The best books about World War One that don’t have the same old story

Susan Lanigan Author Of White Feathers
By Susan Lanigan

The Books I Picked & Why


By Martine Madden

Book cover of Anyush

Why this book?

Anyush’s eponymous heroine is a young Armenian girl whose life is turned upside-down by the genocide carried out by the Ottomans under the Young Turks during fighting in World War One. I was only vaguely aware of the genocide before picking up the novel and it combines a beautiful love story between Anyush and Turkish captain Jahan with a vivid account of the horrors people faced. Beautifully researched and written by Martine Madden, it’s a book that both enthralled and humbled me. 

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A Long Long Way

By Sebastian Barry

Book cover of A Long Long Way

Why this book?

A Long, Long Way just broke my heart. The protagonist, Willie Dunne, is a gentle soul, not the typical boilerplate hero of many male-authored World War One books, where the character is seemingly in every major battle doing Victoria-Cross-worthy manoeuvres. Willie is frightened, he is human, he grows up in a slum. In battle, he defecates in his pants out of terror, and yes, he does kill. But he suffers a great betrayal, and towards the end when he realises he has lost someone, his understated grief just undoes me. I also admire Barry for not forgetting this is a World War and including nations from the Global South and East in his narrative. This book deserves all its accolades and then some.

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By Lia Mills

Book cover of Fallen

Why this book?

Set in the period 1914-1916, it follows the life of Kate Crilly, a young girl whose brother Liam has just been killed in the Great War. This loss binds Kate to Liam’s comrade in arms, Hubie Wilson. Meanwhile, the tensions of the Rising are at boiling point and Dublin is turning into a battleground as Kate doubles back and across the River Liffey checking on her family, her friends and her desperately ill sister. Mills excels at describing the nature of grief and how one lives with it, rather than dwelling on the immediate impact of the loss per se. Beautiful, limpid prose and imagery, really enjoyed.

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The Watermelon Boys

By Ruqaya Izzidien

Book cover of The Watermelon Boys

Why this book?

Again set in the Middle East, this novel about Ahmad and Carwyn, Arab and Welsh, who are both drawn into the war on its Eastern Front, is an absorbing story from a part of the world that has been neglected in World War I fiction. The two men are both betrayed by the English in different ways, and Izzidien’s Iraqi-Welsh heritage allows her to draw a compassionate picture of both protagonists. It also shows how the rapacious European colonialist mentality that underpinned the entire war created the conditions for terrorism and strife in the region today.

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To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918

By Adam Hochschild

Book cover of To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918

Why this book?

Hochschild’s moving, powerful account of the build-up to World War One is not a dry historical treatise, but an interweaving of individual stories such as those of Sylvia Pankhurst, Keir Hardie, Emily Hobhouse, and Bertrand Russell. These counter-cultural stories of pacifists, objectors, and philosophers inspired and informed the plot of White Feathers, particularly the divisions among the suffragettes and the toxic consequences of the Boer Wars, which Emily Hobhouse bravely reported on and smuggled out post in the face of extreme censorship. An absolute page-turner and highly informative.

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