World War I in Literature Analysis

Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

On June, 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. Nationalist fervor had been brewing in Europe, and Serbia was then under the dominion of the aging Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassination was the spark; the accumulated tinder was composed of imperial and economic rivalries among major European powers. These rivalries had produced an arms race and a tangle of military and economic alliances.

Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914; then Germany declared war on Russia and invaded Belgium; as a result of the invasion England declared war on Germany. The war of the Central Powers (Austria-Hungry, Germany, Bulgaria, Turkey) against the Allies (Great Britain and its allied nations, France, Russia, Serbia, Greece, Italy) had begun. Public antiwar sentiment kept the United States out of the conflict until April 6, 1917, when the United States joined the Allies, who had been receiving U.S. support. President Woodrow Wilson had won reelection in 1916 with the aid of the slogan “He Kept Us out of War,” but the prowar position took precedence as a result of Germany’s sinking U.S. ships and of the publication of an intercepted telegram from Germany to Mexico suggesting that Mexico ally itself with Germany. The war of attrition ended with the collapse of the Central Powers’ war machine in 1918.

Expectation of Adventure

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

When the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany in April, the conflict in Europe had been, for more than two years a war of attrition. Before 1915, the German offensive that had begun with the invasion of Belgium was stopped; both sides dug trenches, and the Western front line moved hardly at all until the end of the war on November 11, 1918. The belligerents had begun to abandon hope for a decisive victory and to seek merely to wear down the other side by defending their positions at any cost. Approximately ten million combatants were killed and twenty million were wounded, typically in battles of unprecedented ferocity that yielded, tactically, little or nothing.

The United States wanted to play a vital role in world affairs in the new century, but its military forces were modest in size and experience. The nation’s most recent war had been with Spain, in 1898, almost a generation before. Few Americans had experienced modern warfare, and none a war on such a scale, or of such futility. For professionals and volunteers alike it was possible, at first, to look forward to the expedition as a great overseas adventure, as an opportunity at last to prove oneself, and as a chance to enjoy a respite from the strict Victorian morals of home.

Europe seemed romantic and sophisticated, and British propaganda had effectively demonized Germany in the American imagination. Reporting from the front had always been tightly controlled by military officials,...

(The entire section is 484 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The sharp contrast between the expectations of servicemen and their experience at the front produced a bitter irony that characterizes the antiwar novels of the 1920’s. Whatever their other flaws, the force and authority of these works frequently elevate them over the patriotic works that preceded them. The deep disillusionment in works such as Thomas Boyd’s Through the Wheat (1923) and Elliot Paul’s Impromptu (1923) echoes through later fiction such as William March’s Company K (1933), Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory (1935) and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1939). Although America’s entrance into the war immediately shifted the balance of power, conditions for soldiers on the Western front remained physically and psychologically unendurable through most of 1917 and 1918. The novels of protest bear witness to the fact that American soldiers were ill-prepared to live for days or weeks without relief in the trenches. Rarely catching a glimpse of the enemy, soldiers lived in waterlogged trenches infested with rats and other vermin, and at any moment might be killed or mutilated by enemy shelling. Boyd’s Through the Wheat conveys the futility of missions into no-man’s-land, the land between the trenches where men marched into machine gun fire. The industrial age had revolutionized warfare and had made personal courage almost entirely meaningless; war proved instead to be dehumanizing, capricious, and bureaucratic. In literature about World War I the stoical, almost anesthetized, antihero displaces the brave warrior of old.

The radical discontinuity between ordinary life and life at the front made it difficult for war writers to comprehend and communicate their experience. They had lived in a world that most readers in America could barely imagine. In the decade following the armistice, certain writers evolved a rhetoric of disillusionment that directly opposed the romanticism of the earlier patriotic novels, and would have a lasting influence on literature. Noted critic Paul Fussell, in his landmark work The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), argues that the dominant characteristic of literature of the twentieth century is irony, and that this irony originates in the memory of the vast, bureaucratic, and futile war. World War I, it may be argued, marked not the end of war or the beginning of world democracy but rather the end of romanticism; the end of belief in the competence, good intentions, even the sanity, of national leaders; the end of the progressive assumptions of the nineteenth century; and the true product of what poet Ezra Pound described as “a botched civilization.”

In the literature written after the experience of World War I, rage is not directed against the enemy but rather against the soldier’s own military command, against politicians and zealots at home, and against the whole ideology and language...

(The entire section is 1196 words.)

Canadian Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Canada, then still part of the British Empire, made no separate declaration of war and entered the war with Britain in August, 1914. Canada’s considerable contribution to the war effort profoundly shaped its sense of itself as a player on the world stage. Unquestionably the most famous Canadian work to emerge from the war is John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” which continues to be recited at Remembrance Day ceremonies throughout Canada. Spoken by a dead soldier who urges the living to “take up our quarrel with the foe,” it reflects the consciousness of the early war years. No novel or memoir by a Canadian serviceman has found a comparable place in literature. Peregrine Acland’s All Else Is Folly: A Tale of War and Passion (1929) is an ambiguous novel, chiefly concerned with psychological and physical survival, and Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed (1930) is a harshly realistic antiwar novel. Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars (1977) represents a late attempt to treat in fiction the impact of the war on Canadian identity. A sensitive young officer drifts into a madness that appears to be the inevitable result of the insanity that surrounds him. His detestation of violence paradoxically impels him toward irrationally violent acts that symbolize the troubling ambiguities of Canada’s role in the war.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Cooperman, Stanley. World War I and the American Novel. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. A useful study of the principal themes that emerge from the American novel of World War I, with an emphasis on the hero and antihero.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. Chiefly concerned with British literature, this book is an indispensable study of the war’s legacy.

Hynes, Samuel. A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. New York: Macmillan, 1990. Explores in detail the war’s effects on culture and the imagination.

Klein, Holger, ed. The First World War in Fiction. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. A collection of scholarly essays treating the major American and European novels of World War I.

Leed, Eric. No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. An intellectual history that draws heavily on literature, this book explores the profound changes of identity experienced by those who fought in World War I.