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The Best First World War Novels

recommended by Alice Winn

In Memoriam by Alice Winn

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In Memoriam
by Alice Winn

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There are dozens of novels about the First World War, many of them well worth your time. Here, Alice Winn—author of In Memoriam, a bestselling story of forbidden love between two young soldiers—selects five of the very best, including autobiographical fiction by former officers and historical novels that bring humanity to the horror of the Great War.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

In Memoriam by Alice Winn

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In Memoriam
by Alice Winn

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You’ve very kindly agreed to recommend five of the best novels about the First World War. Our discussion ahead of this interview demonstrated to me that there is a remarkable amount of WW1 fiction, of a very high quality; why do you think this war has proven so fertile to literature?

That’s an interesting question. War is high stakes. If you look at ancient mythology, it’s all based on war—the more destructive the war, the higher the stakes. And what you add in with World War One, in particular, is a war that is in such high contrast to the civilised age it broke out within. Britain, for example, had experienced roughly 100 years of peace. Now, this is not completely true; they had been involved in wars abroad. But a hundred years of peace in their own land.

There had been a hundred years of freedom from destructive European land war. I mean, in 1870 the Prussians invaded France, but though that was interesting politically, it wasn’t so violent and destructive. So, fundamentally, having this absolutely catastrophically violent war crash onto the shores of a very peaceful society… I think that makes it resonate with us.

I think one of the reasons that World War One resonates so particularly with me, is that I really identified with the British Edwardian schoolboys who had grown up with the feeling that the institutions they were growing up within were secure and safe, and would never change. There’s this quote I want to read you, from the journalist Charles Edward Montague:

A century of almost unbroken European peace—unbroken, that is, by wars hugely destructive—had built up insensibly in men’s minds a consciousness of an unbounded general stability in the political as well as in the physical world. The crust of the political globe seemed to have caked, on the whole, almost as hard and cool as that of the elderly earth. It felt as if it were so firm that we could safely play the fool on it, as boys jump on the ice of a pond and defy it to break under them.

That was written in 1922, and when I read that, it really resonated with how I feel now. I often hear people saying, well, maybe democracy doesn’t work. I think they only say things like that because they feel it’s definitely going to keep going for the rest of their life. That to me feels like boys playing on the ice.

I remember that sort of talk in the run-up to when Donald Trump was elected in 2016. People would say, ‘well, maybe it’s time to shake things up a little.’ That comes from a place of perceived safety, doesn’t it? Boredom or restlessness, something like that.

I think our restlessness has a different character to the restelessness of—I’ll just use the word Edwardian, which ends 1910-ish, but it’s a useful shorthand—the Edwardians, because their media was so clean. We have all consumed so much stuff about war. So I don’t think many young men now are like, ‘God, wouldn’t it be cool to go to war?’ Whereas when you read Edwardian children’s books, there are ten-year-old boys saying they want to be a soldier and fight in the army. So that was the form their restlessness took, whereas our restlessness is a little more political.

I interviewed Professor Guy Cuthbertson about First World War poetry recently, and what really came through was that sense of ambivalence, even among those writers who were serving and decorated officers. The First World War came to serve as a cautionary tale for future generations.

When you look at Vera Brittain—she spent much of the 1920s and 1930s desperately, desperately fighting for world peace, and talking about how she wanted future generations to learn from her generation. They so badly wanted to be a cautionary tale. And they kind of failed, you know? Almost immediately. That must have been just devastating.

The term ‘First World War’ started being used, I think, in 1918 or 1920.

What a horrible sense of foreshadowing.

Can you imagine how depressing that must have been? One of the things I wanted to do in my novel In Memoriam was to respond to that. You see in survivors of the war that they need to get their experience across to a new generation—to promote peace. That sounds very grandiose, but what I mean, I think, is that most of the war literature I have read is by people who would definitely approve of us still talking about what they had to go through.

