Yes, There Are Many Books

Almost every book about Great War literature starts with some sort of admiring/despairing/celebratory/apologetic declaration of enormity. There are so very many Great War books! Such a monumental–nay, colossal!–topic ! And such prodigious demand, else I would not dare this humble volume to supply! And then from greatness to the dominance of defence.

By paragraph number two of the introduction, however, the author is usually carving out an attractive niche for the very tome you hold in your hands and may very well purchase. Carving out–and wiring in, with the Lewis guns on the flanks and communications trenches well-traversed. Well, fine. But this project is both more and less than a book, and it’s free, so there is no need for me to rush to extend my flanks. You may proceed with probing attacks and few worries about a jumpy subaltern calling down the preregistered SOS barrage. Yes: there are already lots of other books on this subject, while whole other swaths of human historical experience and literary production are left relatively unexplored, yet here are a few hundred thousand (eventually) more words, traversing half the horizon, sprayed willy-nilly out over the internet until the barrel wilts with the heat of literary friction.

Well, you don’t have to read it, after all: feel free to bypass or overrun our position. But you are cordially invited to stop by and dig in for the long haul. Here we are amidst the Great War multitudes, but manning a lonely pillbox, flanks in the air, more Hiroo Onoda than one of Haig’s menagerie.

And so to the matter at hand. To strain the metaphor past good sense (or,  I suppose, to turn ninety degrees from the defense-in-depth joke to examine the concrete foundations of the position) we should acknowledge the support troops, the lines of communication, the quartermasters, the munitionettes, and all the intermittently bereavable parents who have supplied fodder, sand-bag filler, and shiny-jacketed packets of whistling knowledge. Most Great War books–most books, too–are more narrowly focused, mining (or assembling) the life and work of one or a few significant figures. Others are broad-but-shallow anthologies. I’ve built my little strongpoint atop a shifting, scrabbly pile of hundreds of both, and shored it up with the pining of more than a few historians and critics. There are no staff officers or politicians to call us on the carpet for undue ungratefulness to sources, but it would be ungallant not to give credit and–let’s abandon the metaphor, at long last; no need to fight to the last man–would defeat one goal of the project, which is to give succour and encouragement to anyone who, though perhaps attracted by the day-by-day gimmick, wants to dig deeper into a fascinating and for-all-practical-purposes-endlessly rewarding subject.

This, then, is the “further reading” section, to which I anticipate adding as the war lenghtens. All quotations and any passage drawing heavily on a single source will be footnoted within the entries, so a comprehensive bibliography is probably, in this day and age, unnecessary. Here, then, I want to acknowledge here the books which influence much or all of the fussy opinionating and trenchant curating that goes on on a daily basis, as well as the anthologies from which I have drawn most heavily in selecting the featured authors and strip-mined so much datable writing. Finally, since I’ve done a lot of reading and browsing, I would like to ever-so-helpfully point those seeking deeper knowledge of particular writers/subjects in particular directions. I consider myself, in my pride, to be a more skillful prescriber of knowledge than an algorithm (yes, rage, dying light, etc.)

Looming Influences and Knowledgeable Guides

But we digress just a wee bit. Books! The keystone of the stylishly revealed structure, the great-grand-agnostickal-godfather of the project, is Paul Fussell, may his memory be for an everlasting goad to good reading. Read more about The Great War and Modern Memory here. Samuel Hynes and Jon Stallworthy are the other all-but-indispensable critics–more on them as I dig out and re-use their books. For historical background or determined flight from all this literary crap to either the hard(er) facts of history or a more socially balanced, Tommy’s-eye-view of the trenches, Richard Holmes’ Tommy is the best place to start. Malcom Brown’s cullings of the Imperial War Museum’s archives are also busy and informative.

Anthologies and Compilations

There are a ton of poetry anthologies; the old Up the Line to Death is good, as is The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. There is, of course, much recycling of the same few famous poems. A somewhat depressing sourcebook–more for the serious enthusiast, especially one intending a tour of the cemeteries in France–is Anne Powell’s A Deep Cry, which painstakingly assembles facts about the life and death of more than eighty poets who were killed in action or died as a result of the war (and provides examples of their work). Powell’s work in assembling dated/datable material on the less famous poets has been a major boon–but her book is also, in the terms of this project, an enormous spoiler, since it proceeds poet by poet, in the chronological order of their deaths.

Beginning in mid-1915–but much more so after July 1916–there will be relatively short periods (a week, a month or two) during which the project closely follows a particular soldier through an intense experience. Sometimes we will still be working simply from their own memoirs or letters, but often these closer-focus, single-individual arcs will draw heavily from the work of later researchers, biographers, or even descendants of the Great War participant. These books should be acknowledged here as well.

Recommendations on Individual Writers

Of the writers so far discussed, here are my recommendations for initial recourse. If the writer is not listed below, this probably means that you should seek out their own prose memoir/autobiography, which will be cited in footnotes and are otherwise easily discoverable. (I’d rather not discuss them explicitly, since memoirs are a fairly reliable indicator both of survival into peacetime, and a war understood with all the filters of retrospect. I want to give at least a scrim-full of cover to the innocence of those of you who are invested in the day-by-day-and-no-future-spoilers conceit.)


Edmund Blunden: Webb, Barry. Edmund Blunden. (But read Undertones of War).

Julian Grenfell: Mosley, Nicholas. Julian Grenfell: His life and the times of his [redacted].

The Grenfell twins:  Buchan, John.  Francis and Riversdale Grenfell.

Thomas Hardy:  Tomalin, Claire.  Thomas Hardy.

Wilfred Owen: Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred Owen.

Edward Thomas:  Hollis, Matthew.  Now All Roads Lead To France. Farjeon, Eleanor. Edward Thomas: The Last

Ronald Tolkien: Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien, A Biography. Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War.

Henry Williamson: Williamson, Anne. A Patriot’s Progress: Henry Williamson and the First World War.