First World War Literature

A.D. Harvey reflects on why the Great War captured the literary imagination.

The 1939 war had barely completed its second year when writer Robert Graves began an article in The Listener, 'I have been asked to explain as a "war poet of the last war" why so little poetry has so far been produced by this one'. More than half a century later it seems one might equally well be asked to explain why the First World War looms so much larger in English Literature, as taught in schools and universities, than in the literatures of the other belligerents.

From the very first week, the 1914-18 war inspired enormous quantities of poetry and fiction. The claim that three million war poems were written in Germany in the first six months of hostilities is difficult to substantiate, but Catherine W. Reilly has counted 2,225 English poets of the First World War, of whom 1,808 were civilians. For example, William Watson (then an esteemed poet, today virtually forgotten) quickly decided that his war poems should be 'so much in evidence that people [would] be saying that W.W. is the real national poet in this crisis', and had sixteen different war poems printed in various newspapers in the first six weeks.

The listing of wartime poets writing in French in Jean Vic's La Litterature de la Guerre runs to eighteen pages. By 1915 the publication of war novels and personal reminiscences was also under way. One of the most influential of all war novels, Henri Barbusse's Le Feu, appeared in 1916, won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in the following year, and by the Armistice had sold 200,000 copies in French: an English translation (Under Fire) came out in 1917, and a German translation was published in Zurich during the last months of the war. Among the novel's admirers were the English poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen. Vincente Blasco Ibanez's international best-seller, Los Cuatro Jinetes del Apocalipsis, which was made into a spectacular film after the war, starring Rudolph Valentino, was also first published in 1916, the English version, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, appearing in 1918.

There can be no dispute that the 1914-18 conflict was far more of a literary event than the previous continent-wide war, that of 1792-1815, though one tends to overlook how much was also written about this earlier struggle. William Matthew's British Autobiographies (1955), under the index entry for the Napoleonic and Peninsular Wars, lists eighty-seven published journals and memoirs by army personnel alone – including, in anticipation of Siegfried Sassoon's 1950s classic, a volume entitled Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. There were also a couple of score novels by participants (John Davis' The Post-Captain of 1806 was the model for authors like Frederick Marryat, Edward Howard and Frederick Chamier whose naval yarns were a staple of young people's literature later in the nineteenth century) and a quantity of verse, some of it by combatants, nearly all of it deathly rather than deathless.

It seems however that warfare was not regarded as a suitable subject for literature, and though the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars extended over twenty-three years they figure as little more than an off-stage rumble in the works of most writers of the period. This was the case not only in Britain, where there was no military conscription and where the war was mainly something reported (very sketchily) in the newspapers, but also in France, Spain and the Italian states. A partial exception was Germany, where the nationalist revival between 1809 and 1814 engendered some novels (quickly forgotten) and a great deal of verse, much of it still in print and making a contribution to German nationalist sentiment in 1914.

It is actually difficult to demonstrate that popular chauvinism was stronger, deeper or more widespread in 1914 than it had been a hundred years earlier, but a good case can be made for arguing that when the First World War began, the literary and intellectual climate was much more favourable to war literature than in any earlier period. Tolstoy's War and Peace, with its graphic evocations of combat and its interweaving of peacetime preoccupations and wartime catastrophes, was internationally admired as one of the world's greatest novels – perhaps the greatest – and was still recent enough to suggest imitation. Amongst writers influenced by it was Walter Bloem, whose novel trilogy about the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was a best-seller in Germany: later, his reminiscences of life as a frontline officer in the First World War were to show the advantages both of a practised pen and of a trained sensibility.

In France the tradition of naturalisme was the determining influence on Barbusse's Le Feu; he had already made his name as a neo-naturalist novelist with L'Enfer before the war. Amongst British writers the rather different brand of realism popularised by Thomas Hardy (both as novelist and as poet) was a major influence. The degree to which the war came in 1914 at just the moment when the idiom by which to describe it was being developed is even more evident in painting: among British artists, Christopher Nevinson found in Italian Futurism, and Paul Nash in the newly voguish art of Paul Cezanne, a pictorial medium with which to portray the effect of machine-age warfare on men and on landscape.

