Novels set in the First World War are set in one of history’s most turbulent eras. On 28th July 1914, one calendar month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria declared war on Serbia, setting in motion events to change the world forever. Novels set in the First World War deal with the conflict, the bloodshed, the suffering and the lives of servicemen and the people the war touched. The centenary year of the bloodiest battle of WWI - The Somme - seems a perfectly apt time to pick up a novel to learn more and to honor the memory of those lost.
1 Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford (1924 – 1928)
Parade’s End is a set of four related novels by the English writer and poet Ford Madox Ford. The novels detail the life of Christopher Tietjens, a rich government official who serves in the British army during World War I. One of the novels set in the First World War to be adapted for television, Parade’s End was serialised in 2012 for the BBC, and starred Benedict Cumberbatch as protagonist Christopher.
2 Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (1993)
A sweeping epic of a novel that takes the reader through three generations of romance, heartbreak and the unimaginable effects of the First World War. The plot follows young Englishman Stephen Wraysford as he, like so many did, answers his country’s call and finds himself fighting on the front line. A truly unforgettable novel that is so much more than a simple war story.
3 A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)
Based on Hemingway’s real life experiences as a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I Italy, A Farewell to Arms is a touching and emotionally raw account of the camaraderie and strong bonds that are created in times of intense fear and danger. Filled with drama, romance and uncompromising realism, Hemingway’s novel packs a strong emotional punch.
4 Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear (2003)
Maisie Dobbs is a witty and intelligent young woman who, upon the outbreak of World War I, finds herself working as an army nurse on the front line. Her life changing experiences during this time inspire her to become a private investigator, and she soon finds herself having to face the horrors of the war once again with her very first case. An exciting and intriguing novel, and nice to have a female perspective on the First World War.
5 A Very Long Engagement by Sébastien Japrisot (1991)
A critically acclaimed bestseller in the author’s native France, A Very Long Engagement was then translated for the English speaking audience to equally big success. It's the emotional story of a fiancé’s determined mission to find out the truth about the fate of her lost soldier. A special novel that expertly weaves mystery, romance, drama and gritty realism into an unforgettable journey of war and its many hidden secrets.
6 The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek (1923)
Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek’s anarchic tendencies are on display for all to see in this biting satirical take on his perception of the pointlessness of war. The subversively comic story tells the tale of Švejk, a Czech soldier who becomes the most valued member of the Austrian army by bumbling his way to the front line via drinking, playing cards and tricking policemen and clergymen on his way. A telling metaphor for the way that the average man became hopelessly caught up in the machine that was World War I.
7 Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (2003)
Written by the then Children's Laureate of England, Michael Morpurgo, Private Peaceful tells the story of Tommo Peaceful, a young soldier on the front line in Belgium who tries to block out the horror of World War I by looking back at his family life as a child. Accessible for younger readers but just as poignant and endearing for adults, Private Peaceful is a heart-breaking and moving work of literature.
Any of these novels set in World War I will leave you emotional, charged with wonder at the resilience of we humans and even exhausted by the enormity of it all. I do hope you’ll give one a read. I’d love to hear other recommendations if you have them?
Please rate this article