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Authors: Peter Englund

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BOOK: The Beauty and the Sorrow
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He and the rest of the company spend the remainder of the night sitting by the roadside, silent and awake, waiting for dawn and daylight with almost animal-like patience.

TUESDAY
, 6
OCTOBER
1914
Sarah Macnaughtan witnesses the fall of Antwerp

A blue sky. The leaves are turning. Pleasant autumn weather. The sound of artillery is coming closer and they can feel the ground shaking now, as well as hearing the noise of the explosions. She goes to the door occasionally and asks someone in the never-ending stream of fleeing soldiers and civilians how the battle is going. The answer never varies: “Very badly.” Motor cars drive past slowly, hooting their way through the slow-moving throng of people, animals and wagons. Rumour has it that the city will soon be subjected to direct bombardment. Macnaughtan and her colleagues have carried food and water down to the cellars in case they are forced to take the wounded to shelter there.

Many of Sarah’s duties are of a mundane order: making beds, washing floors, cutting bread, pouring beer, portioning out the food. Other duties are anything but: tending the wounded and comforting the dying. Sarah Macnaughtan does not really know what to feel, or to think:

With each batch of the wounded, disabled creatures who are carried in, one feels inclined to repeat in wonder, “Can one man be responsible for all this? Is it for one man’s lunatic vanity that men are putting lumps of lead into each other’s hearts and lungs, and boys are lying with their heads blown off, or with their insides
beside them on the ground?” Yet there is a splendid freedom about being in the midst of death—a certain glory in it, which one can’t explain.

British soldiers, men from the Marines, have begun to arrive too, both among the wounded and among those retreating. They give the same answer when asked how the battle is going: “Very badly.” One of the field hospital women returns with some wounded British soldiers—she had driven her own car right up to the battle line and found the men in a trench. She says: “No one knew why they were in the trenches or where they were to fire—they just lay there and were shot and left.”

No one seems to know anything.

At five in the afternoon they start serving dinner, which is earlier than usual. The darkness of autumn is beginning to make itself felt and the high-ceilinged concert hall quickly becomes dark. Soon she can hear the clatter of pans being dropped and chairs being knocked over as people stumble round in the darkness. There are wounded men lying everywhere, even on the floor. The atmosphere is tense. “Any sudden noise is rather trying at present because of the booming of the guns.” At about seven o’clock they hear a new noise—a kind of double crack. Someone says it is the sound of the British long-range guns.

It would be wrong to say that Macnaughtan has begun to have doubts, but things are not really as she expected. She herself is not really as she expected. She writes:

When I go into the little chapel to pray it is all too tender, the divine Mother and the Child and the holy atmosphere. I begin to feel rather sorry for myself, I don’t know why; then I go and move beds and feel better; but I have found that just to behave like a well-bred woman is what keeps me up best. I had thought that the Flag or Religion would have been stronger incentives to me.

Later in the evening she tries to go out to get some air but a nurse stops her and asks whether she could look after one of the wounded men. Of course she can, and so she sits and watches a twenty-one-year-old man die. She thinks he gives a suspicion of a smile. More wounded men arrive but they are turned away at the door. There is no more room. The constant thunder of the cannon continues all night without a break.

SATURDAY
, 10
OCTOBER
1914
s
Elfriede Kuhr listens to war stories at a coffee party in Schneidemühl

Autumn colours. An October sky. A chill in the air. The teacher has brought along a news telegram and reads it out to the class: Antwerp fell two days ago and the last fort has now capitulated, which means that the long drawn-out siege is over and the German thrust down along the coast towards Flanders can continue. Elfriede can hardly hear the last words of the report because all the children are shouting with joy.

