The great books that define the Great War

On the anniversary of the assassination that triggered WWI, Eileen Battersby selects the books, many written by veterans, that illuminate the conflict and its aftermath

Bringing in the wounded of the 1st Bedfordshire Regiment after the assault on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st, 1916. Photograph: The Art Archive / Imperial War Museum

Bringing in the wounded of the 1st Bedfordshire Regiment after the assault on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st, 1916. Photograph: The Art Archive / Imperial War Museum


Sarajevo: June 28th, 1914

On a June morning, exactly 101 years ago today, a royal couple were going through the motions of a state visit neither had wanted to fulfil. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, as heir apparent to his uncle, the aged Emperor Franz Josef, had been despatched to a bothersome part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a chore: a diplomatic gesture to be undertaken by a man with little talent for statesmanship. Local tension was obvious. The archduke was angry at having had a bomb thrown into the open car in which he and his wife were being driven through the streets of Sarajevo. Later it would emerge that a core group of about six assassins was hovering in the crowds lining the streets.

The archduke was known for having a volatile streak, instead of smiling at the lord mayor who had begun a welcome speech, Franz Ferdinand interrupted: “Herr Bürgermeister, what is the good of your speeches? I come to Sarajevo on a friendly visit and someone throws a bomb at me. This is outrageous.”

The lord mayor could only stare back at his royal visitor. Duchess Sophie intervened, whispering discreetly to her husband, who listened, paused briefly and then conceded: “Now you can get on with your speech.” A reception followed. Such occasions are timed with military precision. By 10.45am the royal couple were being photographed leaving the Town hall. Minutes later the duchess was dead, while her husband, bleeding from his severed jugular, kept repeating of his injuries: “It’s nothing, it’s nothing, it’s nothing….” before choking to death on the blood flooding his mouth, slain by a nervy Bosnian Serb teenager, Gavrilo Princip. The assassination had been carried out chaotically by him and other amateurs. It resulted in a world war that lasted four years, claimed 37 million lives and changed the course of history.

It is a story which continues to resonate and preoccupy succeeding generations of writers and artists. Of the writers and artists who went to the war and died, very few were professional soldiers.

Briton Saki, born Hector Hugh Munro, was but one of many. His mastery of irony would have put the entire conflict – and indeed the madness of all wars – into context, had he not been shot dead by a German sniper on November 13th, 1916 during the first day of the Battle of the Ancre, the final British attack on the Somme.

Munro’s death came just a month short of his 46th birthday. Although too old to enlist, he had been offered an officer’s commission which he declined, and he chose instead to serve as an ordinary infantry man. Munro, Henri Alain-Fournier, author of Les Grand Meaulnes (1913), who died almost immediately in 1914, poets Wilfred Owen and Francis Ledwidge – all died at the Front among with millions of other men. So too perished the German expressionist artist, August Macke, aged 27, in the opening weeks of the war. He was followed two years later by his fellow German Expressionist, Franz Marc, in 1916 at Verdun. He was then 36 and about to be recalled by the German authorities intent on saving artists. Marc was killed by a shell wound to the head. The reassignment orders failed to reach him in time.

Poet Rupert Brooke’s death from blood poisoning on board ship en route to Gallipoli two days before the landing on April 25th, 1915 was caused by an extreme reaction to a mosquito bite. It almost sums up the insanity.

So many ironies: British poet Edward Thomas died in the closing stages, at Arras on Easter Monday, April 9th, 1917, when a shell shot by so close to him, that although it did not touch him, its sheer speed stopped his heart. French modernist poet Guillaume Apollinaire served for two years at the Front and suffered a catastrophic head wound in 1916. He died two years later from causes directly related to it. Writers died, others were traumatised, many were inspired by their experiences – some by an urgent need to tell the truth, and there were those who were trying to make sense of it all for themselves. JRR Tolkien, too often overlooked as a war writer, also fought on the Somme, which raged from July 1st, 1916 until November 18th. It is regarded as the bloodiest land battle in history. More than one million men died or suffered injuries which left countless maimed and psychologically damaged for life. Warfare was continually evolving. Tanks were first used at the Somme. The nightmare unending even after the final shell crashed to the earth as the mind remained scarred.

