Read all about it – World War 1 in literature

fatmp007522_13_d01It’s a very exciting day today for the people at the Brighton Museum as it’s the press day for the War Stories:Voices from the First World War exhibition.

The exhibition has been years in the planning and will hopefully introduce young and old to some of the unheard stories about how the First World War affected the lives of some of Brighton and Hove’s residents.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the centenary events around WW1 which will last for the next four years, as I’ve been in a series of meetings with museum staff who have planned this display for years. My children are also studying it at school and have written heart-breaking stories and poems about how they imagined life at war would be.

A lot of my knowledge around the Great War has come from literature. It was a time when war poetry flourished with soldiers writing from the trenches. There are also some great novels written during and after which bring the period to life. The war caused such a seismic shift in the lives and culture of all the countries involved, it has provided a rich source for literary exploration.

I thought I’d do a list of some of the books, writings and TV series I’d recommend to anyone who would like to immerse themselves in the period.

Cover of the book Testament of YouthTestament of Youth by Vera Brittain.

I read this memoir of Vera Brittain for my A Level set text. Set between the years of 1900 to 1925, it tracks Brittain’s childhood, years of education and falling in love. As a teenager, I was a similar age to Brittain going through similar issues with parents, boys and applying for university.

I was so immersed in the book when I read it for the first time that I burst into tears at a surprise tragic moment while travelling on the tube one morning to my Saturday job in Oxford Street.

Front cover of novel Regeneration by Pat BarkerThe Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

These novels explore the experience of British army officers being treated for shell shock during World War I at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh and their subsequent lives. Barker weaves the lives of real-life people such as poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and the real-life psychoanalyst, William Rivers.

Beautifully written and thought-provoking, the novels explore the dilemma of the military doctor who needs to cure his patients to send them back out to face death on the Front.


Cover of novel Birdsong by Sebastian FaulksBirdsong by Sebastian Faulks

This hugely popular novel written in 1993 has been adapted into a stage-play, a film and a TV series. It’s a love story but my main memory of the novel is how it manages to capture the horror of the trenches.



Cover of The Penguin Book of First World War PoetryThe Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)

It’s almost impossible to read the novels above without reaching for a book of poetry from the WW1 soldier poets.  Angry, sad, philosophical and patriotic, these poems are by men who faced death while serving their country and capture all the complex emotions they felt in beautiful lyrics. Poems from Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke.

I once made a 3am pilgrimage to the grave of Rupert Brooke who wrote The Soldier while on holiday on the island of Skyros. Here are the first three lines of The Soldier by Rupert Brooke. (You probably know them already.)

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

Cover of novel The Stranger's Child by Alan HollinghurstThe Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

This novel begins just before the First World War and follows the life of a fictional war poet Cecil Vance.  It explores the themes of memory and literary heritage as well as the history of gay culture in the UK. It also captures the changes to the middle-classes post-war.



Cover of novel The Children's Book by AS ByattI’m about to read The Children’s Book by AS Byatt which covers a period of life before and after the Great War. It’s an extremely thick book and will probably take me the four years of commemoration events to finish but it’s meant to be good.




Cover of BBC drama The Village DVD TV 

I thought I’d also recommend the BBC TV series The Village written by Peter Moffatt which was on last year. It’s a brilliant drama looking at the effects of the war on a small village in Derbyshire. It’s quite harrowing but extremely well acted with John Simm and Maxine Peake starring. You can only buy it on DVD at the moment but there is going to be a second series, so maybe they will repeat it.



Caroline Sutton, Blogger in Residence




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *