Prose responses to World War One

How did prose authors represent World War One? From works of optimism and patriotism to disillusionment and criticism, Vincent Trott looks at a range of voices from across Europe.

Nothing of Importance: A Record of Eight Months at the Front

Nothing of Importance: A Record of Eight Months at the Front

Published in 1917Nothing of Importance records Bernard Adams's personal experiences of eight months on the Western Front.

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In his war memoir, Nothing of Importance: A Record of Eight Months at the Front (1917), Bernard Adams compares the experience of war to a deck of cards:

Spades represent the dullness, mud, weariness and sordidness. Clubs stand for another side, the humour, the cheerfulness, the jollity, and good-fellowship. In diamonds I see the glitter of excitement and adventure. Hearts are a tragic suit of agony, horror and death. And to each man the invisible dealer gives a succession of cards

In encapsulating the multifaceted nature of war, both the allure and the terror, Adams perfectly reflects the breadth of responses we find in prose narratives of the war. From novels and short stories to memoirs and diary entries, combatants and non-combatants alike sought to depict the experience of war, and did so in varying ways.

The diary of a dead officer

‘Diary of a Dead Officer’: diary and poems by Arthur Graeme West, who enlisted in 1915 and was killed in 1917. The diary is one of the first published realistic accounts of life in the trenches.

Diary of a Dead Officer offers a realistic account of life as a British officer written written by Arthur Graeme West who was killed in 1917.

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Wartime prose

Prose, particularly in the form of novels and memoirs, is often a vehicle for sustained reflection on an event long after it has taken place. Many accounts of the First World War, however, were written during the conflict. Nothing of Importance was penned shortly after the events it describes, long before the war reached its conclusion. Sometimes diaries, in their raw, unmediated form found an audience. Arthur Graeme West’s record of his service as an officer on the Western Front was published posthumously as The Diary of a Dead Officer in 1918. Despite his voluntary enlistment, the diary records West’s growing contempt for army life and his conversion to pacifism.

Men, Women, and Guns

Men, Women, and Guns

Under the pseudonym ‘Sapper’, Herman Cyril McNeile wrote short stories about his experiences of war.

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However, most popular works published during the war offered optimistic, patriotic portrayals. Ian Hay, in his novel The First Hundred Thousand (1915), provided a light-hearted and humorous account of life at the front. Writers like Escott Lynn in his adventure novels, and ‘Sapper’, in his various short stories, depicted war as a fulfilling and exciting endeavour.

But if these authors dealt their characters clubs and diamonds, the French author Henri Barbusse dealt his characters spades and hearts. In his novel Le Feu (Under Fire), published in French in 1916, translated into English in 1917), Barbusse provided a vehement denunciation of militarism. Known for his brutal realism, Barbusse captured in stark, graphic language the appalling horror of mechanical warfare. In this account, soldiers are not ‘adventurers or warriors’; rather they are ‘civilians uprooted’, who ‘await the signal for death or murder’.

Under Fire: The story of a squad

Under Fire: The story of a squad

Translated from the French novel Le Feu first published in 1916, Under Fire: The Story of a Squad realistically covers the horrors of the war.

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Silence?

In the years immediately following the war some publishers were reluctant to promote war books. Nevertheless, novels such as Gilbert Frankau’s Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant (1919), and Roland Dorgelès’ Les Croix de Bois (1919) were enormously successful. They tended, however, to avoid the anti-war template laid down by Barbusse and argued that, despite having been horrific at times, the war was justified.

As the 1920s progressed, more critical voices were heard. Veterans such as e e cummings in the USA and C E Montague in Britain challenged the assumptions that had underpinned the war.[1] Greater temporal distance triggered a disillusioned reflection on the legacy of the conflict. During this period modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and Ford Madox Ford also destabilised the traditional, heroic memory of the war through their experimentation with literary forms.[2] Fragmented narratives and stream of consciousness techniques revealed the potentially devastating effects of the conflict on the human psyche.

The ‘war books boom’

Between 1928 and 1933 there was a great explosion in the publishing of war prose – particularly in Britain, Germany and the USA. The most successful of these works was Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, first serialised in Germany in 1928. The subsequent wave of bestselling war literature was typified by a blurring of genres. Books presented as novels, like Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We (1930) were actually thinly veiled memoirs, which drew heavily on their authors’ personal experiences. Conversely, works presented as autobiographical, such as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That (1929) incorporated fictionalised elements for deliberate dramatic effect.

Popular war books were not only written by male combatants. Vera Brittain asked ‘Why should these young men have the war to themselves?’, when promoting Testament of Youth (1933), an autobiographical account of her wartime nursing experiences. Similarly, other women, such as Mary Borden and Helen Zenna Smith sought to depict war from a female perspective.[3]

Disillusionment?

Typical of many works of the ‘war books boom’ was a rejection of the traditional values, of the heroism and patriotism that had characterised many wartime books. In works like All Quiet on the Western Front the war was portrayed in terms of relentless horror and futile waste. It would be wrong to assume, however, that the more edifying image of the war had been entirely eroded by the late 1920s. There was still a demand for more positive representations. Charles MacArthur’s novel War Bugs (1929), for example, celebrated the heroism and fighting spirit of the men in the 42nd ‘Rainbow’ division of the US army, whilst authors like Sapper remained popular. In fact, in Britain the disillusionment that characterised works like All Quiet on the Western Front sparked great controversy. In his memoir A Subaltern’s War (1929), Charles Carrington reflected the views of many critics with his powerful riposte to the emphasis on horror and futility in contemporary war literature.

The canon

Taken together, the huge variety of First World War prose reflects the diversity of the war experience – from the comradeship to the horror, from the heroism to the boredom. Since the 1960s, however, a canon of war prose has emerged which has privileged disillusioned works by the likes of Barbusse, Remarque, and Sassoon over the conservatism and patriotism of Sapper or Frankau. This is perhaps partly for literary and artistic reasons, but it also reflects political and ideological motivations. It is worth remembering, however, that regardless of the hand they were dealt, writers of prose could often react in varying ways to the experience of war. Disillusionment was not the only response.

Footnotes

[1] See e e cummings’ The Enormous Room (1922) and C E Montague’s Disenchantment (1922).

[2] See Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy (1924 - 1928), consisting of Some Do Not...(1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up— (1926) and Last Post (1928).

[3] See Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone (1929) and Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet: Stepdaughters of War (1930).

  • Vincent Trott
  • Vincent Trott is a collaborative doctoral student with the Open University and the British Library. His thesis, entitled the ‘First World War: History, Literature and Myth’, analyzes the publishing and reception history of First World War literature, exploring the impact of literary works on popular perceptions of the conflict. He is also assisting with the curation of the British Library’s exhibition to mark the centenary of the First World War in 2014.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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