5 Greatest books about the First World War

Eva Mackevic

Every year, November 11 is marked by a two-minute silence in remembrance of those who fought and lost their lives during the First World War. Yet this tribute is not the only way we commemorate the past—with the Great War remaining a popular backdrop for literary authors almost a century on from its end. But which works of fiction are the best at retelling life from the front lines? 

Birdsong

by Sebastian Faulks

While marked by poppy wearing and memorial ceremonies, the First World War is also sustained through family history, handed down from one generation to the next. No book better articulates the impact of this narrative than Stephen Faulks’ Birdsong, in which a soldier’s diary is discovered by his granddaughter, Elizabeth.

The novel follows Stephen Wraysford as he becomes part of the war in 1916. Through his eyes, readers undergo the horrors of the Somme, as Faulks creates a cast of soldiers who sacrifice themselves repeatedly in mostly futile attempts against the Germans.

In the present, Elizabeth strives to connect with a grandfather who barely spoke a word about his experiences—and soon unravels the full devastating force of the war through his writing. Her character reminds readers how easily conflict can be forgotten; and how only with remembering can we hope not to make the same mistakes again.

 

A Farewell to Arms

by Ernest Hemingway

No American writer is more associated with the war than Ernest Hemingway. The author joined the military at just 18, serving as a paramedic on the Italian front. From there, his experiences inspired the book A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929.

A love story of immense drama, Hemingway’s protagonist is Frederic Henry, an American paramedic serving on the Italian front (see what he did there?). He then meets Catherine Barkley, an English nurse mourning the death of her fiancé. The pair soon find solace from their pain in one another, their romance quickly becoming the only thing sustaining them against the savagery of war.

Catherine was based on a nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, who in real life, cared for Hemingway in hospital after he was wounded. The writer had planned to marry her when the war was over—only for her to spurn his advances on his return to America.

 

Testament of Youth

by Vera Brittain

The First World War saw 90,000 people join the fighting as British Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs). Among them was Vera Brittain, an Oxford University student whose brother, fiancé and friends had been conscripted to fight. Her biopic, Testament of Youth, has been heralded as one of the most heart-breaking and honest accounts of the war.

Brittain eagerly abandons her studies in a similar fashion to men caught up in the vision of “gloriously” dying for their country. But once in the battle—with no experience of nursing, conflict or even male nudity—she's thrust into a world of endless death, trauma and life-threatening wounds that depend on her care. The war soon rips her universe apart, forcing her to continue working through her grief.

Testament of Youth is the first instalment of Brittain’s memoirs. Her daughter, Shirley Williams, attested that the author spent the rest of her life "writing, campaigning, organising against war”.

 

Regeneration

by Pat Barker

It has been a century since poet Siegfried Sassoon’s open letter of protest against the war was read out in the House of Commons. As a result, he soon found himself referred for medical attention as the military tried to discredit his statement. It is here that Pat Barker’s Regeneration begins.

Barker’s Booker-prize nominated novel is set inside Craiglockhart War Hospital, where Dr W H R  Rivers is treating shell-shocked soldiers so that they may return to battle. Readers meet characters such as Burns, a soldier unable to eat due to his grotesque and disturbing memories and Prior, a stubborn and difficult patient who can no longer speak. Later, a young Wilfrid Owen is admitted and seeks Sassoon’s help with his writing as he recovers.

Based on real events, Regeneration graphically describes the psychological impact of conflict; from nightmares and hallucinations, to the overwhelming sense of guilt and duty that ultimately pushes the men back onto the front line.

 

War Horse

by Michael Morpurgo

It wasn’t just humans who lost their lives to the First World War. Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse tells the story of Joey, a young colt who is taken away from his mother and sold to the Narracott family, where he forges a close bond with their son, Albert.

Once the fighting breaks out, Joey is sold to the war effort in a drunken bid to get money—prompting Albert to sign up too in search of his best friend. What follows is a detailed account of the war through the eyes of a horse; from pulling ambulances and artillery wagons, to being captured by the Germans.

Morpurgo had previously thought retelling the war from a horse’s point of view could not be done. But the author changed his mind after witnessing a boy with a terrible stammer finding his words when alone with a horse. It was there that Morpurgo realised how emotionally intuitive the animals could be.