The war that began formally in August, 1914 changed the political and geographical map of Europe, the Middle East, and even much of the Far East--and, in broader but very real terms, the Earth itself. In many ways, we are still engaged in this war and the maps are still flowing. Though there was a period of 'entre deux guerres' in the 1920s and early 1930s--a false peace at best--the world has for the most part been on a war-time footing and economy for the past hundred years.
It's important to remember that time, to understand the people who lived through it, and to enter into the dynamics, the reverberations of which are still felt in our own time. These sixteen books, including histories, memoirs and novels, are some of the best from and about that period and give us an opportunity to experience this watershed in human history.
Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road by Pat Barker. A Trilogy (1992-1996)
In 1917, Siegfried Sassoon publicly refused to continue as an officer in the British Expeditionary Force in Europe. His regard of the war as senseless slaughter and his public figure had authorities classify him as "mentally unsound." He is subsequently sent to a hospital where a renowned psychiatrist and anthropologist, William Rivers, tries to restore him to sound mind and to the trenches. Barker mixes first and third person narratives in this ongoing story of the inner and outer struggles of the war. She mixes fictional characters, such as Dr. Rivers, with actual ones, such as Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, to create a compelling tapestry of this watershed event in history. "[A] fierce meditation on the horrors of war and its psychological aftermath." - New York Times
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon (1930)
Better known for his war-time poetry as well as his being one of Britain's major poets and novelists after the war, Sassoon also wrote a 3 volume fictionalized version of his own life. Memoirs of an Officer is the second volume of the trilogy and deals with Sassoon's alter-ego, George Sherston, as he experiences the bitter life of the trenches, officer's training, and his return to France at the Somme. fter being wounded at Arras, Shelton is sent home to recuperate where he arranges an interview with an anti-war columnist. He decides to speak out against the war, which could be considered treasonable. He is declared insane and transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh. This is a fine set piece to the Pat Barker books which also deal with Sassoon.
Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford (1924-1928)
Parades End is considered by many the greatest of the British war novels. Written by one who served as an officer on the western front and originally published as four linked novels, the narrative follows Christopher Tietjens through the decade as he experiences the destruction of his Tory values as well as his most significant relationship. The trenches of the war's battles and a post-war relationship with a young suffragette reshape his world as he becomes part of the national reconstruction. Christopher's experiences of the cataclysm of the war parallel the changes in the society around him as the Victorian/Edwardian period yields to the murky, often terrifying 20th century, which comes hard on the heels of the Great War.
W.H. Auden wrote in 1961, "Of the various demands one can make of the novelist, that he show us the way in which a society works, that he show an understanding of the human heart, that he create characters whose reality we believe and for whose fate we care, that he describe things and people so that we feel their physical presence, that he illuminate our moral consciousness, that he make us laugh and cry, that he delight us by his craftsmanship, there is not one, it seems to me, that Ford does not completely satisfy. There are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade's End is one of them."
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1928); also The Road Back (1931)
All Quiet on the Western Front has been called the quintessential war novel of the 20th century. Along with its sequel, The Road Back, Remarque depicts the lives of ordinary soldiers caught up in the insanity in which, as Thomas Hardy noted, "You shoot a fellow down/ You'd treat if met where any bar is, / Or help to half-a-crown." The first book sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in its first 18 months in print. The Road Back continues the story recounting the soldiers' transition from the trenches to their homes, especially harrowing since the trenches for these German soldiers were often not far from the towns to which they returned. Both books were among the first banned and burned by the Nazi government as "degenerate."
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (1939)
Though not as well-known as Remarque's book, Trumbo's portrayal of the inner journey of a grotesquely wounded American WWI soldier remains a terrifying and moving recounting of the consequences of our insane repetition of the horrors of war. Trumbo, speaking of World War I in 1959, said, "Nine million corpses later, when the bands stopped and the serenities started running, the wail of bagpipes would never again sound quite the same. It was the last of the romantic wars." Though the book was suppressed by the U.S. government for fear of undercutting morale as we moved toward the new war, it became an underground classic among American soldiers both in Europe and in the Pacific.
The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War by Margaret MacMillan (2013)
Written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, Oxford professor Margaret Macmillan addresses the still enigmatic question of why Europe would abandon the peace, confidence, and prosperity of the first decade of the century and walk into the devastation that could have been avoided, even at the last moments. MacMillan begins in the early 19th century and ends with the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. She traces the political and cultural paths, the technological and economic changes which eventually converged in the cataclysm that has defined our history ever since.
