With all the interest in World War One at the moment, I thought it was an opportune moment to review some of the great writing about this war. Although consulting factual sources and documentaries will give us the facts, it is reading well-written personal accounts, novels and poetry which helps us see into the hearts and minds of those who had first-hand experience of this terrible conflict.
Among the best-known personal accounts of the Great War is that written by Robert Graves in his autobiography, Goodbye to all That. Graves served as an officer at the front and was almost fatally wounded at the Battle of the Somme, but managed to survive. He supplies vivid insights into the horror of the war and reveals that he was only able to survive by drinking a bottle of whiskey a day. Running through Graves’s account is a quiet anger against the politicians and the people at home who sent all these young men to war for political reasons, yet who seemed to have no real concern for the dreadful suffering they endured.
Published in 1929, All Quiet on the Western Front is Erich Maria Remarque’s account of how the First World War affected a group of ordinary German friends. We first meet them at school when they are young, enthusiastic, patriotic and keen to do their bit for their country. What unfolds is how the dreadful cruelty of the war changes the lives of these young men and how they encounter huge difficulties when they try to return to normal civilian life.
Some of the most famous writing about the First World War is poetry. Often first encountered at secondary school, the poems of the so-called “War Poets” rarely fail to move even the most intransigent of teen-agers. This beautiful sonnet of Rupert Brooke has been much admired over the years:
If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love,, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
but it is important to note that Brooke had not fought at the front when he wrote it. Brooke died in 1915 at the age of 27 from an infected mosquito bite. He had been on his way to fight in Gallipoli.
The best-known poets of the First World War were rather more bitter about their experience. Perhaps the bitterest of them all was Siegfried Sassoon. This poem sets the general tone of his war poetry:
“Good morning, good morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grumbled Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Sassoon was a friend of Robert Graves as well as a great influence on the poems of the best-loved of all the First World War poets, Wilfred Owen. Sometimes there are elements of bitterness and anger in Owen’s verse, too, but what is more characteristic is his ability to use minute details to conjure up with tenderness and compassion the experience of individual soldiers caught up in this suffering and waste of young life.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
– Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid fire
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
The stark emotion conveyed through striking word and image choices still speaks loudly and clearly to us a hundred years later. Owen was killed in battle in 1918, just a week before Armistice.
In the years since then, the carefully researched work of a number of writers has continued to bring alive the 1914 – 1918 experience for us and to move us. The work of some female writers has presented the war movingly from different points of view – those of women who were either directly involved in the war or who had lovers, family and friends fighting there. A number of anthologies of war poems by women exist, notably Scars upon my Heart: Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War which includes a wide range of interesting perspectives.
Two other fascinating insights into the female experience of the war are Thank God I’m not a Boy!, the letters of Dora Willatt, Daughter, Sweetheart and Nurse 1915-18 edited by Alan Wilkinson and Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. This latter memoir by Vera Brittain was dramatised by the BBC in 1979 and is best-known for its observations on how the Great War affected women, both during and after the war years. Journalist Brittain herself lost both her brother and her boyfriend in the war and wrote poems to express the resultant “scars upon my heart”.
More recently, novelist Pat Barker has chosen to explore the aftermath of the First World War in Regeneration, her fictionalised account of the experiences of poet Siegfried Sassoon and his psychiatrist William Rivers at Craiglockhart hospital where Sassoon was sent for psychiatric treatment after he decided that he could no longer serve at the front, despite his reputation as a brilliant officer who had won the Military Cross for outstanding gallantry. (As a sidenote, Sassoon threw this medal into the Mersey in 1917 and it was found in 2007 on the Scottish Island of Mull! It is now displayed in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers’ Museum at Caernarfon Castle.) Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen both appear as characters in the novel, too. Sassoon’s life and the experiences of shell-shocked soldiers are further explored in two more volumes of Barker’s trilogy: The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, the latter of which won her the Booker Prize in 1995.
Sebastian Faulks, one of the best novelists currently writing in English, presented an exceptional account of the First World War experience in his brilliant novel Birdsong. His main character, Stephen is a soldier in the First World War and his experiences are seen through the eyes of his grand-daughter in 1970. Faulks has described it as “a book about sons. Ten million of them were killed for no reason. And the grief of twenty million parents.”
Aspects of the 1914-18 war have even become the basis of novels for children. Michael Morpurgo‘s War Horse has become much-loved and very well-known, but this is not Morpurgo’s only exploration of this era. He has also written Farm Boy, the sequel to War Horse and Private Peaceful, which explores the theme of cowardice and heroism through the war experiences of Private Tommo Peaceful.
Another children’s writer and illustrator, Michael Foreman has written the memorable short novel War Game which fictionalises the famous football match which took place between the British and German soldiers in NoMan’s Land at Christmas 1914. Perhaps this event, more than anything else, encapsulates the futility of war.