A new survey of Great War novels finds that 91% of respondents have read either a few or many books set during this era.
What aspects of that conflict were of most interest? The experiences of ordinary soldiers; conditions behind the lines; political circumstances surrounding the war; and women’s roles during the war. While some men expressed a preference for novels concerning the war front and some women preferred those emphasizing the home front, more than two-thirds of respondents said they’ve enjoyed both settings.
Why are WWI stories appealing? Forty percent of participants answered, “the changes that followed” the war, often using the word pivotal in their descriptions. They said this in many ways, referring to social, technological, military, political, gender, and class changes, as well as the loss of innocence and the emergence of new values and mores.
The survey also asked, “What do you think we can learn that’s relevant to today from novels set in and around WWI?” The chart below reflects responses from more than 600 individuals.
Beyond these facts and figures, the survey asked participants for up to three favorite novels set in and around WWI. Out of the 233 novels mentioned, the popularity of the following six stood out.
- All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (43 recommendations)
- Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (42)
- Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker (36)
- Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (29)
- Fall of Giants by Ken Follett (23)
- A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (19)
All Quiet on the Western Front. Originally written in German (Im Westen Nichts Neues) and first published in 1929, this is the story of Paul Baumer, who enlists with his classmates in the German army of WWI. In it, author Erich Maria Remarque relays 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. The novel was banned and burned in Nazi Germany.
Birdsong. Sebastian Faulks’ novel follows two main characters living at different times: the first is Stephen Wraysford, a British soldier on the front line in Amiens during WWI; the second is his granddaughter, Elizabeth, whose 1970s plotline follows her attempts to recover an understanding of Stephen's experience of the war. One of the author’s objectives was to commemorate the war experiences of the men who actually fought. In an interview, Faulks spoke of meeting six WWI veterans and talking to them “about their experiences. It helped to bring the war out of an area marked history and put it under the heading of life.”
The novels of Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy were published between 1991 and 1995. While each story has a different focus, collectively they deal with Britain’s loss of innocence, which, as Barker said in an interview, “played a huge part in making us what we are today.” She goes on the say that, during that war, “sex roles and the relationship between the classes were questioned and…in particular, the concept of masculinity, which had been generally accepted in the Victorian era, was tested to the breaking point on the battlefields of the Somme and Ypres.” Regeneration confronts the psychological effects of WWI, focusing on treatment methods during the war and the story of a decorated English officer sent to a military hospital after publicly declaring he will no longer fight. It was followed by The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, the latter of which won the Booker Prize.
Maisie Dobbs series. When WWI breaks out, Maisie Dobbs goes to the front as a nurse. While there, she learns that coincidences are meaningful and the truth elusive. After the war, Maisie sets up on her own as a private investigator. But her very first assignment, seemingly an ordinary infidelity case, soon reveals a much deeper, darker web of secrets which will force Maisie to revisit the horrors of the Great War and the love she left behind. Subsequent novels continue the story of Maisie’s experiences in the war’s aftermath. From an interview with author Jacqueline Winspear on Mystery Scene: “More than 60,000 women were involved in war-related activities, and nearly 500,000 more stepped into the jobs men left behind for the battlefield…The post-war period heralded enormous social changes.”
Fall of Giants. This follows five families, rich and poor, through the world-shaking dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and women’s suffrage. Spanning the years from 1911 to 1924, the novel contains multiple plot strands and a vast tapestry of times and countries. According to a New York Times review, Follett combines “a boisterous tale with an uplifting lesson in history and civics.”
A Farewell to Arms. Another classic tale of WWI. Hemingway recreates the fear, the comradeship, the courage of his young American volunteer, and the men and women he meets in Italy, with total conviction. But A Farewell to Arms is not only a novel of war. It is also a love story of immense drama and uncompromising passion.
Collectively, these novels and others recommended by survey participants deal with the inhumanity of war, bravery and cowardice, horrendous loss, unspeakable conditions, the horror of battle, love, despair, and the resilience of the human spirit. They remind us — as do the responses to other survey questions — that a war fought on a world scale a century ago is as relevant today as it was then.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, Time and Regret, was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, Lies Told in Silence and Unravelled, are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play, and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, or on her website.