The second installment in my series of World War One reading lists (see: poetry and fiction). These non-fiction works range from interviews and letters to memoirs and diaries, written by both established writers and ordinary people, trying to figure out how to live in a world that was crumbling underneath their feet.
Storm of Steel (1920), Ernst Jünger
I had felt Death’s hand once before, on the road at Mory – but this time his grip was firmer and more determined. As I came down heavily on the bottom of the trench, I was convinced it was all over. Strangely, that moment is one of the very few in my life of which I am able to say they were utterly happy. I understood, as in a flash of lightening, the true inner purpose and form of my life. I felt surprise and disbelief that it was to end there and then, but this surprise had something untroubled and almost merry about it. Then I heard the firing grow less, as if I were a stone sinking under the surface of some turbulent water. Where I was going, there was neither war nor enmity.
Undertones of War (1928), Edmund Blunden
One of the first things that I was asked in C Company dugout was, “Got any peace talk?” It was a rhetorical question. One of the first ideas that established themselves in my inquiring mind was the prevailing sense of the endlessness of the war. No one appeared to conceive any end to it.
Goodbye To All That (1929), Robert Graves
There was a daily exchange of courtesies between our machine guns and the Germans’ at stand-to; by removing cartridges from the ammunition-belt one could rap out the rhythm of the familiar prostitutes’ call: “MEET me DOWN in PICC-a-DILL-y”, to which the Germans would reply, though in slower tempo, because our guns were faster than theirs: “YES, with-OUT my DRAWERS ON!”
Testament of Youth (1933), Vera Brittain
I had arrived at the cottage that morning to find [Roland’s] mother and sister standing in helpless distress in the midst of his returned kit, which was lying, just opened, all over the floor. The garments sent back included the outfit that he had been wearing when he was hit. I wondered, and I wonder still, why it was thought necessary to return such relics – the tunic torn back and front by the bullet, a khaki vest dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of blood-stained breeches slit open at the top by someone obviously in a violent hurry. Those gruesome rags made me realise, as I had never realised before, all that France really meant.
Forgotten Voices of the Great War (ed. Max Arthur, 2002)
As well as being given white feathers, there was another method of approach. You would see a girl come towards you with a delightful smile all over her face and you would think to yourself, ‘My word, this is somebody who knows me.’ When she got to about five or six paces from you she would suddenly freeze up and walk past you with a look of utter contempt and scorn as if she could have spat. That was far more hurtful than a white feather – it made you curl up completely and there was no replying because she had walked on.
A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War (eds. Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf, 2014)
Read my review here.
I have watched Charlie’s face intently under all manner of circumstances, but I think I never thought his expression so beautiful as one occasion in the front line when a heavy bombardment was in progress. There he sat on the firing step, while the shells whizzed and banged and crashed all over the place, with his medical case beside him, and his face looked like the face of an angel, serene with a faraway look in his eyes, as though he were sitting in a peaceful garden with beauty all around.