This August marks the 100 year anniversary of the start of WW I, the Great War. NCPR’s Brian Mann will lead a conversation about that anniversary, “World War I: 100 Years Later,” exploring how WWI changed our society and continues to resonate today in our culture and politics.
The conversation will be based around three popular accounts of the war that attendees are invited to read or watch in advance: “All Quiet On The Western Front” (book and film); “Gallipoli” (book and film); and “The Reluctant Tommy” (book)/ Passchendaele (film).
The talk will be held in the John Black Room of the Saranac Laboratory Museum, 89 Church Street, Saranac Lake. The talk is a lead-in to the reopening on July 1 of the John Black Room exhibit, “The Great War: WWI in Saranac Lake.” This is all a project of Historic Saranac Lake.
A few years ago, I devoted my reading to books about or set in the WW I years. This fascination included fiction and non-fiction. Here are some of the titles I consider among the best of that reading frenzy (in addition to the titles Brian will focus on):
“The Regeneration Trilogy,” Pat Barker. This series won many awards, including the Booker Prize. Set in England and at the front, Barker weaves her fictional characters seamlessly into the Great War landscape, and some of the giants of the period play cameo roles in her characters’ lives. This is the trilogy that inspired me to read more and learn more about the Great War. It’s brilliant, savvy and sophisticated.
“The Guns of August,” Barbara Tuchman. This Pulitzer Prize winning history published in 1962 remains unmatched in its powerful telling of the lead up to the outbreak of war. Two related by Tuchman are also worth reading for solid grounding in WW I history: “The Proud Tower” and “The Zimmerman Telegram.”
“The Stone Carvers,” Jane Urquhart. A novel of surprising and original power and perspective from this exceptional Canadian author. The narrative begins with a Bavarian woodcarver emigrating to Canada and ends at the conclusion of WW I.
“Birdsong,” Sebastian Faulks. Another novel with the Great War at the center of the narrative, though this one begins with the war years and ends in the middle of the 20th century.
“A Soldier of the Great War,” Mark Helprin. I’m a Helprin fan–a great storyteller, a terrific writer. This is the kind of fiction you start and can’t put down, and along the way you learn something about the war you didn’t know before.
Check out the PBS WW I resource page. It includes maps, battles, a wealth of information about the war. For example, a table detailing the number of dead and wounded by nationality. The numbers are staggering.
Okay, I could go on and on. But I want to leave space for the poets of WW I. Perhaps because of its astoundingly useless loss of life, and the tragic absurdity of trench warfare, poetry flourished. An antidote? I went to our resident poet, Dale Hobson, for recommendations. Here’s what he came up with (the rest of this blog post is all his work).
World War I inspired some of the finest, and some of the darkest poetry of the 20th century. Probably the most famous poet of the war is Wilfred Owen, author of the most widely-known poem of the war: “Dulce et decorum est.” The title comes from Horace: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (it is sweet and right to die for your country). He sent it to his mother with the message “Here is a gas poem done yesterday, which is not private, but not final.”
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Owen died a week before the armistice at age 25.
His friend and poetic mentor Siegfried Sassoon lived until the 1960s and wrote a number of collections that revolved around his experiences in the World War.
The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still
And I remember things I’d best forget.
For now we’ve marched to a green, trenchless land
Twelve miles from battering guns:
The savagery and scale of mechanized combat stunned the English soldier/poets who had grown up on a diet of pro-empire pro-militarism poetry from authors such as Rudyard Kipling. After Kipling’s own son was lost early in World War I, he wrote the lament “My Boy Jack.” A fine movie was made of the story of Kipling and his son, bearing the same title as the poem.
“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
Vera Brittain left college at Oxford to serve as a nurse on the front in 1915. Her fiancé and her brother were both killed in the war. Of her brother she writes:
Your battle-wounds are scars upon my heart,
Received when in that grand and tragic ‘show’
You played your part…
Rupert Brooke also died early in the war, in 1915. He was described by W. B. Yeats as “the handsomest young man in England.” His idealistic war sonnets , such as “The Soldier,” ran against the dark current of work by his contemporaries:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
Just as World War I signaled a transformation in our understanding of warfare–from a romanticized Victorian view to one of horror and mass extermination–the poets of the era also signaled a shift from a highly structured poetry directed at suitably poetic topics to the grittier, looser and wider-ranging poetic of the remainder of the century.