The Burning of the World

As often occurs when I’m looking for books at the University library, my eye catches a title that piques my interest. This is how I happened upon “The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914” by Bela Zombory-Moldovan. The memoirist in this case is a Hungarian artist, conscripted by the Astro-Hungarian Army at the start of the war. Bela was on holiday in the Adriatic when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia,  a consequence of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by the Bosnian nationalist, Gavro Princip. This was the spark that started the war.

Bela paints a picture of life at the start of the war and his own brief stint as a second lieutenant fighting the Russians in Galicia. Most of my WWI reading and research has focused on the Western Front, so this trek to the Eastern Front was fascinating and horrible.

When dealing with this part of the world, I definitely needed a map to get my bearings as well as a bit of a history lesson of the area. Pre-WWI, the Austro-Hungarian Empire covered an extensive geography (the outline in blue of the orange, blue and pink areas shown on the map) and was made up of a variety of ethnic groups that were increasingly interested in autonomy and independence from the Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire coalesced in 1867, so by 1914 there were definite rifts occurring among different groups. The post WWI countries are outlined and named in red.

I’d previously read  that the Austro-Hungarian Army was ill prepared for war. Reading this memoir really drove home that view. The book takes place early in the war when the generals and officers were proud and stupid. They sent men with jammed rifles to face Russian artillery. They prevented the men from digging fox holes because “this leads to cowardice and undermines discipline” although the men dug into the sand anyway (with tin lids because they had no shovels). The men in Bela’s platoon started shooting at each other thinking they were firing on the Russians. The Russian Artillery caused massive casualties. The Austro-Hungarian Army, both officers and infantrymen, were ill-trained and untried. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had about 7 million casualties in WWI out of a population of 51 million. This equates to an average of more than 4500 Austro-Hungarian soldiers killed, wounded, or captured every day of the war.

Bela is wounded in this early battle with the Russians and returns to Budapest where he is sent to a ward in a military hospital for “crazies.” He leaves the hospital and becomes increasingly disillusioned, not just about the war, but about life. These first months of the war  most people were still riding the patriotic wave and optimistic about the outcome of the war. Bela with his first-hand experiences knew better.




100 Years Later

April 2017 marked the 100 year anniversary of the U.S. declaring war on Germany and entering the First World War. A PBS special, an op-ed in the New York Times, and a special Time Magazine edition seemed to be the highlights of this important centenary. Contrast this to the speeches, remembrances, and special events in Europe in 2014 (the 100 year anniversary of the start of the war) which isn’t surprising given that the war was fought in Europe (western and eastern Europe primarily) and many more soldiers and civilians lost their lives than American. They’re still finding live shells buried in the farm fields France and Belgium so even 100 years later, the war isn’t really over. Yet, the anti-climax of the U.S. anniversary was a bit disturbing given that this war in my opinion shaped U.S. and global politics, the military-industrial complex, and technology’s trajectory more than anything else in the 20th century.

I was also disturbed by the underlying sentiment in the PBS special and Time articles that made Germany the aggressor, the instigator, the problem, and the U.S. the hero and the liberator. This is WWI we’re talking about, not WWII. It didn’t start because of German aggression. This was a war of Empire and the desire of all Empires was to expand their power and influence. The British Empire was the dominant world power both militarily and economically at the time, and it was doing anything and everything to keep that power. From their perspective, Germany which was building its navy and trying to increase its influence in the world economy was a serious threat. To them. (A good book to shake your perspective of Britain as the “good guy” is found in the Hidden History; The Secret Origins of the First World War.)

All sides were culpable.

But what if the U.S. hadn’t played favorites and loaned millions and sold millions in war goods to France and Britain and thus prolonged the war. Once the stalemate was realized by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary, in 1915, peace talks might have made headway if Britain and France hadn’t been backed by the U.S. Or what if a more equitable peace would have been brokered by the belligerents had the U.S. not joined at the end of the war. Who’s to say that Hitler wouldn’t have risen to power and a WWII would not have happened? Unfortunately, we can’t run those experiments. So we will never know.

