The life of Harry Patch, the last surviving British Army soldier to have served in the trenches of the First World War, remembered (2009); the death of the last American doughboy, Frank Buckles, widely noted (2011); the war’s centenary observed (2014–18); so that now, a hundred years on, we are at a good place to recall the time of the writers. This era, starting a year into the war in 1915 and peaking in 1929, was a period of intense literary productivity—poetry, novels, memoirs—in which men and women blended art and experience in a variety of attempts to transform horror, exhilaration, boredom, frustration, shell shock, anger, and grief into—what? Typically not into something grand or heroic, because the objective for many authors was to depict, often by way of modernist technique, the chaos, pretense, and purposelessness of what they had seen and heard, smelled, and touched.

Consequently, not a few of these figures played prominent roles in the massive interwar peace movements. As their efforts on speakers’ platforms or in print infused the public perception of the war’s reality, the most popular writings about the 1914–18 cataclysm became components of the larger experience of this conflict. Both memoirists and imaginative artists (the line between them not easy to draw) in effect transmuted history-as-what-happened into history-as-public-memory. And both personal recollection and public memory omit and distort.

In respect of the literature of the Great War, a distinction obtains between public memory and historical likelihood. If readers of Erich Maria Remarque’s bestseller All Quiet on the Western Front (1928; English translation, 1929)—or viewers of the film (winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, 1930)—came away from their experience believing that most soldiers in combat on the Western or Eastern front shared the trauma and pacifism of the main character, Paul Bäumer, an enlisted man in the German army, then they were probably mistaken. Most soldiers on both sides not only accepted privation and endured the terrible stress of combat, they also believed in the morality of their nation’s fight and were committed to prevailing over their enemies. Concentrating on the negative effects of the war while underrepresenting the motivations and resolve of its participants, the classic literature of World War I is historically unbalanced in tone and emphasis.

Its authors could be misleading in their details also. For example, for many years readers with no experience of the Western Front assumed the accuracy of Robert Graves’s portrayal of Church of England military chaplains as “remarkably out of touch with their troops” and reluctant to visit the most dangerous posts in the trenches. Clear-headed scholarship has demonstrated how wrong Graves was.

Even when we focus exclusively on literary works, apart from empirical history, we discover, as we explore the outstanding literature of this era, that a reading list confined to the canonical texts typically assigned an undergraduate student may be deficient in major respects, too skewed toward wholesale disillusionment, even cynicism—a notion of the futility of everything.

Reconsidered, some classic works of the Great War challenge our customary apprehension of the literature of this period. The war and the widespread disruptions of the years following it stirred up questions that were handled with insight and care in a number of these texts—questions about meaning and value, about ties between the past and the future, about the mystery and worth of the human person, about the relation of ends and means. These writers’ reckonings with such issues not only reward a re-examination of their works but also support an appreciation of them from a conservative angle.


The tenor of the standard syllabus texts—bleak, unsparing, shattering established forms and institutions, suspicious of inherited moral codes—is not surprising. The First World War destroyed; it did not point the way forward. The war itself, not the treaty ending it, was the fons et origo of the whirlwind of movements and ideologies that would break up the old order, agitate Europe, and usher in a second global conflict and a cold war after it. The scholar Joseph Loconte laments that his fellow historians have neglected to say enough about “the spiritual calamity brought about by this conflict—the emotional and moral vertigo that afflicted both elite and middle-class Europeans in the first decade after the war.” Skepticism toward old pieties was commonplace. Traditional religious beliefs and trust in a moral order, the journalist Walter Lippmann observes in A Preface to Morals (1928), were undergoing dissolution in the acids of modernity.

