The Great War

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row."

Sunday, November 11, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the War to End All War. The armistice that ended the fighting was signed at 11 a.m., Paris time, “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” The Great War decimated a generation in England and on the continent. More than 100,000 Americans also died of injuries or illness after we joined the conflict in April of 1917.

Readers know that the Great War’s trauma produced a legacy of great books. Many fall in the category of well-known classics; others will be less familiar to American readers. We’ll look at a handful of them here.

One of the great histories of World War I is Barbara Tuchman’s 1962  The Guns of August. She begins her story with the funeral of Edward VII in 1910 and covers the full sweep of the war.

Two memoirs of the war are worth your reading. Try Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and Robert Graves’s Good-bye to All That. Brittain left her studies at Oxford in 1915 to go to work nursing wounded soldiers. Ultimately the war claimed all the significant men in Brittain’s life. Not only is it a searing account of the futility of war but it’s also a feminist story pitting Brittain's drive for self-determination against conventional expectations for women. In Good-bye to All That, Graves recounts his own experiences at the front and the passing away of the old, pre-war world. Both memoirs remain readable and relevant today.

There’s so much terrific World War I fiction available to read that it’s hard to know where to start. Maybe you’ve already read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, the classic German novel on the stresses of war and of the alienation from civilian society felt by returning soldiers. Another novel you might already know is Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. It’s the story of an American ambulance driver, Frederic Henry, and his affair with Catherine Barkley, an English nurse, set against the backdrop of the Italian Front. Here are a few others you may not know. Read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, his epic novel of the Battle of Tannenberg in East Prussia, a forerunner of events leading to the Russian Revolution. Or by another Russian author, Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don. Often listed among the most important novels of the 20th century, it concerns a family of Don Cossacks, their loves and feuds, amid the setting of war and revolution. Sholokhov was awarded the 1965  Nobel Prize for this epic work. By Czech novelist Jaroslav Hasek, there’s The Good Soldier Schweik: and his Fortunes in the World War. The most-frequently translated Czech novel, The Good Soldier Schweik is a dark comedy of the futility of war. By British novelist Pat Barker, dig into her Regeneration trilogy. The three books, RegenerationThe Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road, follow Dr. William Rivers, an army psychiatrist at a Scottish hospital, who treats the shell-shocked then sends them back to the front. A Very Long Engagement, by French writer Sebastien Japrisot, concerns Mathilde Donnay who undertakes, from her wheelchair, to solve the mystery of what happened to her fiance, missing after having been sent to the front in punishment for an alleged crime. A wonderfully complex and satistfying book.

Here are some others, briefly noted.

The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell

Ashenden or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear, part of the Maisie Dobbs series

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon

Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos

Have I missed anything? Leave your own choices of World War I books in the Comments box.

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