The best books to help you understand why World War I changed everything forever

Stephen Kelly Author Of The Language of the Dead
By Stephen Kelly

The Books I Picked & Why

The Guns of August

By Barbara Wertheim Tuchman

Book cover of The Guns of August

Why this book?

The Great War was preceded by one hundred years of relative peace in Europe, during which other events, especially the industrial revolution and the waning of continental empires, were setting the stage for the shattering of that peace and the end of the world in which it existed.

The war began during the twilight of an age in which men had come to believe that technology and “progress” might be harnessed to a perfect life. The war took a sledgehammer to that notion as it did so many other cherished ideas and beliefs.

Tuchman delivers a fascinating examination of the political, cultural, and financial causes of the war. Her book’s unique strength, though, lies in her intimate and unvarnished portraits of the leaders of those dying empires — vain, deluded, stupid, fatuous, paranoid, and greedy — who, faced with a changing world and a threat to their continued power, pushed Europe into a suicidal war of mass carnage.

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All Quiet on the Western Front

By Erich Maria Remarque, Arthur Wesley Wheen

Book cover of All Quiet on the Western Front

Why this book?

In spare prose, Remarque delivers a portrait of a young German, Paul Baumer, who is dehumanized by modern mechanized combat; not only is Baumer changed forever by the death and carnage he is forced to endure but by the way in which that experience profoundly alienates him from “home” and “self” — family, culture, memory. 

In one of the book’s unforgettable scenes, Paul and his comrades hear a wounded man calling for help from somewhere out in No Man's Land. But no matter how hard they try to find the man they can’t; all the while the man’s pitiable calls continue until they “dwindle to a croaking” and eventually end with “one last gurgling rattle.” Baumer is like that forsaken soul — a mortally wounded man crying out in vain for deliverance.

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Memoirs of an Infantry Officer: The Memoirs of George Sherston

By Siegfried Sassoon

Book cover of Memoirs of an Infantry Officer: The Memoirs of George Sherston

Why this book?

Sassoon chronicled the war’s psychological, emotional, and physical landscape in several books of poetry and a three-part, partly-novelized memoir in which he cast himself as a typical well-off Englishman, George Sherston. The tale — of which Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is the second installment — follows Sassoon’s/Sherston’s evolution from a dreamy, poetic youth into a brave and loyal officer who eventually comes to publicly oppose the war. (An act that famously landed in him a psychiatric hospital, where he met a budding poet named Wilfred Owen.) 

Sassoon’s matter-of-fact depiction of life in the British trenches, with its wild and sudden swings between boredom and terror, is indispensable. His literal description of that life gradually takes on the quality of a hallucination as the reality of the war hardens in his mind and in the reader’s.

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The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen

By Wilfred Owen

Book cover of The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen

Why this book?

Like Sassoon, Owen entered the war as a “dreamy” youth interested in literature and art. Unlike Sassoon, though — whom Owen idolized — Owen did not survive the war. He was killed in action on November 4, 1918, a week before the war ended.

Owen wrote all of the poems for which he is remembered between August 1917 and September 1918. His experience of the war turned him from “ a very minor poet to something altogether larger,” writes C. Day Lewis. “…It was a forced growth, a revolution in his mind which, blasting its way through all the poetic bric-a-brac, enabled him to see his subject clear — ‘War, and the pity of War.’ The subject made the poet: The poet made the poems, which radically changed our attitude toward war.”

The hallmarks of Owen’s poetry are his compassion for the frontline soldier and the precision and clarity with which he deploys metaphor to — ironically — render an unflinching portrait of the war’s destruction.

“Red lips are not so red/As the stained stones kissed by the English dead,” begins “Greater Love,” my favorite from the collection. The poem’s title summons the romanticism and optimism of the pre-war world, as does its opening words, “Red lips.” But the couplet flips that pretense and ends with “the English dead” lying face down and bloodied in the mud.  Red, a color often used in connection with the idea of “life” and “love” has been eternally corrupted, as has England and Europe and what Owen termed its “doomed youth,” their vitality drained from them in senseless slaughter.

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The Great War and Modern Memory

By Paul Fussell

Book cover of The Great War and Modern Memory

Why this book?

This brilliant and original book is one of my favorites of any genre. It’s the perfect bookend to The Guns of August in that it illustrates the war’s effects on Europe’s people and culture, though the landscape it examines is literary and psychological rather than historical and political.

The war produced great literature because of the way it bridged the “old” complacent Europe with a “new” one that was pitiless and mechanized, Fussell posits. The effect of this sudden evolution constituted a psychological war-within-a-war for those who fought it. 

Writers such as Sassoon and Owen were able to let go of the past and face the war’s terrible “present” without flinching — to, as Lewis put it, blast their “way through all the poetic bric-a-brac” that defined that former age. 

The result was a depiction of the war’s truth that transcends its mere facts and forever changed the way we think about war.

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