The poets and the world war: "Before Action" by William Noel Hodgson

There is a moment in the lives of First World War's soldiers that no one will be able to tell precisely. Some writers tried to give an account full of pathos but at the end there is no real possibility to enter a soldier's mind in the minutes before the action, when the artillery attack is already bursting over his head. You may find a vivid description in Emilio Lussu's "A Year on the High Plateau" (Un anno sull'Altipiano), in the passage when his "movie camera" catches the rapid movements of the bottles of cognac going up and down from the thighs of the soldiers to their mouths. One of the most popular poems dedicated to the istants that precede the action is "Before Action" by William Noel Hodgson (born in Petersfield, Hampshire, in 1893). Hodgson was sent to the Frech front in July 1915. He died on the first day of the Somme offensive (1 July 1916) and this biographical data is probably connected with the reasons that make today "Before Action" one of the most renown poems about that strange limbo that stands beyond words, in-between the deadly life in the trenches and the likely death in the no-man's land.


By all the glories of the day,
----And the cool evening's benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
----Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
----And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
----Make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man's hopes and fears
----And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
----And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
----With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
----Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill
----Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
----Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
----Must say good-bye to all of this; -
By all delights that I shall miss,
----Help me to die, O Lord.

"The orient in Bohemia?" An exhibition in Prague commemorating Jewish refugees during the First World War

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Prague and the historical city center offers many attractions and a lot of exhibitions on different topics, but we want to suggest you today a special one, commemorating one of the lesser known episodes of First World War, namely the odyssey of the Jewish refugees within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A new exhibition called The Orient in Bohemia? and hosted by the Robert Guttmann Gallery – Jewish museum of Prague tries to shed some light on the issue. The exhibition is organized in three small rooms.

The first room frames the issue in the historical context. So we learn that as soon as the war began thousands of people took flight and for the first time in the modern history, national states were faced with the new problem of refugees. To deal with this emergency, during the first months of the war the Austrian Empire hurriedly built up barracks according to ethnical/national identities in order to accommodate, organize and control this crowd of people. Among them there were also the Jewish communities from Galicia and Bukovina (in what is now the western Ukraine), fleeing from their towns and villages occupied by the Russian Army. This latter had invaded the eastern territories of the double monarchy in Autumn 1614. The eastern Jewish population was gathered especially in different camps. For instance, that of Německý Brod (today Havlíčkův Brod) was originally inhabited by Italian and Istrian refugees, later reserved for Jewish refugees. Due to epidemic and poor conditions, the mortality was particularly high in it. Other camps were in Pohořelice, Kyjov and Mikulov. Small groups of Jewish refugees were also dispersed in villages and accommodated in dormitories or apartments, sharing the spaces and necessities with the local people, which resulted in frequent conflicts. The State provided basic support to those refugees, who were not able to manage; this implied however, that they were not allowed to move without permission and were strictly controlled. Civil committees and aid organisations were also active within the different ethnical groups to support the refugees, as well as the orphans.

The second room – a very minimal space which recall a barrack of the camps – offers video and audio testimonies. The curator, Michal Frankl, told us that it was very hard to find out these video clips, dealing the most totality of documents gathered in the past decades almost exclusively with the memory of the Shoah. Three interviews were finally found out: we can so listen to and watch the videos of few elderly people who experienced the war during their childhoods in Galicia and Bukovina.

