From 1914 to 1918, Europe sacrificed a generation of men and asked overseas dominions and colonies to send their young men to feed the Minotaur. Tens of millions of people – civilian and military – were killed or wounded during the First World War. Even the United States, which only entered the war on April 6, 1917, sent more than 116,000 men.
For four years, much of Europe has marked the centenary of various battles. This year, it will mark the anniversary of the end of the Great War – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – with commemorative rituals recognizing all that was lost. (In the United States, November 11th is celebrated as Veterans Day, and as the date falls this year on a Sunday, National Day will be celebrated on Monday.)
Although few Americans do literature during the First World War, European writers – men who serve, women who wait and oppose the war – produce novels, memoirs and poems that are still almost unbearable to read for. their painful evocation of the battlefield and the emotional costs of the war.
US readers may be aware of "All Quiet on the Western Front" by Erich Maria Remarque, a veteran of the German Army, and "A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway, two novels of the First World War. published in the late 1920s. They may have also read Sebastian Faulks's relatively recent novel, "Birdsong" (1993), which chronicles the traumatic experiences of a World War I veteran, as well as the "Regeneration Trilogy" novels by Pat Barker (1991, 1993 and 1995), which were applauded for. their shell shock exploration. For those looking to learn more about the devastation of war, a good starting point might be with these six books:
"The Fire of the World" by Béla Zombory-Moldován (NYRB Classics)
Béla Zombory-Moldován was 29 years old when he was called to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army after the declaration of war. His memoir of the eight months he served – until his serious injury sent him home – gives an account of the war that broke out on the Eastern Front, where Russians, Cossacks, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks , Czechs, Romanians, Hungarians, Austrians and Germans struggled in horrible conditions. His heartbreaking story of being bombed gives insight into why so many survivors have returned home with what we now call PTSD.
No Man's Land by Simon Tolkien (Anchor Books)
The grandfather of Tolkien, famous author and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien, served in France for several months in 1916 until trench fever contracted. In this 2016 novel, Simon Tolkien addresses issues of class and rigid social structure as well as war. Adam Raine, the son of a worker supported by a wealthy man, abandons his studies at Oxford to serve in the army. But on the front, he discovers that people at home are lying about the war and the death of their sons.
"Schlump" by Hans Herbert Grimm (NYRB Classics)
Grimm published this 1928 novel anonymously, fearing that his absurd approach to the war would offend other Germans. That's what happened and when the Nazis took power, "Schlump" was burned and banned. In this black comedy, 17-year-old Schlump goes to war in hopes of "meeting girls". His initial mission is cushy – and a source of many zany moments – but his experiences at the front, where men are sacrificed in response to foolish orders, are transmitted with dark humor that masks rage and despair.
"The Absolutist" by John Boyne (Other press)
This exciting novel about the friendships of the war was published in 2011. English teenagers Tristan and Will meet during basic training and are deployed together on the Western Front. The intensity of their friendship leads to characteristic moments. In heartbreaking scenes and tender moments, Boyne explores the ways in which friends protect each other on the battlefield and how the stress and brutality of war can produce acts of courage and betrayal.
"The Winter Soldier" by Daniel Mason (Little, Brown)
In Mason's novel, published in 2018, Lucius studied medicine in Vienna at the beginning of the war. He volunteered to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army and was sent to the Carpathians, where he was the only doctor in a field hospital and where the soldiers he treated suffered horrific injuries. Sister Margarete, a secret nurse, adds a mystery to the story and complicates life in the hospital.
"Fear" by Gabriel Chevallier (NYRB Classics)
Chevallier's heartbreaking novel dating back to 1930, relating the passage of young Jean Dartemont into the French army, is a powerful mixture of horrible scenes of battlefields and poetic language. In one chapter, relief troops find that the soldiers for whom they were sent to help are all dead. From page to page, the details give the impression of being in a painting of the damned by Hieronymus Bosch. While on leave, Dartemont discovers that the French civilians are eager to continue a war which, according to them, covers the army with glory and condemns for its doubts. Dartemont said to his priest: "The God of infinite mercy can not be the God of the plains of Artois". And he concludes: "This war has also killed God."
Lorraine Berrywrote on books for the Guardian and the Salon, among others.