"The logic of MacMillan's argument is such that even now, as she leads us day by day, hour by hour through the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, we expect some statesman or other to jump on the lighted fuse... 'There are always choices,' MacMillan keeps reminding us." - The New York Times Book Review
A Short History of World War I by James L. Stokesbury (1980)
Felt by many to be the best short history of the war, Stokesbury lets words and actions speak for themselves. He takes no sides, here, but lets history unfold as it happened. Stokesbury was a professor of history at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, until his death in 1995.
The First World War by John Keegan (1998)
This is one of the finest single volume histories of the war, straightforward and honest. With no "grand theory" to prove, Keegan lets the reader draw their own conclusions. To quote Publishers Weekly, "In a riveting narrative that puts diaries, letters and action reports to good use, British military historian Keegan delivers a stunningly vivid history of the Great War. He is equally at ease and equally generous and sympathetic probing the hearts and minds of lowly soldiers in the trenches or examining the thoughts and motivations of leaders who directed the maelstrom."
The Guns of August: the Outbreak of World War I by Barbara Tuchman (1962)
Tuchman describes the months leading up to the opening of the war and the first months of conflict. To quote, Doug Grad, Tuchman's editor at Random House, "This was the last gasp of the Gilded Age, of Kings and Kaisers and Czars, of pointed or plumed hats, colored uniforms, and all the pomp and romance that went along with war.... Tuchman is masterful at portraying this abrupt change from 19th to 20th Century."
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (1922)
This is the autobiographical account of Lawrence of Arabia who describes his role in the formation of the modern Middle East and his part in the revolt of the Arab world against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence also played a role in the Allies' dividing of the Middle East at the 1922 Cairo Conference, a division whose effects are felt in conflicts to this day. Lawrence was trying to be a moderating influence in this conference but was ignored by most members of the predominately British committee. His memoir recounts exploits, machinations, and adventures, some admittedly romanticized by Lawrence, during the War and his work with Allenby and the rest of the British military during the conflict itself.
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933)
This is the first volume of the memoirs of Vera Brittain who lost her fiancé, her brother, and two close male friends in the war while she became a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in different parts of the world. Even 80 years after its publication, Brittain's memoir has continued to inspire and has become a major work in both history and woman's studies. In 2009, Diana Anthill wrote in the Guardian, that Brittain "was brave, and her strong feelings would always express themselves in action. And she was honest... as blazingly honest as anyone can be."
Toward the Flame by Hervey Allen (1926)
Allen's account of the American 28th regiment in 1918 is considered one of the finest presentations of the United States' involvement in the War. Allen went on to become a successful novelist, best known for Anthony Adverse. Allen's National Guard unit was called up and poorly trained for what they were expected to accomplish, but Allen lets us enter into the anguish of his troop marching through France to their participation in the disastrous battle for the village of Fismette. This is a clear-sighted account of the realities of war from those who were part of it.
Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929)
This exceptional autobiography recounts Graves' school life and his life as a young officer in World War I. "It is a permanently valuable work of literary art, and indispensable for the historian either of the First World War or of modern English poetry. Apart, however, from its exceptional value as a war document, this book has also the interest of being one of the most candid self-portraits of a poet, warts and all, ever painted. The sketches of friends of Mr. Graves, like T. E. Lawrence, are beautifully vivid." - Times Literary Supplement
Some Desperate Glory: The World War I Diary of a British Office by Edward Campion Vaughan (1981)
Vaughan, a young British officer, wrote this diary in 1917, ending with the Battle of Ypres in which most of his company died. He develops from a cocky and inept young officer to one humbled both by his superiors and by the horrors he experiences, and, as the books develops, he becomes a more courageous and capable leader. The book moves from eager, almost arrogant, enthusiasm to despair, as we see a young man coming to terms with his own life and the lives for which he's responsible. The final sentence is telling: "I sat on the floor and drank whisky after whisky as I gazed into a black and empty future." James J. Cramer, writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2006, recommends the book as one of the best dealing with war: "Vaughan describes the screams of the wounded [at Ypres] who had sought refuge in the freshly gouged holes only to find themselves slowly drowning as rain fell and the water level rose. A relentlessly stark account of the war's bloodiest, most futile battle."
To Hell and Back with the Guards by Norman Cliff (1988)
Norman Cliff was 21 when he joined the Grenadier Guards. He was in action at Loos, the Somme, where he was wounded, and the bloodbath of Passchendaele, In the service up to the end of the war in 1918, Cliff refused promotion or commissions in order to stay with his fellows, many of whom he saw die horribly. He served in what was considered one of the toughest groups in the British army and was decorated for valor. However, the insane slaughter of the war, as he depicts it in his memoir, haunted him till his death at age 83. After the war, he became a journalist, a pacifist, a friend to Mohandas Gandhi, and a pursuer of peace. This book, published 11 years after Cliff's death in 1977, displays the filth and hell of combat as it truly is. He dedicated to book "to all who strive for world peace and an end to wars."