WWI Literature

Sunday, Jul 09, 2017

Literature of the First World War,
Part I

In one year the world will mark its 100 year anniversary from the end of The Great War. The First World War captivated the attention of people all over the world for many reasons, as did the literature which sprang from the experiences of the War. The reasons for the literature of the time being so varied, so popular and so well-written are numerous, but let us focus on the main reasons why it remains, to this day, so prominent in literary minds. 

At the onset of the Great War, there was still a certain amount of naivety and ignorance regarding what would happen. Only after the fighting began and the death toll rose rapidly did the innocence wear off and people quickly understood exactly what crushing desperation and grief felt like. The level of despair felt by not only the soldiers enduring long months cramped in underground bunkers and watching those around them become ill or die in battle but also by the family and friends at home waiting for their return (and waiting what was seeming like an unending amount of time) was constructive to writers’ creativity, no matter how destructive it was to their lives. 

Throughout the Great War, it was commonplace to find reading the main activity at the front lines. Often in the trenches classics were read, as it was sometimes difficult to get your hands on contemporary literature, and the soldiers - some of whom would go on to write their own memoirs or stories - paid close attention to detail, both on the page and in battle. Both during the Great War and shortly thereafter, literature presented itself with a subtle alertness and sadness that either directly or indirectly commented on the timelessness of the agony of war. Perhaps this is why these works are still popular today - they speak to any generation that goes through the kind of despair that only war can imprint on people’s hearts. 

A few of the heavy hitters of the time were books like All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Erich Maria Remarque and published in 1929. The novel about a young German soldier is a captivating look inside the war, from a very different perspective than the many English accounts of the war. Author Ernest Hemingway published A Farewell to Arms that same year, and despite half of the book being a love story, Hemingway is able to create the shadow of war hanging over Frederic and Catherine that many of the time knew all too well. Poetry was a very proliferate genre in the period as well, many poets being soldiers on the front lines - and often writing from the trenches. Poets such as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg never made it past the age of 30, being killed in battle, but nevertheless their poems made a deep and lasting impact on poetry of the first half of the century - and no doubt had they lived the impression would have been even greater. Researcher Catherine W. Reilly counted 2,225 English poets alone during the first World War - of whom over 1,800 were civilians - some soldiers, and some those on the sidelines, watching the horror unfold. 

Continued in the upcoming newsletter...