The First World War began 100 years ago, on 28 July 2014, with Austria–Hungary declaring war on Serbia, a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo.
I have always been fascinated by the era and at school studied the gut-wrenching poetry that came out of the trenches. I was also a little bit obsessed by the mathematics of time and by working out whether it was possible for the old soldiers to be alive still, as if that would somehow provide a direct connection to our lives today. Of course they are all gone now – the last man to have fought in the trenches, Harry Patch, died in 2009, at the remarkable age of 111.
What I only realised relatively recently is that one of my favourite violinists, Fritz Kreisler, served briefly as an officer in the Third Army Corps of the Austrian Army, before being invalided out, and that he wrote about it in a book, ‘Four Weeks in the Trenches’. I’ve just read it and can highly recommend it.
During my time interviewing players and editing their writing for The Strad, I came up with a theory that how people talk and write gives you an indication of how they play, and this idea is certainly borne out by Kreisler’s writing. Like his playing, it’s sincere, warm and imaginative but never hysterical or self-indulgent. It’s a sober account of the human side of warfare. It doesn’t go into all the gruesome detail, but offers enough insight fully to understand the range of emotions felt by those fighting for their country under awful circumstances. The style is elegant and well-crafted, as one would expect, although not without cliché.
Of course a string nerd like me looks for any insight that relates to his violin playing, but Kreisler is clear that the only thing his musical training offers him is the ability to judge the approach of shells. ‘My ear, accustomed to differentiate sounds of all kinds, had some time ago, while we still advanced, noted a remarkable discrepancy in the peculiar whine produced by the different shells in their rapid flight through the air as they passed over our heads, some sounding shrill, with a rising tendency, and the others rather dull, with a falling cadence.’
With his keen sense of hearing he could tell the change in tone at the top of a shell’s curve, and this insight led to him being sent out as a scout: ‘I was sent on a reconnoitering tour, with the object of marking on the map the exact spot where I thought the hostile shells were reaching their acme, and it was later on reported to me that I had succeeded in giving to our batteries the almost exact range of the Russian guns. I have gone into this matter at some length, because it is the only instance where my musical ear was of value during my service.’ So maybe playing the violin is indirectly an evolutionary advantage after all.
One episode Kreisler describes with intense compassion is the death of a lieutenant whose father is a brigadier serving in the same area, and the dignity and strength with which the father discovers his son is injured and subsequently when he finds out he has died: ‘I was overwhelmed by the power this man showed at that minute, and admit I had not the courage to break the news to him, but it was unnecessary, for he understood. The faithful orderly stepped forward, as I had bidden him, presenting to the old man the pocketbook and small articles that belonged to his son. While he did so he broke forth into sobs, lamenting aloud the loss of his beloved lieutenant, yet not a muscle moved in the face of the father. He took my report, nodded curtly, dismissed me without a word, and turned back to his ordnance officers, resuming the conversation.’ Later he discovers the brigadier in his tent shaking convulsively and silently wraps an overcoat round him.
Kreisler captures the fear, but also the thrill of war in both he and his soldiers on the eve of battle: ‘They were plainly nervous, these brave men that fought like lions in the open when led to an attack, heedless of danger and destruction. They felt under a cloud in the security of the trenches, and they were conscious of it and ashamed. Sometimes my faithful orderly would turn his eye on me, mute, as if in quest of an explanation of his own feeling. Poor dear unsophisticated boy! I was as nervous as they all were, although trying my best to look unconcerned; but I knew that the hush that hovered around us like a dark cloud would give way like magic to wild enthusiasm as soon as the first shot broke the spell and the exultation of the battle took hold of us all.’
After one particularly brutal battle, Kreisler loses his composure completely, though. He describes the aftermath: ‘Life that only a few hours before had glowed with enthusiasm and exultation, suddenly paled and sickened. The silence of the night was interrupted only by the low moaning of the wounded that came regularly to us. It was hideous in its terrible monotony… These grotesque piles of human bodies seemed like a monstrous sacrificial offering immolated on the altar of some fiendishly cruel, antique deity. I felt faint and sick at heart and near swooning away. I lay on the floor for some time unconscious of what was going on around me, in a sort of stupor, utterly crushed over the horrors about me.’
Kreisler also blames his musical background for this sensitivity, by comparison with a brigadier – a ‘real man’ – who takes charge of the moment. ‘Within five minutes he had restored confidence, giving definite orders for the welfare of every one, man and beast alike, showing his solicitude for the wounded, for the sick and weak ones, and mingling praise and admonition in just measure. As by magic I felt fortified. Here was a real man undaunted by nervous qualms or by over-sensitiveness. The horrors of the war were distasteful to him, but he bore them with equanimity. It was, perhaps, the first time in my life that I regretted that my artistic education had over-sharpened and overstrung my nervous system, when I saw how manfully and bravely that man bore what seemed to me almost unbearable.’