Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

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In Parenthesis and First World War Poems from the Front

Much ink has spilt in the last century on the war poets of WW1 and the authenticity of their work in conveying the war experience. I’ve dipped into some of these when reading other books by or about the poets. (And of course I learned to recite In Flanders Fields at an early age, part of my Canadian birthright.) But I’ve waited until near the end of this project to dive into the deep end.

In Parenthesis

David Jones published In Parenthesis in 1937, a 137-page prose poem in seven parts about his time on the Western Front from December 1915 to July 1916. An artist known for painting, engraving, printmaking and letter design, this made his reputation as a writer. Indeed some consider it the greatest book about WW1. Continue reading


Despised and Rejected and The Absolutist

Tragic gay love story meets WW1 conscientious objectors.

This will not end well.

A number of novels on the Great War 100 Reads list have touched on issues of homosexuality in WW1.* Now it comes front and centre.

Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini (published as AT Fitzroy) and The Absolutist by John Boyne – two books published 93 years apart – both sensitively present the joy of realizing and the anguish of hiding what was considered a “perversion” at the time. Continue reading

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Memoirs of George Sherston

Having dived into the Regeneration trilogy, it seemed like a good time to read some of Pat Barker’s real-life protagonists. Siegfried Sassoon is first on the list. The Memoirs of George Sherston trilogy is Sassoon’s faintly fictionalized autobiography. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (the first two in the trilogy) recount his life from childhood into the war, to his arrival at Slateford, his fictional version of Craiglockhart War Hospital where Regeneration begins. (Sherston’s Progress is still on the reading list.) Continue reading

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A Farewell to Arms

I last read a Hemingway novel in high school. The Old Man and the Sea did not inspire me to pick up another one. As I recall, my adolescent self yawned in boredom.

But that was in another century.

And A Farewell to Arms presents itself as the ultimate American WW1 novel.

So in I dive.

The plot, in 60 words: Frederic Henry meets Catherine Barkley. He, an American serving as an ambulance driver in the Italian army. She, a British nurse serving in a hospital behind the Italian lines. The war draws them together and tears them apart … together, apart … repeat a few times. We are to believe it is love. And then Catherine meets a tragic end. Continue reading

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The Crowded Room

War or no war, provincial towns have a habit of sucking the life out of young women. Every generation of young women needs a parable to warn them to escape. Winnifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street could be the parable for her generation.

Muriel Hammond is the eldest daughter of a prominent family in the Yorkshire town of Marshington. Her father makes the money and trusts her mother spend it, and to make wise decisions about their daughters. (He would have taken more interest in a son.) The prominent women make it their duty to know everyone else’s business and to match their daughters in marriage to the best sons. A daughter’s duty is to care for her parents and to marry well. Continue reading

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The Enormous Room

I had a notion that E.E. Cummings’ book, The Enormous Room, was about prisoners of war. It is, but not in the usual sense of the phrase. The Enormous Room is an autobiographical novel about Cummings’ time under arrest – not by enemy forces, but by the US allied French government.

First, a brief account of the facts: Edward Estlin Cummings and his friend William Slater Brown were Americans who served with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps in WW1. In August 1917, the two were arrested by French authorities for suspicion of sedition. Brown expressed anti-war views in letters read by the censors, Cummings stood by his friend, and American functionaires offended by their fraternizing with French colleagues did nothing to help. They were held for four months at La Ferté Macé, a porte de triage, pending charges. Cummings was to be released on suspicion when consular intervention sent him home. Continue reading

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William – an Englishman

We all know people like that. They glom onto ideas without question or understanding. They spout out the dogma with conviction, as the one true path. They hang out only with those who share their outlooks. They read views that support their own and eschew any critique.

Meet William Tully. At 23 he lives with his mother and works as a nondescript clerk in a London insurance company. When his mother dies suddenly, she leaves him a sizable inheritance and the means to escape his existence as “the underling and creature of routine.” (ch I) Under the tutelage of a colleague, he becomes a Social Reformer.

William meets Griselda Watkins, “his exact counterpart in petticoats; a piece of blank-minded, suburban young womanhood caught into the militant suffrage movement and enjoying herself therein.” They share views on the Movement, the Voice of the People, the Woman Question, the Cause, Democracy Internationalism, Pacifism, the Folly of Militarism. (Yes, their beliefs are in Upper Case.) They marry (Griselda omitting the vow of obedience, of course) and honeymoon in an isolated cottage in the Belgian Ardennes. Continue reading

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Fear – La peur

We are pinned down under a systematic bombardment. Once again our lives are at stake and we are powerless to protect ourselves. We are lying in the ditch, flat as corpses, squeezed together to make ourselves smaller, welded into a single strange reptile of three hundred shuddering bodies and pounding chests. The experience of shelling is always the same: a crushing, relentless savagery, hunting us down. You feel individually targeted, singled out from those around you. You are alone, eyes shut, struggling in your own darkness in a coma of fear. You feel exposed, feel that the shells are looking for you, and you hide among the jumble of legs and stomachs, try to cover yourself and also to protect yourself from the other bodies that are writhing like tortured animals. All we can see are hallucinations of the horrible images that we have come to know through years of war. (p 288)

Jean Dartemont. Alter ego of author Gabriel Chevallier. Poilu in the French army. Signed up for adventure early in the war. Lived to tell the tale. Not a tale of bravery or heroism. The prime feeling is fear. Continue reading

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Eunice Fleet

Lily Tobias’ 1933 novel, Eunice Fleet, is a radical study of pacifism and conscientious objection. She shows the range of intolerance to resisting war – and how brave one must be to stand up for one’s convictions, no matter how unpopular.

Rather than putting the conchies front and centre, the story is told through the eyes of a spoiled, self-centred daughter from a middle-class Welsh family. When Eunice Granger’s mother dies and her father remarries – one of Eunice’s contemporaries – Eunice escapes by marrying Vincent Fleet. He loves Eunice. He has also shown his bravery, jumping from a ferry to save a young girl. Continue reading

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Under Fire – Le Feu

These are not soldiers, these are men. They are not adventurers or warriors, designed for human butchery – as butchers or cattle. They are the ploughmen or workers that one recognizes even in their uniforms. They are uprooted civilians. They are ready, waiting for the signal for death or murder, but when you examine their faces between the vertical ranks of bayonets, they are nothing but men. (p 223)

In his field notes, an unnamed narrator describes the other poilus in his French army squad and their exploits in the trenches. They are thrown together from all walks of life and forced to survive.

Le Feu: journal d’une escouade, Henri Barbusse’s fictionalized account of the war was published in 1916, while France was still at war. The English translation, Under Fire: The Story of a Squad was published the following year. It is staunchly anti-war – one of the first works to turn a mirror on the war and become a moral witness to its horrors and impact. It won France’s Prix Goncourt. Continue reading