Five Best: Books on World War I

Five Best: Books on World War I
Five Best: Books on World War I

Summary

Selected by Michael Korda, the author, most recently, of ‘Muse of Fire: World War I as Seen Through the Lives of the Soldier Poets.’

Her Privates We

By Frederic Manning (1930)

1. All wars end in a war of words, as those who have survived on both sides tell their story. World War I is no exception. Books are still being written about it, more than a century after its end. However, one doesn’t have to read the six volumes and 3,261 pages of Winston Churchill’s history of World War I to find out what it was like to fight in it. Frederic Manning survived life in the trenches and the First Battle of the Somme—no mean feat—and went on to write a brilliant, unsparing novel that initially had to be published anonymously because of its profane, bracing dialogue. Manning captures the everyday language of the soldiers, for whom the enemy is not the Germans, but their own senior officers and the politicians at home. Ernest Hemingway called Manning’s book “the finest and noblest novel to come out of World War I." To learn about that war, this is the place to start.

Storm of Steel

By Ernst Jünger (1920)

2. What World War I was like on the other side is portrayed in Ernst Jünger’s searing memoir, “Storm of Steel." The author—who died in 1998 at the age of 102—describes with stinging accuracy his four years of fighting on the Western Front as a young infantry officer in the German army. During his service, he was wounded seven times and awarded Germany’s highest decoration for bravery, the coveted Pour le Mérite medal (also known as the “Blue Max"). If you want to understand hand-to-hand fighting in World War I, it’s all here: the mud, the blood, the wounded and the dead, the literally breathtaking sensation of being shelled by heavy artillery as the explosions empty the lungs. Jünger has an amazing memory and a keen eye for detail, and spares the reader nothing.

Good-Bye to All That

By Robert Graves (1929)

3. Robert Graves wrote more than 140 books, most of which are still in print, although he is best remembered for the novels “I, Claudius" (1934) and “Claudius the God" (1934) as well as his splendid war memoir, “Good-Bye to All That." In it, Graves tells the story of his life as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, one of Britain’s oldest regiments, during World War I. He recounts his time at the front with astonishing knockabout humor and high spirits, undimmed by the deadpan accuracy of his descriptions of the horrors of war. He recalls with endearing frankness his romantic friendship with his fellow poet and RWF officer Siegfried Sassoon. Graves subsequently married twice, had a tumultuous affair with the American writer Laura Riding and fathered eight children. He was a born storyteller: His book is unputdownable and will inspire in his reader equal parts laughter and tears.

In Memoriam

By Alice Winn (2023)

4. Alice Winn’s moving and beautifully written novel “In Memoriam" is based loosely on the relationship between the war poets Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. Ms. Winn transforms the two decorated and heroic infantry officers into the fictional Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood, fellow students at an English boarding school similar to the one the author attended. Gaunt is tall, rugged and a boxer like Graves; Ellwood is glamorous, charming and strikingly good-looking. Both are fated to endure the worst in the war. The plot is complicated and satisfying, delving into the complications of the English class system. Gaunt is badly wounded, captured by the Germans and sent to an officer’s prisoner of war camp. Ellwood has half his face blown off and loses an eye. Though wounded in body and spirit, they survive the war and bond together in love. Throughout, Ms. Winn quotes from the school magazine’s rolls of the dead and wounded to convey the numbing scale of lives lost and bodies ruined from 1914 through 1918.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

By T.E. Lawrence (1926)

5. If any book to come out of World War I qualifies as a masterpiece, that distinction applies to T.E. Lawrence’s war memoir, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom." It was the basis for “Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), directed by David Lean and starring Peter O’Toole as the conflicted, courageous creator of modern guerrilla warfare and the embittered architect of the contemporary Middle East. A blockbuster of more than 350,000 words, “Seven Pillars" is at once a history of the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918 against the Ottoman Turks and an account of Lawrence’s own involvement in the revolt. It is a blazing, passionate, unblinking page-turner by one of the most controversial and famous war heroes ever. From the moment Lawrence arrives in Jeddah and “the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and smote us speechless," to the book’s sad and violent end, “Seven Pillars" lives up its reputation as one of the best real-life adventure stories of all time, and a brutal primer on the clash in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I.

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