June 28, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I (also known as the First World War). While dozens of military histories have been written about the Somme, Passchendaele and Verdun, great literature and social histories have also emerged about the war. These books try to answer some of the following questions. What remnants of civilized society did soldiers bring with them to these terrible and unearthly battlefields? What were their thoughts? What happened to the cohort of men who lived through combat (known after the war as the “Lost Generation”)? Where and how did European culture survive during and after the war? Look no further than your library for answers to some of these questions.
“Paris at the End of the World: The City of Light During the Great War” by John Baxter is a good starting point. Paris remained a cultural oasis and respite from the trenches for the thousands of soldiers who passed through the city during the war. “Few people could have felt more lost, more in need of a friendly word, a loving hand,” writes Baxter. Although the city was quickly pulled under by the currents of war, with many residents fleeing as the Germans advanced in September 1914, “Once the front stabilized, cafes, cabarets, shops, and brothels reopened to brisk business as soldiers were rotated home on leave and Paris swelled with the bureaucracy of war.” Indeed, even in the face of the privations and terror of those years, Pablo Picasso and Eric Satie staged avant-garde performances in several Paris theatres to large and enthusiastic audiences.
After the war ended, a diaspora of British veterans, many of them from the officer class, scattered across the face of the globe, vowing never to return to their homeland. Robert Grave’s “Goodbye to All That” is still the classic exemplar of a WWI memoir, with Grave’s time in the trenches as the centerpiece. Graves despised the British class system almost as much as the army, but the working class men who fought under his command loved him. What makes the book so remarkable today is its first-hand and unflinching examination of trench warfare, coupled with a sly humor. “Cuinchy bred rats. They came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses, and multiplied exceedingly,” he writes of his first, pest-infested billet. Graves left for Majorca in 1929, after years of attempting to come to grips with life in post-war England and the terrible wounds and shell shock he suffered.
Soldiers on the front also wrote poetry. Several classic books of WWI poetry have been released over the years, but the most recent arrival is “The Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology.” Romanticism met head-on by the mechanized warfare of the early 20th century generated a vivid amalgamation of terrifying, moving verse. The works of Siegried Sassoon, Thomas Hardy and Wilfred Owen are included in this compilation. “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,” go the first harrowing lines of “Dulce et Decorum Est,” written by Owen in 1917, shortly before his death.
Six years ago, near the end of her life, Doris Lessing gave us her very last book, “Alfred and Emily.” The first part of the book is fantasy, imagining what it would have been like if her father, Alfred, had never fought and the war had never existed. In reality, her father, maimed by shrapnel, was among the diaspora of veterans mentioned above, ending up in southern Africa where Lessing lived for a great part of her early life. Lessing says, “Even as a child I knew his obsessive talking about the Trenches was a way of ridding himself of the horrors. So I had the full force of the Trenches, tanks, star-shells, shrapnel, howitzers—the lot—through my childhood, and felt as if the black cloud he talked about was there, pressing down on me.”
Finally, we turn to Richard Rubin’s book “The Last of the Doughboys.” In a long push that started in 2003, Rubin interviewed dozens of American veterans between the ages of 101 and 113. The last WWI veteran, worldwide, passed away in 2012. Near the end of the book, Frank Buckles, the last American survivor and a native of Bethany, Missouri, is asked what had changed most in his lifetime, what events transpired that had had the most impact. Rubin writes: “He (Buckles) didn’t hesitate: ‘That little instrument you have there in your pocket,’ he said. My cell phone. I had forgotten to turn it off, and it had rung while we were talking.”