Seven Classic War Novels

poppyApril in New Zealand brings our annual day of remembrance for our military service men and women, and the ancillary personnel who support them. ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day is held on the 25th of April, the anniversary of the day in 1915 when soldiers from the two British colonies began their ultimately futile campaign to seize the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is now Turkey, in an effort to take control of the Dardanelles and clear the way for an attack on Constantinople, at the heart of the Ottoman Empire. The four-month campaign, in which around 16,000 Kiwis and 20,000 Australians served with over 7,000 Kiwi and 8,000 Aussie casualties, was recognised almost immediately as a defining moment for both nations, and dawn services have been held in commemoration since at least the 1920s.

To mark ANZAC Day, the next couple of weeks will feature posts on some of the ways people have responded artistically to war, beginning with this one, which features six recognised classic novels on the subject. For the sake of consistency, I’ve organised this list based on the date of the conflict rather than the year the book was published.

The Red BadgeThe American Civil War: The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane (1895) is sometimes regarded as the first modern war novel. Written from the point of view of ‘the youth’, Henry Fleming, it explicitly references the influence that the heroic ideal of war has on young men faced with the decision to fight; their subsequent disillusionment; and the resulting change (for good or ill) which this can produce in the soldier’s personality. It’s also an intimate examination of the psychology of fear, self-justification and courage. The ending is ambiguous: the youth appears to have survived his first battle, but the reader knows that there are more to come.

all-quietThe First World War: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque (1928) ‘We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts.’ Of all the quotable passages which Remarque provides (and there are many), for me this is the most poignant summary of the overriding message of this novel, which is the psychological destruction wrought by war, and particularly of the First World War, on the soldiers who fought in it.

Remarque’s narrator, Paul, alternates between recounting incidents in his war experience and that of his friends and reflecting on the wider implications of their experiences. There is little reference to the ‘enemy’, who are usually referred to as ‘the others’, ‘the other side’, and so on, and this, along with the sheer unflinching reality of Remarque’s portrayal, may account for the readiness with which it was embraced by readers from those ‘enemy’ nations. The anti-war message is clear (the book was banned by the Nazis throughout WWII), and by the time the story ends you can’t help but feel that the dead may in fact be better off than the living.

birdsong1The First World War: Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks (1993) Written with the perspective permitted by the passing of nearly eighty years, Birdsong begins with a pre-War idyll in northern France, where the young Englishman Stephen embarks on a brief, passionate affair with the older, married Isabelle. The next time he returns to the Somme it will be as a Lieutenant in the British Army, watching the progressive dehumanisation of the men under his command in the mud and squalor of the battlefield. The book also traces the story of Stephen’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, as she endeavours to unravel the enigma of her late grandfather’s life and in doing so comes to understand a little of the nature of the horrors he faced.

We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts.’

-Remarque, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’

for whom the bellThe Spanish Civil War (1936-39): For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway (1941) Hemingway’s experience as a WWI ambulance driver and war correspondent in the Greco-Turkish war, as well as a visit to Spain during the civil war, laid the foundation of experience upon which a number of his most famous novels would be based. Those familiar with the John Donne quote referenced in the title will be able to guess at the main theme of the novel (‘we are all connected’) as well as the ultimate outcome, which is heavily foreshadowed almost from the beginning.

The action in For Whom The Bell Tolls centres on just a few days in the life of Robert Jordan, an American working with the Republicans behind enemy lines to sabotage a bridge as part of an offensive against the Fascists. It’s a turbulent time: he falls in love at first sight with Maria, a young victim of the Fascists, is instrumental in a mutiny amongst the band of rebels with which he is working which sees the wife of their leader seize command because her husband has ‘gone bad’, and hears the personal stories of the Republican fighters, once ordinary civilians, caught up in the conflict. At times there are echoes of James Joyce in the lyrical, run-on prose, but all the beauty in the world ultimately cannot hide the ugly reality which Hemingway portrays.

catch 22The Second World War: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (1955) ‘There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind… If he flew then he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the simplicity of Catch-22’. Captain Yossarian of the American Army Air Forces is crazy. That much is obvious from Heller’s brilliantly-rendered narration of Catch-22, which jumps wildly backwards and forwards in time to build up a picture of the madness in which not only Yossarian but all the characters of the novel are engulfed. Heller wrote based on personal experience: like his protagonist, he was a bombardier in the US Army Air Corps and was stationed on an island off the coast of Italy during WWII, and Catch-22 may be seen as a biting commentary on that experience.

The Kappillan of MaltaThe Second World War: The Kappillan of Malta, by Nicholas Monsarrat (1973) is far less well-known than the other works on this list, but if you can track a copy down it’s well worth a read. It’s a particular favourite of my father, who was born in England a year before WWII began, and did his national service in Malta with the RAF in the late 1950s. The protagonist, Father Salvatore, is not a soldier but a Priest (Kappillan) ministering to his flock during the Siege of Malta.

The Siege really happened: Malta was a strategically-important British stronghold in the Mediterranean, and between 1940 and 1942 the Axis forces did everything in their power to bomb or starve the country into submission. Faced with literally thousands of bombing raids, the Maltese people retreated into the extensive catacombs beneath the island, and it is there that Father Salvatore ministers to his flock. Although there is great peril, loss and hardship, the story is more uplifting than others on this list: the Father’s faith is tested but not lost, and remains a source of comfort and strength not only to him but also to his flock, and the story ends on a hopeful note as three battered supply ships limp into Valletta Harbour, bringing much-needed relief.

the spy who came in from the coldThe Cold War: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré (1963) The Second World War was the war of my father’s childhood. The Cold War was the war of mine. Glamorised in Ian Fleming’s ‘James Bond’ novels and the movies they inspired, the reality was all too often squalid, violent and dehumanising in ways far more insidious than those of the battle-front. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold captures this reality with unflinching clarity, and has thus long been regarded as ‘the’ Cold War novel. What stood out particularly to me was the sub-plot revolving around the young British Communist, Liz; like Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage, her idealistic beliefs about the war (in her case, the class war) and her place in it are coldly stripped away by the harsh reality of a war not of weapons but of ideas. There are echoes, too, of Remarque in Leamas’ growing realisation of, and resignation to, the possibility that death may in fact be the only way out.

A friend of mine told me recently that some of her right-wing relatives were amazed that a ‘lefty-liberal’ like her could know so much about war (she has a particular interest in WWI and the inter-war period). Having read so many of the stories and poems that have emerged from that and other conflicts, I find, like so many of the characters, that any romantic illusions I may have had about the reality of war cannot withstand the searing light of their simple truth: that war is, and will always be, Hell.

Have you read any of these books, or any other war novels? What impact, if any, did they have on you?


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