Well let’s look at the books you’ve chosen to recommend, starting with Pat Barker’s Regeneration. This WW1 novel is the first in a trilogy and is set at Craiglockhart Hospital, outside of Edinburgh. It was first published in 1991 and features some of the real-life war poets we were just discussing. Why do you recommend it?

It’s one of the classics of WW1 literature. It’s interesting that several of the novels I’ve chosen to recommend were written after the fact, by people who weren’t there. I think the reason it’s such a rich vein to draw on, for contemporary writers, is that we can so easily read first-hand accounts and then reconfigure that into literature, whereas that is obviously much less true for, you know, the Seventh Crusade.

Regeneration is a war book that’s not really set in the war. I seem to remember Pat Barker saying that writing from the perspective of this doctor, Dr Rivers, who had also never been to war felt like a very honest place to start from.

Dr Rivers specialises in shellshock. A lot of the methods they used on the soldiers returning seriously disturbed from their time at the front are, to our minds now, barbaric. It was just: shout at them until they behave. But what Dr Rivers was trying is much more recognisably modern, more like talk therapy. The book is a little bit about his relationship with his patients, in particular with Siegfried Sassoon.

“The term ‘First World War’ started being used, in 1918 or 1920”

The starting point of the book is, in 1917, Sassoon writes a letter condemning the war. This was a big deal as by then he was already a well-respected war poet, and had a medal for valour. So he couldn’t be easily dismissed as a coward. If an honoured soldier is saying this war is bad… that is very bad press for the war.

So the book begins there, and it’s just a really fantastic read. It’s a good story, she’s an incredible writer—I mean, at a granular level, she uses punctuation really interestingly, and her dialogue feels incredibly vivid. I learned a lot about how to write historical fiction from this book, which I read after writing the first draft of In Memoriam.

She doesn’t explain to you, the reader, what the world is like. She just drops you into it. So there will be tons and tons of references to things you don’t understand or know about. The characters will refer to someone as a “conchie”, and you just have to figure out that that means a conscientious objector, she doesn’t tell you that. And the characters are constantly exchanging pieces of news with each other, the way you do. So it feels really rich and vivid, as if you were there. It’s a very clever and engaging and wise book.

Given this was a real place, and it features real people, do you know how closely it reflects historical events?

I think quite closely. Pretty much all the physical facts of the plot happened.

I went to Craiglockhart while I was writing my book. When you read accounts, like those of Wilfred Owen and Sassoon, they are always talking about how ugly it is, but I thought it was beautiful.

The second WW1 novel you’ve chosen to recommend is Ernest Hemingway‘s Farewell to Arms, which is set on the Italian front. Tell us about it.

I’ve recommended it because I think you have to. It’s considered one of the great classics. Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with Hemingway. I really admire him, he’s a very playful writer, I always enjoy him more than I expect to. But there is something so dudely bro-ish about him. I have to be in the right place for him.

For most of the book I thought I liked it less than For Whom the Bell Tolls. I didn’t think it would place in my pantheon of novels-that-I-love. Then I read the ending. I’m not going to tell you much, but let me just say that the ending is one of the most spectacular pieces of writing. It’s mind-blowing. So, so good. And the writing is just… virtuosic. It’s like listening to Mozart. Incredible.

That’s interesting. I read somewhere that he wrote around fifty different endings for this book before he settled on the final version. So I guess all that effort paid off.

It did. It has this very uncompelling insta-love—you know, man sees pretty woman, he is now in love with her—which I find very tiresome. But, as I said, it’s worth the read for the ending alone.

Thank you very much. Next up, you’ve recommended Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, a novel set during the First World War that was published in 1993. I think fair to say it’s considered a modern classic.

Birdsong, I would almost say, is a quite straightforward depiction of war. It gets the job done. When I was trying to write a scene set at the Battle of the Somme, I remembered reading Birdsong when I was around twenty, and weeping at the hairdressers—which was quite uncomfortable, they were like: ‘Can you stop crying quite so much?’ So I looked back, re-read the Somme scene. And it was so perfectly written. You could not have changed a single word.

