Great War Books

The Great War Bookshop Diary, April 2015 – 1915

Monday, March 30th

King George decides to takes a pledge to abstain from alcohol for the duration of the war. In South West Africa General Botha’s men advance.

Tuesday, March 31st

The German armies on the Western Front now comprise over 5,000,000 men. In New York, crowds flock to see the first epic of the film era – ‘The Birth of a Nation’.

Wednesday, April 1st

British planes bomb German submarine bases in Belgium. Over 30,000 British women have signed an official register to apply for war work.

 Thursday, April 2nd

Behind the German lines on the Western Front, scientists test how to release poison gas. ANZAC troops camped near Cairo riot through the city’s brothels.

Friday, April 3rd

French troops for Gallipoli arrive at their staging camp in Egypt.

Saturday, April 4th

Further progress reported in South West Africa. The strategic German settlement at Warmbad is occupied.

Sunday, April 5th

Two German officers escape from a prisoner of war camp at Denbigh in North Wales. They will stay on the run for a week before being re-captured.

Monday, April 6th

The Austrians want to take troops from the Eastern Front to defend themselves in the event of attack from Italy but the Germans object.

Tuesday, April 7th

British forces in Egypt start to leave for bases on the Greek islands to make their final preparations for the Gallipoli landings.

Wednesday, April 8th

The Germans near Ypres prepare chlorine gas for an attack but the wind is against them. Italy demands territory from Austria in return for neutrality.

Thursday, April 9th

German attempts to attack on rafts over the flooded ground north of Ypres are driven off. Germany accuses the United States of shipping contraband to the Allies.

Friday, April 10th

A ship carrying American war relief for Belgian refugees in Britain is sunk when a German submarine attacks a convoy near the Hebrides.

Saturday, April 11th

A giant German biplane with three powerful motors, the Staaken bomber, makes its maiden flight.

Sunday, April 12th

In the first pitched battle of the Mesopotamia campaign, a British force of 6,000 troops defeats a Turkish force of 12,000 at Shaiba.

Monday, April 13th

Lloyd George takes charge of the government’s Munitions Committee. A zeppelin is brought down by anti-aircraft fire near Ypres.

Tuesday, April 14th

A zeppelin reaches Wallsend, on Tyneside, and drops incendiary bombs: four civilian casualties. The work of the Red Cross is banned in German-occupied areas of Belgium.

Wednesday, April 15th

Italy builds up its forces in five areas facing the Austrian border. Night-time zeppelin raids against East Anglia: zero casualties.

Thursday, April 16th

The Canadian parliament approve a sum of $100,000,000 to be spent on the war. More than 100,000 Canadians are now in uniform.

Friday, April 17th

The British blow up German trenches on Hill 60 near Ypres with mines and, on occupying the craters, beat off counter attacks.

Saturday, April 18th

Fierce fighting for the craters at Hill 60. British aircraft locate and attack a German airstrip at the Dardanelles.

Sunday, April 19th

A French plane is shot down behind German lines, enabling the Germans to copy its device for allowing a machine gun to fire through its propeller.

Monday, April 20th

German artillery bombards Ypres ahead of a new attempt to seize the city using gas. The burning town’s civilian population departs in a hurry.

Tuesday, April 21st

The Austrians begin readying defences on their Italian borders in anticipation of attack.

Wednesday, April 22nd

The Germans use chlorine gas on a wide front to launch their mass assault against Ypres. French troops flee in panic. The Canadians move into the gap and steady the line.

Thursday, April 23rd

Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher becomes the first Canadian VC winner of the war after sticking by his machine gun when his comrades were killed.

Friday, April 24th

The death of the British poet, Rupert Brooke, is mourned on a French hospital ship. He died of blood poisoning caused by a mosquito bite on his lip.

 Saturday, April 25th

The British land at two places on the Gallipoli peninsula, ANZAC Cove and Cape Helles. Determined Turkish defenders pin the invaders to the beaches.

Sunday, April 26th

The British sustain heavy casualties at Gallipoli trying to establish their beachheads. On the Western Front, Lt. William Rhodes-Moorhouse wins the first VC in the air.

Monday, April 27th

Sir John French sacks one of his generals, Horace Smith-Dorrien, for urging a strategic retreat at Ypres. The cabinet authorises gas to be used as a weapon.

Tuesday, April 28th

British troops at Cape Helles advance two miles while the Royal Navy bombards Turkish positions. The Germans halt their attacks at Ypres.

Wednesday, April 29th

A zeppelin drops bombs on Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds: zero casualties.

Thursday, April 30th

The British at Cape Helles repulse a Turkish counter-attack after the government in Constantinople orders General Liman to ‘drive the invaders into the sea’.