By contrast, the 1939-45 war began when many of the artistic and literary innovations of the earlier years of the century were wearing themselves out. Perhaps more important, the battlefield horrors which had had a shocking novelty in 1914 were now drearily familiar. As the poet Keith Douglas explained in 1943:

Hell cannot be let loose twice: it was let loose in the Great War and it is the same old hell now, The hardships, pain and boredom, the behaviour of the living and the appearance of the dead, were so accurately described by the poets of the Great War that every day on the battlefields of the western desert – and no doubt on the Russian battlefields as well – their poems are illustrated.

It is probable however that the real difference between the literature of 1914-18 and of 1939-45 is in the way in which we see it. Of Catherine W. Reilly's 2,225 English poets of the First World War, scarcely a dozen are remembered, and perhaps fewer than a dozen others have any real claim to be added to the anthologies. In Germany and Italy there were writers who had major reputations in the 1920s and 1930s but whose standing has been radically affected by the downfall of the German and Italian dictatorships in the 1940s. In both countries the works of frontline authors such as Ernst Junger, Werner Beumelberg, Paolo Monelli and Piero Jahier made a crucial contribution to the intellectual and ideological climate within which the fascist regimes established themselves.

In Germany doctoral students even wrote dissertations about Frontliteratur, and there were a number of influential articles in academic journals like Zeitschrift fur Deutschkunde and Dichtung und Volkstum which explored the ideological implications of First World War memoirs and fiction. The present estimate of most of these texts is in inverse relation to the esteem in which they were held in the Nazi period. But just as the defeat of Nazism had the effect of discrediting authors who could be presented as extolling war, so First World War authors like Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Erich Maria Remarque whose work embodied an anti-war message benefited from a renewed wave of war-weariness after 1945.

It is no coincidence that the reputation of the First World War poet who is most admired today, Wilfrid Owen, dates from the 1960s, a period which developed its own distinctive image of the 1914-18 war. The moral and intellectual timeliness of what writers have to say is at least as important for their standing with the critics as the way they say it: this has been evident in more recent times in the case of books (and films) about the Vietnam War.

In terms of actual quantity, more has now been written about the Second World War than about the First World War, except, it seems, in verse. That there is less poetry of the Second World War than the First must be attributed to a shift in the status of poetry during the intervening years, though this shift is not in itself a sign of decline in the form's real vitality, as the vast majority of First World War poems are distinctly reminiscent of nineteenth-century album verse and are less a statement of contemporary sensibility than a proof of the capacity of the outmoded to survive, in literature as elsewhere.

Equally, the lesser bulk of Second World War poetry is still bulky enough to include, potentially, some major poets. But, as already suggested, more than 99 per cent of First World War poetry is not very impressive, and if 99.9 per cent of First World War poets were not as good as Wilfred Owen or Isaac Rosenberg, the fact that none of the Second World War poets were as good may be put down to chance – including the chance of being recognised – as much as anything else.

With regard to prose writing in general, Second World War writing simply has never had the benefit of the ideological cross-currents that helped establish the reputation of Ernst Junger, Erich Maria Remarque, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, though some of the Second World War memoirs that have been published are very good indeed, especially some of those printed during the last twenty years when war reminiscences have been somewhat out of fashion. With regard specifically to fiction, the Second World War has probably inspired work of much higher quality than the First, though in many instances Second World War novels were produced by authors who either had previously written, or were later to write, better things: Evelyn Waugh, Norman Mailer, Albert Camus, Heinrich Boll may be cited as examples. Two British authors whose very best work, somewhat lost amongst large oeuvres of consistently high quality, was inspired by their wartime experiences at some distance from the firing line, are Anthony Powell and Graham Greene. None of the six writers just mentioned are normally seen specifically as war writers in the way Junger, Remarque or Sassoon are seen, despite their writings on other topics. There is no real objective reason for this: it is simply a matter of perspective, perhaps one should say, of critics' convenience.

But the question of how we see the past is not merely theoretic and academic. We live in a world which the events of 1914-18 helped to shape – for example both Iraq and the still-not-quite-dead federal state of Yugoslavia were creations of the post-war settlement – and, more important, our perception of modern warfare is to a large extent something which has been transmitted to us by those who experienced the 1914-18 war at first hand. What e they have to tell us, despite its remote incongruous- seeming and extravagantly horrific details, is still painfully relevant. The First World War ended seventy-five years ago this month, but events in Sarajevo still mock our hopes of a peaceful and secure future.

  • A.D. Harvey is a former lecturer and author of Collision of Empires - Britain in Three World Wars, 1795-1945 (Hambledon Press, 1992).

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