Reading World War I Novels for Remembrance Day

November 9, 2017 | Bill V.

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I just finished All Quiet on the Western Front and it's got me thinking about WWI. 

It's my first time reading it and I was deeply moved. I'm reading my own personal hardcover edition and find myself enjoying the aesthetic physical experience of reading this edition. The weight of the book suits the serious tone, my eye is intrigued by the beautiful cover font, the design of each page makes it easy to read and even the quality of the paper is evocative of a time past.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I read a few pages each morning before work, drinking coffee in bed, as my husband and dog gently snore beside me. My personal reading experience is the antithesis of what I'm reading. The writing has beautiful quality and clarity and I find myself immediately drawn into the world of the trenches, death and disillusionment. Each morning I would put it down shaken and then get ready to go to work. I quietly cried at the last page.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque


If you're interested in military history or memoirs you might also want to read Ernst Jünger Storm of Steel, about his experience of trench warfare and combat in the German front line during World War I. 

Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger


Other years on Remembrance Day I've written about:

This year I want to share some interesting writing from WW I so we can all gain a bit more understanding of the "War to End All Wars" and the horrors it plunged the soldiers into.

You likely read Timothy Findley's The Wars in high school. I've just started it now - a nice library paperback copy - it's my go to on the bus commute to work and home. Can I be honest for just a moment?  I'm not enjoying it all that much. It seems a tiny bit artificial or contrived after All Quiet on the Western Front. But I'm still game to finish it.

The Wars by Timothy Findley

My well read co-worker Barb suggested I also read Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road, a fictionalized account of an Indigenous family's experience of WW I.  There is some controversy about Boyden's Métis background and yet his fiction remains powerful despite questions around his identity.  It's next on my list of reading to be followed by the American classic A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

Barb also suggested Vera Britten's Testament to Youth which I would like to pair with Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier. Britten's work is an autobiographical account of a young woman who volunteered as a nurse, survived the war and endured great personal loss. West's work is fiction and was her first novel. Not so well known now, it centers on memory and loss (was this a precursor to The English Patient?).

  Vera Britten Testament of Youth    The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West


You may know war poet Siegfried Sassoon and also his loosely autobiographical novels Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. They tell the story of a horse loving soldier (later conscientious objector) and his experience at the front and back home. I was introduced to Sassoon through his relationship with dilettante Stephen Tennant.


Siegfried Sassoon poem Suicide in the Trenches

  Siegfried Sassoon War Poems     Siegfried Sassoon Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

It's hard to understand how popular poetry was in earlier times - how central it was to both soldiers and the public at home. There is a vast amount of poetry written at the time and I encourage you, if poetry speaks to you, to explore the writings of Rupert Brooke (once considered the handsomest man in England), Wilfred Owen, our own John McCrae and others.

Of course, in addition to fiction and poetry there are also memoirs, letters and diaries. One good collection is by writer / editor Sebastien Faulks A broken world : letters, diaries and memories of the Great War.

 A broken world : letters, diaries and memories of the Great War

There are literally hundreds of novels written about World War I (both from the time and later writings) but I want to leave you with two final books.

Robert Graves' memoir of the WW I, Goodbye to All That.

Robert Graves Goodbye to All That


And lastly, something a bit more current and likely better known Booker prize winner Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy.

Pat Barker Regeneration Trilogy