The First World War, the time frame for "War Horse," figures less prominently in the American consciousness than in the British or European. This may be owing to the fact that the U.S. was officially in the conflict for a year and a half, while those across the Atlantic suffered for four years and four months. The war may also figure less imminently for us because it was fought thousands of miles away; our casualties were proportionately many fewer and the typical American town is nowhere near as likely to have a marker to them as towns in England or France or Germany.
These facts were brought home to me as I read a new book called "The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War," by Peter Englund. The author is a Swedish historian but is better known for his role as permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy; each October, Englund tells the world who has won the Nobel Prize in literature.
Englund draws from the diaries, letters, and journals of twenty individuals, creating a picture of what the war was really like. Although two of these people are American, the overall all impression is the impact of the war on Europeans. The German girl Elfriede Kuhr, for instance, could almost be Sophie, the beloved daughter of "War Horse"'s Hauptman Muller. Some of the insights of Alfred Pollard, a twenty-one-year-old British army infantryman, are reminiscent of the experience of any number of "War Horse" soldiers. Pollard's most striking moment in the book, however, comes in April 1917, as he hurls hand grenades against the enemy. As he rushes after fleeing Germans, he feels "a thrill only comparable to running through the opposition at Rugger to score a try."
Englund's dramatis personae give full voice to a time that was, for them, what Rilke, in his 1910 novel "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge," called "an abyss of horror." But I was surprised, as I read the accumulating details of the twenty people's everyday lives, at how nearly normal the horror becomes. Some of the worst details are reported matter of factly. For Paolo Monelli, a 23-year-old Italian army trooper, the air of battle is filled "with three smells: the bitter odor of explosives, the sweet stench of putrefaction and the sour stink of human excrement."
It is the achievement of Englund's book that we can read such descriptions and find them not disgusting but part of what soldiers considered mundane. Just as we watch the battle scenes in "War Horse," and can find them to be almost comforting: as long as the characters are firing and fleeing, they are still alive, and there is hope.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.