The First World War was profoundly different to all the other wars that preceded it. There are a number of reasons for this; the quantity of countries that were engaged in the conflict, the range and extent of battles that were fought simultaneously on land, sea and in the air, the technology involved which resulted in mechanised, mass death, the total mobilisation of entire nations and the suffering and hardship experienced by non-combatant populations.
The war is also unique for another reason; it produced a vast outpouring of literature the like of which we are unlikely to see again. The ‘total’ nature of the conflict meant that vast swathes of intellectuals were involved in it. Whether they were conscripted or volunteered for service, thousands of writers, both established and potential, were directly engaged in fighting. They left us with a hugely important legacy; a body of literature that allows the civilian soldier to speak authentically about the war and narrate just how instrumental the conflict was in influencing the consciousness of a generation.
The following list of novels either from, or influenced by, the First World War is far from exhaustive but it should give a flavour of why the conflict stands alone as one of the most influential events of the twentieth century.
Robert Graves, Goodbye To All That (1929)
Goodbye to All that is a remarkable book, not least for its harrowing detail. Graves served as an officer in the Army and was profoundly influenced by what he experienced at the front. In particular, the war prompted him to abandon his faith and he would pay his last visit to church while on leave from the Army.
Graves’ father, A.P. Graves, accused his son of being cavalier with both his facts and his opinions, an accusation levelled at Graves by some commentators. However, Goodbye to All That stands as one of the most important accounts of the war ever written.
Susan Hill, Strange Meeting (1971)
First published in 1971, Strange Meeting takes its title from a poem by Wilfred Owen and documents the intense, devoted relationship that develops between two soldiers on the Western Front; the shy and morose John Hillard, and his happy go lucky companion, David Barton. Hill’s novel uses the bond between Hillard and Barton to explore the horrors of war and the impact of the conflict on two very different men.
J.B. Morton, The Barber of Putney (1919)
Morton served as a private in the Royal Fusiliers and, later, as part of the Suffolk regiment. He fought in the Somme and after a spell away from the front with shell shock, spent the rest of the war working for the intelligence services. Morton wrote The Barber of Putney in 1919 and drew heavily on his experiences in the trenches. The strength of Morton’s novel lies in its authenticity. His central character, Tim Himrick, experiences all facets of Army life, from inoculation and kitting out to combat with a German soldier. Morton’s character faces all that war throws at him and returns to his barber’s shop in Putney relatively unscathed. Morton’s novel is hugely likeable and lacks the melancholy so typical of the genre.
David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937)
A combination of free verse and prose, In Parenthesis is a classic of both the war and of modernist literature. It took Jones twenty years to compose and is considered to be one of the lesser known stand-out works of the period. T.S. Elliot, for example, called it ‘a work of genius.’ In Parenthesis covers the period December 1915 to July 1916, during which time the half-English, half-Welsh Jones, was on active service with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. The story focuses on a Private, John Ball, and his service (and eventual wounding) at the Battle of the Somme.
Pat Barker, Regeneration (1991)
First published in 1991, Regeneration is the first of three novels known as the Regeneration Trilogy. The novel foregrounds the issue of mental health and focuses in particular on a group of British army officers and their treatment for shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Notable for its coverage of difficult themes including mental health, masculinity and homosociability, Regeneration tells the story of the forgotten men who neither died nor survived the war unscathed.
Rebecca West, The Return of the Solider (1918)
The Return of the Solider is a bitter sweet novel which tells the story of Chris, who, suffering from shell-shock, escapes the horror of Flanders by blotting out the last fifteen years of his life and returning to a passionate love affair of the past with his working-class sweetheart. The novel is beautifully written and completely absorbing.
Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Svejk (1923)
Set during the First World War in Austria-Hungary, Hasek’s novel explores the futility of war and the incompetence of the officers that lead their men into battle. Hasek’s main character, Joseph Svejk, persistently frustrates the military authorities with his idiocy, a theme which culminates in him donning a Russian uniform and being taken prisoner by his own men. Based partly on Hasek’s own service in the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army. The Good Solider Svejk is the most translated novel of Czech literature.
Earnest Hemmingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)
Ernest Hemingway volunteered for ambulance service in Italy and was decorated twice for his efforts. Out of those experiences came A Farewell to Arms, a novel which is considered to be one his bleakest but best works. Set during the Italian campaign, A Farewell to Arms was first published in 1929 and offers a first-person account of an American, Frederic Henry, who serves as a Lieutenant in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army. The story focuses on a romance between the expatriate American Henry and a Scottish woman, Catherine Barkley.