The First World War: Battle of the books

The centenary of the outbreak of hostilities has mobilised both historians and publishers.

The Underworld: Taking cover in a Tube Station during a London air raid (1918) by Walter Bayes

Some Desperate Glory
Max Egremont

Egremont has done the seemingly impossible; not only has he found a new way of looking at Brooke, Owen, Sassoon et al but he has brought them to life. His book deals with 11 poets in the years they fought. Brooke was dead by 1915, while Edward Thomas didn’t start (and end) his war until 1917. These writers were not the homogeneous group they seem in retrospect but experienced and wrote about the war in all its different phases. This is Egremont’s simple but telling aperçu and he illustrates it with an evocative selection of their verse.
Picador, 304pp, £20

Englanders and Huns
James Hawes

The enmity between Britain and Germany that burst out so bloodily in 1914 had a 50-year backstory, argues James Hawes. His book chronicles the shifting attitudes of each country towards the other as Germany rose from a minor, almost comical central European power to become a threat to Britain that needed to be countered in the colonies and through an arms race. As Hawes shows to lively effect, the bickering was enthusiastically played out and intensified in the popular press of both nations.
Simon & Schuster, 448pp, £20

No Man’s Land: Writings from a World at War
Edited by Pete Ayrton

This handsome anthology of prose fiction emphasises the global nature of the war, with new translations of Croatian, Catalan, Italian, French and Hungarian texts, together with excerpts from classics such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. We hear from ambulance drivers, Indian soldiers, children playing “Armenians and Turks” and Czech soldiers lambasting the Austrian emperor (“A chap at the pub told us . . . he is breastfed three times a day”). The first passage, taken from Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu, exemplifies the hard-won irony that runs through the collection. Patients at a sanatorium receive the news that war has been declared. “Perhaps it is the war to end all wars,” says one. “An end to war! Can that be?” replies another. “The world’s affliction is incurable.”
Serpent’s Tail, 572pp, £25

1914: the Year the World Ended
Paul Ham

This broad-sweeping narrative history is intended to refute Christopher Clark’s watershed study of the year 1914, The Sleepwalkers. There was, the Australian historian Paul Ham writes, nothing sleepy about the outbreak of catastrophic hostilities: “A few powerful, old aristocratic men brought war on the world behind closed doors.” He sets out to prove that Europe’s leaders knew what they were doing and to explain why they went ahead anyway. Ham treats with scorn these men’s later claims that they were powerless to stop events that had taken on a tragic momentum of their own.
Doubleday, 736pp, £25

The Fateful Year: England 1914
Mark Bostridge

In his New Year message, the archbishop of York warned that 1914 might well prove a “very fateful year”. The government was bracing itself for civil war in Ireland, yet more strike action in England and an increasingly militant campaign for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile, trendy youths were learning the tango, a dance the Vatican feared as an “assassination of family and social life”. Mark Bostridge’s lively, sometimes surprising, social history of 1914 is told through a series of short stories, from the grisly murder of a schoolboy in north London and Prime Minister Asquith’s romantic woes to the first staging of Pygmalion and the contagion of spy fever that spread through the country.
Viking, 432pp, £25

The Great War and Modern Memory
Paul Fussell

A canonical piece of war criticism, the cultural historian Paul Fussell’s book – originally published in 1975 – seeks to identify the swerve in literary sensibilities that emerged from the shock of the First World War. Fussell argues for the emergence of “modern memory” in 1914 – a commonly felt assault on the European psyche, detectable in the poetry and memoirs of Blunden, Graves, Owen and Sassoon. Though struck through with generalisations and even inaccuracies his analysis of the themes and motifs of the era as they appeared between 1914 and 1918 (and shortly afterwards) remains highly influential.
Folio Society, 464pp, £44.95

World War I Love Stories
Gill Paul

This collection of sketches of 14 real-life romances demonstrates how the war enabled some love affairs yet destroyed others. In a nod to the inspiration for A Farewell to Arms, the book charts how Ernest Hemingway fell for the nurse tending his war wounds at a Milan hospital in 1918. The most affecting tale is that of an English captain on the run in occupied France who falls for a local beauty. The couple’s doomed affair ends, however, when the French belle’s neighbours betray him to the Germans. Ephemera including photos, letters, journal entries and maps vivify the stories.
Ivy Press, 192pp, £14.99

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First Word War
Edited by Hew Strachan

Professor Strachan’s primer includes chapters from 25 of the most distinguished historians of the conflict. Tackling subjects such as the origins of the war and manoeuvre warfare, it also discusses economic mobilisation, the role of propaganda and the rise of socialism. This new edition contains significant new material on the Central Powers’ strategy, the role of women in the war, mutinies and military morale. It is an essential introduction for all students of the First World War; the many photos included will also make it appeal to a general audience.
Oxford University Press, 400pp, £25

Outside Verdun
Arnold Zweig

This new translation by Fiona Rintoul of a German novel first published in 1935 presents the events at Verdun (in which Germany attempted to “bleed France white” by attacking its strongest point, resulting in more than 600,000 casualties) with grim clarity. Based on Zweig’s experiences as a Jewish private, it invests the German forces with the ills at large in society: class prejudice, anti-Semitism, incompetence. It is a thoughtful, sturdy novel and a response to the nationalistic fiction that sprang up after the war: it was subsequently burned by the Nazis. Zweig later fled to Palestine, returning in 1948 to become an MP.
Freight Books, 432pp, £12.99

Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War
Jerry White

The war, writes Jerry White, a historian of London, changed the capital profoundly. It became a mechanised hub: a hospital for wounded soldiers and an entrepôt for fresh ones, a munitions factory and a target for German Zeppelin raids. The effects were by no means all negative. The war also brought London full employment and improved public health and transformed the prospects for women. This is a rich social history and White is as adept with individual characters as he is with the statistics of munitions production or the rise in prostitutes walking the city’s streets.
Bodley Head, 368pp, £25

Secret Warriors
Taylor Downing

The war was not fought in the trenches alone. Scientists, Taylor Downing contends, played a crucial, if underacknowledged, role in Britain’s victory and their efforts enhanced our understanding of medicine, psychology, intelligence-gathering and aviation. Downing’s fascinating study of these pioneering men – and a few women – is as much about class as about science. Today, in an era of mass surveillance, it is amusing to think that army officers and government officials were reluctant to use aerial photography or cryptography to spy on the enemy as it seemed “ungentlemanly”.
Little, Brown, 448pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era