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A First World War reading list from Oxford World’s Classics

As the first year of the World War I centenary continues, here is a selection of classic literature inspired by the conflict. Some of it was written in the years after the war, while some of it was completed as the conflict was in progress. What they all have in common, though, is an unflinchingly expression of the horrors of the First World War for those in the thick of the battles, and those left behind at home.

The Poetry of the First World War, edited by Tim Kendall

The First World War brought forth an extraordinary amount of poetic talent. Their poems have come to express the feelings of a nation about the horrors of war. Some of these poets are widely read and studied to this day, such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, and Ivor Gurney. However, others are less widely read, and this anthology incorporates that writing with work by civilian and woman poets, along with music hall and trench songs.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This, Woolf’s fourth novel, prominently features Septimus Warren Smith, a young man deeply damaged by his time in the First World War. Shellshock causes him to hallucinate – he thinks he hears birds in a park chattering in Greek, for instance – and the psychological toll wrought by war drives him to a profound hatred of himself and the whole human race.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford was in the process of writing The Good Soldier when the First World War broke out in 1914. Inevitably this influenced his work, and this novel brilliantly portrays the destruction of a civilized elite as it anticipates the cataclysm of war. It also invokes contemporary concerns about sexuality, psychoanalysis, and the New Woman.

Greenmantle by John Buchan

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In Greenmantle – published during the First World War, in 1916 – Richard Hannay travels across Europe as it is being torn apart by war. He is in search of a German plot and an Islamic Messiah, and is in the process joined by three more of Buchan’s heroes: old Boer Scout Peter Pienaar; John S. Blenkiron, an American determined to fight the Kaiser; and Sandy Arbuthnot, Greenmantle himself, who was modelled on Lawrence of Arabia. In this rip-roaring tale Buchan shows his mastery of the thriller and of the Stevensonian romance, and also his enormous knowledge of international politics before and during World War I.

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf

This is Virginia Woolf’s third novel, and was published in 1922. It is an experimental portrait of Jacob Flanders, a young man who is both representative and victim of the social values which led Edwardian society into the First World War. Even his very name indicates his position as the archetypal victim of the war: Flanders is an area of Belgium where many British soldiers were killed and injured during the First World War. Jacob’s Room is an experimental novel, cutting back and forth in time, and never quite allowing the reader full sight of its subject. Rather, Jacob’s story is told through the words and memories of the women in his life.

War Stories and Poems by Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling may be most commonly remembered for the Just So Stories and The Jungle Book, but he also wrote extensively about war. His only son, John, was unfortunately killed in action in 1915, and Kipling took many years to accept what had happened. Until his death in 1936, he continued searching for his son’s final resting place but even today John has no known grave. Of the poems Kipling wrote in the aftermath of the First World War, perhaps the best known is his tribute to The Irish Guards (1918), the regiment with which his son was serving at the time of his death.

Headline image credit: World War One soldier’s diary pages. Photo by lawcain via iStockphoto.

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