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

Who am I?

I’m a former newspaper guy who always wanted to write novels and finally took a serious crack at fiction a few years before I retired from journalism. I’m also a World War II buff, a fact that stems from my having grown up around veterans of the war — fathers, uncles, grandfathers — who told me their stories. As a novelist writing about World War II, I realized I couldn’t fully understand that war until I understood the one that preceded it, hence my focus on books related to the earlier conflict.

I wrote...

The Language of the Dead

By Stephen Kelly,

Book cover of The Language of the Dead

What is my book about?

In the summer of 1940, Inspector Thomas Lamb must solve the murder of a farmhand who some believe practiced witchcraft, as German bombers arrive daily hoping to bludgeon Britain into submission. Lamb is a veteran of World War I, an experience that has left him psychologically and emotionally vulnerable to the coming of the second war, which is really a continuation of the first; he knows the suffering that awaits him, his wife, his young daughter, and his country. All the same, he must “soldier” on and find the killer.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission

The books I picked & why

The Guns of August

By Barbara W. Tuchman,

Book cover of The Guns of August

Why did I love 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.

By Barbara W. Tuchman,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Guns of August as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

PULITZER PRIZE WINNER • “A brilliant piece of military history which proves up to the hilt the force of Winston Churchill’s statement that the first month of World War I was ‘a drama never surpassed.’”—Newsweek
Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time

In this landmark account, renowned historian Barbara W. Tuchman re-creates the first month of World War I: thirty days in the summer of 1914 that determined the course of the conflict, the century, and ultimately our present world. Beginning with the funeral of Edward VII, Tuchman traces each step…

All Quiet on the Western Front

By Erich Maria Remarque, Arthur Wesley Wheen (translator),

Book cover of All Quiet on the Western Front

Why did I love 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.

By Erich Maria Remarque, Arthur Wesley Wheen (translator),

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked All Quiet on the Western Front as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story is told by a young 'unknown soldier' in the trenches of Flanders during the First World War. Through his eyes we see all the realities of war; under fire, on patrol, waiting in the trenches, at home on leave, and in hospitals and dressing stations. Although there are vividly described incidents which remain in mind, there is no sense of adventure here, only the feeling of youth betrayed and a deceptively simple indictment of war - of any war - told for a whole generation of victims.

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

By Siegfried Sassoon,

Book cover of Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

Why did I love 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.

By Siegfried Sassoon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Memoirs of an Infantry Officer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The second volume in Siegfried Sassoon’s beloved trilogy, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, with a new introduction by celebrated historian Paul Fussell

A highly decorated English soldier and an acclaimed poet and novelist, Siegfried Sassoon won fame for his trilogy of fictionalized autobiographies that wonderfully capture the vanishing idylls of Edwardian England and the brutal realities of war.

The second volume of Siegfried Sassoon's semiautobiographical George Sherston trilogy picks up shortly after Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man: in 1916, with the young Sherston deep in the trenches of WWI. For his decorated bravery, and also his harmful recklessness, he…

Book cover of The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen

Why did I love 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.

By Wilfred Owen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Wilfred Owen was twenty-two when he enlisted in the Artists' Rifle Corps during World War I. By the time Owen was killed at the age of 25 at the Battle of Sambre, he had written what are considered the most important British poems of WWI. This definitive edition is based on manuscripts of Owen's papers in the British Museum and other archives.

Book cover of The Great War and Modern Memory

Why did I love 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.

By Paul Fussell,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Great War and Modern Memory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and named by the Modern Library one of the twentieth century's 100 Best Non-Fiction Books, Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory was universally acclaimed on publication in 1970. Today, Fussell's landmark study remains as original and gripping as ever: a literate, literary, and unapologetic account of the Great War, the war that changed a generation, ushered in the
modern era, and revolutionized how we see the world.

This brilliant work illuminates the trauma and tragedy of modern warfare in fresh, revelatory ways. Exploring the…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 1, the Western Front (WW1), and World War 2?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about World War 1, the Western Front (WW1), and World War 2.

World War 1 Explore 745 books about World War 1
The Western Front (WW1) Explore 36 books about the Western Front (WW1)
World War 2 Explore 1,535 books about World War 2

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like And No Birds Sang, The Doughboys, and The Long Shadow if you like this list.