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.


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.