Then I actually felt this sense of relief. I thought, oh well, if someone wants to read a perfect depiction of the Somme, then it exists already and I don’t have to worry about my depiction. I’m just adding to the depictions, there’s already a great one. So I felt freed by that. But then I also structured my depiction of the Somme significantly differently, because I thought: that’s been done perfectly, there’s no need to do it again.

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I read an interesting interview with Sebastian Faulks where he said he is impatient with characters in books where the author clearly loves the character and wants you to as well. And so just everyone in the fictional world loves the character. He said, he’s always very careful to make sure that quite a few people in the book don’t like the character he likes. So the protagonist is a character—who I find very likeable, because he’s a little bit of a modern sub-in, he sees the world a little as we would—who everyone within the book thinks is a bit of an odd fish. They just don’t connect with him, you know, and that makes him feel very three-dimensional.

It also begins with this idyllic Edwardian romance, then breaks that up completely. It’s about the mining in the war, in these tunnels deep underground. It’s terrifying. Very vivid. I mean—have you read it?

Yes, although a long time ago now. I was just looking back at it today and had to remind myself of that wild, blockbuster scene where they blow up the tunnel. I’d forgotten that! I’d remembered it—because it’s so sensitive—as being quite domestic, and that’s not really the case.

That’s something I like about Regeneration and Birdsong. I don’t think either of them are what you might dismissively call ‘worthy’. There are books that you slowly read to be a better person, you know. But both of these books are just cracking reads. You just tear through them. And they are incredible works of literature and art. I love when those two things combine.

Perhaps that brings us to All Quiet on the Western Front. This is a largely autobiographical novel by Erich Maria Remarque, published in 1929. It was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, and—not unrelated—was burned by brownshirts in Nazi Germany. The original movie adaptation in 1930 was also hugely popular, and a new big-budget adaptation was released by Netflix in 2022.

My copy, rather histrionically, advertises itself as ‘the greatest war novel of all time.’ I remember thinking, when I picked it up in a second-hand shop: that’s big promise. But I think it might be right.

It’s pretty horrible, I almost don’t like to recommend it, because you have to be prepared for it. It’s hard to talk about, because it’s too sad. My favourite part is where Paul goes on leave, he’s 18 and he returns home, and in his bedroom he looks at his shelf full of books and he finds himself completely unable to feel the quiet rapture he used to feel when he looked at his own bookshelf. There’s that famous line: “We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.”

In another part of that leave, he goes to a beer garden, and there are all these old men talking about how to win the war. And he thinks to himself: these men don’t understand that the purpose of life is to sit in a beer garden and drink beer. They think it’s to win the war, but I’ve been to the war and I know that they are wrong.

That’s a clumsy way of expressing it, but it’s very distressing and actually quite life-changing. The book gave me a permanent jolt in perspective. I think it jolted me out of a depression, too. I thought: Paul would tell me to buck up and enjoy myself, and he is right. So it’s a very beautiful and valuable thing to have read. If you’re even remotely interested in any war, this is the first book I would recommend you read.

There’s a plot parallel here with your work. In All Quiet on the Western Front, a rousing patriotic speech by a teacher prompts a whole class of boys to join the army. In your own book, you feature a group of schoolboys who similarly sign up together. Could you talk us through In Memoriam?

Sure. In Memoriam is set in an idyllic boarding school in the English countryside. The protagonists are Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood. Gaunt is half-German, and has always been a bit out of step with his peers. He’s against the outbreak of war; he’s not actually a pacifist, but he thinks this particular war is going to be bad for the empire. His closest, maybe his only, friend at school is this incredibly popular boy, Ellwood, who is ethnically Jewish but culturally Christian, and is the opposite. He’s romantic and excited about the war. When I was describing the children from Edwardian school books, who can’t wait to go and fight when they grow up? He’s like that.

