The best books on France and the first World War

Richard S. Fogarty Author Of Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914-1918
By Richard S. Fogarty

The Books I Picked & Why

Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War

By Martha Hanna

Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War

Why this book?

One of the very best books in English about France during this time, Hanna mines a treasure trove of letters between a married peasant couple from southwest France to tell an intimate history of the war, of its effects on families, women, villages, men, and the countryside. War stories take place on battlefields, of course, but also in homes and in hearts. Anyone wanting to understand the experience of the Great War at the front, on the home front, and everywhere in between, should start here.


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Fear: A Novel of World War I

By Gabriel Chevallier, Malcolm Imrie

Fear: A Novel of World War I

Why this book?

Not as well known as Henri Barbusse’s great novel Under Fire (Le feu), Chevalier’s book should be on everyone’s shelf of works on the Great War. This aptly titled novel is very obviously based on Chevalier’s own experiences serving as a soldier at the front. The writing is haunting and evocative of the extreme trauma of combat, the miseries of life in the trenches, and the emotional responses of young soldiers to the broader society that sent them to war. 


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Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918

By Louis Barthas

Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918

Why this book?

A day-to-day chronicle of a remarkably observant Frenchman who served from the beginning to the end of the war, this fascinating book is full of minute observations, perceptive insights, and the real, gritty texture of military life, service at the front, visits home, and confrontations with civilian life and politics. Barthas recounts all of this with an engaging immediacy and passion that makes the reader sad to part company with him at the war’s end.


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The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War

By Jean-Yves Le Naour, Penny Allen

The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War

Why this book?

With some 1.5 million men dead, and several million more wounded, the story of France and the Great War is in many ways simply the story of grief, and this work captures that beautifully. Through the tragic, true story of a wounded amnesiac veteran whose name and family are unknown, Le Naour tells the crucial story of women, families, and an entire culture in mourning, in many ways hopelessly. Yet the veteran and the people who try to help him or claim him as their own retain their dignity and humanity in this account.


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The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916

By Alistair Horne

The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916

Why this book?

Although originally published almost 60 years ago, this work remains a classic account of the longest battle of the war, a battle that still stands as the most symbolic of the war for France. The only book on my list that is not focused on an individual’s experiences, or those of a few people, this broader account of the huge battle nonetheless captures the many ways individuals experienced its horrors. Horne is a vivid writer and skilled historian, and this work has stood the test of time as a key work not only about the Great War but also about the modern French nation as a whole.


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