World War I, the war that was originally expected to be “over by Christmas,” dragged on for four years with a grim brutality brought on by the dawn of trench warfare and advanced weapons, including chemical weapons. The horrors of that conflict altered the world for decades – and writers reflected that shifted outlook in their work. As Virginia Woolf would later write, “Then suddenly, like a chasm in a smooth road, the war came.”
Early works were romantic sonnets of war and death.
Among the first to document the “chasm” of the war were soldiers themselves. At first, idealism persisted as leaders glorified young soldiers marching off for the good of the country.
English poet Rupert Brooke, after enlisting in Britain’s Royal Navy, wrote a series of patriotic sonnets, including “The Soldier,” which read:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
Brooke, after being deployed in the Allied invasion of Gallipoli, would die of blood poisoning in 1915.
The same year, Canadian doctor Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, upon seeing how red poppies grew in the fields that had been ravaged by bombs and littered with bodies, wrote “In Flanders Fields.” The poem, memorializing the death of his friend and fellow soldier, would later be used by Allied militaries to recruit soldiers and raise money in selling war bonds:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The tone of literature shifted after years of grueling WWI combat.
While both Brooke’s and McCrae’s works lent patriotic tones to the sacrifices of war early in the conflict, as time wore on, the war’s relentless horrors spawned darker reflections. Some, like English poet Wilfred Owen, saw it their duty to reflect the grim reality of the war in their work.
As Owen would write, “All a poet today can do is warn. That is why the true poet must be truthful.” In “Anthem for the Doomed Youth,” Owen describes soldiers who “die as cattle” and the “monstrous anger of the guns.”
Owen’s fellow army officer, Siegfried Sassoon, writes of corpses “face downward, in the sucking mud, wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled” in his 1918 poem, “Counter-Attack.”
From the opposite side of the firing lines, German writer Erich Maria Remarque, would also experience the grim day-to-day life of a soldier. Later, in 1929, he published an unflinching account in his novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.
Among other prominent works reflecting the horrific realities of war was the four-part tome, Parade’s End, by English novelist Ford Madox Ford, and from the Eastern Front, Dr. Zhivago by Soviet Russian writer Boris Pasternak, in which the main character describes grotesque injuries inflicted on the war’s battlefields.
WWI changed Hemingway – and the world.
In one of the most famous works set during the “Great War,” American writer Ernest Hemingway offers a gripping love story between a soldier and a nurse set against the chaotic, stark backdrop of World War I.
A Farewell to Arms is among the writer’s most autobiographical: Hemingway himself served as an ambulance driver during the war, was severely wounded on the Austro-Italian front and had been sent to a hospital in Milan, where he fell in love with a nurse.
Writers documented the war’s lingering effects.
The literary response to World War I was not only to portray its horrors at the front, but also the reverberations of the war throughout society.
Virginia Woolf, who had been a close friend of the fallen poet Rupert Brooke, wove profound references to the war’s effects throughout her works.
In the setting of her acclaimed novel Mrs. Dalloway, the war has ended, but everyone remains deeply affected by it, including one of the novel’s main characters, a veteran with severe shell shock (now known as PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder).
WWI helped usher in the modernist movement.
The disillusionment that grew out of the war contributed to the emergence of modernism, a genre which broke with traditional ways of writing, discarded romantic views of nature and focused on the interior world of characters.
Woolf’s novels reflected this emerging tone, as did the works of Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and James Joyce (Ulysses). T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” considered to be one of the most significant poems of the 20th century, presents a haunting vision of postwar society, with the opening lines:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World questions once-accepted social and moral notions in presenting a nightmarish vision of the future.
World War I devastated continents, leaving some 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians dead. But writers responded with profound and groundbreaking work as they and the rest of the world grappled with the war’s upheaval.
As Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front: “All these things that now, while we are still in the war, sink down in us like a stone, after the war shall waken again, and then shall begin the disentanglement of life and death.”