the French socialist party. Both men are now part of the coalition government set up after the outbreak of war. Not many people are surprised that Briand joined the government: he is known as a careerist, accustomed to power and its conditions and possibilities. Very many more people, however, particularly among the radicals, were surprised by Sembat’s acceptance of office: there are many in that camp who see it as an act of treachery on a par with the German Social Democrats voting in favour of war credits.

During the course of the conversation it becomes clear that not even the ministers have any firm grasp on how many soldiers there actually are in the army. This is partly because the higher echelons of the military, who frequently and openly show their scorn for the civilian powers, are notoriously secretive, and partly because registers and rolls are still in disarray after the great mobilisation of the late summer and the colossal losses of the autumn, which culminated at the Battle of the Marne. (How many died is a secret and will remain so until after the end of the war.) None of the civilian ministers dares raise a voice against the generals—the latter still have the status of infallible Gods of Thunder in all the warring nations. They have, however, managed to come to a rough estimate of the losses by using the figures for the total number of food rations served in the army every day. On the basis of this information the government is estimating how many bottles of champagne it will need to distribute to the troops on Christmas Eve.

BOOK: The Beauty and the Sorrow
12.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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