First World War Literature: Lesser-Known Works

The 100 year anniversary of the beginning of Battle of the Somme (it dragged on for 4-5 endless months) should show the monumental stupidity and futility of war and the dangers of heeding the siren call of nationalism. Thy advanced all of five miles during those months and suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day alone, over a million deaths (on both sides) over that period.

The First World War was a war of empire and young men were used as cannon fodder, so, not surprisingly, it was also a time of ‘rude awakening’ and cognitive dissonance for those young men. There has been a steady stream of literature depicting the horrors but above all the psychological torments of that war. I remember reading Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ when I was 12 and shivering. If that doesn’t make you a pacifist, nothing ever will!

Here are some lesser-known novels about the First World War, which truly question in some depth the role of individuals in history, how history shapes each one of us, how we become its pawns and whether we have any choice in the matter.

Love my old 2 volume edition of it, in black-white-red.
Love my old 2 volume edition of it, in black-white-red.

Camil Petrescu: Ultima noapte de dragoste, întîia noapte de război (Last Night of Love, First Night of War) – 1930

Ștefan Gheorghidiu is a rather self-important, naive young man who falls in love and marries Ela, a woman who seems his polar opposite in every respect. He becomes increasingly jealous and suspects she is only interested in his fortune, but war intervenes and he is sent to the front.

Many present-day readers feel the book delves too much into Ștefan’s tortured psychology, but that was precisely what I loved about it.  As he is confronted with the harsh realities of war, he realises just how petty his own problems are and becomes aware of the greater tragedy and absurdity of life. This book is very similar in theme to the next on the list below. It hasn’t been translated into English, but there is a French version of it.

Vintage edition of Parade's End tetralogy.
Vintage edition of Parade’s End tetralogy.

Ford Madox Ford: Parade’s End – 1924-28

This book doesn’t describe war scenes in great detail either – rather, it’s about the psychological effects of war on the people who live through it, on the front and beyond. Christopher Tietjens and his flight wife are very similar to the couple in Petrescu’s book, but the style is far more modernist and experimental. Tietjens is more infuriating than Stefan – a big block of an emotionally stunted man who seems to be a passive recipient of things, rather than over-agonising mentally. And yet, both novels show that sex and war are two sides of the same coin: when passion becomes obsession and we become overly focused on just one thought, one person, one ideology.

Original 1929 edition in German.
Original 1929 edition in German.

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – 1929

Rather better known than the others featured here, but still not quite as popular in the English-speaking world as it deserves to be. It shows the war from ‘the other side of the barricades’, the German side, and just how unwilling and disenchanted the average soldier could be about being a cog in a very large imperial machine which had little to do with him or his life. The author makes it clear that he wants to tell the story of ‘a generation of men who even though they escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war’. The filth and squalor, the boredom and random cruelty of trench warfare are shown here quite graphically.

Padurea-spanzuratilor-402Liviu Rebreanu: Pădurea spânzuraţilor (Forest of the Hanged) – 1922

This is in some ways the most shocking of the books on the list. For those unfamiliar with Romanian history, before the First World War Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All the ethnic Romanian men were recruited and fought on several fronts, including against Romania, which was on the side of the Allies. The author himself was considered a deserter for leaving Transylvania during the war and settling in Romania, but the real inspiration behind the story was the tragic fate of his brother, who was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army and executed for treason for refusing to fight against his fellow Romanians. The Forest of the Hanged is a haunting image, apparently based on a picture of a forest filled with Czech soldiers who had been hanged for treason (for refusing to fight against their compatriots behind the Italian front).  It’s not great battle scenes, however: it’s about one man’s internal journey and the awakening of his conscience. There is an English translation from 1986 – out of print now, obviously.

If any publisher would like to reconsider a translation, I’m happy to offer my services. I love this book so much!

Couv_1102Didier Daeninckx: Le der des ders (The Last of the Last) – 1984

The title alludes to the fact that the First World War was initially known as the ‘War to End All Wars’. So far from the truth!

