If your only impression is through the, admittedly fantastic, Blackadder Goes Forth or Alan Clarke’s book The Donkeys you’d be forgiven for believing it was nothing more than a futile and wasteful war directed by incompetent and uncaring military leaders. Whilst lacking an obvious villain, as the Nazis obligingly provided in the Second World War, this complex world war was a just one, countering the menacing threat of German imperialism. It’s also important to remember the extent to which this war moulded how we think about all war: our perception of when it’s right to fight and when not, of how war can be both necessary and wasteful.
The choices I’ve selected encompass memoir, autobiography and fictionalised versions of both, from front-line combatants.
1. Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon
To fully understand the profound changes wrought by the war you need to appreciate the Edwardian era that preceded it. Granted, this depiction of a bucolic England wasn’t one shared by the shipbuilders of Glasgow or mill workers of the north.Nonetheless, it’s a superb evocation of a lost, golden era for the British upper middle classes. As such, it’s not really about the war at all. Rather it’s about the world the war destroyed. It’s the first volume of a classic trilogy that charted the destruction of the world for which Sassoon fought.
An autobiography of Sassoon’s early years, albeit fictionalised in the form of a novel, it’s concerned with charting the passage of time from the innocence of his childhood and youth to his enlistment in a local regiment. This juxtaposition, from a leisurely world of village cricket and hunting to a gruesome one where you could die at any moment, is particularly poignant as we now know this way of life had vanished forever by the time he wrote it. It’s clear that this was a carefree generation, casually unprepared for such a cataclysmic war, as they sleepwalked into the mud and remorseless guns of the Western Front.
2. Her Privates We by Frederic Manning
Hemingway says it best: “The finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read”.
This is a classic of war writing which, although centred on the Battle of the Somme, focuses more on what happens behind the lines. The first version was heavily edited as the vernacular used was deemed unfit for public distribution when first published. The coarseness of the language must have been genuinely shocking. Frankly, it still is now as it challenges our perception of that monochrome world. It’s remarkable how the introduction of proper swearing, as it clearly was used at the time, brings everything vividly to life. The past seems so close at times that you can almost reach out and touch it.
Bourne, the central character, is the fictional character through which Manning expresses his experience of the war. Manning served in the King's Shropshire Light Infantry as a private and was selected for officer training, but failed the course. There is little military zeal or patriotic fervour. Then, as now, ordinary soldiers focused on food, drink, sex and idleness. This is a searingly honest, unsentimental, book which, like Blunden below, rather than romanticising war highlights the uncertainty of it all.
3. Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden
A distinguished poet Blunden records his experiences, as a junior infantry officer, in the Royal Sussex Regiment, in France and Flanders. Blunden participated in the devastating battles of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, nouns that even now serve to define the British experience of the war. Blunden described the Somme as 'murder, not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes'. He eloquently tells of the heroism and despair found among the officers. Following the war Blunden pondered whether the battalion could be said to have had a continuous existence when so few lived “through the full career of the unit”. By the end of 1916, its losses were about ¾ of its original strength. He described the battalion as “the large family to which [men] had come as not very comfortable strangers” but whose membership led them to “judge men either as desirable or undesirable additions to the family”.
From our perspective, what he does particularly well is to convey the essence of war to a generation whose experience of it is mostly confined to playing computer games. It’s that gap between war and ordinary life which he describes so well. Whilst war could be terrifying, it could equally be absurd. Similarly, for all those moments of profound intensity a lot of the time was incredibly boring. For every moment of bravery and honour there were countless more where petty grievances came to the fore.
4. Under Fire by Henri Barbusse
'Men are made to be husbands, fathers - men, in short! Not animals that hunt one another down'
Published during the war, Under Fire is a fictionalised novel based directly on Barbusse's experiences as a French soldier written whilst he was fighting and is the most famous French novel of the war. Taking the form of journal-like anecdotes it follows a group of ordinary soldiers, from all over France, experiencing the same feelings as most other combatants: living day-to-day, hoping they make it through, whilst waiting for their rations and dreaming of home and their sweethearts. Based directly on Barbusse's experiences of the trenches it bluntly recalls the mud and monotony of war in gritty and brutal realism.
What’s unique is that the approach Barbusse took, refusing to romanticise his experiences or cheer the slaughter of others, was largely unknown at the time. The gap between the language he used to describe their world, compared to the anodyne official lines civilians were fed, is marked. He closed this gap by making his soldiers realistic human beings, with all their faults and fears, not idealistic “heroes”.
5. Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger
Jünger's unstinting account of trench warfare is a memoir of a German officer's experiences on the Western Front. It’s undoubtedly the most controversial selection here. His depiction of war is brutal in its simplicity. There is nothing about the politics of the war, its outcome, and little on the top-down strategy. It begins with his arrival in France, having volunteered on the war’s opening day, before ending in one of the few parts that are away from the fighting, in Germany four years later where he’s too badly hurt to carry on. War and fighting is everything.
Jünger, as a front-line combat soldier, doesn’t hold back and describes the violence of fighting with relish. Subsequently, he was criticised for glorifying war. Junger’s response: "Time only strengthens my conviction that it was a good and strenuous life, and that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart."
6. Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
An autobiographical work, although highly exaggerated in places, Goodbye to All That provides a harrowing description of trench warfare, including the battles of Loos and the Somme. Graves served as a lieutenant, then captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, alongside Sassoon. This superb account of his life, as well as highlighting his experiences of war, covers his family history, childhood and, immediately following the war, early married life. The title also refers to a way of life vanquished forever by the war with one replaced by the rise of atheism, feminism, socialism and pacifism.
At Oxford, following the conflict, Graves experienced vivid daydreams (essentially, flashbacks) about the war. Nearly 100 years after the outbreak of hostilities these are still being felt.