Once upon a time, not very long ago, a British television producer was presented with an idea for a programme about the Great War by a bookseller. The producer said the bookseller’s idea definitely had potential but as the meeting was drawing warmly to a close he saw his boss, the commissioning editor for History programmes, on the other side of the glass wall of his office.
“Just a sec,” he said, “Terry needs to hear this. He loves this kind of thing.”
It turned out that Terry was the kind of commissioning editor for History programmes who did not, in fact, like people knowing more than him about History unless they happened to be professionally qualified academic historians. So although Terry thought the bookseller’s idea for a telly programme was ‘quite strong’ he couldn’t see how it could be ‘made to work’.
“What would you say,” he said, narrowing his eyes creatively, “what would you say were the most influential books about the First World War?”
Fair question. A seller of Great War books might reasonably be expected to know something about their context and significance. And the commissioning editor for History knew that some Literature slots were soon coming up for grabs.
“Influential in what sense?” said the book seller.
“You know,” said Terry. “What were the four or five most influential books that shaped the way we think about the First World War today?”
“Well,” said the bookseller. “Le Feu would have to be up there, obviously… ”
“You’d probably have to start with Le Feu. French. Under Fire. It was the first international best-seller of the Great War. Siegfried Sassoon raved about it. I think he might have lent his copy to Wilfred Owen when they were both in Dottyville together.”
“Yeah,” said Terry. “That kind of thing.”
Telly is useless at dealing with books. It needs action. Telly can only tell stories about books by dramatising their contents or by talking to writers. But a dramatised book, in telly terms, is a drama. And the writers with the most to say about the Great War are mostly dead. So an idea for a telly story about the books of the Great War was never going to get beyond the e-mail stage and the telly producers and the book seller all knew it. But the book seller wrote the email anyway and lived happily ever after.
Under Fire, by Henri Barbusse. Sub-title, The Story Of A Squad. A savage, violent depiction of life and death in the French trenches of the Western Front. Although Barbusse was 41 when the Great War started and judged to be unfit for military service he enlisted in the ranks and wrote Under Fire while recovering in hospital from wounds received at Verdun. It was published to rave reviews and considerable controversy in 1917 and quickly translated into English. ‘At last,’ said Siegfried Sassoon, ‘someone has brought war home’. The British bibliographer of Great War books, Cyril Falls, writing in 1930, describes it as a blatant example of anti-war propaganda designed to appeal to readers lusting for war horrors. ‘In detail it is more unreal than any British book of which one can think at the moment; in fact, with all the faults of a great deal of British war fiction, the latter is redeemed by a certain sturdy common sense which is absent from the work of M. Barbusse.’
All Quiet On The Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. A sentimental but ‘realistic’ account of the trench war from the German side in which the dominant theme is the futility of war and the essential integrity of those called upon to fight and die no matter how doomed the cause. Since publication in 1929 it has racked up the biggest sales of any war book in any language. Part of the explanation for its phenomenal sales was the Oscar-winning film of the book made in 1930. The Nazis also gave it a boost by burning All Quiet in public for its anti-militarist message. Falls got it completely wrong when he wrote: ‘A number of eminent critics [in 1929], made drunken with the uproar, wrote laudations which they probably regretted afterwards. Soon there will be a reaction, and all those whose brows are more than six inches high will vow that the book is worthless.’
Memoirs Of An Infantry Officer, by Siegfried Sassoon. The middle volume of a trilogy of fictionalised Great War autobiographies from an English Great War poet, mixing his lyrical perceptions of trench warfare with the sensibilities of a dutiful civilian-in-uniform whose humanity was tested by combat but not destroyed. Sassoon’s memoirs cemented the Western Front as a permanent feature in the landscape of Eng. Lit. Falls praised Sassoon for mapping the ‘vast gulf’ that separated the old pre-War certainties from the Modern era’s doubts, cynicism and uncertainty.
Testament Of Youth, by Vera Brittain. Perhaps the best book about the Great War by an English woman and certainly the best autobiography by one. A massive best-seller in its day and always kept in print. Testament is one of the founding texts of the ‘Lost Generation’ school of Great War writing and offers feminist critics a fully realised, emotionally charged account of one womans’ role in sustaining the British war effort. It was published in 1933, too late for comment by Falls.
Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth. This book was not a best-seller and, as far as English readers are concerned, it never will be. It evokes the impact of the Great War on a fictitious Austro-Hungarian family of low-ranking aristocrats. Most of the action takes place on the Eastern Front, which few English readers can get excited about. But when people ask ‘Why didn’t the Great War produce an epic comparable to Tolstoy’s War And Peace? the answer is Radetzky March. Roth died in self-exile in Paris in 1939, penniless and obscure.
All lists of great books are obliged to be subjective but if a discussion of comparative value is to take place it has to start somewhere.
Under Fire and All Quiet are probably worth their place in the front line but hard-core fans of Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones Of War might seek to argue against Siegfried Sassoon. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is drenched through with his Great War experience and, in the wider world-historical context, might be said to be the most influential book of the lot though it’s never been regarded as an explicitly First World War title. Likewise, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, a book that is inconceivable without the Great War and hugely influential but never considered as a WW1 text. John Buchan’s pulp fiction (eg. Greenmantle and The Thirty Nine Steps) is still selling prolifically a hundred years on but did he have a wider influence than his entertainment value? As for Joseph Roth, his claims would surely be disputed by supporters of T.E. Lawrence, whose Seven Pillars Of Wisdom is very often cited as the best prose in English to survive the test of time (helped of course by the David Lean/Peter O’Toole film).
No long-term reader of Great War books would find much difficulty coming up with a short list of titles to start an interesting discussion but it is unlikely to be happening any time soon on a telly screen near you.
The copyright in this article is held by Christopher Moore, 2014, and no reproduction is allowed in any form without written permission from the author.