First World War Fiction

First World War fiction refers to fictional works that are written about the First World War (1914-1918). The genre often draws inspiration from real-life events and people. It can teach readers about the First World War in a way that is engaging and varied.

First World War Fiction First World War Fiction

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    First World War Fiction: definition

    The First World War (WWI) took place from 1914 to 1918. It occurred as a result of the assassination of the archduke of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian nationalist. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and then Germany and the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey) formed an alliance to support Austria-Hungary. Following this, Britain, France, Russia and Belgium joined forces to support Serbia.

    First World War (WWI) fiction is fiction that is set directly before, during or directly after WWI and explores the events of WWI. First World War fiction is not limited to just books but also includes poems, fictional diary entries and fictional letters. These fictional diary entries and letters are an example of historical fiction, as they are made-up writings but are based on facts or factual events. These bodies of work are fictional, yet they have elements of truth to them. They include depictions of the reality of life during the First World War. They can be centred on fictional characters, who could be inspired by real people.

    First World War Fiction, Old letters on a desk with a picture of a soldier in the background, StudySmarterFig. 1 - First World War fiction includes literary works like poems, fictional diary entries and fictional letters.

    Impact of the First World War on English fiction

    In English fiction, real-life experiences and events were drawn upon. A common theme in literature inspired by the events of the First World War is the idealisation of war versus the reality of war. Many authors and poets who created World War I fiction served in the war, so many used first-hand experiences in their works. They showed the realities of war in their work: the horror of battle and the internal struggles during warfare. They often reflected on the war as well, showing the effects of the war on soldiers’ health and personal relationships.

    The First World War is also known as ‘the Great War’ because it was the first great conflict in modern history that involved many countries throughout the world. Modern weaponry was used for the first time and it brought great destruction on a scale never seen before in the modern history of Europe. The First World War was a war in which trenches had to be dug because of the sustained and lethal barrage of artillery during battle.

    Some literature was patriotic towards the British war effort.

    For example, English poet Rupert Brooke’s poem ‘The Soldier’ (1915) is a patriotic poem. Brooke imagines an ‘English heaven’ (line 14) that will exist after he is dead. This ‘heaven’ (line 14) exists as a result of his contribution to Britain’s Royal Navy. This poem is idealistic and plays on the expectations of glory for oneself and for the country that many young soldiers believed they would obtain. It is important to note that Brooke’s poem was written at the start of the war. The patriotic tone of this poem written at the start of the war differs greatly from the critical tone of many literary works written towards the end of the war or after the war.

    First World War Fiction, Battle scene with men in a trench loading their weaponry, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Trench warfare was essential during the First World War. It helped protect soldiers from the bombardment of enemy artillery during sustained warfare.

    First World War poetry: genre

    The genre of First World War poetry is under the broader genre of war poetry. First World War poetry discusses explicitly the events of the First World War.

    First World War poetry in English literature

    These poems were often written by poets who had been in service during the war. The genre has poems that discuss themes like patriotism, loyalty, courage, comradeship, death and sacrifice. These poems depicted the horrifying realities of warfare, exposing them to readers and breaking through the illusions of glory and heroism young soldiers believed in.

    Famous book writers of First World War Fiction

    Some of the most famous writers of First World War fiction are:

    Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

    Hemingway was an American writer famous for his novel A Farewell to Arms (1929). The fictional novel is based on Hemingway’s own experiences in the Italian army in WWI. Frederic Henry is an American medic who fights for the Italian army. He falls in love with an English nurse and eventually leaves his station to find her after the two are separated.

    Richard Aldington (1892-1962)

    Aldington was an English writer famous for his novel Death of a Hero (1929). The novel details the story of George Winterbourne, who joins the British army at the start of WWI. Winterbourne struggles to return to everyday life and struggles with navigating his personal relationships upon his return from the war.

    Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

    Woolf was an English writer. One of her novels about the First World War is Mrs. Dalloway (1925). It focuses on post-World War society in England and the protagonist is Mrs. Dalloway. One of the characters in the novel, Septimus Smith, is a war veteran who suffers from shell shock, which is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Smith is sent to a psychiatric institute to help him, however, he commits suicide once admitted.

