World War One is well known for its incredible cultural impact across a range of mediums. A great deal of important changes in art and literature came about because of the conflict, particularly the necessity of reflecting the brutal realities of the bloodshed.
There is a wide canon of literature that spans the war and its aftermath, and below we have listed 15 of some of the best novels and memoirs about the conflict.
First hand memoirs:
1. Robert Graves – Goodbye To All That
Graves’ autobiography covers his World War One experience, in which he served as a lieutenant and then captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, alongside another literary giant, Siegfried Sassoon.
2. Siegfried Sassoon – The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston
The trilogised ‘fictional autobiography’ draws on Sassoon’s own World War One experiences. The eponymous protagonist, George Sherston, was later claimed by Sassoon to only represent 1/5 of this personality.
The book won high acclaim in its time, taking the Hawthorne Prize for Literature in 1928, and has endured as a classic representation of an individual’s experience of the war.
3. Vera Brittain – Testament of Youth
Testament of Youth has been acclaimed as a classic for its description of the impact of the war on the lives of women and the middle-class civilian population of Great Britain. The book shows how the war’s impact extended into the postwar years.
It is also considered a classic in feminist literature for its depiction of a woman’s pioneer struggle to forge an independent career in a society only grudgingly tolerant of educated women.
North American novels:
4. Timothy Findley – The Wars
The Wars tells the story of Robert Ross, a 19 year old Canadian Officer who interprets the war as an escape from personal tragedy and an oppressive, static society. He calls his decision to join the war “a last desperate act to declare his commitment to life in the midst of death”.
5. Jeff Shaara – To the Last Man
To the Last Man is a novel based on accounts of the arrival of American troops on the Western Front in 1917. It follows the experiences of various doughboys from General to Private, as well as profiling a new British recruit and two aviation aces – one German and one American.
6. Dalton Trumbo – Johnny Got His Gun
This anti-war novel follows the tale of Joe Benham, a young ex-soldier who has to come to terms with having lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue). His mind functions perfectly, leaving him a prisoner in his own body.
7. Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms
A Farewell to Arms is a first-person account of American Frederic Henry, serving as a Lieutenant in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army.
It tells of a love affair between the expatriate American Henry and Catherine Barkley, set in among the social upheaval of the Great War, ranging from intense characterisations of cynical soldiers to sweeping descriptions of population displacement.
French and German works:
8. Henri Barbusse – Under Fire
This novel is rather a series of journal-like anecdotes with which the anonymous narrator claims to be recording his time in the war. It follows a squad of French volunteer soldiers on the Western front in France after the German invasion.
Under Fire was one of the first novels to be published about the war and contains vivid descriptions of assaults in between broader descriptions of life in wartime France.
9. Ernst Jünger – Storm of Steel
Storm of Steel is a memoir of German Officer Ernst Jünger’s experiences on the Western Front. Jünger served as a Lieutenant in the German Army until 1923, and his recollections have been labelled as glorifying war.
In the preface to the 1929 English edition, Jünger stated that “Time only strengthens my conviction that it was a good and strenuous life, and that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart.”.
10. Erich Maria Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque’s book describes the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental stress during the war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front.
In 1930 the book was adapted into an Oscar-winning film under the same name, directed by Lewis Milestone. More recently a German adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front was released in 2022. This modern adaptation of the novel has been widely acclaimed for retaining its faithfulness to the book’s anti-war message.
Post war novels:
11. Ford Madox Ford – Parade’s End
Parade’s End is a tetralogy described as “quite simply, the best fictional treatment of war in the history of the novel.” The novels chronicles the life of “the last Tory”, a wealthy and brilliant government statistician serving in the British Army during World War One.
Rather than depicting the real-time experiences of warfare, this novel instead focuses on its psychological and social aftermath.
12. Richard Aldington – Death of a Hero
Death of a Hero is the story of a young English artist named George Winterbourne who enlists in the army at the outbreak of World War One.
It presents an unfiltered picture of war, including graphic descriptions of sexual experiences alongside those of life in the trenches. It was widely censored in England and subjected to violent public criticism.
13. Michael Morpurgo – War Horse
First published in 1982, this novel tells the intertwined stories of Joey, a horse purchased to serve on the Western Front, and of his young owner Albert, who enlists to fight. It has since been adapted into an award-winning play under the same name, and as a blockbuster film directed by Steven Spielberg.
14. Sebastian Faulks – Birdsong
Birdsong tells of a man called Stephen Wraysford at different stages of his life both before and during World War One. Faulks’ retelling of the events and attitudes surrounding the Battle of the Somme has been singled out for special commendation. The novel came 13th in a 2003 BBC survey searching for Britain’s favourite book.
15. Pat Barker – Regeneration trilogy
This trilogy explores the experience of British army officers being treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.
Barker draws extensively on first person narratives from the period, creating characters founded in real-life individuals, including the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and psychologist W.H.R. Rivers, who pioneered treatments of PTSD.