July 28th marks one hundred years since the beginning of the Great War. World War I was one of the most violent and destructive events in history. It’s vital that we remember and mourn these losses, but also essential that we celebrate the incredible outpouring of stunning art that emerged from this tragedy. In remembrance of all the soldiers, their world, and the art they made, here are a few reading suggestions for the WWI Centennial.
Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis
When Cecil Lewis joined the RAF to fight in WWI, he was older than the field of aviation itself. Yet by the end of the war, Lewis had mastered virtually every single engine plane available, served three tours of duty, and lived through a dogfight with the Red Baron. Lewis’s memoir depicts the joys of flying—the exhilarating feeling of soaring the skies only to fly into combat moments later. Told by a charming, young narrator, Sagittarius Rising draws a bittersweet line between the beauty and terror of flight.
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
In Vera Brittain’s enduring memoir, the Great War encroaches upon the young author as she is at Oxford; the war claims her brother and her lover, and she, in turn, jumps into the fray by nursing the wounded. Unlike her lover and brother, Vera survives the war; she finds love again, but the battlefield still haunts her as she visits the graves of her loved ones and tours Germany and Italy—occupied and defeated. Testament of Youth provides us with a compelling account of how the monstrous tragedy that was the First World War crept into Vera and her contemporaries’ lives and affected them beyond the trenches.
The George Sherston Trilogy by Siegfried Sassoon
The fictional autobiography of a young man, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and Sherston’s Progress make up Siegfried Sassoon’s George Sherston Trilogy. Sherston, a young aristocrat, grows up prepared for a life of upper-class indulgence before the war intervenes. Based in part on Sassoon’s life, the Sherston trilogy portrays the world as it transitions from peaceful Edwardian naiveté to pure horror and its aftermath.
Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger
One of the first memoirs published about the Great War, Storm of Steel provides a graphic account of trench warfare from the perspective of a German soldier on the infamous Western Front. Jünger lucidly describes war, neither glorifying it nor protesting it, but offering an intensely emotional, realist account of what happened. Brutally honest yet lyrical and luminous, Storm of Steel is a beautiful memoir of terror.
Under Fire by Henri Barbusse
War was not constantly explosive. Much time was spent sitting and waiting—fearing what was come. Featuring a group of men in the French Sixth Battalion, Under Fire gives an account of the terrible boredom, as the soldiers wait for what seems like an eternity to pass while the war hangs over their heads. A classic antiwar novel, Barbusse uses time in trenches to bring life to memorable characters, refusing to romanticize in his attempts to offer an authentic vision of war.
The Enormous Room by e.e. cummings
One of the most important poets of 20th century America, e.e. cummings also volunteered as an ambulance driver in France during WWI. Though best-known for his poetry, The Enormous Room displays cummings’s stunning command of prose. In this autobiographical novel, the poet’s service takes a more farcical turn when he is arrested for treason. With unexpected warmth and joy, cummings describes a quest for freedom indebted to Pilgrim’s Progress, all the while offering a series of brilliant and eclectic portraits of his fellow inmates.
Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb
Already suffering in the trenches, a group of French soldiers is sent on an impossible mission to attack an all-but-invincible German base. When the mission fails, the soldiers are considered cowards and are prosecuted for treason in a military tribunal. Famously adapted by Stanley Kubrick, Paths of Glory illustrates the difficulty, if not the absurdity, of the impossible demands that were put on ordinary men and how as factories began to produce weapons, the courts began to deliver injustice.
Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington
George Winterbourne is raised a typical patriotic Englishman. A failed businessman turned-artist and socialist, he enlists to avoid a worsening domestic crisis. And as his superiors quickly die out, George receives a spate of promotions. Yet he grows increasingly cynical about not only the war but also the England he serves. Death of a Hero is a biting critique of a British society that remains all but ignorant of the trials and tribulations of its soldiers on the battlefield.
Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
Soldiers, wounded or discharged, eventually came home, and it was up to their families to take care of the shell-shocked men. Return of the Soldier provides a touching but crushing account of a traumatized soldier who believes he is in love with a working-class woman instead of his aristocratic wife. Concise and haunting, this novella examines what it means to heal a soldier—and what even constitutes healing, when health meant a return to the front.
Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos
Three Soldiers is a novel of war, but not one of combat. Dos Passos introduces three starkly different Americans fighting in France, each gradually and vividly brought to life through their interior lives. A modernist antiwar masterpiece, this novel grimly portrays the petty cruelties that kept the machine of war running, stripping soldiers of their ambition and humanity.
Penguin Book of First World War Poetry
Perhaps no artistic output from the Great War can equal the astounding quantity and quality of its poetry. From the trenches to the skies and the battlefield to home front, the setting and feeling of this poetry cover diverse territory. In this anthology, verses by poets such as Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen are arranged thematically from topics such as propagandist patriotism to a deep yearning for peace.
Three Poets of the First World War: Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen
Bringing together Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg, this collection provides a selection by three of War’s greatest poets. Gurney was a classical composer whose poetry retains a lyrical, musical touch. Owen, perhaps the quintessential soldier-poet, portrays the war’s horrors with great and brutal honesty. And Rosenberg, also a painter, composed some of the finest poetry to come out of the war in his Poems from the Trenches (make sure to read “Break of Day in the Trenches” and “Louse Hunting”).
Penguin Book of First World War Stories
Featuring a diverse selection of authors writing before, after, and long after the war, ranging from Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling to Katherine Mansfield and Julian Barnes, this collection of short stories illustrates the impact of the Great War on not only the soldiers, but also on British society, politics, and culture—all irrevocably altered by one of the most violent events in human history.
[This post is more than a little perfectly timed, giving me, as it does, several new ideas for my First World War–related reading this year. My interest is particularly piqued here by the Rebecca West novel (such an arresting, beautiful cover, too).]