Literature of the Great War

It is impossible for anyone writing about such a momentous and calamitous period in human history to say everything about it in words because there are so many aspects to take into consideration. If, indeed, it is possible to make any sense of it at all. The written word can, though, help people to better understand the experience of those who fought.

Wifred Owen

The first audience for a writer is always him or herself. That is why Diaries play such an important part in any literary appreciation of the War, helping the writer and us to try to come to terms with hugely abnormal events. Letters, too, are usually a fairly intimate medium as the writer communicates his feelings with loved ones ‘at home’. Censorship can be a problem with letters, however, as information that might be too graphic or revealing is held back, either by the military or the writer himself. As war poet Wilfred Owen said in a letter to his mother on 4 January 1917, ‘I censored hundreds of letters yesterday, and the hope of peace was in every one.’ There are problems though with any written medium, for as Aeschylus said long ago, ‘In war, truth is the first casualty.’

Who wrote about the War?

It tended to be only those from a literary background or from the officer class who wrote about the War as it was happening, often in poems, letters or in diary form. Even after the War, it was much more likely that someone from the elite was in a position to have their writing published and therefore recognised by others. One of the consequences of this was to create an accepted literary view of the War that did not do full justice to the ordinary soldier.

Fiction

Although it might seem odd to claim that something ‘made up’ can tell the truth about war, the reality is that the best writing on the topic, both poetry and prose, is very much based on experience and is attempting to free itself from unnecessary facts in order to tell a deeper psychological truth. John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields was written in 1915 in Ypres after the death of a friend, Alexis Helmer. Whilst not really factual, its sentiment and simplicity strike a universal chord.

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915

John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Some writing by or about the ordinary soldier did slowly begin to emerge over time, following the War’s end in 1918, and one novel with a deservedly high reputation is Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front). It is told from the German perspective but can be appreciated by people of all countries because it is not nationalistic or triumphalist. It recognises the commonality of humans. There were inevitably some in WW1 who had a deep-seated hatred of the enemy but what comes through again and again in accounts of the conflict is, in fact, the general lack of animosity towards the foe. This is neatly expressed by Thomas Hardy in The Man he Killed which he wrote shortly after the Boer War but also holds true for the Great War. He says,

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

That commonality comes across most strikingly when you look at such British war poets as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and then compare their work with German poets such as Anton Schnack, whose poem Nachtliche Landschaft (Night Landscape) is a powerful evocation of a nightmare world.

Schlachtet sie Tod, um unter Kräutern zu liegen, gewichtig, versteint, Hände voll Spinnen, Mund rot von Schorf, Augen voll urtiefem Schlaf, um die Stirne den Reif der Verdunklung, blau, wächsern, faul werdend im Rauche der Nacht Die niedersank, die wait überschattete, die gewölbt sich spannte von Hügel zu Hügel, über Wald und Verwesung, über Gehirne voll Traum, über hunderte Totef unaufgelesen,
Ober die Unzahl der Feuer, über Gelächter und Irrsinn, über Kreuze auf Wiesen, über Qual und Verzweiflung, über Trümmer und Asche, über Fluss und verdorbenes Dorf…

The extract is dealing with the death of horsemen;

Death slaughters them, and they lie beneath the foliage, leaden, petrified, hands full of spiders, mouths red with scabs, eyes full of fathomless sleep, dark circlets wreathed their brows, bruised, waxen, putrefying in the smoke of night which descended, casting a broad shadow, stretching vault-like from hill to hill, over woodland and decay, over dream-filled minds, over hundreds of dead left unrecovered, Over the multitude of fires, over laughter and madness, over crosses on meadows, over anguish and despair, over rubble and ash, over river and razed village…
(Trans © W Butler, 2013)

Novels

Siegfried Sassoon

Because of the form of the novel, being so long and multi-textured, it was only some years after the War that any began to appear. Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer was published in 1930 (whereas his war poems were written during the experience).

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel August 1914 was written over a period of years in Soviet Russia and expanded once he was in exile, appearing in its full version in 1984. Though primarily about the Russian defeat at Tannenberg, it is informed by the dire consequences for Russian society that the defeat led to. The passage of time and the collapse of communism have cast a different perspective on the events described.

In the end, though, any literary writing ‘about war’ is in pursuit of a different purpose and by its very nature has to be an artifice. Even in well-intentioned literature, the first-hand experience of the ordinary soldier tends to be mythologised, romanticised or, worst of all, patronised.

Positions - 1st Battle of Ypres

Menin Gate Memorial

The curved ceiling of the Menin Gate Memorial with the rebuilt town in the distance.

Pte A. Stringer’s grave in Perth Cemetery (China Wall)

Menin Gate Panel 11

A detail of Panel 11 of the Memorial with Joe’s friend Fellowes among those without a grave.

Army map of 1st Ypres October, 1914

Army map of 1st Ypres 29th October, 1914 – source, copy in the 'In Flanders Fields Museum', with permission. Where Joseph Garvey was captured is circled.

The Scots Guards Listed on Panel 11 on the Menin Gate

The Scots Guards are listed on Panel 11 on the Menin Gate. Just some of the 58,000 fallen who could not be identified.