It is coincidence rather than planning that on the centenary of the beginning of the First World War I am reading The Radetzky March. Detective novels and spy stories are my usual page turners. But e-readers give you a cheap option of finding something entirely new; and I like the Strauss – and I heard a little of the dramatisation on Radio 4 a few months ago.
This passage – set in the Ukraine at the beginning of the war – has eerie echoes of what has been happening in Ukraine and events on their Russian border today.
And while ambulances, baggage columns, field guns, dragoons, uhlans and infantrymen met up in various configurations under the incessant rain on the softened roads, while couriers galloped this way and that, while the inhabitants of the little towns fled west in endless hordes, surrounded by the white terror, laden with chequered white and red feather beds, grey sacks, broken chairs and tables and blue oil lamps – while all this went on, in little church squares of the villages and hamlets, the shots of hastily assembled firing squads executed the hastily assembled death sentences, and ominous drum rolls accompanied the monotonous judgements of the courts martial, and the wives of the slain lay screaming for mercy in front of the muddied boots of the officers, and flickering red and silver flames shot out of huts and barns, sheds and outbuildings. The Austrian army’s war began with punishments, with courts martial. For many days the real and supposed traitors were left dangling on trees in the church squares, as an example to the living. But far and wide the living had fled. Fires burned round the hanging corpses, and the leaves caught and the fire was stronger than the continuous drizzling rain that ushered in a bloody autumn.The old bark of the ancient trees slowly turned to charcoal, and tiny silver, smouldering sparks darted out between the little ridges of it, like firey worms, and licked at the leaves; the green foliage shrivelled up and turned red, then black, them grey, the ropes loosened, and the corpses fell to the ground, with blackened faces and bodies untouched.