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Top 20 World War I books and poets

Countries around the world are marking the centennial of the start of World War I today. Heads of state gathered for ceremonies to commemorate the grim anniversary. Here is a recap of World War I books and poets in honor of those who fought in the “war to end all wars.”

The Duchess of Cambridge at St. Symphorien Military Cemetery in Mons, Belgium.
The Duchess of Cambridge at St. Symphorien Military Cemetery in Mons, Belgium.Photo by Pool/Getty Images

History

"The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World" by Greg King and Sue Woolmans focuses on the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Princess Sophie. Royalty and romance collide with history in this look at the couple who married for love and were later struck down by an assassin's bullets. Spoiler alert: After seeing his wife shot dead instantly, and though mortally wounded himself, the Archduke's last words were, "Sophie, Sophie, you must live for the children."

"July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914" by Thomas Otte looks at the diplomatic history of the outbreak of World War I. This thoughtful book examines the mistakes European rulers made in the weeks following the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand that led to war. The collapse of diplomacy is nothing new to us today, but the years leading up to the war had been so peaceful, war must have seemed unimaginable at the time.

"Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I" by John S. D. Eisenhower with Joanne Thompson Eisenhower is a history of the American involvement in the war. This detailed account of the American Expeditionary Force features maps and a solid bibliography.

Poets

Wilfred Owen possibly the greatest and most tragic poet of World War I, died just one week before the Armistice was declared. Stripped of the sentimentality and blind patriotism of war poems of the past, Owen’s poems were unlike any written before about war. His “Dulce et Decorum est” is so famous an anti-war poem, it nearly eclipses the original Latin poem by Horace “Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori” from which the title is borrowed. His friendship with poet Siegfried Sassoon helped inspire his later works, and also inspired the play “Not About Heroes” by Stephen MacDonald.

Siegfried Sassoon wrote powerful and often brutally honest poems about his experience of the war. “How to Die” bristles with irony and barely suppressed rage. “Base Details” displays Sassoon’s biting wit. Sent for treatment of neurasthenia to the Craiglockhart military hospital, Sassoon wrote poems for the hospital’s magazine “The HYDRA,” and met Wilfred Owen, the magazine’s editor for six issues, and also a patient. Siegfried Sassoon’s journals are now digitized and available online through the Cambridge University Digital Library.

Edward Thomas, was a writer, literary critic and essayist for years before his friendship with Robert Frost led him to take up writing poetry just three years before he was killed at Arras in 1917. The last years of his life inspired the 2013 novel “A Conscious Englishman” by Margaret Keeping.

Isaac Rosenberg, artist and poet, studied at the famous Slade School in London. He wrote moving and powerful trench poems like “Returning, We Hear the Larks” and “A Worm Fed on the Heart of Corinth.” “Break of Day in the Trenches” features the brilliant and surprisingly witty description of a rat leaping across the poet’s hand in the trench.

Robert Graves survived the war and lived to the ripe old age of 90. More famous today for his autobiography of his wartime experience, “Goodbye to All That,” and his Roman historical novel “I, Claudius,” Graves wrote war poems that pull no punches, befitting the former boxer turned writer.

Rupert Brooke was 27 years old when he died on April 23, 1915 on the way to Gallipoli. In his short life, he wrote some beautiful lyrical poetry. In death, he became a symbol of the Lost Generation. His most famous poems, “The Dead” and “The Soldier” took on a new level of profundity, and his legend still inspires writers today. Jill Dawson’s 2009 biographical novel “The Great Lover” features Rupert Brooke in the years leading up to the war that would make him a household name.

Vera Brittain served as a nurse in the war that claimed the lives of so many of her loved ones. Written in August 1916, the poem “Perhaps” skillfully expresses the feelings of loss and ambivalence about coping with grief after her fiancé was killed by a German sniper’s bullet. Her memoir “Testament of Youth” about her life during the war was published in 1933.

Ivor Gurney, poet and musician/composer, struggled with mental illness throughout his life, even attempting suicide in 1918. His wartime experience led him to write emotionally-charged poems with strong musicality and rhythm as only a musician could. The war haunted his life and work until his death from tuberculosis at age 47.

John McCrae, the Canadian poet and surgeon, wrote the famous “In Flanders Fields” in 1915 after a friend and former student was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres. The poem gave the world the iconic image of the poppies that have since become synonymous with remembrance of the war dead. McCrae succumbed to pneumonia in January of 1918. His collected poems were published posthumously that same year.

Fiction

"A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway is based on Hemingway's own experience as an ambulance driver in World War I. The doomed love affair is a classic. Tame by today's standards, the film version of the book with Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper was controversial in its time for the indecently long kiss between the stars.

Regeneration” by Pat Barker is another novel set during World War I. The start of an award-winning trilogy, “Regeneration” tells the story of poet Siegfried Sassoon and his time at Craiglockhart War Hospital where he was treated for neurasthenia after he refused to continue fighting. We meet regular soldiers, fictional and non-fictional people, as they struggle with the psychological effects of the war in this riveting book.

Birdsong” by Sebastian Faulks was recently made into a film starring Eddie Redmayne as the young Brit who spent time in pre-war France having an affair with a married woman, before getting caught up in World War I. The novel skips back and forth in time, but the characters are compelling enough to keep you hooked.

Life in the Tomb” by Stratis Myrivilis first appeared in installments in a Greek newspaper from April 1923 to January 1924. The author later expanded and revised his work and the novel was published in Athens in 1930 to great acclaim. In journal form, it tells the story of life in the trenches. The English translation is by Peter Bien.

The Master Butchers Singing Club” by Louise Erdrich is a stunning novel about German Americans in the early part of the 20th century. Starting at the end of World War I, then post-war immigration to the United States, the novel follows a dynamic group of characters through the interwar period and into World War II. The author’s own family history provided inspiration for the novel, adding further depth to this remarkable book.

A Test of Wills” by Charles Todd published in 1996, is the first of the series about a shell-shocked vet/detective Ian Rutledge solving mysteries in post-World War I Britain. The most recent installment, the sixteenth of the series, “Hunting Shadows,” was published in 2014. The books are co-authored by the mother and son writing team of Caroline and Charles Todd, though they publish under the name Charles Todd.

"My Dear I Wanted to Tell You" by Louisa Young is a beautifully told story that follows young lovers, Riley Purefoy and Nadine Waveney, and married couple Peter and Julia Locke, as the Great War unfolds and consumes their lives. Opening with a prologue in the thick of the war, the story backtracks to reveal how Riley and Nadine met as children and then fell in love in spite of the class differences that would normally have kept them apart. The war breaks out and turns the world upside down.

Winter of the World” by Ken Follett is the second book in the Century Trilogy. It follows the huge cast of characters, historical figures, the families and the next generation, from the first novel and the end of World War I into the 1930’s and World War II. If you haven’t read “Fall of Giants,” the first book of the trilogy, please do. It will make keeping track of all the characters and their complicated relationships so much easier. It’s also an excellent read.

These books are available online, at your favorite bookshop and your local library.

For more information on World War I, click on the World War I centenary website and Oxford University’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive.