15 of the Best Novels and Memoirs About World War One | History Hit

15 of the Best Novels and Memoirs About World War One

Alex Browne

09 Nov 2018

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 15 of the best novels and memoirs.

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.

Goodbye to All That provides a detailed description of trench warfare, including the tragic incompetence of the Battle of Loos and the bitter fighting in the first phase of the Somme Offensive.

Dan Snow takes an emotional journey through the key battlefields of the Western Front, from the memorial parks at the Somme to the formidable defences around Ypres.
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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.

It 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.

World War One Book Covers

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 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 nineteen 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

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 characterizations of cynical soldiers to sweeping descriptions of population displacement.

On 7th May 1915, the ocean liner RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland with more than half the passengers and crew being killed. Some of those lost were Americans and the sinking hardened opinion in the United States against Germany and marked the beginning of the process which led to the USA entering the First World War on the side of the allies. To mark the anniversary of the sinking Stephen Payne joins the podcast. Stephen is a British naval architect and worked on designing passenger ships for over 40 years and is an expert both in their construction and their history. He and Dan discuss the circumstances of the sinking, whether there was any justification for it and the effect it had on public opinion and naval policy.
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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.

It 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 war-time France.

9. Ernst Jünger – Storm of Steel

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

The 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.

Now 100 years old, Save the Children was initially founded in response to the plight of German and Austrian children during the blockade of Germany in the aftermath of World War One.
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Post war novels


11. Ford Madox Ford- Parade’s End

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 I. Faulks retelling of the events and attitudes surrounding the Battle of the Somme has been singled out for especial commendation. It came 13th in a 2003 BBC survey searching for Britain’s favorite 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.

From primitive to protective, from efficient to downright extravagant, over the years, military clothing has both enabled and inhibited objectives, and the British Army uniform we see today is the result of 400 years of spectacular trial and error. Alice Loxton is joined by Sophie Anderton to find out more.
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Alex Browne