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World War 1 Centenary: books to commemorate the conflict


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Few historical events have had such an impact upon literature and art than the First World War. The conflict marked the end of what is often called ‘the Long Nineteenth Century’, where the way of life for most had remained relatively unchanged for over one hundred years.

Then, within four years, the landscape of the world had changed completely. After witnessing the horror of trench warfare and enduring conditions which were previously unimaginable, writers strained for new ways to express their innermost feelings, finding the old ways no longer adequate for the job.

There are also few events writers have so frequently returned to than the First World War. Here, as we mark the centenary of its conclusion, are some of the best novels and plays produced during those hundred years which capture some of the realities of that conflict.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (1993)
This epic novel moves seamlessly through time from Stephen Wraysford’s pre-war romance in France, to his combat in the war, to the story of his granddaughter searching to understand his experience in the 1970s. A staple of A Level Literature for several years, it’s perhaps as well-known for its more saucy sections as the battles themselves, but is a great starting point for those wanting an overview of the war experience.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1928)
Semi-autobiographical, this German novel offers the enemy’s perspective, revealing the poignant similarities between the young men of all nations in their experiences of war. Part of the outpouring of literature in the 1920s, Remarque’s relatively modest little book has become a classic.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933)
Brittain’s experience as a war nurse is the subject of this first instalment of her memoirs. We so often concentrate the soldiers in the trenches that this account of how the war impacted upon women and the middle-classes offers a different perspective.

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (2003)
Although Morpurgo writes primarily for children, his war novels have become modern classics. In this novel for older children, he tells the story of two brothers who fight alongside each other in the trenches. Which brother he refers to in his title, however, is the mystery only solved at the end.

Poppy by Mary Hooper (2014)
One of a raft of children’s novels published during these centenary years, Hooper follows in Brittain’s footsteps by following the life of one nurse’s exploits. In a novel which mixes the class system of Downton Abbey with the horrors of a wartime hospital, we get to see one young girl’s story and consider another view upon the war.

Regeneration by Pat Barker (1991)
The first novel in Barker’s award-winning trilogy, Regeneration features a number of familiar characters in the form of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Taking Sassoon’s refusal to return to war as its starting point, the action then moves to Craiglockhart Hospital, where Dr Rivers, a real-life psychiatrist, works to treat those men whose mental injuries far exceed their physical ones. If you like your novels with an element of realism, this is the one for you.

Journey’s End by R C Sherriff (1928)
Some see this as the seminal war play, with many subsequent films borrowing tropes from it, such as the company commander with an alcohol problem, and the naïve optimism of the new recruit. For many, this play is synonymous with school, but it’s definitely worth a re-read, or even a visit to the theatre to catch a performance of this claustrophobic tale set in the days leading up to Operation Michael in the dying days of the war.

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