An irregular series of highlighting the resources which particular inspire or inform my writing.
I read a lot of books written around the time of the Great War. There is absolutely no better way to immerse oneself in the language and mindset of the time – and contemporary texts have an honesty and vivacity missing from stories written removed from the historical context and complicated by modern sensibilities.
In date order…
Fighting France by Edith Wharton (1915)
I include this short book with reluctance because I have shamelessly borrowed several of the author’s gorgeous descriptions. Wharton, a wealthy American, lived in Paris throughout thewar, busy with charity work and writing. Fighting France (originally published as a series of articles) is a rich account of a city and country at war. (Long afterwards, Wharton became close friends with Major Lawrence Johnson, creator of the superb gardens of Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire – but therein lurks another story.)
Non-combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay (1916)
A wonderful little book! Full of witty, devastating vignettes of everyday life in provincial, middle-class, wartime England disturbed by Belgium refugees, wounded soldiers, unrequited love and the nature of a God who allowed little brothers to be killed. Unexpectedly good source of contemporary slang. During the war Macaulay worked as a nurse, then a land girl and finally for Wellington House, HQ of British war propaganda – but you won’t guess it from the tone of Non-combatants.
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West (1918)
A very short story but one that haunted me for days after reading. More unrequited love, a heartbreaking final twist and wonderful descriptions dripping with the class distinctions and prejudices of the time: “She was furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has been dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive”.
Journey’s End by RC Sherriff (1928)
Sherriff was proud of his service in the Great War and intended his play to be a true reflection of his experiences rather than explicitly anti-war. Unfortunately, the first producer was a pacifist and his production set the tone for the four subsequent films*. Read the original script for the full claustrophobic emotional impact and make your own mind up – and remember that if the characters feel to you like stereotypes of the First World War they were unique and rounded characters when Sherriff first told their story in 1928.
* Yet another film of Journey’s End will be released in February 2018. This Guardian review describes it as “a restless film, searching for a way out of what should be its destination”. I defer judgement until the spring.
Bretherton: Khaki or Field Grey? by WF Morris (1929)
Morris served on the Western Front, rising to the rank of major and earning the Military Cross. He then settled down to write cracking adventure stories like this – thus putting paid to the popular thinking that the Great War left every participant irretrievably emotionally damaged. This book paints a gritty but often humourous picture of daily life on the front line in the way no textbook or film ever can, interspersed with well-written action scenes. There’s even a sweet little romance. If only all research was this fun!
All of these books are still around, in one form or another. Some titles may only be available used; otherwise check your lending library or local bookshop.