The commemorations for the centenary of the end of the First World War got me to thinking about some of the novels that presaged and followed the Great War. Not just stories of war, but of adventure, of crime and of espionage. These ten novels all have a connection to that conflagration and all are connected to our understanding of it. The list starts with two pre-war novels that played on the growing mistrust of foreigners and the fear of invasion by a power-crazed enemy (namely the Germans). A mild hysteria really did grip the nation in the run up to World War One. Widespread Germanophobia occasioned the belief that foreign spies lurked around every corner; then there were the anarchists and the rebel Irish. In part, this anxious expectation of invasion and war led to the establishment of MI5 and MI6.

William le Queux’s Invasion 1910 (1906)

This may be the novel on the list that the fewest people have heard of; yet, it sold more than a million copies before WWI. It was originally serialised in the Daily Mail and the paper’s proprietor, Harmsworth, employed its best efforts to whip up hysteria around the story of an invasion of Britain by a large German force. Britain falling to the might of the Iron Heel of Germany. The east coast is invaded and Britain is ill prepared to defend itself. The German army takes a sizeable portion of London before a people’s defence militia is formed. Eventually, the British army gets its act together and sends the Germans back to continent. However, a stalemate comes about with the Germans occupying Holland and Belgium. The Daily Mail’s circulation increased as vendors dressed in Prussian uniforms to sell each edition on the streets. ** (Curiosity value only.)

Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903)

A more enduring pre-WWI adventure written a little earlier, it also identified the German militaristic drive as the threat. So, once again, don’t turn your back on those Germans, they’ll be building an armada and on the way here sooner than you can say “Kaiser Bill has a funny moustache”. Heavily influenced by Victorian adventure novels, this is the story of Carruthers, of the Foreign Office, and Davies, a civilian with an eye on the Germans. The two men come across some strange activities as they are holidaying on a yacht in the Baltic Sea. The Germans are planning an invasion of Britain by the North Sea. Will the two adventurers manage to reveal the plans and foil the devious plan? ***

Pierre Lemaitre’s The Great Swindle (2017)

One of the best novels of the post-war malaise/catastrophe. A novel that explores the idea of a “good war”. The differing experience of men returning from the front to discover that the “land fit for heroes” after the “war to end all wars” is still the prerogative of the rich and the powerful. The misunderstanding between those who stayed at home and those who fought, the change in people brought about by war, PTSD, corruption and political stupidity are all explored here. A wonderful French epic. *****

Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong (1993)

A novel of war, a family saga and a love story. One of the most poignant and evocative novels of the war. An epic of men in the trenches and of the home front. A love story, an adventure story, a coming of age tale, a story of survival, of triumph in the face of adversity and of dreams shattered. Stephen Wraysford is staying with René Azaire’s family in pre-war Amiens, he falls for the René’s wife. They leave together but soon split up. Come 1916, we are with Wraysford in the trenches as the battle of the Somme begins, across various time zones the story of love and war unfolds. Powerful and poignant. *****

Pat Barker’s The Regeneration Trilogy (1991-95)

Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, Ghost Road. A monumental achievement in literary war fiction. A powerful anti-war trilogy. Regeneration deals with the story of men sent back from France for treatment for psychological conditions, including shell shock, at the Craiglockhart War Hospital. Patients include Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who are under the care of psychiatrist WHR Rivers. It’s a compassionate work that explores the understanding of the effects of war on men and the callous lack of pity in the highest ranks of the army. When Owen returns to the war you will be screaming at him not to go! The other two novels are equally fascinating, all three are gripping human dramas. ****

Thomas Keneally’s Gossip From the Forest (1975)

The pity of war brought home by Australian novelist Tom Keneally. This is a reimaging of the peace talks in the Compiègne Forest in November 1918. In all the time that the negotiators could have called a truce while the details of an inevitable surrender were worked out God knows how many men died. The missteps, prevarication and intransigence of those present is breathtakingly wicked. It’s a novel about signing a treaty that is riveting. ****

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (2003)

A vintage crime series with a bit of bite, there are now fourteen novels. Set in post-WWI London. Maisie is an investigator. Pre-war she was a servant to a suffragette, gaining an education, which was interrupted by war when she became a nurse. Maisie later returned to the city to work with Detective Dr Maurice Blanche, when he retires she sets up her own PI agency. Her first case involves a farm called The Retreat, set up for ex-soldiers. Maisie is drawn back by the ghosts of the past to the war. Good on setting and historical detail. ***1/2

Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness (1999)

Four victims are found brutally murdered at a manor house in Surrey, Colonel Fletcher, his wife and two servants, all stabbed. Nothing else in the house has been disturbed. The local police suspect robbery but Detective Inspector Madden from Scotland Yard thinks there is more to it than meets the eye. His own memories of the war lead him to think that this is the work of a mad man who will strike again. Full of atmosphere, a page turner. ****

Charles Todd’s Wings of Fire (1998)

WWI veteran Inspector Ian Rutledge is dispatched to investigate the death of the three members of an eminent Cornish family. When he starts looking into things, something doesn’t add up. One of the victims was reclusive but distinguished war poet O.A. Manning, his poetry helped Rutledge get through the trenches. Rutledge is haunted by the presence of Hamish, a soldier he reluctantly executed during the war. He will stop at nothing to find Manning’s killer. Darkly atmospheric, an opener for a series. ****

Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1928)

Possibly the most recognised anti-war novel of the twentieth century. The novel opens in a classroom full of young German boys in 1914. Young, idealistic, and heroes to a man; they are full of romantic notions of war and glory. Bullied, goaded and seduced into enlisting by their school teacher, off they go to war. As the reality of war bites, the experience becomes a nightmare. Disillusionment sets in, there are no happy endings in war. Poignant and powerful. ****

Paul Burke
November 2018

(Some titles suggested titles by Erin Britton and Gill Chedgey.)