Alternative Literary Views on the First World War


All_Quiet_on_the_Western_Front_(1930_film)_posterIronically, World War One was responsible for some of our greatest literature – much of it explored on Oxford Home Schooling English courses – but certain titles are seen as representative of the entire experience. Here are four lesser-known works which can provide a complementary interpretation:

Journey’s End by R C Sheriff

An enduring myth of the war is of ‘lions led by donkeys’ (or the Blackadder version of history, after the TV series which portrayed the common man in the trenches at the mercy of the higher command). This play illustrates the pressure upon those of a higher rank; how they struggled to live up to the expectations placed upon them, not only by those above them but also by the men they felt responsible for.

A Month in the Country by J L Carr

Much is written about the events leading up to 1914 and about the war itself, but this fine novel relates to the aftermath and the challenges faced by the survivors, in particular Tom Birkin and Charles Moon, who meet in a Yorkshire village as the result of an old lady’s bequest. One has to find the grave of her ancestor, the other has to restore a wall painting in the church. Their tasks and the peace and tranquility of a perfect summer allow them to come to terms with the fact that they will never be healed but that it is possible for them to live with their scars.

Verses of a VAD by Vera Brittain

We are now keen to recognise those who could not fight but who suffered just the same. Vera Brittain lost all those who were dear to her, as she related in her memoir Testament of Youth, but her poetry is often overlooked. These poems show the tortured heart of a woman who is strong on the surface but whose private life has been devastated.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Everyone knows the phrase but few have read the novel. Told from the perspective of Paul Bäumer, a young German soldier, it is remarkable in how similar it is to the experience of his British counterparts. It shows how the trenches bred boredom and fear in equal measure. The plight of the individual is sacrificed for the ‘bigger picture’ as the official report on the day of Bäumer’s death states: ‘All quiet on the western front’.

There is no doubting the genius of Wilfred Owen or the importance of Robert Graves but if you fancy a diversion, give one of these a try.

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I have been working for Oxford Open Learning since 2010 and love helping my students with their English and History courses. As a teacher and personal tutor, I have taught pupils from all around the world, aged from three to adult. I am often to be found with my head in a book and sometimes I have four or five on the go at the same time. I love learning about History and Art and am passionate about literature.

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