The story of the First World War has been told in fiction, film, and television many times since the Great War began in 1914. Previously, we gathered together some of the best poems about the First World War, but what about the novels and short stories that have been written? And what, for that matter, of the non-fiction memoirs from those who lived through the conflict?
Below we introduce ten of the best books and stories about World War One. Which books have we missed off the list?
1. Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier.
West’s debut novel, published in 1918 when she was just twenty-five, is a short narrative about a man, Chris Baldry, who returns from fighting in the First World War having lost his memory. His wife, Kitty, has to care for her shell-shocked husband while helping him to regain his memories of his life with her.
However, when Chris’s memory does start to return, it is Margaret, a woman he was romantically involved with some fifteen years before, whom he remembers. What follows is a new take on the eternal love triangle, but with some perceptive insight into the effect that shell-shock and PTSD had on the loved ones – especially the wives – of the men who returned from the Western Front.
2. Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Fly’.
Although she is better-known for classic short stories exploring female desire (‘Bliss’) and the loss of innocent in young adulthood (‘The Garden Party’), the New Zealand-born Katherine Mansfield also wrote lots of other short stories, including this one about a man’s attitude to his son’s death during the war. Mansfield uses the symbolism of the fly on his desk to explore the attitude of one generation to the sacrifice their children made.
3. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway.
In 1925, Virginia Woolf published her first truly great novel, Mrs Dalloway, which, like James Joyce’s Ulysses, covers the events of a single day in June – although Woolf’s June day is set in 1923 rather than 1904 and her setting is London rather than Dublin.
We learn about Clarissa Dalloway’s life, her marriage to the MP Richard Dalloway, and her former romance with her friend Peter Walsh; running alongside Mrs Dalloway’s reminiscences and reveries we have the First World War veteran Septimus Warren Smith, who is suffering from severe PTSD and constantly having flashbacks to his time in the war. Among many things, Woolf’s modernist novel invites us to consider who is ‘sane’ and who ‘insane’ in a messed-up world scarred by war, death, and rapid industrial, political, and social change.
4. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms.
This 1929 novel is narrated by an American doctor serving in the First World War, and showcases Hemingway’s distinctive plain, direct writing style. The American Frederic Henry falls in love with an English nurse named Catherine Barkley, and Hemingway deftly tells their burgeoning love story alongside some very well-observed description of the horror and sickness of the war (the novel opens with a cholera epidemic in Italy): Hemingway based the novel on his own experiences of serving as an ambulance driver in the war, while still a teenager.
5. Richard Aldington, Death of a Hero.
Described by Aldington, a former imagist poet, as a ‘jazz-novel’ because it took its inspiration from American music of the 1920s, Death of a Hero (1929), Aldington’s first novel, is about George Winterbourne, a young artist who enlists at the start of the war. The novel charts not only his disillusionment fighting in the trenches but also his early years and home life leading up to the outbreak of the war.
6. Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front.
Six schoolfriends from a German town fight in the First World War, in this, surely the most famous German-authored novel about the Great War. The narrator is one of the six classmates, an aspiring poet. One of the most remarkable thing about Remarque’s novel is the sympathy between the German fighters and their foreign enemies: the real enemies, for the ordinary privates, are the officers who give the orders and, behind them, the politicians making the decisions.
Indeed, so critical of the Germans was the novel that the Nazis burned Remarque’s book a few years after its publication in 1929. Then, having hounded the author out of Germany, they arrested and beheaded his sister, who had remained behind. The novel remains a powerful and moving account of the lives of ordinary soldiers in the trenches, discussing not just war but everything in their lives that keeps them going.
7. Robert Graves, Good-Bye to All That.
Unlike many of the other titles on this list, Graves’s book is an autobiography rather than a work of fiction. Published in 1929, it is about his experience fighting as a lieutenant with Siegfried Sassoon. The harrowing realities of trench warfare, told with brilliant clarity and attention to the smallest detail, make this a must-read book about the Great War.
8. Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.
Despite its title, this is actually a novel, though it’s really a fictionalised account of Sassoon’s own experiences in the war. It was published in 1930. Sassoon’s account of the Battles of the Somme and Arras is especially vivid and haunting. The book ends with its protagonist being admitted to Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh to convalesce and receive psychiatric treatment – a setting that will form the basis of the next book on our list …
9. Pat Barker, Regeneration.
Barker’s famous 1991 novel about the First World War focuses not on the fighting on the Western Front, but on the psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh, Craiglockhart, where Siegfried Sassoon met Wilfred Owen and helped the younger man to become the greatest poet of the war. It is Barker’s innovative focus on the pioneering psychiatric treatments for shell shock – pioneered by Dr William Rivers – and her interest in the homoerotic subtext between Sassoon and Owen which help her to offer a new take on the novel of the First World War.
10. Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong.
Published in 1993, this is our final choice on this list of the best stories and books about the Great War. Here we have two stories intertwined: Stephen Wraysford’s experience fighting in the First World War, and his granddaughter Elizabeth’s quest to understand what her grandfather went through over fifty years earlier during the conflict. As such, the novel is as much about our attempts to recover the details of what occurred during the war as it is about the experience of the fighting itself. How do the descendants of those who fought and were wounded, and in many cases killed, in the conflict come to terms with what happened? Birdsong is a powerful account of this act of recovery.