This loud roar whenever another German triumph is announced has become a ritual in her school. Elfriede believes that many of them scream simply because they are hoping that victory will be celebrated with a holiday. Or that the headmaster, a tall, strict gentleman with pince-nez and a pointed white beard, will be so affected by their youthful patriotism that he will at least let them off the last lessons. (When the outbreak of war was announced to the school the headmaster was so moved that he wept and found it difficult to speak at times. He is the man behind the ban on using foreign words in school and sinners have to pay a five-pfennig fine: the word is “Mutter” not “Mama,” “Auf Wiedersehen” not “Adieu,” “Kladde” not “Diarium,” “fesselnd” not “interessant” and so on.) Elfriede, too, joins in the shouting about the fall of Fort Breendonck, not so much because she thinks that they will be excused from classes but just because she thinks it is fun: “I think it’s wonderful to be allowed to shout and scream for all we’re worth in a place we normally have to keep quiet all the time.” In the classroom they have a map on which all the victories of the German army are recorded by pinning up small black, white and red flags. The mood in the school and in Germany as a whole is aggressive, arrogant, chauvinistic and exultant.

After school Elfriede goes to a small coffee party. Her parents are separated and she has no contact with her father. Her mother is a professional woman running a small music school in Berlin, which is why Elfriede and her brother live with their maternal grandmother in Schneidemühl.

As usual, the war is the topic of conversation. Someone has seen yet another transport full of Russian prisoners at the station. They used to attract attention “with their long, brown coats and ragged trousers” but hardly anyone bothers about them anymore. As the German armies continue to advance, the newspapers churn out new figures for the numbers of prisoners taken, a sort of stock market of war in which today’s quotations show Suwalki standing at 27,000 and west of Ivangorod standing at 5,800. (Not to mention other tangible symbols of victory: the newspapers this month have reported that 1,630 railway trucks were needed to transport the booty taken after the great victory at Tannenberg.) But what are they to do with all the prisoners? Fräulein Ella Gumprecht, a middle-aged, unmarried schoolmarm with firm views, plump cheeks and carefully waved hair, knows the answer: “Why not shoot the lot of them?” The others think that is a dreadful idea.
t

The adults swap war stories. Fräulein Gumprecht tells of a man who was tossed into a burning house by Cossacks but who managed to escape on a bicycle by dressing in women’s clothes. The children respond by passing on a story their mother has sent them from Berlin:

A German lance corporal in the reserves, a professor of Romance Languages at Göttingen in civilian life, has the job of escorting French prisoners from Maubeuge to Germany. The guns are thundering in the distance. Suddenly the lieutenant in command notices that his lance corporal has become involved in a violent quarrel with one of the Frenchmen. The Frenchman is gesticulating excitedly with his hands and the lance corporal’s eyes are flashing angrily behind his glasses. Fearing violence, the lieutenant rides over to them and, with an oath, separates them. Then the agitated lance corporal explains the issue: the French prisoner
of war, who is wearing tattered boots held together with string, used to be a professor at the Sorbonne. The two gentlemen are quarrelling because they cannot agree about the use of the subjunctive in older Provençal poetry.

They all laugh, including Fräulein Gumprecht, who laughs so much that she gets a piece of nut chocolate stuck in her throat. Grandmother, however, turns to Elfriede and her brother: “Children, don’t you think it’s such a shame that two professors end up having to shoot at each other? The soldiers should throw down their rifles and say ‘We don’t want to be part of this any longer.’ Then they should just go home.” This upsets Fräulein Gumprecht and she shrills: “What about our Kaiser, then? And the honour of Germany? And the good name of our German soldiers?” Grandmother raises her voice and answers: “Every mother ought to go to the Kaiser and say ‘Peace now!’ ”

Elfriede is astounded. She knows her grandmother heard the news of mobilisation with sorrow. This is actually the third war in Grandmother’s lifetime: first there was the war with the Danes in 1864, then the war with the French in 1870. And even though Grandmother, just like everyone else, is firmly convinced that Germany will be victorious yet again and that the victory will again be a quick one, she still cannot see that there is anything good in what has happened. But to talk like this! Elfriede has never heard anything like it.

