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The Beauty And The Sorrow: An intimate history of the First World War [Paperback]

Peter Englund
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
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Book Description

6 Sep 2012

There are many books on the First World War, but award-winning and bestselling historian Peter Englund takes a daring and stunning new approach. Describing the experiences of twenty ordinary people from around the world, all now unknown, he explores the everyday aspects of war: not only the tragedy and horror, but also the absurdity, monotony and even beauty. Two of these twenty will perish, two will become prisoners of war, two will become celebrated heroes and two others end up as physical wrecks. One of them goes mad, another will never hear a shot fired.

Following soldiers and sailors, nurses and government workers, from Britain, Russia, Germany, Australia and South America - and in theatres of war often neglected by major histories on the period - Englund reconstructs their feelings, impressions, experiences and moods. This is a piece of anti-history: it brings this epoch-making event back to its smallest component, the individual.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 488 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (6 Sep 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846683432
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846683435
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 18.6 x 24.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 84,424 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"'Peter Englund is one of the finest writers of our time on the tactics, the killing and the psychology of war. In The Beauty and the Sorrow he superbly and humanely brings to life all the tragedy, chaos, death and gunsmoke of battle' (Simon Sebag Montefiore) 'A wonderfully wide and rich mosaic of personal experience from the First World War' (Antony Beevor) 'A haunting mosaic of the experiences of war. The layers of voices build to create a richly complex and rarely heard account of the First World War that lingers in the memory long after the final page. Immensely powerful.' (Juliet Gardiner, author of 'The Blitz')"

Book Description

Four devastating years told by twenty eyewitnesses showing not just what the First World War was, but what it was like to live through

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
For the historian saying something new and original about the Great War is by definition a challenge of foreboding proportions. The chilling observation by Joseph Stalin that "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic" resonates particularly around this conflict with the level of carnage horrifically mind boggling and almost impossible to grasp today. There is heartfelt grief for all soldiers caught up in conflict and we think in our generation of the tragedy of the 365 British combatants who are sadly deceased as a result of the Afghanistan conflict. How then would we react today to a catastrophe like Passchendaele on the Ypres Salient where 260,000 British troops were causalities in 1917 and how would we feel to be involved in the wider contagion of a total war?

This excellent new book by Peter Englund "The Beauty And The Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War' attempts to answer the last question by charting the path of 20 people through the meltdown of 1914 -18. Englund is a talented Swedish historian and journalist. He is also the new permanent secretary of the academy which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. His style is immensely readable and his twenty protagonists range from countries across the globe including in his own words "an Australian woman who drove a lorry for the Serbian Army; a Scotsman fighting Germans in East Africa; an Italian soldier who ended up in a Mental Asylum; a French civil servant who never saw the front; a German school girl who grew up close to the war on the eastern borders of Germany; a South American adventurer who fought for the Turks and witnessed the Armenian genocide and a Belgian fighter pilot"

This is not a straightforward history, indeed Englund describes it as "anti history".
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Closing in on the truth 7 July 2013
By M. D. Holley TOP 1000 REVIEWER
In the introduction the author states that he is not intending to compete with other histories of World War 1. Well I think he is too modest. This is perhaps the most insightful history of the war currently available.

The author is of a nationality that did not take part in either World War, and this is a huge advantage, for he does not take sides. This also leads him to give equal weight to all nationalities participating, and to all the different theatres of war (for a British reader what a relief that this isn't yet another book weighted towards the western front!). He also takes care to represent female as well as male participants, and to choose people from various walks of life. The only thing which is not representative is that the twenty chosen people are probably of above average intelligence and education - but then if they hadn't written eloquently of their experiences we wouldn't have the record of them.

The unique format, which gives voice to the beliefs and motivations of real people, brings out a number of things which might be missed by a conventional history:

1) Many of the twenty individuals were blatantly racist in their outlook, as were all nations participating in the war;
2) All sides seem to have been completely delusional (how else could they sincerely hold such mutually exclusive beliefs?);
3) Most people acted sincerely in a way which they felt was extremely moral, yet many committed appalling atrocities;
4) All sides were motivated by a desire to expand their empires by taking control over and exploiting other countries, yet as a result of 1) and 2) above most sincere individuals saw nothing wrong in that.

I found the format very easy to read and rather a page turner. Unlike some reviewers I did not find it at all disjointed.

I hope that other histories of both world wars will be positively influenced by this work.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
There are so many books about WW1 these days that it is difficult to think of how the subject can be approached in an original way, but Peter Englund has done it. He charts the lives of 20 different people who in different ways participated in the struggle. Most of them are obscure, but they certainly are not ordinary: one is a British VC, another is a Belgian flying ace, another a wealthy middle aged Scottish woman who sets up her own soup kitchen in Flanders, another an Italian-American volunteer who spends most of the war in an Italian mental asylum. The most outlandish character is a Venezuelan adventurer who has spent his life seeking out wars to fight in, and is so desperate to get involved in the big one that he ends up in the Ottoman army having been rejected in turn by the armies of Belgium, France, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro (where he was arrested as a spy), before a chance meeting with the Turkish ambassador in Sofia gives him his opportunity.

Each of the entries are short, which helps to keep the narrative moving, but the danger is that sometimes the book seems too fragmentary. Englund counters this by interjecting with general comments about the character's situation. This is confusing, and one is never sure whose voice it is at any one time, the character or the author.

Presumably to give the book some structure, he also comments throughout on the general progress of the war. Sometimes these points are in the text, at other times as copious footnotes, which is again confusing. I suppose these are necessary for the reader who is not familiar with the progress of the war, but I often found these comments irritating, and they break up the narrative at too many points. However, they are occasionally illuminating: a couple of examples:-

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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars but the reader enjoyed it
Again another present, but the reader enjoyed it
Published 27 days ago by k lawrence
4.0 out of 5 stars A real account of the Great War
Although long and at times a little disjointed this book looks at WW 1 through the eyes of people who had first hand experience of it. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Christopher Leach
5.0 out of 5 stars War book
Personally not my cup of tea but my son said he enjoyed it and found it informative. He usually reads about more modern wars but found this gave him a different perspective on past... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Jan
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant
A fantastic piece of scholarly research. This is a classic which offers a singularly riveting view of the Second World war.
Published 9 months ago by Pliny
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect! As described and just what I was looking for! Highly...
Perfect! As described and just what I was looking for! Highly recommended and would certainly purchase again - top marks!
Published 10 months ago by Peter Jones
3.0 out of 5 stars The Beauty and the sorrow
I was very very disappointed as only after reading the book did I realise that there should have been illustrations. NO illustrations were included. Read more
Published 12 months ago by averil weinstein
5.0 out of 5 stars WW1 - different perspectives
Having read many books on World War 1 I have to say that I was immensely impressed with this one. It offers a range of individual experiences from its chosen participants which... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Ms J Martin-Greathead
5.0 out of 5 stars A great book about the great war
The first world war from the viewpoint of the peolpe who took part in it. There are no broad strokes here, just beatiful sorrowful personal experiences. Highly recommend it.
Published 15 months ago by Stefan Carlberg
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read
The Beauty and the Sorrow is an excellent read. It gives views of WW1 from all sides, including civilians and soldiers. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Chris Page
4.0 out of 5 stars good book
This was an interesting perspective on this period of chaos. It is beautifully written and quite a page turner. It is not written in first person.
Published 17 months ago by Tamsin
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