TWE Remembers: World War I Novels
Yesterday, I recommended several great books on the origins of World War I. I’m a history buff, so books about what world leaders said and did are my thing. But friends who prefer novels to histories tell me that “fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” So in that spirit, here are recommendations for novels about World War I. But be warned. These are mostly books about the war’s brutality and senselessness, not its glories and heroics.
Two literary classics stand out above all other World War I novels.
- A Farewell to Arms (1929). Ernest Hemingway failed the army’s medical examination because of bad eyesight, so he joined the Red Cross and was stationed as an ambulance driver on the Italian front. Drawing on his experience there, A Farewell to Arms tells the doomed love story of Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver, and Catherine Barkley, an English nurse. Set as German troops overrun the Italian army, A Farewell to Arms offers a vivid portrayal of life during wartime. Hemingway also wrote The Sun Also Rises (1926), which captures “the disillusionment and angst of the post–World War I generation.”
- All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Erich Maria Remarque was drafted into the German army when he was eighteen. He used his experiences to craft the harrowing tale of Paul Bäumer, a nineteen year-old who with his friends joins the German army full of patriotic fervor. They quickly discover that combat is brutal, heartless, and deadly. Remarque brilliantly captures the physical and mental terrors that German soldiers endured on the western front. The ending will stay with you for a long time.
Hemingway and Remarque weren’t the only authors who drew on bitter personal experience to write about World War I:
- Under Fire: The Story of a Squad (1916). Henri Barbusse may have written the first World War I novel. Although he was forty-one when the war began, he volunteered for the French army. The horrors he saw fighting the Germans turned him into a pacifist. Barbusse used notes he took while fighting on the western front to craft Under Fire, which is structured as a journal in which the unnamed narrator paints a gruesome picture of the life soldiers faced in the trenches—and the even greater horrors they faced when they ventured out to face the enemy on the battlefield. Under Fire (Le Feu: Journal d’une escouade) was a sensation in France when it came out, winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt and selling more than two-hundred thousand copies to a French public that would face nearly two more years of war.
- Paths of Glory (1935). Humphrey Cobb was kicked out of an American high school in 1916 at the age of seventeen and headed north of the border to join the Canadian army. His two years fighting on the western front would shape the writing of Paths of Glory. Inspired by real-life events, it tells the story of three French soldiers selected for execution because they and their comrades faltered against nearly impossible odds on the battlefield. A classic anti-war novel, Paths of Glory is a tale of ambition, stupidity, duplicity, honor, and injustice. But don’t confuse Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory with the 1915 book of the same title by the unrelated Irvin S. Cobb, which is a memoir of life on the battlefields of France, or the 2009 novel of the same title by Jeffrey Archer.
- Three Soldiers (1921). John Dos Passos joined the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps in July 1917, a year after graduating from Harvard, and was then drafted into the U.S. Army. Three Soldiers follows the journey of three young Americans from three different parts of the country who join the U.S. Army for different reasons and are sent to France. The novel devotes just a few passages to events on the battlefield, but Dos Passos’s characters are nonetheless alienated by Army life and skeptical about the war itself. Three Soldiers created a sensation when it was published three years after the war ended, and it made Dos Passos’s literary reputation. F. Scott Fitzgerald, no slouch as a writer himself, called Three Soldiers the “first war book by an American which is worthy of serious notice.”
- Generals Die in Bed (1930). Charles Yale Harrison quit his job at the Montreal Star in 1917 to enlist in the Canadian Army. He was wounded at the Battle of Amiens in August 1918 and spent the rest of the war recovering from his injuries. Generals Die in Bed is narrated by an unnamed Canadian soldier whose initial patriotism gives way to disillusionment as his friends die, he struggles with his guilt for killing a German soldier, and he discovers that civilians on the home front do not understand the barbarity of the battlefield.
- The Good Soldier Svejk: and His Fortunes in the World War (1923). Jaroslav Hašek was a Czech writer and occasional cabaret performer when he was drafted into the Austrian army in 1915. He subsequently served in the Czech Legion, fighting against his former Austrian comrades, before signing up with the fledgling Soviet Army. The Good Soldier Svejk is a dark satire that mocks the futility of war. The title character, who had appeared in some of Hašek’s pre-war writings, bumbles his way through a series of adventures. Readers are left to wonder whether Svejk is incompetent or slyly frustrating his military superiors.
- Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930). Siegfried Sassoon was a decorated British soldier who was nearly court-martialed for writing a letter in 1917 arguing that what had been “a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression of and conquest.” Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is a fictionalized account of his life in the trenches, his decision to denounce the war, and the horrifying effects of shell shock. Sassoon experiences in France also inspired his renowned war poetry.
One of the most widely read World War I novels also hits an anti-war theme, but its author was only thirteen when the war ended.
- Johnny Got His Gun (1938). Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter for B-movies when he wrote Johnny Got His Gun. It tells the story of Joe Bonham, a doughboy who is grievously wounded on the last day of the war. He awakens in a hospital to discover he has lost all four limbs and the ability to see, hear, and talk. He can only communicate with his doctors by banging out Morse Code on the pillow with his head. What he asks doctors to do is chilling—and hard to forget. Johnny Got His Gun won the 1939 American Book Sellers Award, a forerunner to the National Book Award. (The Joe Bonham Project seeks to document the experiences of U.S. soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.)
Novels about World War I became scarce in the wake of World War II, which produced none of the Great War’s moral ambivalence or second-guessing. But in recent years several authors have returned to World War I as the setting and driver of their stories.
- The Regeneration Trilogy (1991, 1993, 1995). Pat Barker was inspired to write about World War I in part by her step-grandfather, who had been bayoneted during the fighting and refused to discuss his experiences. Barker uses real and fictional characters to tell the story of British soldiers enduring shell shock treatment at a war hospital in Edinburgh and their lives during the final years of the war. The third installment in the trilogy, The Ghost Road, won the Man Booker Prize in 1995.
- To The Last Man: A Novel of the First World War (2004). Jeff Shaara has historical fiction in his blood. His father, Michael Shaara, wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning Killer Angels, which brilliantly retells the Battle of Gettysburg. To the Last Man uses real-life figures like General John “Black Jack” Pershing and Baron Manfred von Richthofen in tracing the course of the Great War.
- A Long Long Way (2005). Sebastian Barry cleverly links the British army’s bravery in France to the Irish struggle for independence back home in A Long Long Way. Willie Dunne is young Dubliner who joins the British army and distinguishes himself on the western front. His life changes drastically when he returns to Dublin on leave in 1916 shortly after the Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland. Dunne faces crushing questions about who he is and what he has fought for. A Long Long Way was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005.
Do you have any World War I novels or short stories to recommend?
For more suggested resources on World War I, check out the other posts in this series:
• “World War I on the World Wide Web”