World War I Short Fiction Critical Essays

Introduction

(Short Story Criticism)

World War I Short Fiction

World War I was the first great international conflict of the twentieth century and is remembered as the first war in which modern technological weapons were used extensively, resulting in massive human casualties and conclusively changing the nature of combat. For many intellectuals, the utter devastation of the Western Front shattered the optimistic belief that a new era of human achievement and cooperation would emerge through continued scientific and social progress. Machine technology, which had previously been regarded as a source of prosperity and comfort, now aided in widespread slaughter, and the brutal nature of combat reminded observers that moral enlightenment could not erase humanity's essential animal nature. Even as it was unfolding, the war presented a vast human drama and an absorbing literary subject. Viewed historically, the World War I period remains among the most fascinating eras of the twentieth century.

Many European writers and intellectuals actually welcomed the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914; among them were young German and English short fiction writers inspired by romantic patriotism who volunteered for service. For the most part they offered a poetic summons to battle, espousing such traditionally valorous ideals as honor, duty to the fatherland, and courage in the face of the enemy. As the dehumanizing nature of machine-age warfare became apparent, old values were reassessed by combatants writing from the trenches, and the great battles of the Western Front became the settings of new, realistic portrayals of combat, often containing bitterly satiric portraits of commanding officers, whom many writers blamed for the sweeping casualties in the front lines. Under the uncertain conditions of trench life complicated by disease, inexperienced leadership, and the constant threat of death, the early enthusiasm and optimism of volunteers yielded to a pervasive disillusionment that haunted many writers of the World War I generation for the rest of their lives. Eventually, a compassionate tone—unknown in previous war literature—emerged in the works of several short story writers, who sympathetically portrayed enemy soldiers suffering the same dehumanizing experiences at the front. Although a number of battle chronicles and memoirs found publication in the postwar period, interest in war literature generally declined as society returned to peacetime concerns.

The achievement of women writers in the genre of World War I short fiction has been a growing area of critical discussion. The authenticity of women's literary efforts were questioned early on, as men were considered the only legitimate interpreters of wartime experience. Yet many women did participate in paramilitary and medical forces during the war and gained firsthand experience at the Western Front. The female perspective on combat as well as accounts of the personal experiences of women in hospitals and near battlefields have attracted much critical attention in recent years. Moreover, women on the home front wrote short fiction reflecting the anxiety, grief, and disillusionment felt during those years. These stories are regarded as valuable contributions to the canon of World War I literature.