The general reader can choose from thousands of books published on the war. In our publication Do mention the war we have produced our own bookshelf, with five fiction and five non-fiction books.
Perhaps the first question for 2014 is why the world went to war in 1914. Cambridge professor Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers plots a pacey path through the enormous complexity of Balkan tensions, imperial chess games and personal rivalries across the capitals of Europe.
For the war as a whole, Hew Stracahn’s The First World War offers an admirably concise narrative, particularly capturing how the fast-moving drama of the early months of the war contrasts with the familiar trench stalemate to follow, while Niall Ferguson’s collection of fascinating essays, The Pity of War, concludes that the war was a tragic blunder. Gary Sheffield’s Forgotten Victory puts forward the case that it was right for Britain to fight in 1914, and seeks to debunk the idea of lions led by donkeys. To End all Wars by Adam Hochschild offers compelling personal stories. For example how the Pankhurst family was split by disagreements over the war, but also how Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, maintained a close personal relationship with his pacifist sister.
Daniel Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory interrogates how the war’s meaning has been contested over the decades since it was fought. One example is how Vera Britain’s Testament to Youth, first published in 1933, sold 120,000 with its description of how the Great War changed a generation. Its pacifist viewpoint fell out of fashion after the second world war, but it was revived as a feminist classic in the 1970s and 1980s, with a major film being released in 2014.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) maintains a popular status as the first Great War classic, supplemented much more recently by Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong (1994) and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful (2004) enables younger readers to debate themes of courage, cowardice and pacifism. On the stage, RC Sherriff’s classic Journey’s End endures, though its plot and characters have now become staples of wartime fiction since.
Can novelists find new aspects to illuminate during the centenary? Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2013 collection included an extract from Kamila Shamsie on the experience of Indian troops convalescing in the Brighton Pavilion. Her novel A God in Every Stone will be published by Bloomsbury in April 2014.
Which books have you learnt most from? Share your recommendations at #WWI books