“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”
At the chaotic heart of any war sits mankind. Strip away the weaponry and the regiments and the tactics, and it’s a long, harrowing story of ordinary men plunged into extraordinary circumstances. My own preferred pieces of war prose are those which focus on just that; upon the human experience of the combat: the horror, the anguish, the absurdities, the resilience, the friendships, the courage. Here’s a small handful (very, very small; I’m feeling rather lazy) of my favourites, each of which explore all of the above and more, and each of which find beauty in the terribleness. For every tangle of wire, there’s a quivering poppy; for every gunshot, there’s a skylark.
Strange Meeting, Susan Hill
Hill’s 1971 novel is my own personal favourite piece of war literature and a big inspiration for my novel-writing. It follows two men, John Hilliard and David Barton, who come together—and fall apart—in a war-ravaged world. It’s a poignant tale of loss, tenderness, and, above all else, humanity. Much like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s association of bitter almonds with unrequited love, Strange Meeting has left me unable to disentangle a different kind of love with the image of sweet, tangy apples filling a dusty loft.
A must-read for: exploring the unique bond between soldiers.
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
Translated into English in 1929, Remarque’s aching exploration of loss and fragility is striking to the core. It tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a young German soldier, and his friends and comrades with whom he’s fighting on the Western Front across the four-year combat. The novel is filled with relentless death, despair, and destruction, and it holds even more pathos when you substitute the German names for English ones, and realise that it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference.
A must-read for: deconstructing the line between enemy and ally.
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Siegfried Sassoon
The second instalment in the Sherston trilogy, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer presents a fictionalised account of Sassoon’s war experiences, between 1916 and 1917. It covers his journey with comrades across Morlancourt, the Somme, and Arras, and ends with his arrival at a hospital representative of Craiglockhart. The novel’s semi-autobiographical nature makes it even more engaging, particularly in regards to the narrator’s slow disillusionment and questioning of the war.
A must-read for: discovering more about ordinary trench life.