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United States World War I soldiers reading in the War Library Service section of the Red Cross building at Walter Reed Hospital. (The Granger Collection, New York)

Five Books on World War I

Military history, memoir, and even a novelized series make this list of can’t-miss books about the Great War

In the 1990s, British author Pat Barker penned three novels: Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995). Though fictional, the series, about shell-shocked officers in the British army, is based, in part, on true-life stories. Barker’s character Siegfried Sassoon, for instance, was closely based on the real Siegfried Sassoon, a poet and soldier in the war, and Dr. W.H.R. Rivers was based on the actual neurologist of that name, who treated patients, including Sassoon, at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland. The New York Times once called the trilogy a “fierce meditation on the horrors of war and its psychological aftermath.”

From Hochschild: The finest account of the war in recent fiction, written with searing eloquence and a wide angle of vision that ranges from the madness of the front lines to the fate of war resisters in prison.

The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), by Paul Fussell

After serving as an infantry officer in World War II, Paul Fussell felt a kinship to soldiers of the First World War. Yet he wondered just how much he had in common with their experiences. “What did the war feel like to those whose world was the trenches? How did they get through this bizarre experience? And finally, how did they transform their feelings into language and literary form?” he writes in the afterword to the 25th anniversary edition of his monumental book The Great War and Modern Memory.

To answer these questions, Fussell went directly to firsthand accounts of World War I written by 20 or 30 British men who fought in it. It was from this literary perspective that he wrote The Great War and Modern Memory, about life in the trenches. Military historian John Keegan once called the book “an encapsulation of a collective European experience.”

From Hochschild: A subtle, superb examination of the literature and mythology of the war, by a scholar who was himself a wounded veteran of World War II.

The First World War (1998), by John Keegan

The title is simple and straightforward, and yet in and of itself poses an enormous challenge to its writer: to tell the full story of World War I. Keegan’s account of the war is, no doubt, panoramic. Its most commended elements include the historian’s dissections of military tactics, both geographical and technological, used in specific battles and his reflections on the thought processes of the world leaders involved.

From Hochschild: This enormous cataclysm is hard to contain in a single one-volume overview, but Keegan’s is probably the best attempt to do so.

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