As is often strongly and convincingly argued, images are a thousand times more eloquent than words. Many photographs were taken by soldiers and in particular officers, who were ordered by military authorities not to use cameras. Luckily, for posterity, orders were disobeyed and pictures have survived which help tell the story without ever explaining it. German artist Otto Dix (1891- 1969), who served and survived but never forgot his experiences, graphically illustrated in his harrowing Der Krieg (The War) sequence of 51 works (1924). He evokes hell with an apocalyptic power comparable to that of an earlier master, Goya.

Here is a selection of books, most of which were written by veterans with first-hand experience, which may help to increase our understanding of a generation that was lost and left a legacy of grief, guilt and remorse.

The Burning of the World - a Memoir of 1914 by Béla Zombory-Moldovan (2014)

A beautifully written account of a young Hungarian artist’s experiences on the Eastern front in 1914 where he was sent on being called up. Never published in his lifetime, it was finally translated by his grandson and published for the first time in any language last year, 2014, to mark the centenary of the outbreak of The Great War.

Under Fire (Un Feu) by Henri Barbusse (1916)

Winner of the Prix Goncourt in France, this autobiographical novel is probably the first novel based on an author’s real-life experience of the Great War to be published.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)

Widely praised as a classic novel of subtle beauty – which was brilliantly conveyed in AW Wheen’s sensitive English translation within weeks of its German publication – this is an astonishing portrait of young men at war who lost their youth and idealism even before their lives. Remarque saw action and his account was to prove too critical of the German army to please the Nazis. Paul Bäumer, the young narrator, is sensitive. He writes poetry and ponders the many contradictions underpinning a war in which he no longer believes: “We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs…Death is hunting us down…we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to be revenged.” It has despair, candour, pathos and an elegiac poetry of its own.

Schlump – Tales and Adventures from the Life of the Anonymous Soldier Emil Schulz, known as ‘Schlump’ Narrated by Himself by Hans Herbert Grimm (1929)

Grimm, well named indeed, took a very different and light-hearted approach, He emphasised the horrors so unabashedly in places that it reads at times as a hilarious jaunt. He presented his central character as a jolly opportunist. But Grimm was also shrewd and insisted his novel be published anonymously. It came out a few weeks before Remarques’s far more literary treatment of the same subject. Grimm did not wish anyone to know that he had written the book, which was critical of the German army. It made him wealthy. He was a school teacher, raised a family and lived a quiet and comfortable life, until a July day in 1950 when he was summoned to Weimar by the authorities of the newly established German Democratic Republic (GDR). Whatever was discussed it was clear that his hidden past had caught up with him. Some 48 hours later, after his return home, he killed himself. Schulmp is funny, vicious and brutal, a fable with a sharp and unsettling sting as well as a dark authorial history. He was formally identified as the author as recently as 2013. It is quite a story,

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford – Some Do Not….. (1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up (1926) and The Last Post (1928)

Ford, a veteran, best remembered as the author of The Good Soldier (1915), captured in this series of novels the bewilderment of a generation and also the wider psychological destruction inflicted on society in general during and following the Great War.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)

Hemingway’s war romance draws on his experiences as a wartime ambulance driver during the Italian campaigns. It is a melodramatic work and the love story does not convince – he love object, an English nurse, is about as unreal as an idealised paragon can be – but still, Hemingway saw action and lived to tell the story.

The Great Push by Patrick MacGill (1916) 

It is based on the Donegal man’s experiences on the Western Front. He was a natural observer and although he had little formal education he worked as a reporter on the Daily Express in London. He joined up in 1914 and with the London Irish Rifles served as a stretcher bearer. Wounded at the Battle of Loos in late 1915, MacGill wrote The Great Push which, although reading more as cohesive, brilliantly detailed reportage than as fiction, deserves its place among the classics of war literature. He was to die in obscurity in 1963. However, his memory has been revived and he is honoured each year in Glenties, Co Donegal, at the summer school devoted to his life and work.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929)

This caustic memoir is required reading. Graves, son of an Anglo-Irish father and a German mother, did not believe in glossing over the injustices inflicted on the ordinary soldiers by their superiors. War is dirty and horrific, not glorious: “I kept myself awake and alive by drinking about a bottle of whisky a day,’’ he recorded. On being seriously wounded and in fact reported dead, Graves returned to England where he soon decided that everyone back home (“home” meaning his beleaguered country) had also gone mad. He did suffer from shellshock but, unlike his friend Siegfried Sassoon, was never treated for it.