The third room enables the visitor to perceive the intricate situation of this Jewish community. Jews started settling in Galicia and Bukovina in the 12th century, reaching close to one million on the eve of the Holocaust, although many of them emigrated at the beginning of the twentieth century, due to the poor conditions of the region. These eastern community were usually Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jews. As they arrived in the camps and settled in the other regions of the Empire, not only the non-Jewish population, but also their same coreligionists saw them as exotic in their religious customs, clothing and language. For some integrated Jews, the strictly observant religious men with caftans and side curls were a symbol of the ghetto; for other they were a source of authentic Jewish national culture. “Difference” is in fact the key-word of this section, which shows through photos and newspaper illustrations, how the perception of Jewish difference became the subject of intense debate and contributed to the cliché and prejudices against the “Eastern communities”, regarded as non emancipated. Especially the photographs of refugees depict this sense of otherness, as if it was a source of attraction or even ethnographical fascination in documenting different ethnic or racial types. The encounter of the “Eastern” Jews with the local inhabitants stimulated a discussion about Jewish identity, but also stoked prejudices against their allegedly backward. The historical situation worsened the confrontation: due to the great storage of food and basic necessities, Jewish refugees – like other refugee groups – became the target of vicious press campaigns in which they were portrayed almost as criminals. As the documents showed in the last room prove, demands grew for their return home, particularly after the founding of Czechoslovakia. The hatred against the “Eastern” Jews was originally part of the growing nationalism, but played an important role also in the development of Cyzech anti-Semitism.

This exhibition is not so huge, but it represents a really unique experience to learn more about another forgotten history of the Great War. It deserves therefore particular attention. If you are in Prague, don’t miss it. It runs till February 2015. Further information here.

Novels of the Great War: the short stories by Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig (1881 – 1942)
We recently had the opportunity to read in Italian a collection of four short stories by the Austrian novelist, poet and playwright Stefan Zweig (Wien, 1881 – Petrópolis, 1942). All these stories are somehow related with the First World War and were conceived during those years even if published some years later. We will enlist in this post the four stories, giving evidence to their original titles in German, in order to put the readers in the condition to retrieve them in other Stefan Zweig’s books.

Die schlaflose Welt ("The Sleepless World", first published on the 18th of August 1914 on "Neue Freie Presse") reconstructs the exhausting sense of alert, pain and wait propagating all over the nights and days and tries to catch that shocking impact and turmoil in an apparently secondary aspect of life (or at least usually forgotten by WWI literature) the sleep-wakefulness cycle. Episode am Genfer See (“Incident on lake Geneva”, written during the spring of 1918 but released in Leipzig by Insel Verlag in 1929) is story of a Russian prisoner ending up in the neutral country of Switzerland, in the lake Geneva. The fact of being bewildered and moved from pillar to post has a deep influence in his short stay on the lake and will lead him to commit suicide swimming across the lake. “Incident on lake Geneva” represents an intense recognition of the vanity of all attempts of help among men. Der Zwang ("The Obligation", like the previous one written during the spring of 1918 and released in Leipzig by Insel Verlag in 1920) is another masterful interpretation of the influence of war in every single life. The protagonist is tormented by the inner conflict between replying to the call to arms and desertion. Of particular interest is the short reportage dedicated to the battlefield of Ypres, Ypres ("Ypres", released by "Berliner Tageblatt" on the 16th of September 1928), that we can read today as a first attempt to describe the huge machine willing to commercialize and sell the memory of World War I. To our eyes this story appears as an accurate meditation on the risk connected with the tourist movement rose around the Great War infamous battlefields and with the possibility of trivializing everything. Today we live on the edge, very close to this risk, but when Zweig wrote his story it was only the beginning. One different from the other, the WWI stories of Stefan Zweig show a new sensibility towards the theme and are able to move inside a poignant spectrum of shades and tonalities. The reader will be probably touched by Zweig’s ability to create characters tortured by a distressing feeling of exile, by an unsettling sensation of being elsewhere, both with body and with the mind.

