The supply of bibliographies of the Great War has conspicuously failed to keep pace with the volume of books produced on the subject. Even before the War was over, its bibliographers found themselves running out of stamina. Of those bibliographies that reached a semblance of completeness only two have stood the test of time: Temoins, by Jean Norton Cru (Les Enticelles, 1929), which deals with French books; and War Books by Cyril Falls (Peter Davies, 1931), which is more general and less prescriptive in the Englishness of its approach. Both books came out during a boom in sales triggered by the publication of All Quiet On The Western Front which brought a flood of titles onto the market as writers and publishers sought to benefit from the publicity generated by Remarque’s best-selling success.
Falls’ War Books divides Great War books into categories, History, Reminiscence and Fiction, and deals with them comparatively, awarding stars according to merit. He was not generous with approval. Falls, like Cru, served on the Western Front during the Great War. He was a Staff Captain with the 36th (Ulster) Division and therefore thoroughly familiar with the raw material of the infantry experience. After the War he worked on several volumes of the British Official History under the general editorship of Brigadier Sir James Edmonds. This led to a long career in military history, culminating with a professor’s chair at Oxford. If anyone knew about the Great War and its literature, that man was Cyril Falls.
In the category of ‘History, General’ Falls considered 223 books, from Abbott, G.F., Greece And The Allies 1914 – 1922 to Yapp, Sir Arthur, The Romance Of The Red Triangle. Six books in this category received the maximum approval rating of three stars by virtue of their ‘superior merit’; 16 books received two stars; 51 books received one star. In ‘History, Formations & Units’, Falls considered 119 books, from Aitken, Sir Max, Canada In Flanders, to Wyrall, Everard, The West Yorkshire Regiment In The War. Five books received two stars; 32 received one star. A total of 49 books were included by Falls in ‘History, Foreign’, from Anonymous, Les Campagnes Coloniales Belgesto Zwehl, Erich, Von Falkenhayn. Only one book in this category received three stars; six books received two stars; 19 received one.
In the category of ‘Reminiscence’, Falls considered 177 books, from Abraham, J. Johnson, My Balkan Log, to Young, Francis Brett, Marching On Tanga. Two books were awarded three stars; 12 received two stars; 33 received one star. In ‘Reminiscence, Foreign’, Falls considered 20 books from Bloem, Walter, Vormarsch, to Vogel, Dr Hofprediger Kilometer Mit Der Garde-Kavallerie. One book received two stars; six received one.
In the ‘Fiction’category, Falls considered 106 English language books and 12 foreign ones, from Acland, Peregrine, All Else Is Folly, to Zweig, Arnold, The Case Of Sergeant Grischa. Three books were awarded three stars; 14 received two stars; 31 received one.
So. Out of the 706 books Falls read in order to write War Books 12 were considered by him to be of superlative merit; 52 were judged to be very good; 172 merely good of their type. He wrote in his Preface that he expected his list to prove disputatious, but probably not for applying too rigorous a standard of judgement. At the time Falls was active, slang, woolly thinking, posturing, polemic, immodesty, hyperbole, wilful idiosyncrasy and blatant pandering to the market were considered to be bad behaviour in a serious writer. Exactitude, emotional restraint and craftsmanship were esteemed. Such conventions held strong while British universities produced graduates in their thousands. Today we produce them in their hundreds of thousands and every person with a computer can write and publish without constraint. Which is great if people have something interesting to say and a powerful way of expressing it. Which is why we like Cyril Falls. In the arena of Great War books he exerts the power to discriminate. Here are the twelve titles receiving his maximum three stars:
Official History Of The Great War, Military Operations: Gallipoli, by Brig.-General. C.F. Aspinall-Oglander, Heinemann, 1929. ‘No serious student of the War can avoid reading this book.’
The World Crisis, 1911 – 1918, by the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill, Thornton Butterworth, 1923-1929. ‘It is probably the best general guide to the development of British policy during the War yet published.’
Official History Of The Great War, Military Operations: France and Belgium, Vols I, II, III, IV, by Brig.-General Sir J.E. Edmonds and Major A.F. Becke, Macmillan, 1922 onwards. ‘The reader can always feel secure that he will find no essential neglected.’
Revolt In The Desert, by T.E. Lawrence, Cape, 1927. ‘The book belongs to the select top shelf of war literature.’
History Of The Great War Based On Official Documents. The War In The Air., by Sir Walter Raleigh and H.A.Jones, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922 – 1928. ‘Altogether a very fine piece of work.’
Fix Bayonets!, by John W. Thomason Junior, Scribner, 1926. ‘The best American book on the War, and one of the best books of any nationality on the War.’
Schlachten Des Weltkrieges. In Einzeldars-Stellungen bearbeitet Und Herausgegeben Im Auftrage Des Reichsarchivs, Berlin, Stalling, 1921 onwards. ‘The care and skill with which they have been prepared are most praiseworthy.’
Undertones Of War, by Edmund Blunden, Cobden-Sanderson, 1928. ‘An almost perfect picture of the small events which made up the siege warfare of France and Flanders.’
Marching On Tanga, by Francis Brett-Young, Collins, 1917. ‘So much grave beauty of description and of sentiment it is hard to find in any other book descriptive of the War.’
The Whistlers’ Room, by Paul Alverdes, Secker, 1929. ‘The little story is half comedy, half tragedy, and in its fashion a masterpiece in miniature.’
Debits And Credits, by Rudyard Kipling, Macmillan, 1926. ‘Equal to the best their author achieved in the great old days.’
Her Privates We, by Private 19022 [Frederic Manning], Peter Davies, 1930. ‘Here indeed are the authentic British infantrymen.’
The men and women who served in uniform, 1914 – 1918, were better placed to judge the authentic voices of the Great War than their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They recognised the rarity of the superlative in any form of activity and tended to judge writing about the Great War according to the seriousness of what was at stake. Falls was probably typical of his class and type. He deprecated the exhibitionist and valued originality, sincerity and authenticity. He also foresaw the further rapid publication of Great War books, which is why every section of his book is provided with blank pages allowing the serious reader to add new titles as they appeared. Surveying the field of Great War books today, and despite the oceans of ink spilled on the printing them since 1931, it is questionable whether the ghost of Cyril Falls, should it appear in a bookshop near you, would feel obliged to reconsider too many of his literary judgements nor find an excess of new works worthy of his highly old-fashioned and discriminatory three-star accolades.
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Copyright in this work is held by the Great War Bookshop, 2014.