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.