Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Men in War
Reviewed by David F. Beer

Men in War

by Andreas Latzko
BiblioBazaar reprint, 2016. First published in 1917.

What was a man who lay gasping on the road to him? One man more or less. In the rhythmic regularity of the marching column, he had passed by thousands like him, and it had never occurred to his mind, dulled by weariness, that the grey spots thickly strewn over the fields, the heaps lining the roadway like piles of dung in the spring, were human beings struck down by death (p. 117).

Men in War is a psychologically penetrating scream against the horrors of World War One. Its six chapters stand alone as short stories or vignettes, each revealing what the war could do in one way or another to its participants. The author well knew what he was writing about: Andreas Latzko was a Hungarian Jew who served as an officer in the Imperial and Royal Wehrmacht of Austria-Hungary. When war between Italy and Austria-Hungary broke out he was sent to the front on the Isonzo River, where he contracted malaria. He was forced to fight on for some time before suffering severe shock during a heavy Italian artillery attack near Gorizia (or Goerz). He then spent eight months in hospital before going to Davos for more convalescence. During this period he wrote Men in War.

Andreas Latzko
Although the author describes background settings and events with evocative clarity, his real subject matter is the human mind and what war can do to it. The opening chapter, for example, describes an officers' hospital behind the front. A group of patients enjoys a warm evening outside by the fountain while in the distance the big guns growl. The conversation turns to what each felt was the worst thing about the war. Suddenly one of them, whose timid wife is visiting him, screams out: "What was the most awful thing? The only awful thing is the going off. You go off to war—and they let you go. That's the awful thing." He continues, "sputtering from his twitching lips with a fury that cast out the words like a seething stream," with a piercing attack on the wives and families who had betrayed them all by cheering them off to war, rather than holding them back at all costs from the horrors. Eventually this "crazy" officer is restrained and taken back to his bed. Evening becomes night, others go back to their wards where they still hear screams from their demented comrade. An old watchman outside clenched his fist, "and sent out a long curve of saliva from between his teeth, and muttered in a disgust that came from the depths of his soul: "Hell!"

Suffice it to say (not to be a spoiler), each chapter is centered on a specific event or circumstance that plumbs the depth of psychological and emotional torture brought on by the war. Many subtopics are familiar, such as ignorant or uncaring civilians, hideous and haunting deaths, the conditions of troops versus high-ranking staff, and the homecoming of the mutilated. These and other themes are all used to undergird the powerful emotions of anger, fear, and resentment that carry the book along, such as this from a soldier who has had his fill of what he refers to as "man salad."

Men come home with motionless, astonished eyes, still reflecting death. They walk about shyly, like somnambulists in brightly lighted streets. In their ears there still resound the bestial howls of fury that they themselves bellowed into the hurricane of the drumfire so as to keep from bursting from inner stress. They come loaded down, like beasts of burden, with horrors, the astonished looks of bayoneted, dying foes on their conscience-and they don't dare open their mouths… (p. 91).

Austro-Hungarian Amputees

Men in War is not a long book (124 pages in the reprint I have), and the translator has done an excellent job. It reads clearly and easily, without hesitation—but the subject matter gives us considerable pause for reflection and even shock. No wonder Latzko first published it anonymously, and although soon a great success, it was banned for some time by most of the countries involved in the Great War. It is certainly one of the most powerful antiwar books I have ever read.

David F. Beer


  1. Great review, David.
    Sounds like a powerful and teachable book.
    It's unusual for WWI to hear an A-Hungarian perspective.

    1. If you're interested in reading another book with the A-Hungarian perspective, you'll want to read "The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914" by Bela Zombory-Moldovan. He describes the action on the Eastern Front in September 1914.

  2. Thank you for bringing to light this bit of Hungarian and war literature that I hadn't known about. I feel obligated to point out that the Wehrmacht was the name of the German army during the Third Reich. In WWI, the Austrian army was the Landwehr, the Hungarian was the Honved, and the German was the Deutsches Heer.

  3. Imperial and Royal Wehrmacht of Austria-Hungary: As I understand it (I don't speak German or Hungarian), the regular Austro-Hungarian army, KUK, was "Imperial and Royal." The Landwehr and Honved were national, not Imperial, and were more like National Guard units. The Honved, in particular, were a Hungarian "insurance policy" against Austrian domination.

  4. This is one of my favourites. I've read it three times and still find things that I've over looked. Your review put it into a new perspective and I think I'll have to read it again. cheers