    Shell shock: Refers to the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) common amongst soldiers. It can occur when soldiers experience a barrage of artillery during service. The most common behaviours associated with shell shock are being constantly on-edge, having poor memory and being unable to sleep or talk properly.

    Examples of First World War fiction

    Here are some examples of First World War Fiction:

    First World War fiction books

    Let's explore some of the most prominent First World War fiction books in English literature.

    Parade’s End (1950) by Ford Madox Ford

    Parade’s End (1950) is a collection of four novels written by British author Ford Madox Ford. The individual novels were titled Some Do Not (1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up (1926) and The Last Post (1928). Parade’s End (1950) is set during, before and after WWI. It follows the tales of Christopher Tietjens, a member of the Conservative Party who comes from a wealthy family. Tietjens serves in the First World War in France and Belgium.

    The novel details his experiences as a gentleman officer in the war, but it mostly comments on the social attitudes of the time. Ford does this by exploring Tietjens’ relationships, particularly his relationship with his wife, Sylvia. Sylvia is constantly unfaithful during their marriage and although she becomes pregnant, it is uncertain who the father of the child is. Tietjens decides to accept the child and to forgive her. Tietjens later begins a relationship with Valentine, a women’s suffragist. In Tietjens’ relationship with others, we see the effects of war on him, as he adjusts to his return to everyday life after service in the war.

    The Return of the Soldier (1918) by Rebecca West

    British author Rebecca West’s novel The Return of the Soldier (1918) follows the story of Captain Chris, a soldier dealing with trauma from his service during World War I. Chris’s cousin, Jenny, is the narrator, and she recounts her view of how Chris’s shell shock is affecting his relationships. Chris’s shell shock affects his memory as he returns home believing he is still 20 years old, not realising that 15 years have passed. He struggles to adjust to everyday life back at home because he has a blurred perception of the past and present.

    Chris’ wife, Kitty, his cousin Jenny and his lover from 15 years ago, Margaret, all try to guide him at this difficult time. Their attempts at leading him back to the truth and the reality of the present-day lead to confrontations between Kitty and Margaret. The three women introduce Chris to psychoanalyst Dr Anderson, and the women collaborate with him to form a plan to help Chris retrieve his memories. Margaret tells Chris of his young son’s passing, a painful and traumatic memory but one that will surely bring him back to the reality of the present day. This method works. At the end of the novel, Chris is back to the reality of the present day, but he is unhappy in this life with the reality of his son’s passing and his unfulfilling marriage with Kitty.

    One non-fiction element in the novel is the portrayal of the realities of shell shock after WWI. Shell shock was a common disorder that many soldiers suffered from as a result of their service. Adjusting to life after was difficult and it often affected soldiers’ relationships with loved ones.

    First World War Fiction poetry

    Here are some well-known examples of First World War Fiction poetry by English poets.

    ‘The Poet As Hero’ (1916) by Siegfried Sassoon

    Siegfried Sassoon was an English poet who served in the First World War. He wrote ‘The Poet As Hero’ (1916) in protest of the war effort.

    You've heard me, scornful, harsh, and discontented,

    Mocking and loathing War: you've asked me why

    Of my old, silly sweetness I've repented—

    My ecstasies changed to an ugly cry.

    You are aware that once I sought the Grail,

    Riding in armour bright, serene and strong;

    And it was told that through my infant wail

    There rose immortal semblances of song.

    But now I've said good-bye to Galahad,

    And am no more the knight of dreams and show:

    For lust and senseless hatred make me glad,

    And my killed friends are with me where I go.

    Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs;

    And there is absolution in my songs.

    Sassoon discusses the contrast between the idealised depiction of war versus the reality of war. His reference to the Holy Grail, symbolic of an unattainable goal in the legends of King Arthur, shows how he believes the glories of war to be a myth. Sassoon no longer strives to be like Galahad, the knight who sought the Holy Grail. His ‘ecstasies changed to an ugly cry’ (line 5) as he was confronted with the reality of war.

    In Christianity, the Holy Grail is the cup that Jesus’ disciples drank his blood from and received forgiveness for their sins. The reference to this could be symbolic of the absolution Sassoon refers to later: ‘there is absolution in my songs’ (line 14). Sassoon has found absolution in his new ‘song’ (line 14), referring to his new outcries of vengeance for his fallen comrades. He believes he obtains forgiveness for his previous sins of bloodlust and hatred because he denounces his past as a soldier. This is an absolution that he perhaps strived for and believed he would obtain through his service in the war.

