First World War Literature

By Harvey, A. D. | History Today, November 1993 | Go to article overview

First World War Literature


Harvey, A. D., History Today


The 1939 war had barely completed its second year when writer Robert Graves began an article in The Listener, 'I have been asked to explain as a "war poet of the last war" why so little poetry has so far been produced by this one'. More than half a century later it seems one might equally well be asked to explain why the First World War looms so much larger in English Literature, as taught in schools and universities, than in the literatures of the other belligerents.

From the very first week, the 1914-18 war inspired enormous quantities of poetry and fiction. The claim that three million war poems were written in Germany in the first six months of hostilities is difficult to substantiate, but Catherine W. Reilly has counted 2,225 English poets of the First World War, of whom 1,808 were civilians. For example, William Watson (then an esteemed poet, today virtually forgotten) quickly decided that his war poems should be 'so much in evidence that people [would] be saying that W.W. is the real national poet in this crisis', and had sixteen different war poems printed in various newspapers in the first six weeks.

The listing.of wartime poets writing in French in Jean vic's La Litterature de la Guerre runs to eighteen pages. By 1915 the publication of war novels and personal reminiscences was also under way. One of the most influential of all war novels, Henri Barbusse's Le Feu, appeared in 1916, won the prestigious Prix Concourt in the following year, and by the Armistice had sold 200,000 copies in French: an English translation (Under Fire) came out in 1917, and a German translation was published in Zurich during the last months of the war. Among the novel's admirers were the English poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen. Vincente Blasco Ibanez's international best-seller, Los Cuatro Jinetes del Apocalipsis, which was made into a spectacular film after the war, starring Rudolph Valentino, was also first published in 1916, the English version, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, appearing in 1918.

There can be no dispute that the 1914-18 conflict was far more of a literary event than the previous continent-wide war, that of 1792-1815, though one tends to overlook how much was also written about this earlier struggle. William Matthew's British Autobiographies (1955), under the index entry for the Napoleonic and Peninsular Wars, lists eighty-seven published journals and memoirs by army personnel alone - including, in anticipation of Siegfried Sassoon's 1930s classic, a volume entitled Memoirs of an Infantry, Officer. There were also a couple of score novels by participants (John Davis' The Post-Captain of 1806 was the model for authors like Frederick Marryat, Edward Howard and Frederick Chamier whose naval yarns were a staple of young people's literature later in the nineteenth century) and a quantity of verse, some of it by combatants, nearly all of it deathly rather than deathless.

It seems however that warfare was not regarded as a suitable subject for literature, and though the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars extended over twenty-three years they figure as little more than an off-stage rumble in the works of most writers of the period. This was the case not only in Britain, where there was no military conscription and where the war was mainly something reported (very Sketchily) in the newspapers, but also in France, Spain and the Italian states. A partial exception was Germany, where the nationalist revival between 1809 and 1814 engendered some novels (quickly forgotten) and a great deal of verse, much of it still in print and making a contribution to German nationalist sentiment in 1914.

It is actually difficult to demonstrate that popular chauvinism was stronger, deeper or more widespread in 1914 than it had been a hundred years earlier, but a good case can be made for arguing that when the First World War began, the literary and intellectual climate was much more favourable to war literature than in any earlier period. …

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