So there’s this conflict between them in their friendship, where they completely disagree about what this war means for their future. The rest of the school agrees with Ellwood. They’re very excited when this war breaks out.

“Wilfred Owen said: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity’”

The other major plot point is that they are in love with each other, but neither of them realises; they think it’s unrequited. And they aren’t able to communicate how they feel because it’s 1914. Anyway, they both end up at the front together, where the love story comes to a head because everything becomes so raw and intense. The question becomes not whether they love each other, but whether they will both survive.

You’ve said that you felt driven to start writing the book. Could you talk a little about how it came to be?

I was trying not to write a novel. I’d written three, quite unsuccessfully. So I thought, right, I’m not doing that anymore. I was procrastinating writing a screenplay, and found out that my old boarding school had uploaded all of its newspapers from during the war years. I was in a war phase, you know? Reading Robert Graves. So I read all the newspapers from 1913 to 1919.

They were these newspapers written for students by students. It was a weird experience to read them, because unlike all the war literature I had read before—written by someone who had been to a war, come back, processed their feelings, and was now repackaging it so that people could understand it—these were by people who were in the moment. It was obituaries written by 16-year-old boys about their 17-year-old friends, which all their friends would read before going to sign up themselves.

So I read all these papers, got quite obsessive about them. You’d read a paper and there would be a lot of stuff that wasn’t that compelling. Then there would be three sentences that would just break your heart. I collected those, created a paper that was just filled with the things that hit me the hardest. I wasn’t really thinking. Then I just started writing, and it turned into a novel very fast. Most of the first draft was done in two weeks. Then I got stuck—it took about a year and a half to finish an edit. But it was the newspapers that were the impetus.

What I was saying earlier about Vera Brittain wanting people to learn from her experiences—something you see again and again in these newspapers is: some 19-year-old gets killed, and in his obituary, his friend or his brother is like, ‘no one will ever forget his death.’ I found that so upsetting. I mean, of course, you can’t remember everyone who died in a war for all eternity, but there was something so tragic to me about how forgotten those newspapers were, when they must have been so important when they were written.

I suppose literature allows the juxtaposition of the softer side of human emotions with the terrible machine of war.

Wilfred Owen said: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” I think that’s exactly what you’re saying: it’s that softness, beneath all this violence. That’s where, I think, what Wilfred Owen would call the poetry comes from.

Perhaps that brings us to the final First World War novel that you’d like to recommend. This is At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop. The English translation, by the American poet Anna Moschovakis, won the International Booker Prize in 2021. Lucy Hughes Hallett, the chair of the judges at that time, told me it had “an extraordinary kind of dark beauty” and that it read as “incantatory word music.”

Absolutely. I read it in the original French, because I’m very erudite.

Ha.

No, it was really beautiful. But the reason I say so is that the protagonist in At Night All Blood is Black is Senegalese, and he can’t speak French. So the book is written in French, but the protagonist talks about how he can’t speak French. There’s an interesting passage where he talks about how translation is just a series of small lies that tell a big truth. So there’s a really weird, complex thing going on there with language, and that the translation of this French language book won the International Booker—it’s just all very meta.

But that makes it sound like less of a good story than it is. I’m sure you already know this, but the premise is that it’s this soldier. He becomes very murderous at the front, and starts doing things like cutting off hands in no-man’s-land and bringing them back. At first his white superiors are like: that’s great, we need murderous soldiers. But the more he turns into a serial killer, the more his white superiors feel that, well okay, we did ask you to be a savage, but this is not quite what we meant.

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The reason he’s like that is that he’s been completely broken by the things he’s had to do in this war, and especially by the loss of a friend. It’s also about how this man, who really has no business being in a wet French trench, is being completely distorted and ruined by this war. The people who brought him there, who intentionally crafted him into this savage beast are then so horrified by what he’s now turned into.