    Absolution: An idea in Christianity where one can be forgiven for their sins and wrongdoings.

    Sassoon admits that he used to believe in the tales of glory in warfare, evident in his ‘infant wail’ (line 7). This poem is a reflection of how he has outgrown these childish ideals. He no longer wants to be a ‘hero’ by being a soldier in the war. The dreams of being a hero are actually tainted with a ‘lust and senseless hatred’ (line 11), and Sassoon refuses to participate in that any longer. He believes his friends who died in the war remain with him, and he feels vengeful for them, as he ‘burns to smite their wrongs’ (line 13).

    ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (1920) by Wilfred Owen

    Another well-known poem written about WWI is ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (1920). Wilfred Owen was an English poet and soldier and this is one of his most famous poems. The English translation of the full Latin phrase ‘Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori’ (lines 27-28) is ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’. It comes from the Roman poet Horace’s Odes Book 3 (23BC), Poem 2.

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

    Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

    Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

    Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

    To children ardent for some desperate glory,

    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

    Pro patria mori.

    Owen describes the horror of battle in the First World War. There is nothing glorious or sweet about his description of soldiers’ experiences during the war. He describes a soldier who haunts his dreams: ‘He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning’ (line 16) and he watches ‘the white eyes writhing in his face,/ His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin’ (lines 19-20). This is a horrific description that directly contrasts with the phrase ‘Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori’ (lines 27-28). This is in contrast with Horace’s Poem 2 in Odes Book 3 (23 BC), in which Horace details going to war for one’s country as an experience that shapes a young man for glory. Owen uses this phrase in a mocking way.

    Young soldiers brave the hardship they are exposed to in war. Horace speaks of a ‘valour’ or ‘virtue’, meaning a willingness to die, in this scenario. He believes this willingness to die for one’s country is honourable and the reward for this is a place in heaven.

    Owen’s placement of ‘Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori’ (lines 27-28) at the end of the poem is important to note. Owen describes it as ‘The old Lie’ (line 27) ‘To children ardent for some desperate glory’ (line 26). According to Owen, dying for one’s country being sweet and fitting is a lie that encourages young men to enlist in war with the promise of glory and recognition. Owen seems to ask readers to question if all the horror he describes is worth this lie of glory and recognition.

    What can we learn from First World War Fiction?

    From First World War fiction, we can learn about the personal, social and political effects of the war. First World War fiction is a collection of the experiences of those who served in the war or those who were in proximity to the war, like soldiers' families. By showing the realities of the war, we hope to learn about the amount of damage and suffering as a result of the war. First World War fiction should serve as a lesson for us to avoid replicating such a conflict in the future. Since the war affected so many people, many could relate to the themes of loss, courage and suffering that were featured in First World War fiction.

    First World War Fiction - Key takeaways

    • First World War Fiction refers to fictional works that are written about the First World War (1914-1918).
    • Much of First World War fiction features the following themes: the idealisation of war, the reality of war and how war affects relationships.
    • The genre of First World War poetry is under the broader genre of war poetry. These poems were often written by poets who had served in the war.
    • Some famous writers of First World War fiction are Ernest Hemingway, Richard Aldington and Virginia Woolf.
    • One of the most famous examples of First World War poetry is Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est' (1920).
    Frequently Asked Questions about First World War Fiction

    What was the impact of the First World War on English poetry? 

    Many authors and poets who created WWI fiction served in the war, so many used first-hand experiences in their works. They showed the realities of war in their work: the horror of battle and the internal struggles during warfare. They often reflected on the war as well, showing the effects of the war on soldiers’ health and personal relationships. 

    How do we define the genre of first world war poetry? 

    The genre of First World War poetry is under the broader genre of war poetry. First World War poetry discusses explicitly the events of the First World War.  

    Which poem is an example of World War I poetry? 

    ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (1920) by Wilfred Owen is an example of WWI poetry. 

    How did the First World War affect literature?

    The First World War introduced new themes in literature. A common theme in literature inspired by the events of the First World War is the idealisation of war versus the reality of war. 

    What is an example of a World War I book?

    The Return of the Soldier (1918) by Rebecca West is an example of a World War I book.

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