Given the day that is in it, and since there are only whatever number of shopping days until Christmas, this post is a rolling review of First World War literature, in its broadest sense to include personal accounts, historical fiction (and everything in between), histories, cinema, documentary, drama, theatre and the endless poetry. Next year, with the centenary of the outbreak of war looming, there will probably be a glut of reflections and new readings of the war, it’s course and impact. So, given the extensive range of excellent works already available, if you have any recommendations – give us your suggestions below.
I’m going to recommend two books: In Stahlgewittern by Ernst Jünger, published in English translation as Storm of Steel, and Liam O’Flaherty’s Return of the Brute. They both sit roughly within the general collection of personal accounts that appeared as actual memoirs (Jünger) like Graves’ Good-bye to All That, or the thinly and thickly disguised autobiographies of Sassoon or Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms (all of which are eminently readable). Storm of Steel went through a number of published editions in the 1920s and 1930s, conforming to the needs of National Socialist historiography in the later editions. If you can find a translation of the earlier editions (without the cloying Nazism that crept into later editions) – Jünger gives one of the rawest first-hand accounts of trench fighting, hand-to-hand combat and the brutal realities of the war. Originally Jünger’s war diary, it was dramatically eclipsed in popularity by Remarques’ (fictional) All Quiet on the Western Front in the English speaking world despite the disparity in their war experiences (Remarque spent a few weeks as a sapper, Jünger fought and was wounded in numerous battles). Unlike the English memoirs which tend to dwell on the moral and psychological journey of the author, Jünger revels in the detail of the actual fighting.
Return of the Brute is fiction, although based on O’Flaherty’s own experiences in the Irish Guards which culminated in a case of shell shock. In that sense, O’Flaherty’s novel forms an out-working of his own experiences, keeping it apart from much later historical novels like Jennifer Johnstons’ How Many Miles To Babylon, Pat Barkers’ Regeneration trilogy or Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong (all great reads in their own right). It is also unusual as it is not written by someone from the officer class (like Jünger, Sassoon, Graves etc) but is giving a perspective from the point of view of a private soldier’s experience. It recounts a section moving forward to grenade an enemy trench in an unnamed battle and can be read in a few hours so it is more or less in real time. Shell shock is the central theme and O’Flaherty offers a frame of reference for those who fought in the war and lacked the classical learning and education that the literary officers used to give their surroundings meaning. I won’t ruin it by giving away the ending.
If you wish to add a review below (I’ve not even mentioned histories of the war), leus everyone know what stands out or why that particular choice.