It almost reads like a horror film. It’s very psychological. You really sympathise with him, right? Like you almost want him to successfully murder strange German men in the field. So it’s a very finely crafted book, beautifully woven together, and interesting from a genre perspective.

Thanks. It’s an excellent way to conclude your list of recommendations. But I think there were a number of other books you wanted to mention quickly while we were here?

I did. So these five books are the books you should read if you’ve never read any novels about the First World War. But if you’ve read those already, I have a few that are a little bit off the beaten track. The most readable of these is The Secret Battle by A.P. Herbert, which was written, I think, in the 1920s. The premise of the book is that it’s a young man making the case for why the execution of his good friend for cowardice was an injustice. It’s a really, really well-written and a psychologically interesting read. It’s about these four or five British officers in Gallipoli, their petty politics. He’s really uninterested in writing about the battles—whenever there’s a battle he’ll say, ‘there was a battle, I’m not going to go into it, you can read about that kind of thing elsewhere.’

He talks about how, when you’re tired and hungry and scared, having someone annoying in your dugout can ruin your life. So this guy starts off really brave and honourable, then there’s another man who he keeps being stationed with, and they hate each other. It just drives him crazy. Combined with the war, it serves to drive him to a position where he, as they say, bottles it. And he’s executed. That’s not a spoiler, it begins by telling you that. It’s a book about the interpersonal relationships of these four or five men at the front. I would even call it, in some way, feminine. There’s a very funny bit where they get sent to the Western Front, having just been at Gallipolli, and they are like: this is so nice! They just can’t believe how great it is. I think this book should be much more widely read, because it’s a great piece of writing.

Another WW1 novel that should be better known is Alf by Bruno Vogel. This was a cool find for me, because my book has a very strong epistolary element—Gaunt and Ellwood are always writing heartfelt letters. After I wrote the draft, I found Alf, which is by a German soldier writing in the 1920s. It’s about two gentle teenage boys who are in love. They’ve acted on it, they’re in a relationship, and one of them goes to the front. They then write each other a series of letters to each other. It’s a very emotional book. The problem I have is that the only translation we have is about fifty years old, and it’s really bad—apologies to the translator, but I wish we had a modern translation. It was repressed by Hitler, so that’s one reason that no one knows about it. Bruno Vogel went on to live in South Africa, where he fought Apartheid for most of his life. He was a very cool guy.

Then there’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, by Siegfried Sassoon. He wrote three autobiographical novels and three memoirs about his experiences during the war. They’re quite slow-paced, but this is the one I’d recommend—the second of the three novels. He’s a wordsmith, the writing is just exquisitely poetic. It’s filled with insight. There’s one bit where he says: “I knew that if I could get the better of my physical discomforts I should find the War intensely interesting.” He has all sorts of little asides like that. It’s also heart-rending, because he’s quite unfair to the character that is him. He’s always talking in the first person about what a loser he is, basically, and you feel he’s being a bit hard on himself, on pseudo-Sassoon. So I find it a very touching book.

The last one I would recommend, and this is less good writing than interesting historical document, is Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini. It was pretty quickly banned when it first came out, in 1918. It’s about this bisexual woman who falls in love with a gay pacifist during World War One. So it’s really quite radical. In fact, to someone reading in the 21st century, it seems very modern—there are a lot of scenes of a bunch of Bohemians at a café, exchanging political views, and the political views are basically ours. So it’s fascinating, it feels very dissonant—you think: don’t put modern thoughts into these historical characters’ heads, and then you remember, oh it’s from the time. It’s brazenly queer, which is not the reason it was banned. It was banned because of the pacifism. So although I think it fails on a literary scale, because it’s quite didactic, it’s really a fascinating insight into a group of radical thinkers in this time period.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

April 21, 2023

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Alice Winn

Alice Winn

Alice Winn grew up in Paris and was educated in the UK. She has a degree in English literature from Oxford University. She lives in Brooklyn.