What we do know is that President Wilson and the U.S. caved in at the Treaty of Versailles whether it was due to Wilson contracting the influenza and affecting his capacities as proposed in The Great Influenza or for other reasons. He reneged on his “Peace without Victory” adage, and gave in to France’s demands. The Treaty punished the Germans in ways that destroyed their economy and morale. One thing that many historians do agree on is that the Treaty was a disaster and invariably led to the rise of Hitler, fascism, and WWII. So maybe that’s the real reason, popular history still likes to blame WWI on the Germans, so that we, Americans, French and British, can disavow our own influence and impact in the creation of an even more devastating second world war.

I just wish we could learn to live in peace.


Stranded in Europe

One of my favorite pastimes over the years has been wandering the stacks (hundreds of shelves on two floors) at the UVM library. My searches have ranged from science and engineering to art, literature and books about writing. And of course, WWI. I happened to be in the memoir/biography section recently when I noticed a biography about a young woman in WWI. When I read who it was about, Nancy Johnson (my maiden name), I knew immediately I would read it.

nancyjohnsonThe book is called Deliver Us From Evil: A Southern Belle in Europe at the Outbreak of World War I, by Mary W. Schaller. It’s about Mary’s Grandmother, and she uses her grandmother’s own letters and stories. Unless you’re keen on WWI or your name is Nancy Johnson though, I probably wouldn’t recommend it. Yet, there were some interesting tidbits I learned from reading the book. This time period (late 19th/early 20th century) in U.S. history is often called the Gilded Age. There was a huge amount of wealth being made, but it was concentrated primarily in the upper classes. The author writes that 90% of the wealth in the U.S. was held by 10% of the population. Sound familiar? I think it’s even worse today.

Traveling to Europe had been for a long time, a favorite pastime of well-to-do Americans, and even the not so well-to-do. It still is. In the summer of 1914, there were 120,000 thousand American’s vacationing in Italy, France, Switzerland and elsewhere on the continent. Nancy Johnson, the daughter of a rich southern Congressman, was one of them, traveling with a friend under the protection of U.S. State Department personnel. It seems that Nancy was a bit of spoiled  rich kid, but she had her good points too, independence and intelligence.


Europe in 1914

Anyways, when the Archduke was killed on June 28, 1914, most of the Americans didn’t pay any attention and went on their merry way. It wasn’t until various nations declared war (end of July and August 1914) that everything became chaotic in Europe. Trains, horses, and ships were commandeered for the war effort. Banks closed and wouldn’t cash American checks. Then borders closed. Tens of thousands of Americans were stranded without a dime. Most of these were privileged rich Americans too. The U.S. government had to send cash to help out the stranded Americans because the European banks would take nothing else. The U.S. commissioned a ship, a captain, and crew, and added some U.S. marines for good measure and on August 5, the ship left New York City with $2.5 million in gold bullion in its hold. All going to help the Americans stranded in Europe. Wow!

Back in Europe, the U.S. State Department and a group of wealthy stranded Americans weren’t going to wait the two weeks it would take for the money from home to arrive. They were able to charter a ship in Genoa, Italy to take 400 people back to America. Nancy Johnson was one of the selected few to get on board. The only person who could manage to get the money for the charter (500,000 francs in cash) was Frederick W. Vanderbilt. The Italian banks, with a lot of persuading, were willing to give him cash on his credit.

It took two weeks to cross the Atlantic. They were stopped by British warships and required to take action to evade German submarines. But Nancy made it home. She soon married the man her parents had sent her to Europe to forget. Good for you, Nancy.

Armenian Genocide

100yearwalkOne of the most horrific tragedies of WWI was the deportation, starvation, and killing of over 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks during 1915 and 1916 in what was then the Ottoman Empire. The Hundred Year Walk; An Armenian Odyssey by Dawn Anahid MacKeen recounts these horrors primarily through the first-hand accounts of MacKeen’s grandfather, Stepan, related in his diaries that he wrote after the war. Mackeen, a journalist, includes her own visit to Turkey and Syria in 2007 as she follows the route made by her grandfather almost 100 years earlier and the meeting with the descendants of the Sheikh who helped her grandfather. She also includes historical information from other sources as she weaves together his story within the overall tragedy of the Armenian Genocide.