TUESDAY
, 13
OCTOBER
1914
Pál Kelemen spends the night in a mountain pass near Łużna

Forwards, then backwards, then forwards again. First of all the frenetic advances in Galicia in the opening months of the war to counter the invading Russians, with all the bloody fighting that resulted from that (the “battle for Lemberg,” or possibly the “Battle of Lemberg”); then the retreat—a confused race from river to river until they were suddenly in the Carpathians and on the Hungarian border. Dreadful! After that a pause, silence, nothing. Then orders to advance again, out of the mountain passes of the Carpathians, down to the plains to the
north-east and on to Przemyśl, which is under siege. The losses have been enormous.
u

Winter is coming unusually early. It started with a heavy snowfall, which quickly made all the roads impassable, and also made it impossible for Austro-Hungarian units to move forward—or back, for that matter. Pál Kelemen’s division is trapped in one of these snowed-up passes in the mountains. The biting, wind-driven snow is forming deep drifts around the horses. Freezing soldiers are crouching around small, weak fires or stamping their feet and beating their arms. “Nobody talks.”

Pál Kelemen writes in his journal:

There is only one house left intact in the mountain pass, the modest hut of the border innkeeper.
v
They have installed the field telegraph station in the first room; in the second, the staff officers of the Cavalry Corps are quartered; I arrived here at eleven at night and sent a dispatch to the Command, reporting that it was impossible to proceed at present. So I lie down in a corner on a pallet, covered with my blanket.
Howling, the wind pierces the tiles of the rickety roof and clatters the windowpanes. It is pitch dark outside. Here inside there is only one wavering candle flame. The telegraph works incessantly, forwarding orders in preparation for tomorrow’s attack. Scores of those who fell behind in the advance lie in the hall and in the garret—the weak, the sick, and the slightly wounded who start to the rear tomorrow.
I lie half asleep, exhausted, some other officers around me on small heaps of straw. The shivering men around the lodge have made a fire out of the planks of the adjacent stable, and the flames leaping into the dark attract still more stray soldiers.
A sergeant enters and asks permission for one of his comrades to come in here; he is scarcely conscious and would certainly perish of the cold outside. They lay him on a bundle of hay on the ground near the door, hunched up, his eyeballs half
turned out, his neck drawn in between his shoulders. In several places his coat was pierced by bullets and the edge of it singed by the fire of some night encampment. His hands are stiff with cold, his gaunt, tormented face covered with a dishevelled beard.
Sleep overcomes me. The
titi-tata
code signals of the telegraph become a buzzing in the distance.
At daybreak I am wakened by the noise of the men preparing to march on, and with dull dizzy head I look around the miserable night quarters. Through the low window flowered with frost the day is breaking sallow grey, filling every nook and corner of the room with sober light. Only the soldier who was brought in last night is lying still, on his face, turned toward the wall.
The door of the inner room opens and one of the aides-decamp, Prince Schönau-Gratzfeld, steps in, smoothly shaven, in pyjamas, blowing clouds of smoke from a long-stemmed Turkish chibouk into the foul bitter air.
He perceives the soldier lying motionless in the corner, goes up to him, but recoils with fastidious horror. Indignantly he commands the instant removal of the corpse, obviously dead from cholera, and, with appalled expression, returns to the inner room. After him two privates drag in a portable rubber bathtub adorned with an escutcheon and filled with warm water.
SATURDAY
, 24
OCTOBER
1914
Laura de Turczynowicz returns to Suwalki

The journey has been as slow as it has been uncomfortable. At least on the final stage from Olita Laura has not had to travel in a cattle truck, though the train has still been unheated. And for the last twenty-four hours it has just been crawling along, stopping time after time out on the track for no apparent reason. Sections of the track have been repaired, but only just passably, and on those sections the carriages have swayed and rocked “like a ship in high sea.”

BOOK: The Beauty and the Sorrow
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