The Great War was a global event that changed history forever. The first war of its scale, it tore countries, cultures, and families apart. It also left a permanent mark on our views of the past, present, and future—and that scar is clearly visible in the books published during and after the period.
Some of our greatest writers have set their most powerful works against the backdrop of World War I. From the romance and drama to the grim reality of armed conflict, the following novels are multi-faceted studies of life during the era.
A Farewell to Arms
Any discussion of World War I fiction starts with Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Lauded as the best American novel to emerge from period, it tells the unforgettable story of an American ambulance driver on the Italian front, and his passion for a beautiful English nurse. Set against the looming horrors of the battlefield, this gripping, semi-autobiographical work captures the harsh realities of war and the pain of lovers caught in its inexorable sweep. Ernest Hemingway famously said that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times to get the words right.
All Quiet on the Western Front
All Quiet on the Western Front is often considered the greatest book ever written about any war. It's imbued with Erich Maria Remarque’s personal experiences, which makes for a thoughtful and dark story: Paul Baumer is just 19-years-old when he and his classmates enlist. As Germany’s Iron Youth, they enter the war with high ideals but leave it disillusioned or dead. As Paul struggles with the man he has become—and the inscrutable world to which he must return—he enters the war's final hours, a ghost of his former self.
To the Last Man
In the spring of 1918, when a neutral America is goaded into World War I, everyone waits to see if things will change with the renewed spirit and strength of the untested American Expeditionary Force. Historical fiction master Jeff Shaara uses primary source research to fictionalize the real people that led, fought, and died in the monumental conflict. His novels are always as entertaining as they are informative, and To the Last Man is no exception.
Death of a Hero
One of the great World War I anti-war novels—honest, chilling, and brilliantly satirical—Death of a Hero is based on the author’s own experiences on the Western Front. Our hero is George Winterbourne, who enlists in the British Expeditionary Army and gets sent to France. After he ascends the ranks, he grows increasingly cynical about the war and recognizes the hypocrisies of the British people. Aldington’s commentary on their ignorance, particularly regarding the tribulations of their soldiers, is among the most biting ever published. As such, Death of a Hero vividly evokes the morally degrading nature of combat.
A novel of overwhelming emotional power, Birdsong is a story of love, death, sex, and survival. Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman, arrives in northern France in 1910 to stay with the Azaire family—and promptly falls in love with unhappily married Isabelle. But the imminence of the war puts a hold on their relationship, and Stephen volunteers to fight on the Western Front. With his love for Isabelle engraved on his heart, he experiences the unprecedented horrors of that conflict—from which neither he, nor any reader, can emerge unchanged.
The Daughters of Mars
Naomi and Sally Durance are daughters of a dairy farmer from the Macleay Valley. Complicit in what they consider a crime, they go to Europe to tend to the wounded, hoping to leave their guilt behind. Their education in medicine, valour, and human degradation then continues on the Greek island of Lemnos before moving to the Western Front. Here, new outrages—such as gas and shell-shock—present themselves. Inspired by the journals of Australian nurses and the men they nursed, The Daughters of Mars is vast in scope yet extraordinarily intimate.
This post originally appeared on Bookstr.