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

Susan Lanigan Author Of White Feathers
By Susan Lanigan

Who am I?

I am a writer based in Ireland. When I was fifteen, I read about the Battle of Verdun, and the horror and ineptitude of it led me into an obsession with World War I. Visiting the Imperial War Museum, I learned about the white feather of cowardice, bestowed by girls upon men out of uniform. Such a transformation of a symbol of peace to an instrument of stigma and shame made me think of Irish society as well as British. When White Feathers was published, its refusal to follow a sentimental “Tommy in the trenches” line angered some revisionist critics. But in the end, it is a passionate and intense love story with resistance.


I wrote...

White Feathers

By Susan Lanigan,

Book cover of White Feathers

What is my book about?

White Feathers – a tale of passion, betrayal, war – and resistance.

Young Irish immigrant Eva Downey jumps at the chance to escape her stultifying life in London and attend finishing school in southeast England after a legacy from an old suffragette. There she finds kinship and, eventually falls in love. But when World War I breaks out and the man she loves refuses to enlist, Eva’s family starts pushing her to present him with a white feather of cowardice – an act which will have devastating consequences.

The books I picked & why

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Anyush

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. 


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.


Fallen

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.


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.


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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 1, Turkey, and France?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about World War 1, Turkey, and France.

World War 1 Explore 499 books about World War 1
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