If you ask most people, they can tell you plenty about World War II. Everyone knows about the Holocaust, about D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, the Great War, or World War I, is increasingly becoming a forgotten war. WWI was one of the first modern wars and one that occurred on an absolutely devastating scale. The literature that emerged from that time is haunting and beautiful in its tragedy.
Perhaps the most well-known WWI literature is poetry. There are the famous poems like Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke, but there is so much more than the famous poems. Poet Robert W. Service has a collection of poems “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man,” which focus on soldiers and the injuries they sustained. In particular, his poem “Fleurette” is heart-wrenching. About a soldier with a facial disfigurement, “Fleurette” describes the horror of facial trauma in particular.
In college, I wrote a paper on the subject of WWI facial trauma and find it to be a particularly interesting and neglected area. Suzannah Biernoff has written some excellent articles on the subject, but I don’t expect a detailed treatment of the subject until Lindsey Fitzharris releases her upcoming book on Harold Gillies and Queen Mary’s Hospital at Sidcup, where pioneering plastic surgery was done during the war. There is an online archive dedicated to the surgical work done at Sidcup, though I warn anyone interested that the archive includes graphic images of facial trauma. However, it is one of the few readily available resources on the subject. Even in accounts from the time, I’ve found relatively few accounts of soldiers with facial trauma or literature featuring characters with disfigurements.
One subject that is thoroughly covered in the literature is shell shock, now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Aside from authors with shell-shock like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, there are plenty of characters with mental trauma. The main character of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy, Christopher Tietjens, deals with shell shock. The series follows Tietjens throughout the war and also tracks the suffragette movement and the decline of the British landowning class. If you are looking for descriptions of life on the front, of what the shellings and bombardments were like, give this series of novels a try. Though Tietjens isn't the most charismatic or compelling character out there, he is earnest, brave, and genuinely a good man.
Aside from poetry and novels written by those who experienced WWI, I’ve also loved more contemporary books on WWI. In particular, I loved The Passing Bells series by Phillip Rock. If you loved Downton Abbey, give The Passing Bells a try. Like Downton, it combines the horrors of WWI against the backdrop of aristocratic British family drama. Where Parade's End is appropriately buttoned-up and repressed in the way I expect British drama to be, The Passing Bells has more emotion and melodrama, which might be more palatable to readers more used to contemporary fiction.
Of course, there are plenty of other novels set in and around WWI, such as Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and Atonement by Ian McEwan. It is hard for me to explain just what it is about WWI that I find so compelling and heartbreaking. It was a war that no one was prepared for, one that literally changed the landscape of our world forever. WWI changed the way that we saw warfare and the way that we treated the soldiers who returned home. It was a time of loss and destruction, one that shaped millions of lives and world politics for decades to come. If you haven't had much interest in the subject before, I urge you to give it a fresh look.