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

The uniquely dehumanizing quality and horrifying conditions of the Great War impacted the art of the time.

Library & Archives Canada / CP

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."

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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.

MEMOIRS

Undertones of War, by Edmund Blunden, 1928. Read quickly, this memoir by a poet with a pastoral vision might seem precious. Read slowly, his laconic accounts of battles, his wry observations about the British army's irrelevant obsessions with drills, hierarchy and tidiness, and his lyrical descriptions of the green and pleasant land that was the French countryside are wonderful.

Good-bye to All That, by Robert Graves, 1929. A fictionalized and irresistibly entertaining chronicle. The frequent deaths go by more quickly than the comic set pieces, but their effect is cumulative.

Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain, 1933. This haunting account of how the war hollowed out the life of a young woman, who lost her fiancé, her best friend and her brother, is too long. But that is, unwittingly, part of its point, because the carnage and the blighting of a generation's hopes also went on far too long.

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The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, by Siegfried Sassoon, 1937. (A recommended condensation is Siegfried Sassoon's Long Journey: Selections from the Sherston Memoirs, ed. Paul Fussell.) Sassoon's deft, fictionalized memoir of his alter ego, George Sherston, follows his journey from compliant fox-hunting man to defiant enemy of the war.

The Danger Tree: Memory, War, and the Search for a Family's Past, by David Macfarlane, 1991. Macfarlane tells an unforgettable story of what his mother's family and all of Newfoundland lost at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916. The war, he claims, cost Newfoundland its potential for independence: "The century that carried on past the moments of their deaths … was largely a makeshift arrangement, cobbled around their constant, disastrous absence."

NOVELS

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, 1929. Remarque's great novel about a young German soldier is not read much in English these days, but it's a fascinating contrast to the stiff-upper-lip English accounts of the war – more straightforward about feelings, more matter-of-fact about the body, and ultimately heartbreaking.

A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway, 1929. Hemingway did his homework so well his Italian readers were convinced he was part of the retreat from Caporetto, which he wasn't. Critics complained that after Frederic Henry deserts and flees to Switzerland with Catherine Barkley, there is too much love and not enough war. But their winter idyll is so deliberately and precisely the opposite of the war that its shadow never really lifts.

Regeneration, by Pat Barker, 1992. Barker's brilliantly original novel is set in a Scottish hospital for shell-shock, peopled by historical figures – Sassoon, Graves, Wilfred Owen, the saintly psychologist William Rivers – and a fictional character, working class, bisexual Billy Prior. The sequels, The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995), are less wonderful, but it's impossible not to care about their hero, Prior.

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Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, 1993. Faulks balances the horror of war with a romance in pre-war France and another in post-war England, but they pale compared with his scenes in the trenches and in battle, graphic, eloquent and quietly horrific.

The Underpainter (1997) and The Stone Carvers (2001), by Jane Urquhart. The war plays a secondary but vivid role in these two Canadian novels. Some of The Underpainter's most memorable scenes centre on a nurse whose experiences in a wartime hospital in France change her life. The Stone Carvers looks at the war from an unusual, retrospective angle, the design and making of Walter Allward's Vimy monument.

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden, 2005. Inspired by the legendary Ojibway First World War hero Francis Pegahmagabow, Boyden tells the story of two James Bay Cree – one shaped by his time in a residential school, the other a traditional Cree – who became formidable wartime snipers. Unpretentiously told by Xavier, one of the snipers, and his aunt Nishka, the novel reflects on civilization, morality and violence, both European and Cree.

POETRY

There are many collections of war poetry as well as volumes by single authors. Not to be missed are Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, who were killed at 25 and 28 respectively. Had they lived, the history of 20th-century English poetry would be written quite differently. Others who wrote fine poems include Edward Thomas, Sassoon, Graves and Blunden.

Katherine Ashenburg is the author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History.

Editor's note: This article  incorrectly said that the First World War was Europe's first war in almost a century. In fact, it was the first war that directly involved most of the countries of Europe since the Napoleonic wars (which ended in 1815), but there were several regional wars in the interval. This version has been corrected.

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