|About the Book|
Neiberg uses diaries, memoirs, and letters, belonging to both soldiers and civilians, to show that ordinary Europeans, at least in the summer and fall of 1914, didnt expect war and didnt want it, and didnt feel raging hatreds for the nations they were fighting. (Some of those hatreds would develop as the conflict went on, of course.) There were chunks of the book that were quite interesting, and chunks that were rather boring. As an example of how quoting from diaries and letters can be a less than scintillating way of constructing a book, take this passage, from the chapter The Coming of a Great Storm:These images of natural disaster were common throughout Europe. In Russia Sergei Sazonov invoked the image of a terrible storm disrupting the calm European skies, and Evelyn Blücher wrote of a thunderstorm which has broken so suddenly. Vera Brittain also thought of the start of the war as a quite unexpected storm, and her fellow Briton James Lawson wrote about a bolt from the blue. Similarly, Johan Wilhelm von Lowenell Brandenburg-Hohenzollern thought the news of war was like a peal of thunder and a flash of lightning that came with little warning. From the relative safety of neutral Holland Henry Van Dyke described a tempest. [Etc. It goes on.]But the text also has moments of luminosity, as when Neiberg describes the very rare truces that would sometimes happen on the front. One Christmas morning six Saxon officers yelled in English Dont shoot! We dont want to fight today and then rolled kegs of beer across the no mans land between the armies as a Christmas gift. At another spot on Christmas Eve, a French tenor sang a German hymn, and the German soldiers responded by singing La Marseillaise. More often, truces happened so the soldiers could briefly collect their dead- then the shooting began again.One French soldiers little boy had asked him to get a Prussian helmet, resulting in this letter home:My poor Maurice, you must reflect that the Prussians are like us. There are fathers who are at war and little boys like you who are home with their mothers. What if a Prussian boy like you wrote to his father asking for the same thing that you are asking for and wanted his father to bring his little boy a French kepi? And what if that kepi was your fathers? Then what would you think? Keep this letter and read it when you are older. Then you will understand.