Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and Veterans Day in the USA coincide this year on 11 November. The eleventh hour of the eleventh month of 2018 will mark the 100th year since the fighting stopped in what came to be known as World War I (August 1914 – November 1918).
It's a good time to read up on World War I from the British experience.
Two novels and an autobiography that I thoroughly enjoyed are among my top choices. All three books:
In short, the books hit the mark in describing the difficulties of the Great War for the British who suffered through it. Two are hefty in length: the autobiography, Testament of Youth, runs about 600 pages; Parade’s End (really four novels) comes in close to 900 pages. The short novel, The Return of the Soldier, is not quite 100 pages.
Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, 1933.
Vera Brittain (1893-1970) wrote one of the most famous autobiographies of World War I. Her keen eye and strong, frank voice detail the realities of what she encountered as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in military hospitals in London, France, and Malta, as well as the personal loss inflicted on her by the war.
The first two chapters of Testament of Youth, approximately a hundred pages, outline her sheltered middleclass childhood and her struggle to begin the education that most British considered unnecessary for women.
A third of the book focuses on Brittain’s war-time experiences. The 2015 film version of her autobiography starring Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington emphasizes the war years.
The post-war segment of Testament of Youth not surprisingly finds Brittain still a woman of action, now back at Oxford University, and then, after graduation in 1921, devoted to writing, campaigning, and organizing against war.
Brittain writes in the forward to her autobiography, “…I have wanted…to write something which would show what the whole War and post-war period—roughly, from the years leading up to 1914 until about 1925—has meant to the men and women of my generation, the generation of those boys and girls who grew up just before the War broke out.”
Testament of Youth was first filmed in 1979 as an award-winning BBC television series starring Cheryl Campbell in the lead role of Vera Brittain, and Peter Woodward as her fiancé Roland Leighton. In 2014-15, Testament of Youth was released as a BBC-backed movie starring Alicia Vikander as Vera and Kit Harrington as Roland.
In 1977, Brittain’s daughter, Shirley Williams, wrote the preface to the 1978 reissue of the book.
For many men and women, it described movingly how they felt….I hope now that a new generation…will discover the anguish and pain in the lives of those young people…and in discovering will understand."
Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End.
The four novels which comprise this tetralogy were originally published separately as
Some Do Not…(1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up-- (1926), and The Last Post (1928).
Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) joined the British Army in 1915 and served as an officer in the Welch Regiment. The Army deployed him to France in 1916-1917 during the Battle of the Somme and at the Ypres Salient. When his injuries forced him to be invalided back to Britain in 1917, he stayed in the Army and gave lectures. His wartime experiences provided the realism to Parade’s End that has caused many readers and critics to regard it as one of the greatest novels about World War I.
Parade’s End follows Christopher Tietjens, an intelligent man from a wealthy landed family who has a promising career in the British public official class. When war comes, he is deployed as an officer in the British Army to the Western Front. He leaves behind his career, his unfaithful socialite wife Sylvia, Sylvia’s young child (who Sylvia claims is Christopher’s son), and the suffragette Valentine Wannop.
Self-described as a man who would be more comfortable in the eighteenth-century, Christopher faces a series of uneasy choices. His troubles begin during peacetime and continue throughout the chaos of world war and post-war reconstruction. Through Christopher and the characters around him, Ford Madox Ford draws readers into the world of the British ruling class in a time of traumatic change.
The first BBC television series of Parade's End appeared in 1964, starring Ronald Hines as Christopher Tietjens, Jeanne Moody as Sylvia, and Judy Dench as Valentine Wannop. In 2013, the BBC and HBO released their co-produced television series of Parade's End, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher, Rebecca Hall as Sylvia, and Adelaide Clemens as Valentine.
Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier, 1918.
Rebecca West (1892-1983) set her novel in March 1916 on the quiet country estate of a wealthy English businessman, now a captain in the British army, deployed to the Western Front. When shell-shock forces him to return home from the battlefield, the women in his life are rocked by the confusion created by his condition.
This short novel of less than one hundred pages packs life-changing moral choices into the lives of the soldier Christopher (Chris) Baldry, his wife Kitty, his cousin Jenny Baldry, and Margaret Grey—the girl he fell in love with fifteen years ago.
Through these four characters, West weaves her incisive perceptions of the British class system, the social and technological change underway in Britain, and the mayhem that war can wreak not only on combat soldiers, but also on civilians far from the front lines. West wrote the novel in 1916 and 1917, a time when the war seemed endless and no one could predict the final shot or the ultimate cost. She never experienced the battlefield, but she, like everyone on the British home front, experienced the war.
1. What’s the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day?
In the United States, Memorial Day occurs on the last Monday in May to pay tribute to service members who gave their lives serving in the nation’s wars or who died as a result of their combat injuries. Veterans Day, which always falls on November 11, honors everyone who served in the U.S. military. In the United Kingdom, Remembrance Day takes place on the second Sunday in November to honor British service members who have died in wars and other military conflict since the onset of World War I. Similar holidays are celebrated on November 11 in Australia, Canada, and France.
2. When did the United States enter the war? April 6, 1917.
3. When did World War I officially end?
It took a series of five peace treaties imposed by the victorious Allies, not negotiated with the defeated Central Powers. Each of the five treaties is named after the Paris suburb where the talks took place.
4. What are some of the legacies of the war World War that continue to affect us today? See "First world war: 15 legacies still with us today," The Guardian, 15 January 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/15/firstworldwar (accessed 14 October 2018).
5. Tell me more about Vera Brittain. See “Shirley Williams: testament to my extraordinary mother: Vera Brittain," Elizabeth Day, The Guardian, 11 January 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jan/11/shirley-williams-vera-brittain-testament-of-youth (accessed 14 October 2018).
6. Tell me more about Ford Madox Ford. See “Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939): Biography,”
Max Saunders, Kings College, London. Ford Madox Ford Society. http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/fords-biography.html (accessed 14 October 2018).
7. Tell me more about Rebecca West. See “Dame Rebecca West: British Writer,” the Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rebecca-West (accessed 14 October 2018).
Lynne Schall is the author of three novels: Women's Company - The Minerva Girls (2016), Cloud County Persuasion (2018), and Cloud County Harvest (November 2022). She and her family live in Kansas, USA, where she is writing her fourth novel, Book 3 in the Cloud County trilogy.