Landscapes of the Great War: imagination, representation, experience (CfP)

Bridge on the river Soča (Isonzo)
In this post we give evidence to a new Call for Papers. It is particularly interesting for its focus and for the "geographical approach" to our main theme:

The 8th International Conference of the International Society for First World War Studies will explore the theme of “Landscapes of War”. In recent years scholars have sought to move towards a global history of the Great War, focusing on the geographical scope and diversity of the conflict, from Flanders to the Caucasus, the Alps to East Africa, from the Mediterranean to the oceans. This conference will focus on the physical spaces in which the war took place across the many different theatres of war, and the ways in which these diverse landscapes were encountered, altered, imagined, experienced, represented and remembered. How did the physical characteristics of the various battlegrounds impact on military strategies and manoeuvres? How did men, women and children interpret the landscape? How did generals, soldiers, prisoners, workers, farmers, reporters, artists, architects, tourists and others interact with the landscapes of the war? How does the study of the landscape enhance our understanding of the military, political, economic, social and cultural history of the conflict?

The conference will take place over three days, with the first and third days devoted to academic presentations and discussions. In order to give participants a direct experience of one highly significant landscape, the second day will consist of an organised visit to the Asiago Plateau, where the keynote address will be held.

In line with the traditions of the International Society for First World War Studies, the conference aims to focus on new and innovative research, bringing together graduate students and post-doctoral scholars with established academics. The Society aims to foster dialogue between historians of all methodological approaches and geographical areas.

 Possible themes include:

− the military and operational impact of the terrain
− diverse landscapes of war: from the mountains to the desert, the plains to the sea
− the modification, pollution and destruction of landscapes by human interventions
− cityscapes and urban landscapes during and after the war
− prisoners of war and landscapes
− landscapes of war imagined, described and depicted
− the study of landscape: cartography, geography and the natural sciences
− landscapes of war behind the lines: transit and rest areas, training camps
− landscapes after battle: ruins, traces, memories and reconstruction
− battlefield tourism and cultural heritage
− landscapes and nation: real or imagined relationships between territory and nationality
− the productive landscape: agriculture and wartime production, distribution of resources, deprivation and conflicts over food.

In order to maximise discussion time, all conference papers will be circulated in advance and discussed by panellists before the debate is opened to the audience. Papers may be submitted in English, Italian, French or German, but the working languages of the conference will be English and Italian, with simultaneous interpreting available. Participants who submit papers in languages other than English or Italian will be asked to also send a 3-page summary in English. As in previous years, a selection of papers will be published in English after the conference.

Applicants are asked to submit a 300-word abstract in English or Italian, accompanied by a short CV, to by 30 November 2014. Successful applicants will be notified by January 2015 and must submit their paper electronically by 30 June 2015.
The opening day of the conference will be hosted by the Bruno Kessler Institute in Trento, and the closing day by the University of Padua, with an organised coach transfer via Asiago on the intermediate day. The transfer will be free of charge for all registered delegates. Information on accommodation in Trento (for the first night) and Padua (for the second) will be circulated to confirmed participants in January 2015.
A limited number of bursaries for travel and accommodation will be available for participants whose institution does not provide conference funding. Applicants should please indicate whether they would like to request financial support. For further information, please contact

Organizing committee:

Roberto Bianchi, University of Florence
Selena Daly, University College Dublin
Marco Mondini, Italian-German Historical Institute, Trento and University of Padua
Martina Salvante, Interuniversity Centre for Historical-Military Research, Italy
Vanda Wilcox, John Cabot University, Rome

A photo reportage about Forte Interrotto and Monte Mosciagh on the Altopiano of Asiago

The photo reportage we propose today is connected with the 16th itinerary to Forte Interrotto, Monte Mosciagh and the Asiago Plateau we suggested a few weeks ago. You can find the description along with all the travel tips here.


    1 Approaching Forte Interrotto

    2 The bastion of Forte Interrotto

    3 The front of Forte Interrotto

    4 The courtyard

    5 Inside the Forte

    6 The Forte before its renovation

    7 Wood approaching Monte Mosciagh

    8 Small clearing with the monument to the Catanzaro Brigade

    9 Austro-Hungarian war cemetery

    10 Wood grave markers of the war cemetery of Mosciagh

    11 A second war cemetery at the feet of Monte Zebio

    12 View on Asiago, at the centre the War Memorial