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The uniquely dehumanizing quality and horrifying conditions of the Great War impacted the art of the time. (Library & Archives Canada / CP)
The uniquely dehumanizing quality and horrifying conditions of the Great War impacted the art of the time. (Library & Archives Canada / CP)

Why literature written out of the First World War is some of the last century’s finest writing Add to ...

I do not rush to read books about war; in fact, I avoid them. But, strangely, some of my favourite novels, memoirs and poems were inspired by a conflict that claimed the youth of a generation and gave birth to a bitterly disillusioned modern world. The 1960s musical that made satirical mincemeat of the First World War’s ideals was called Oh, What a Lovely War! I would say, instead, “Oh, What a Literary War!” To me, it’s clear that the literature written out of the Great War outshines that prompted by other wars.

The reasons for that are various. The Great War had a horrid novelty, in that it was the first war that was fought by many European countries in almost a century and the first mechanized war. It began in idealism and naivete, and sooner rather than later many people realized that the whole thing was an apparently endless muddle. When Ernest Hemingway’s young hero in A Farewell to Arms asks his lover where they will live after the war, she says, “In an old people’s home probably.” The conditions of the war – long months living underground in the trenches interrupted by catastrophic battles – struck its soldiers as uniquely dehumanizing. Stephen Wraysford, the hero of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, thinks, “This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.” The level of despair voiced by Wraysford was terrible for people, but fruitful for writers’ imaginations.

Along with 16 million people, the Great War killed a certain innocence in the culture. Hemingway’s Frederic Henry, an ambulance driver on the Italian front, speaks for the so-called Lost Generation when he says of the war, “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice … I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”

Writers about the Great War had to grapple with that loss of innocence in their work, a painful business that enriched their art. By contrast, writers who took the Second World War as their subject were not so shocked by the inhumanity of war, the incompetence of generals, or the cynicism of politicians. They came to their war harder, colder, less susceptible to ideals. Plus, they had a cause that needed no justification, whereas many British writers about the Great War ended up ambivalent or downright negative about their participation – another dilemma that deepened their work.

The Great War was a literary war in another sense, in that it was fought, at least on the English side, by many men with a classical, intensely literary education. Colonel Gray, in Birdsong, reads Thucydides between battles, and he was not unusual. Gray is a fictional character, but Colonel C.C. Harrison, of the Royal Sussex Regiment, was not. While waiting for the battle at Hamel to start, in 1916, he read a review of a book of poems in the Times Literary Supplement, and realized that the poet, Edmund Blunden, was a shy young officer in his battalion nicknamed Rabbit. Thrilled at having an author close by, he insisted that the reluctant Rabbit be stationed with him, at headquarters. A colonel who reads poetry reviews on the eve of a battle comes from a world we shall not look upon again, but it wasn’t only the Oxbridge elite who took literature seriously. Many rank-and-file soldiers had benefitted from Workmen’s Institutes and other forms of adult education that stressed the humanities, and it was not difficult to find copies in the trenches of Everyman Classics and, especially, The Oxford Book of English Verse.

Aside from their literary education, the British soldiers had a training, as Paul Fussell says in The Great War and Modern Memory, “in alertness and a special kind of noticing.” So do all soldiers, and for those who went on to write memoirs, poems and novels about the war, that discipline in “noticing” served them well. For the writers who came afterwards, the Great War and its soldier-writers remain a rich vein of inspiration. The following are my favourites in a crowded field – written from the 1920s to 2005, by veterans and non-veterans, mostly British, but one American, one German and three Canadians.

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