This is almost a crime story set in the confused, anarchic period just after the end of the war. A former colonel hires a former soldier turned detective (René Griffon) for an apparently banal case of suspected adultery. But what Griffon uncovers is a wide-ranging case of corruption and conspiracy, which mocks all of the idealistic principles of war and fatherland. Similar to Lemaitre’s Au-revoir la-haut, but predating it by 30 years. There is also an immensely evocative BD version illustrated by Tardi, an English version has been recently published as ‘A Very Profitable War’ by Melville House .

22 thoughts on “First World War Literature: Lesser-Known Works”

  1. What a fabulous and timely topic, Marina Sofia. And I’m so very glad you included the Remarque. His Spark of Life is excellent, too, That one doesn’t deal with WWI, but rather WWII. Still, it’s fantastic. And thanks for the reminder of the Ford. I think these books have lessons we shouldn’t forget…

  2. ‘All quiet on the western front’ is lesser known in the English speaking world? Don’t know if it is so but if then they are losing a lot. Not only was it burned in Nazi Germany. But it is, at least was in my time; necessary reading in higher education . And it was one that didn’t bore the hell out of me while we were working with it. Highly recommended

    1. To be fair, I think it’s the best-known of the WW1 literature in translation. But I don’t hear it being talked about as much as Ernest Hemingway, for instance…

  3. A nice selection for me memoirs of a fox hunting man and it’s follow up book memoir of infantry man by sassoon along with good by to all that by graves are great ww1 titles

    1. That one too follows almost the principle of Petrescu’s book – the before and after the war. The country-house weekends and fox-hunts before the war (as I seem to remember the first volume, but then I was reading it when I was obsessed with ponies), and then the horrors of war. I haven’t read the Graves one, will have to look for it. I did also like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, but of course it’s about another war, another period.

  4. I’d not heard of some of these titles, Marina, and was unaware of the Romanian literature of WWI – thanks for the tips. I’d also recommend one of the perhaps lesser-known (now) French accounts by Henri Barbusse, ‘Le Feu’ (Under Fire in English translation), published 1916. Richard Aldington, ‘Death of a Hero’ I read many years ago and don’t remember much about; Hemingway’s contribution is of course A Farewell to Arms, set on the Italian front. I studied this at A level (exam taken pre-university here in the UK) and found it a little egotistical – before I learned what an egotist EH was. ‘He was dead. He was very dead’ is a line I remember well. Cliché now, maybe, but not when he was writing…How sad to recall the Somme centenary and its inglorious waste of young life on all sides.

  5. Good to see the Remarque on your list, Marina. I was struck by the universality of that story – in a way, it could have been any groups of soldiers from any country. The fear and horror of their experiences in the trenches will stay with me, I think. Most of the others on your list are new to me – I like the sound of that last one in particular.

  6. All Quiet on the Western Front remains one of the most memorable WWI books I’ve ever read. Of course I am not very intrigued by Liviu Rebreanu. There are some German translations of his works… have you read any of his other books?

    1. Liviu Rebreanu was required reading at school – although it was ‘Ion’ – a sort of brutal rural realism – rather than the Forest of the Hanged (I prefer the latter). ‘Rascoala’ (The Uprising) is about the peasant revolt in 1907 (so popular under socialism), but it’s quite interesting and a lot more subtle than socialist works.

  7. What a great post – we can be guilty of seeing even those events shaped by literature through only a narrow literary perspective. I almost read Parade’s End when it was televised but wasn’t up to the challenge!

  8. A superbly timed post and some titles that I haven’t come across. I studied War poems at O Level and felt they gave me far more of an insight into what war really meant than any of my history lessons.

  9. What a great list! ‘Parade’s End’ is a wonderful book, I think it was one of my top reads of 2012 and is really due for a re-read. In fact, I think you’ve inspired me to go back to both this and ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ to mark the anniversary this year.
    I’d personally be tempted to add ‘The Good Soldier Švejk’ by Jaroslav Hašek to your list, a dark comedy about an anti-hero in the Austro-Hungarian army.

    1. Yes, thank you for mentioning the Soldier Svejk, that is another excellent book. Funnily enough (given the subject matter) I first saw it (rather than read it) as a TV series on Austrian TV, with Fritz Muliar playing Svejk.

  10. I’d never heard of the Romanian writers, so thanks.
    About soldiers in Transylvania, the same thing happened in Alsace-Moselle.

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