Books Corner | The literature of war
As negotiators seek peaceful solutions to conflicts in Syria and the Central African Republic – to name but a few – we embark on the centenary of a war known to this day as the Great War or the First World War.
And as historians continue to explore the reasons why conflicts occur and the solutions that finally end them, the publication of historical accounts and novels to coincide with the centenary continue to land on our shelves. Here is a small selection.
We begin at the beginning or rather in the time leading up to the beginning.
In The War that Ended Peace, acclaimed historian Margaret MacMillan examines the path that led to the disaster of the First World War. Beginning in the early 19th century, and ending with the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand that heralded the start of the war, MacMillan examines the huge political and technological changes as well as the national decisions that led Europe from peace to disaster.
Taking a small step forward to the year immediately prior to the assassination of the archduke, we have 1913: The Year before the Storm by Florian Illies and Shaun Whiteside, a month-by-month account of cultural and artistic life in Europe in that final year before the world changed forever. It contains stories of great personalities, such as Kafka, Chaplin and Chanel, during a time where the 19th century conventions were being abandoned and the future was brimming with endless possibility.
The Sleepwalkers – How Europe went to war in 1914 by Christopher Clark, a professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge, is another detailed and thorough account of what led to the European powers’ involvement in the war. As the title suggests, Clark questions whether Germany should be blamed for the war or whether the other European nations simply sleepwalked into it.
In Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, Max Hastings, while interested in the origins of the conflict, also devotes much of his book to describing the horrors of the battlefield and the military campaigns, not just on the Western Front but also those in Poland and Serbia.
While historians can provide factual accounts of war, novels and poetry can provide a personal and emotional narrative. An example of this is the classic All Quiet on the Western Front by German author and First World War veteran Erich Maria Remarque, which depicts the extreme physical and emotional stress of a soldier during and after the war.
Finally, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has asked the most eminent poets of today to select poems from the First World War that have touched them the most and to write a poem of their own in response. The result is a remarkable collection named 1914 Poetry Remembers.
And what I’ve done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn’t I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands...
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name.