The best books on World War One from unique perspectives

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Louis Barthas

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

Why this book?

The notebooks kept by a French barrelmaker and father sent off to the horrors of the Western Front had an underground presence for many decades. However, Poilu, the word means hairy one and became the apt term for the French infantryman in the war, did not reach a wide audience until its publication in France in 1978. It became an antiwar classic and a bestseller, only recently published in an English translation. “Cheating death,” he writes, was both a matter of luck amidst “this monstrous avalanche of metal,” this “veritable curtain of steel and fire,” “the disagreeable tic-tac of machine guns,” that pounded men “into marmalade,” and what Barthas described as “a mysterious intuition, an instinct about the imminence of danger” that told him “it was time to flee.” Yet he ventured as close to death and the dead as one can be without joining them. The barrelmaker closes his war notebooks in 1919 on sincere and tender yet bitter note. Although he “returned to the bosom of my family after the nightmare years,” he often thought about his fallen comrades. “I heard their curses against the war and its authors, the revolt of their whole beings against their tragic fate, against their murder.” One hundred years on, Barthas’ Poilu continues that revolt.

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Sagittarius Rising

By Cecil Lewis

Book cover of Sagittarius Rising

Why this book?

Pilots in World War One were a breed apart. They had embarked on the creation of an entirely new dimension of warfare and, in many aspects, leaped off the earth like gods while the Tommies, poilus and doughboys battled in the trenches and mud below. But these warriors were doing so in the most harrowing conditions, in flimsy wood and canvas biplanes, risking hypoxia and hypothermia, anti-aircraft fire, and deadly dogfights, and, on the Allies’ side, being shot down without parachutes. Little wonder that fighter pilots lived on average for less than three weeks at the front. Cecil Lewis describes the exultation and the brutality of this war in sharply etched, often lyrical prose. The extraordinary thing is how he loved the air war: “To be alone, to have your life in your own hands, to use your own skill, single-handed, against the enemy. It was like the lists of the Middle Ages, the only sphere in modern warfare where a man saw his adversary and faced him in mortal combat, the only sphere where there was still chivalry and honour,” The air war was violent and deadly; in Lewis’ hands, it was also beautiful and moving.

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Goodbye to All That

By Robert Graves

Book cover of Goodbye to All That

Why this book?

Unlike Lewis, Robert Graves was bitter, angry, determined to make apparent the savage waste and stupefying horror of the soldier’s experience at the front where he narrowly averted death from his bullet wounds. The author of many books, perhaps most famously I, Claudius, lived to enjoy a storied literary career, mostly in exile because of his attitude toward the war, expressed with sarcasm, macabre humor, and gory detail in this postwar autobiography. There are many extraordinary antiwar books and much moving poetry that emerged from the First World War-- Siegfried Sassoon’s and Wilfred Owen’s lyrics, the great antiwar novels such as the German Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms—but few that so fully depict the effects of the war on a society. Graves describes a before of an almost Edenic, privileged world in which he grew up, with close ties to his beloved and admired German relatives, and an after in which war blew that world to smithereens. He faces the personal guilt of having possibly killed one of his own relatives and recalling the pride of his German uncle’s postwar description of his lethal work as an efficient sniper against Graves’ own military brethren. His description of the awfulness of everyday sights—men taking hours to die from painful gaping wounds, suicides committed rather than face death in a pending attack, advancing through knee-high machine-gun fire across No Man’s Land, the murderous indifference to men’s fates of their commanding officers—were, he admitted, sometimes inventions of “the old trench-mind…at work.” But they will give you nightmares. "It was my bitter leave-taking of England," he wrote in a prologue to the revised second edition of 1957, "where I had recently broken a good many conventions.”

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By Pat Barker

Book cover of Regeneration

Why this book?

Siegfried Sassoon was a decorated war hero. His friend Robert Graves described Sassoon’s unswerving bravery in volunteering for the most dangerous raids as almost suicidal. But this homosexual son of the English Jewish merchant aristocracy achieved poetic note during the Great War through lyrics he wrote in protest against the war. He finally issued a public letter condemning the casual way in which leaders sent young men by their thousands to the slaughter for “end which I believe to be evil and unjust.” That was grounds for court-martial and execution by firing squad. In part thanks to Graves’ intervention to convince British authorities that Sassoon was suffering shellshock (as it later came to be known), he was sent to a mental hospital to recover. Pat Barker brings to life his time at Craiglockhart War Hospital where a brilliant psychiatrist, Dr. William Rivers, set about restoring Sassoon’s “sanity” and sending him back to the trenches. The first novel in Barker’s Regeneration trilogy explores Sassoon’s troubled psyche, Rivers’ ambivalence about his psychiatric “mission,” and the extraordinary relationship that develops between the two men. Few books about any war so fully and artfully unpeel society’s or individuals’ self-destructive incapacity to extricate themselves from war’s senselessness.

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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?

World War One did not invent irony, but the destruction of an entire generation’s innocence in the trenches of the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele, and all along the Western Front, surely perfected it in an outpouring of war writings. Dedicated to the memory of a comrade at arms “killed beside me in France, March 15, 1945,” Fussell was a superb literary critic and creative scholar who fought and understood war. He also understood the need to depict it in literature. This renowned work of literary criticism about the British experience on the Western Front makes clear why this war, along with the American Civil War, resulted in some of the richest literature—superb drama, novels, poetry, and memoirs--about war ever written and offers a comprehensive yet detail-rich insight into the war’s most important works and authors. Fussell places them within a deep literary tradition that still informs our literature today. The world lost its way between 1914 and 1918; we shall never return to that past except through literature.

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