Memoirs of an Infantry Man by Siegfried Sassoon (1929)

The middle and strongest volume of Sassoon’s trilogy published as The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston is his fictionalised autobiography, spanning the period between early spring 1916 and the summer of 1917. It moves from the trenches and various episodes until arriving at a raid which is later followed by an account of the Somme, the horrors of which convince the narrator to abandon his previous acceptance of the war and instead openly question the slaughter. It is another compulsory text – as are most of these wartime writings.

The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek (published between 1920-1923)

Rather more complex than might be thought because of the comedy, this is at heart a very bleak study of despair. It is based on Hasek’s experiences in the Austro-Czech army in 1915 before he deserted to the free Czech armies in Russia where he served for a further two years. The eponymous anti-hero is a Czech making fun of his Austrian masters and just about anyone else sufficiently pompous or stupid to defer to tyranny. It is interesting to compare it with Grimm’s equally irreverent Schlump.

Testament to Youth by Vera Brittain (1933)

A devastating memoir of the war years during which Brittain served as a nurse in England, Malta and France. Both her brother and his close friend, with whom she had become involved, were killed in the opening months of the war. Her account of the war is clear-eyed and candid. This is extraordinarily exact social history as well as a personal account of the war. It also gives some sense of what happened to the women in a generation of which so many men were lost.

August 1914 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1972)

Born in 1918, the year the war ended, Solzhenitsyn saw action in the second World War, joining the Red Army in 1941.This is an old-style epic. It opens with the Battle of Tannenberg where the Russians clashed with the Prussian army. It is a spectacular work and marked the beginning of Solzhenitsyn’s proposed Red Wheel saga, the second instalment following 10 years later with November 1916.

“Scores, hundreds of horses are wandering around, gathering into herds and into twos and threes, lost, exhausted, bony, but still alive…..some, like our horse, are still in harness or dragging a shaft with them, and there are wounded horses….the undecorated, unnamed heroes of the battle who for a hundred, two hundred miles have hauled this artillery, now dead and drowning in the swamp….” (From August 1914)

How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston (1974)

Friendship, social class and honour are the major themes of this eloquent narrative told by an officer as he awaits execution for helping a friend. Johnston makes inspired use of the ways in which armies rigidly insisted on punishing their own men for misdemeanours committed in the name of human kindness and loyalty, particularly as war and death raged on.

The Wars by Timothy Findley (1977)

Robert Ross is a 19-year-old Canadian officer who knows all about grief long before he heads off to war. Inspired by the real TE Lawrence, Ross is disturbed, intent, passionate and all too human. The Wars is a most remarkable and unusual novel about war by an artist, Findley, who never saw action yet grasped the horror of the damage done to the human psyche: “Robert ducked as a whoosh of air threw him forward. His hat fell off. He opened his eyes to see the wheels of an aeroplane clipping the driver of the baggage wagon. They severed the driver’s head from his body and his arms went up as if to catch it.”

Fly Away Peter by David Malouf (1982)

One of Australia’s most gifted writers, Malouf is an artist and this is the story of Jim Saddler, a bird watcher from Queensland who goes off to fight on the Western Front. Young Jim is a dreamer and even in the terror of war, he sees the grace of the birds flying over the devastated wartime landscape. The novel shares the poetic intensity and mood of Remarque’s beloved classic.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo (1982)

Albert the farm boy is heartbroken as his wonderful horse Joey is commandeered by an officer and brought to fight in France. Albert follows and what happens in this strongly moral children’s book does much to explain how the simple courage and vulnerability of innocent animals – in this case, a fine horse – move traumatised men, no longer capable of feeling for each other, to tears over their plight.

