I have just finished reading ‘1864: The Forgotten War that Shaped Modern Europe’ by Tom Buk-Swienty, the history of a war between Denmark and Prussia over the disputed territory of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. I vaguely remember mention of Schleswig and Holstein, and knowing they are between what is now Denmark and what is now Germany, I guess I realised it was some sort of territorial war in the mid nineteenth century – and that is all I could remember before I saw the Danish TV series ‘1864’.
The TV series was a drama but it told the story of the conflict through the characters of soldiers and politicians involved – some of them real, some of them fictional. It was such a tremendous series and so interesting as well as dramatic that I wanted to find out more and so bought the book by Buk-Swienty, brilliantly translated by his wife Annette. Buk-Swienty tells the story partly through documents from real characters involved in the bitter war, people from both sides, ordinary foot soldiers and their families, and their generals and leaders, and the politicians who created the conflict. Politicians and leaders I had read about in history text books became vivid, particularly Bismarck, whose future was in the balance during this conflict; with a different strategy the Danes might have held out against the Prussians and Bismarck’s career might have foundered in the mud of the battlefield as the soldiers did.
I knew nothing about the period really, and definitely nothing about Danish history; the book is so well written and it explains the background and the context without having great chunks of exposition. It starts with one of the key battles, where the Danes were defending Dybbøl, a hill besieged by the Prussians; maps and photographs help explain the situation, but Buk-Swienty is a great story teller and the action leaps off the page – a true story teller, not a made-up version of events. He only later in the book goes back to what initiated the conflict which is a way a novelist might write a series of events in fiction, but the effect of this is that it becomes a gripping read and this almost back to front narrative becomes very clear and understandable.
What most struck me about this small but dreadful war, was how it foretold the situation for not thousands but millions of soldiers fifty years later in World War 1; trench warfare, mass bombardment and barrage of troops pinned down in redoubts and defensive positions, the terrible suffering – physical and mental of the soldiers, men drowning in mud, heroism and tragedy, the importance of weapon technology in determining an outcome, the true bravery of the doctors and medical orderlies, the lunatic and criminal decisions made by armchair commanders miles and miles from the front… it is terribly prescient.
Here is a link to an article about the book:
and here is an article about the war: