New book of soldiers’ letters and memoirs brings personal account of WWI

Pavla Horáková, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

One of the new books out marking the anniversary of the end of WWI is a collection of soldiers´ letters, diaries and memoirs giving a personal account of life in the trenches and on the battlefield. The book’s title Zum Befehl, pane lajtnant (which translates as At your command, lieutenant) is taken from the satirical comedy The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hašek. I spoke to one of the book’s co-authors, Pavla Horáková, and began by asking how the idea arose to put together such a collection.

Pavla Horáková,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“It was some six or seven years ago, when I came across the memoirs of my great-grandfather who fought in the First World War and I thought that many people, many Czechs must have such materials at home and with the centenary of the start of WWI approaching I thought it would be worthwhile to put together these documents and make them public somehow.”

How did you go about approaching people - was it difficult to get them to give you these materials?

“I had no idea how to go about it and since I worked for Czech Radio’s Vltava station –which is the arts and culture channel – I submitted the idea to my colleague and he came up with the idea of a series dedicated to WWI, based on the correspondence, memoirs and journals of Czech soldiers. And so we invited Czech Radio listeners to send us their family documents - and they did. We put together a 20-part series which was broadcast from 2014 until 2015. It was called Field Post and it featured these memoirs.”

So it is all about what life was like in the trenches and on the battlefield?

“Mostly, but also the background, it tells the stories not just of the soldiers, but of their loved ones back home.”

So you have descriptions of filed hospitals, the food they ate, the friendships they made, how they spent time when they were not fighting – is all that in the book?

“Quite, all of that and also things like how they spent Christmas, how they spent their free time, the sports they did, the games they played, various attempts at art, drawings, photographs. Some of the officers had cameras and took photographs and we have featured some of them in the book.”

So, surprisingly, it was not only about fighting and sleeping –there was free time that they spent in one way or another ….

“There was some free time, but mostly the memories are of hunger, illness, pain, fear, homesickness, etc.”

Are they very revealing? They were written to loved ones, so how much did they disclose?

Photo: Argo publishing
“The correspondence does not reveal much, because it was censored. The letters and postcards mostly contain phrases like “Hello, I’m well. I’m thinking of you. Hoping to see you soon.” but the journals are more revealing, more sincere and the memoirs are the most sincere texts.”

I understand there are accounts of the role women played on the battlefield, is that right? I suppose nurses, would come to mind first…

“Nurses, yes, but we also have one woman, one wife who actually travelled all the way with her husband, but it is mostly about women at home – the wives, the daughters, the sisters, the girlfriends and fiancés. But yes, it includes nurses and the first women doctors.”

What made the strongest impression on you when you went through this correspondence – did it help open up your own family history, as you said, but also a whole new world, because we don’t know that much about WWI apart from the dry facts taught at school…

“Exactly, my co-author Jiří Kamen and I –we call it the “inner picture of the war”. These documents let us see inside the minds of the soldiers, which is quite a different story from the dry facts one finds in text books and history books.”

You said the most open were the diaries and memoirs – when you read those, were there any stories that stuck in your mind that really touched you – or was it, obviously, your own family history?

“Well, my own family history wasn’t that bad. Both my great-grandfathers who were in the war survived, luckily, and the most moving stories for me were of the soldiers who were captured in Russia and were held in POW camps or they lived with families in Siberia without any prospect of ever coming home. It was four five years since they left home and they had no idea whether they would ever be able to come back, whether they would ever see their loved ones back home – and that despair, that total lack of prospect for any kind of future, that was really heartbreaking.”

There are pictures in the book as well …

“There are many pictures. Many of them come from family archives and some are pictures or works of art by Czech artists. I should add that this book is actually a sequel to a first book, which had a similar name and which came out in 2015. They are similar in content, but slightly different in composition. The first one has more art by Czech artists, the second has more photographs and drawings by the soldiers themselves.”

I believe you also have authentic sound?

“Yes, we have authentic music from that time provided to us by a collector and I also have a recording of my great-grandfather, obviously not from the time of the First World War, but from the 1950s, when he was an old gentleman remembering the war days.”

Even so, it must help create a very authentic picture…

Photo: Argo publishing
“Yes, yes, I think so. He puts a brave face on it, focusing on the funny stories, not the horrors of the war, as is the case with many soldiers –when they recall the events in their memoirs, they often try to sound lighthearted, they crack jokes, they remember the funny stories. That is kind of similar to The Good Soldier Svejk, so maybe they were influenced by the book which came out shortly after the war. That’s the difference often between the journals from the war days, which are raw and horrible to read sometimes, and the memoirs which are often quite funny.”

And your great-grandfather’s diary was preserved in the family – passed on to your grandmother, mother and then you?

“Yes, my great-grandfather kept a journal during the war and then in the 1930s he re-wrote it and made it into a memoir. He wrote it by hand, his son typed it and his grandson typed it into a computer.”

Was it private? Would he be surprised to see it in print today, do you think?

“I think he wrote it in a way for other people to read. In fact many of the soldiers writing memoirs added a line saying “should this ever be published, I would like to…etc.” So in a way, I think we have helped to make that wish come true for some of them.

As you said, some of the materials were aired in the series on Czech Radio’s Vltava channel. How was it received by the audience?

“The program had a large listenership and the first book sold out, I think quite a lot of people are interested in that period because the war touched many families in this country. There’s hardly any family that didn’t have one of its men go to war a hundred years ago.”