The Christian Armenians within the primarily Muslim Ottoman Empire had at various times throughout history been the target of persecution, but never on the scale seen in 1915/16. The new regime of the Ottoman Empire called the Young Turks sided with the Central Powers in 1914. Within months of the start of the war, the Young Turks disarmed all the Armenians in the country, even those men who served in the army. They executed numerous Armenian intellectuals and leaders, and started mass deportations of Armenians from their historical homeland. Then the real horrors began; forced marches southward to Syria, rape, starvation, and mass murder. MacKeen’s grandfather, Stepan, managed to escape from a caravan that was forced into the desert and then massacred. During his harrowing journey, he is helped by some of the Arabs living in the area. After three years of separation from his mother, brother and sisters, he is reunited at the end of WWI. However, this was not the end of their suffering and persecution, and eventually, he and his family emigrated to the U.S.

This was a tough book to read because of the subject matter even though the author did a wonderful job telling her grandfather’s story and interweaving her own within it. But it was also tough because of what’s happening today. The killing and suffering continue in Syria, in many of the same places where so many Armenians died one hundred years before.

The Trigger

Balkans, political map

Balkans, political map

The Trigger; Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War is a nonfiction book by Tim Butcher (Grove Press, 2014) about Gavrilo Princip the young Bosnian man who assassinated the Austria-Hungarian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, in 1914. The act would be the spark that ignited the first world war. At least that’s what the tag line implies.

I found the book to be not as much about Princip as it was about that part of Balkans from which Princip came. Part travel log/memoir and part history lesson, the book primarily moves the reader back and forth between three time periods; the present day, the early twentieth century right before the Archduke’s assassination, and the Bosnian War in the 1990s when Butcher was a war correspondent there.

With that said, this was my kind of nonfiction book that included historical information within a memoir framework. I read it in the evenings over the span of just a few days. It was that good. Granted I’m interested in WWI, and lately I’ve wanted to know more about the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, who he was and why he did it. But what I found even more interesting  was learning about the place itself, its history and people of which I knew very little.

Butcher starts the book with his own trek on foot from Princip’s remote village to Sarajevo. This mirrored Princip’s journey one hundred years earlier when he was just thirteen. With his father, he walked for a considerable part of the journey through mountains and valleys. They went to Sarejovo so that Gavrilo could continue his education. This in itself was very unusual for that time and place. Most serfs never strayed from their birthplace.

Butcher and his friend (a Bosnian-Muslim who is now a British citizen) meet a variety of people on their journey. The stories of these present day Bosnians start to explain and frame the Bosnian war of the 1990s that included Bosnian-Serbs, Bosnian-Muslims, and Bosnian-Croats and the long history of occupation and subjugation starting before Austria-Hungary annexed it in the late 1800s. Butcher relates this history as a way to help explain Princip’s rage at the Austrian-Hungarian occupation and why the ideal of a unified Slavic nation could have motivated him to commit murder.

Back in May, my son traveled around this part of the world stopping in Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and other countries. It’s hard to believe that Bosnia is now a tourist destination when 20 years ago it was the site of ethnic genocide, horrific civilian casualties, and crimes against humanity. The author’s journey from Sarejevo to Belgrade included passing through many of these places and remembering some of the horrors that he had seen as a war correspondent. This weaving of his present day personal trek with the horrors of the Bosnian War in the 1990s and the assassin’s own journey was an intricate and thoughtful weaving of the people and places. I found it fascinating reading.

The Balkans are once again in the news as thousands of Syrian refugees (as well as others) are trying to get to Europe to  escape the violence and poverty of their homelands. Interestingly, the modern state of Syria as a French Mandate was formed after WWI with the break up of the Ottoman Empire in which the French took control of Syria and Lebanon. It wasn’t until after WWII that the French left, and Syria became an independent country.