Friday, May 1st

The first Mills hand grenades reach troops on the Western Front. A German submarine sinks an American tanker without warning in the Mediterranean.

 Saturday, May 2nd

The German government buys adverts in New York newspapers warning that ships flying the flags of the Allies will be attacked.

Sunday, May 3rd

Italy renounces its treaty obligations towards Austria, signalling the gradual mobilisation of its army.


Five Influential Great War Books, A Fairy Story

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… ”

“The what?”

“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.

The Cruelties Of Bibliomania

In the same sense that a lunatic is a nut case, colloquially speaking, a bibliophile is a book case, a person who delights in the literary, aesthetic and physical qualities of books to degree that can become obsessive. At The Great War Bookshop if a book is about the Great War, we must have it even if we know we’re not going to like it. Which in biblio-terms probably makes us maniacs rather than philiacs. Once upon a time, we used to be interested in all kinds of books but that’s a different story. If you were to show us one now we could hardly bear to pick it up, never mind open it. And where second-hand books are concerned we are hardcore. No Foyles or Blackwell’s for us. At any slack hour of the day you’ll find one of us nosing through the bargain basements of London’s Charing Cross Road. Overhead, drumming on the thick glass pavement blocks, we see the feet of Londoners hurrying about their lunch-hour business. Down in our dim dungeons for books, invisible fungi feed off the accumulated sediments of the book cases who’ve spent most lunch-hours of their working lives following the scent of — Ugh!There are some titles you want to vanish instantly.

From A College Window, by A.C. Benson.

Return To Jalna, by Mazo de la Roche.

Jungle Lovers, by Paul Theroux.

Pain goes with the territory when you spend hours per week with be-numbed optics and an acute pain in the neck from reading upside-down spine titles sideways. Bad books make bad backs. What drives us is an instinct that every book must find it’s reader.

The Leopard, by Giuseppe de Lampedusa.

Jupiter’s Travels, by Ted Simon.

The Glands Of Destiny, by Ivo Geikie-Cobb.

Dedicated book cases don’t have time for exploring distant literary or historic regions, however alluring. We know what we like and we don’t like anything else. When we’re not hunting or reading  we have wives and families to think about, trains to catch. We don’t have time for dawdling in the Charing Cross Road over books about glands or novels written by colleagues at what used to be the day job, not down here, in the dungeon of earthly delights, down on the bottom shelf …


In a strictly literal sense, the bottom shelf of a basement in the Charing Cross Road is as low as any book can sink especially if, like Cleft, it is brand new, freshly published and coutured in a fashionably expensive jacket. For a Great War book case Cleft is the opposite of serendipity. As soon as I connect with it as a title I’m thinking: split down the middle; relationships sundered; a crying shame for some or all of the characters involved; it’s another one of those modern novels for women who don’t give a fig for the Great War or its legacy in print. But it is worse than that. Because I know this novelist of modern relationships. She used to be a former close colleague. We shared the same work station in the same office. Teamwork was her day job, and mine too. She once confided to me, in the canteen, of her ambition to be a novelist one day in a crisply-tailored jacket. And there she is, smiling out at me from the rear flap of it, looking way better in black and white than she ever did in real life.

 With my thumbs, for old times’ sake, I prise Cleft apart at the midway point to sample the telling of the story of two Australians called Calley and Snit. They live in the present tense. They speak of their feelings, needs and desires in chopped up, cinema-style dialogue and half a page of it is quite plenty enough. Cleft leaps from my hand whence it came, back to the bottom-most shelf, leaving me with the sense that I have just wasted two and a half minutes of my precious lunch hour that could have been better spent with my neck at a more awkward angle. I am not the book case Cleft is looking for and that’s the end of the story.


 On the day I met Cleft in the Charing Cross Road  I could have taken it back to the office where I once worked and made its writer glow with pleasure.


“Hey! Look, everyone! It’s Cleft ! Sign it for me, Nikki, and when you’re famous it’ll be worth something. Well done! You must be really chuffed.”

But here’s the thing. Rules are rules. One: every book must find its reader fair and square; no ulterior motive can be allowed to impinge. Two: tmoney spent on a book that isn’t about the Great War cannot be spent on a book that is about the Great War; so that’s cash lost forever from the cause. Rule number three: you have to be famous and dead before your signature adds value to any book you might have written,  excepting J.K.Rowling. So Cleft stayed where it was. Which is why Nikki left work two years later probably thinking that none of her colleagues ever gave a shit for the novels she wrote with so much sustained dedication and all the talent she could muster but without any reference whatsoever to the Great War. Which must have been a bit of a shame for Nikki. But that’s Great War book cases for you, tight-fisted bastards all over and cheerfully wrapped up in their own narrow obsessions.


Why We Love Cyril Falls


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.