Les Champs d’Honneur by Jean Rouaud (1990)

The winner of the Prix Goncourt in 1990. Ralph Manheim’s English translation, Fields of Glory was published in 1992. Rouaud’s family saga is set between the two world wars yet it is the grim memory of the Great War which dominates the book, partly through the experiences of one of the characters who survives the agony of being gassed in the trenches at Ypres.

Regeneration by Pat Barker (1991)

In this, the first of the Regeneration trilogy, Barker looks to the real-life encounter between the famous army psychologist WHR Rivers and the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who, having been injured at the Front, returns home to Britain and treatment at Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland with very different views on the war. The increasingly outspoken Sassoon was to become a thorn in the side of the war office.

The Eye in the Door by Par Barker (1993)

Probably the finest of the three volumes – high praise indeed – this is the one that lays bare the hypocrisy of the authorities, patching up wounded men only to despatch them back to the Front. It is a wonderful piece of writing and one which has remained under-celebrated, possibly because f its criticism of the British military authorities in Whitehall who calmly sent superficially-healed but still damaged men back out to the front.

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (1995)

Yes, it won the 1995 Booker Prize and yes, it is a fine novel. Barker is a talented writer. This trilogy is a superb achievement as fiction and is also tremendously important because Barker used her sources, letters, diaries and journals written at the front as well as the memoirs which were later published by soldiers, most assiduously. Above all she respected the material, instead of merely raiding it for her own creative purposes. Barker made an important contribution towards the recognition of archival documents.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (1993)

With an episodic narrative which may or may not beguile, Faulks follows his central character through his life before, during and after the war. It is all a bit contrived as his here, there and everywhere hero seems to be present at the major theatres of war. An immensely popular novel but not one of my favourites, as it is laboured, if elegant, and does not approach Barker’s achievement.

Les Ames Grises by Philippe Claudel (2003), published in an English translation by Hoyt Rogers as Grey Souls in 2005

This is a very unusual war novel as it balances life as lived during strange times in a French village as war goes on a distance of only a few fields away. The atmosphere is tense as a cruel, mindless murder has happened only to add to the unreality of daily existence: “There where the front line merged with the horizon – so that at times you might have supposed several suns were rising at once, only to fall back again with the thump of a dud shell – the war unfurled its many little carnivals over many kilometres; from where we were you might have thought it was a miniature scale model of battle. Everything was so small. Death could not abide this smallness; it was fleeing and taking its replica of suffering with it – its kit of dismembered bodies, of lost cries of hunger and bellies full of fear, of tragedy.”

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (2005)

This Man Booker shortlisted novel is about a young Dublin man, Willie Dunne, who volunteers to fight for the Allied cause in Europe, wearing the uniform of the British army, while back home a rebellion is being planned. Family, divided loyalties and personal tragedy are Barry’s themes and this historical novel encapsulates the ambivalence which was at the root of Ireland’s participation in the Great War, Irish men fighting in the army of the ancient enemy.

Godenslaap by Erwin Mortier (2008); published in Paul Vincent’s English translation as While The Gods Were Sleeping (2014)

Written in Dutch by a Flemish male writer from the viewpoint of an unsympathetic, self-regarding woman, this is a cool, cold and rather mannered narrative. Shortlisted for the 2015 British Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, it is bleak and impersonal. The narrator admits: “the war is the best thing that ever happened to me.” It is a deliberate sub-Proustian novel best admired and read as interesting social history. I found it impossible to engage with the narrator yet it does give some sense of life as lived by the others who simply waited for news from the Front and by the select few who watched it, from various viewing points, as something of a spectator sport.

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (2003)

Echoing Jennifer Johnston’s theme of loyalty and friendship and the dire consequences such emotions can have for men at war, Morpurgo follows two young working-class brothers from an English rural village to the Western Front. There they face hardship and terror together, despite emerging tensions at home. Rigid rules and military regulations are applied without human compassion. Not great literature but it is warm and human, and a fair way to begin to draw younger readers towards the shocking reality which is the story of the first World War, and of all wars.

For useful background detail and historical insight, here are three outstanding non-fiction works:

The Fall of the Ottomans – The Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920 by Eugene Rogan (2015)

The Trigger – the Hunt for Gavrilo Princip: The Assassin who bought the World to War by Tim Butcher (2014)

One Morning in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914 by David James Smith (2008)

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent

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