The Great War: inspiring writers for 100 years

Europe 1914. Sides are formed.

Europe 1914. Sides are formed. National Archive.

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.

French 87th Regiment, Verdun, 1916. Photo via Wikipedia, public domain.

French 87th Regiment, Verdun, 1916. Photo via Wikipedia, public domain.

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.

Poet Wilfred Owen. Photo via Wikipedia.

Poet Wilfred Owen. Photo via Wikipedia.

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.

Poet Vera Brittain. Photo via Wikipedia.

Poet Vera Brittain. Photo via Wikipedia.

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.


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9 Comments on “The Great War: inspiring writers for 100 years”

  1. newt says:

    Wow, Ellen. How’d I miss that show?
    You really got the WWI literature game!
    I hope you consider revisiting the program for the anniversary.

    I used to introduce the WWI unit to my 8th Graders with “Dulce et Decorum”. It had the desired impact.
    Also I showed them the made-for- TV (Richard Thomas) version of “All Quiet “. Although principally about German soldiers fighting the French (and I was teaching US History) it did a wonderful job showing the universal aspects of the War (trench warfare, poison gas, etc), as well as the tragedy experienced by the combatants and their families.

    I’m looking forward to Brian’s presentation tonight, and hope for others along this line from him and the station.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Why call a crummy, stupid war a great war?
    We would all be better off if there were no wars to inspire some great books and poetry.

  3. Susan McMeekin-Davis says:

    Just E-mailed my pal Ellen, as WWI, is a big topic to me. (It was not a GREAT war, it was one with great consequences, still being felt and an avoidable war. Thus the attention.)
    All the books coming out in the last year cover that aspect of it. The two on the cover of the NY Times Book Review one year ago were: Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers, and Sean McMeekin, JULY 1914. (Yes, full disclosure, that is my son.) There are WWI conferences all over the world this year. Watch for one at the end of June sponsored by Reuters in NYC with Kissinger and the two above authors among others.
    Ellen said to blog…is that what this is?

  4. Ellen Rocco says:

    Susan: Good work! You didn’t exactly blog, but you added a comment to a blog. Close enough. I wanted our audience to be aware of the two titles you cited, particularly your son’s book, which I intend to read as soon as possible. Thanks.

  5. Ken Hall says:

    For a change I am siding with Pete on his ideas; in this case about war. As I am wont to say “the only folks I know who think war is great/neat are those who have never been in one” For another take on war, I highly recommend Smedly D. Butler’s essay at . Smedly was the most highly decorated 2 star US Marine General to have served during WWI a brief biography of the man can be read here: . Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Smedly, to me, is that he is the person who outed the US oligarchs who wanted him to lead a private army of ex-military, perhaps 1/2 million strong, in a coup to depose FDR and install a retired 4star US Army General to run the US whilst retaining FDR as a titular head of state; this became known as the “Business Plot”.

  6. Ellen Rocco says:

    Ken and Pete: I think there’s some confusion here. Just because it’s known as the “Great War” doesn’t mean it was great, in the positive, super-good sense. I believe that term refers to the sheer scope of involvement by so many nations. As for writing about war, traumatic experiences are often the inspirational starting point for artists of all kinds. This doesn’t mean artists are writing happy, upbeat or patriotic drivel about the ugly reality of war. To the contrary. Each of the titles I cited, for example, explores the darkest aspects of war–the darkness that is all to often ignored when politicians start beating the war drums. That’s the job of artists writing about war or poverty or greed or any other unpleasant side of human existence…the stuff leaders rarely want us to examine closely or in terms other than the “party line” promulgated by those in power or by those drunk on nationalistic fervor.

  7. Ellen Rocco says:

    By the way, today is Pat Barker’s birthday–the author of the “Regeneration Trilogy” I cited in the post. Talk about exposing the dark underbelly of a war and its impact on the daily lives of those who had to fight in it and their families…

  8. Ken Hall says:

    Ellen, Yes WWl was/is known as the Great War because it was the largest war the Earth had witnessed up to that point in time; however, since the war known as WWll far and away eclipsed the magnitudes of those killed and the monstrous amount of destruction levied on the participants relative to WWl perhaps the title of Great War, pertaining to magnitude only not to it’s fabulous results, should be accorded to WWll. If literary and historical writings about war would diminish the fervor to engage in new mindless conflicts I would say “go for it”; however I have never observed any lessening of the fever to incite new conflicts from past atrocities. A short stint in the US south of the Mason Dixon Line will easily demonstrate the height of stupidity when it comes to war. The US Civil War, known to Americans as “the Civil War” because obviously no other civil wars have ever taken place, is not something that the majority of us who live north of the Mason Dixon Line occupy our thoughts with on a regular basis; however, many south of the MDL do. In the US south the “Civil War” is ofttimes referred to as “the War of Northern Aggression”. How many millions of words have been put to print to hash and rehash one of the most idiotic events ever perpetrated by Americans upon Americans and seven generations and nearly 150 years later given their druthers many would likely jump at the chance to attempt to set things “right” and teach the “others” a new lesson. So much for learning lessons from war.

  9. Newt says:

    Ken, you probably won’t read this, but in spite of the fact that there were subsequent wars after 1916. you are exactly wrong about this. It was the horror of the Great War, and the revelation of the many cynical activities of national and business leaders in all particiapants that led to the aversion of these nations to taking a stand when a true monster came on the scene in in the late ’30s and began to initiate his plans to conquer Europe. No one was willing to take a stand against Hitler until it was too nearly too late. Had we remained truly neutral, and England fallen, he would sooner or later gotten around to, backed by superweapons that never were built by Germany-including the A-Bomb, demanding the right to rule over us….perhaps because we sheltered millions of Jewish citizens, among other reasons. Germany and Japan did quite well for a while, losing thousands to kill and enslave millions, enriching themselves with vanquished art and industry. Like Alexander, the Mongols, and others, they would have extended their murderous domains to as far as they possibly could. Humans are natural predators, and we prey on each other as much as on any other animal, more, I guess, when it serves us. Why WWI made most Europeans and Americans hate war, and the Germans and Japanese embrase it is beyond me, but the lessons learned in the trenches….that war is never right, was a bad one. A more nuanced vision, that there indeed must also be a time to kill, might have saved everyone a lot of trouble.

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