Very Little Things


I wrote earlier about reading projects. One I began last January is only now wrapping up.  I decided to read a few histories and novels about the onset of the First World War, which began 100 years ago this August.  I started with Jean Echenoz's slender and somewhat lyrical 1914: A Novel, then switched to some histories: Christopher Clark's Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 and Sean McKeekin's July 1914: Countdown to War, the latter of which provides an almost minute by minute chronology from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late June to the mobilizations a month later. Right now I am about half-way through Lynn MacDonald's 1914, a history of the opening battles of the war.

A few observations: it's astonishing how little the politics and ethnic hostilities in the Balkans have changed in the past 100 years.  I saw over the weekend an obituary for Dobrica Cosic, a Serb novelist whose work did much to fan the nationalist passions in the run up to the Bosnian war in the 1990s.  Cosic would not have been out of place among the dubious political figures that frequented Belgrade coffee houses a century.ago..

It's curious, too, how little England and France were paying attention as the world stumbled into war. England was preoccupied with Ireland and the French public was completely absorbed in the trial of Henrietta Caillaux, the mistress turned second wife of the Minister of Finance.  Responding to a political attack on her husband, Mme.Caillaux had walked into the offices of Le Figaro and pumped four .32 slugs into the paper's editor. That was in late March.  By the time of Franz Ferdinand's assassination, everyone in France was awaiting the trial's verdict.  An all male jury ruled the shooting a crime passionnel resulting from ungovernable female emotions. Acquitted, Mme. Cauillaux later became something of a minor art historian and died in 1943 under the Nazi occupation.

Reading about that last summer of peace is haunting.  It's like observing lives trapped behind glass.  They have no way of knowing what is about to happen.  Neither do we, of course. Occasionally, though, a few people did have a foreboding sense.  In Lynn MacDonald's book, which is filled with many first-person accounts and vignettes, she describes a grammar school gathering to honor a retiring headmaster during the last few days of peace.

The headmaster, a Mr. Rushworth, was to have received a portrait in oils that he would have returned to the school so it could hang in the Great Hall alongside his predecessors. Unfortunately the portrait had been sent to Germany for prints to be made from it.  This work had been delayed so the actual presentation needed to be postponed.  The guest of honor at this gathering was Sir Henry Newbolt, a jingoist poet.  The ceremony took place on the last day of July, 1914.  Britain's declaration of war was only three days away. MacDonald writes,
Despite the growing seriousness of the international situation none of the audience of boys, parents and masters dreamed that the postponement would last for five long years.  They could hardly have guessed that by the time the portrait was hung three of St. Olave's masters and a hundred and ninety-one of their past and present pupils would have died in the great war.
On the eve of the long holidays stretching enticingly ahead, the boys were in high spirits.  Only the guest of honor cast a gloom.  His address, hastily revised in light of the crisis whose gravity had been pointed out for the first time to the general public in the leading article of that morning's Times, was remarkable for its lack of platitudes which were the normal ingredients of prize-giving ceremonies.  There was the sketchiest of congratulations to the winners, little or nothing in the way of commiseration to the losers, no allegorical allusions to the example set by the tortoise and the hare, little or no sermonizing on the satisfaction of a job well done and the worthiness of effort for its own sake.  Sir Henry addressed himself directly to the scrubbed and shining schoolboys.
"When you are engaged--as we may be in a few days--in a great world-shaking war, your prizes will appear very little things." 

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