Enter at Your Own Risk: Dreamscapes into Darkness

coverI just received my author copy of the horror/dark fantasy anthology Enter at Your Own Risk: Dreamscapes into Darkness (Firbolg Publishing, edited by Dr. Alex Scully). My short  story “No Man’s Land” is included, a dark fantasy/horror story set in both modern day France and the trenches of WWI in 1918. Of course! I am fortunate to be in such good company. There are also stories by D.H. Lawrence, Mary Shelley, H.P. Lovecraft and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle included in the book as well as stories by great contemporary writers. I can’t wait to cozy up to the book tonight and start reading.

Here’s the theme of the anthology (from the back cover):

What happens when one wants so badly that all else, including sanity and self, is consumed by the bonfires of desire? What happens when one achieves the dream only to discover the nightmares lurking behind the illusions? Firbolg Publishing’s fifth anthology, Enter at Your Own Risk: Dreamscapes into Darkness, explores the old adage of “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

Hell is Mud

Although it’s starting a little late this year, we’re coming to that special time in Vermont.  Mud Season! When the muddy ruts in the road suck your tires into their depths and the only way to save yourself and your car is to drive faster. When your favorite footwear are your muck boots and your floor and carpet have a new pattern – brown paw prints.

Battle of Passchendaele, 1917, near Ypres, Flanders.

Battle of Passchendaele, 1917, near Ypres, Flanders.


German horse and cart deep in mud in Russia.

And all that is nothing compared to parts of the Western Front during the Great War. The low lying areas of Belgium and France were especially bad. There, the water table was often seasonally very high which meant digging only a foot below the soil surface might result in a water-filled hole. The Germans often took the high ground and kept relatively dry, but the muddy Allied trenches and shell-pocked No Man’s Land near Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Somme are infamous. And the mud wasn’t just wet earth. It was full of human waste, rotting food, corpses and dead animals, broken equipment, rusting metal shells, shrapnel, barbed wire and tin cans. It was a slimy, stinking, foul ooze that literally swallowed men and animals if they weren’t careful. Thousands of men fell into the mud never to be seen again. Sometimes horses and mules became so stuck that the soldiers had to take off their traces and leave them to die in the mud.

A classic WWI book written by a former French soldier, Henri Barbusse, and first published in 1916 called Le Feu or (Under Fire) drives home the horror of mud. From the beginning of the novel to the very end, his description of mud is tangible. “You can see a maze of long ditches in which the last remnants of night linger. This is the trench. The bottom of it is carpeted with a viscous layer that clings noisily to the foot at every step and smells foul around each dugout because of the night’s urine” (pg 7).

The final scene of the novel finds a group of faceless, nameless men (literally, for it is dark and no one knows who is talking) lying in the mud and rain. They carry on a long conversation about the stupidity of war, “[t]wo armies fighting each other-that’s like one great army committing suicide!” (343). Only to find on the final page that they form a new squad, and the cycle of war continues.

Standing in water and mud led to trench foot which could be particularly troublesome for soldiers, in some cases leading to gangrene and foot amputations. The foul mud often resulted in debilitating and deadly bouts of dysentery among the troops as well. Not only shells and machine gun bullets were the deadly enemies of the regular soldiers in the trenches, but mud was too.

mapwesternfrontMy great uncle Harry spent most of his time in France near Verdun which is farther south of the level muddy lands of Flanders. He fought at St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne, but in late October and November he was in Belgium as part of an offensive to drive the Germans east. It wasn’t until his return to France in December and January that he went through some of the muddy hellish places that are legendary. And there he experienced mud. He writes, “[We] are now in a much better part of France. It is hillier here than where we were. There, it was nothing but mud till a fellow thinks but mud.”

So as I gear up for our spring thaw and the muddy roads, I will be grateful for our mud season. It is really not such a big deal after all.