At the end of Remarque’s novel, Paul Bäumer says that now, after years of war, if former soldiers return home, “we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope. We will not be able to find our way any more.” For Remarque and many of his contemporaries, it’s as if the war rendered the permanent things transitory, transcendent faith illusory, tradition untrustworthy, belief in any kind of enduring meaning foolish and misplaced. Just as Siegfried Sassoon satirizes prelates of the established church in his poetry and prose, Remarque shows that representatives of the other primary institutions of society—the family and the school—might have been well intentioned but their achievement was to impart an outdated or partial truth and thus to misguide and betray an entire generation of fit and credulous youth.

The schoolteacher in All Quiet, Kantorek, who had persuasively lectured on patriotic duty, was not alone but in fact thoroughly representative: “There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best—in a way that cost them nothing.” Although his former students loved Germany as much as he did and “went courageously into every action,” the difference between them and their old schoolmaster was that “we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone… .” At twenty, Paul knows “nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow.”

The most famous broken and burnt-out case may be Nick Adams in “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925), Ernest Hemingway’s account of the vulnerability of both human beings and their environments. At the story’s opening, the appearance of town and hillside following a fire provides an eerie segue from the protagonist’s unstated but inferable wartime vista, a visual overlap correlating with Nick’s post-traumatic mind and body. The story’s first sentence affords the reader a glimpse from the train of a hill “of burnt timber.” Nick sees that Seney, a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, has pretty well vanished, leaving only “the rails and the burned-over country.” The one street’s thirteen saloons are gone, although the foundations of the Mansion House hotel remain above ground, the stones chipped and split by the fire. “Even the surface [of the town] had been burned off the ground.” The second paragraph pushes the same, persistent theme: “Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside, where he had expected to find the scattered houses of the town… .” Like veterans engaged by today’s Project Healing Waters, Nick will fly-fish the river, taking measured steps toward peace.

In A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway’s Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American serving as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Italian army, tries to work out his separate peace through his romance with a beautiful British nurse, Catherine Barkley. But at the end of the novel, as she lies dying, she voices her despair: “I’m all broken. They’ve broken me. I know it now.” Frederic says, “Everybody is that way.” And she replies, “They just keep it up till they break you.”

This exchange betokens the book’s underlying philosophy. Catherine has no religion but Frederic: “You’re my religion,” she tells him. Frederic has no belief in a God of love. He admits that he was “always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.” His discomfiture is ethically sound: a protest against political cant and bureaucratic humbug, the misuse of high-flown rhetoric for dubious ends. But he then collapses his metaphysical categories so that nothing remains but nominalist particulars, further reduced to nonmoral data. He forever rejects the words “glory, honor, courage,” and “hallow” as “obscene,” affirming only “the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”

Similarly, Wilfred Owen’s best-known lines ring true and timely in their immediate context, the awful butchery of mechanized warfare. They deflate the puffed-up zeal of boys too eager for battle honors. Suggesting to impressionable “children ardent for” martial glory that dying in war is somehow “dulce et decorum,” sweet and proper, would indeed be morally perverse. Better that they know the ugly truth: A gassed soldier dies a gruesome death, choking, drowning, “blood … gargling from … froth-corrupted lungs.”

Notice that these hard facts about the brutal, degrading experience of combat do not evacuate Horace’s original affirmation of all meaning and worth, however. Because losing one’s life for one’s homeland can be fitting and praiseworthy, if not pleasant, soldiers traditionally chose to be buried near where they fell in battle, for they could have no more honorable resting place than the farthest they had fought in their country’s defense.

The nature of warfare on the Western Front renders especially poignant a decision taken in Rebecca West’s moving novella The Return of the Soldier, published in June 1918. The story revolves around an ethical conundrum having to do with the destiny of a British Army captain, Christopher Baldry, who returns home suffering from almost total amnesia. The only way that his wife and his loving female cousin can restart his memory is by presenting him with familiar objects dear to him: the jersey worn by his child, a boy who had died at the age of two, and the red ball that father and son had played with on the lawn. To restore Chris means giving him the truth and his full manhood, but it also means sending him “back to that flooded trench in Flanders, under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No-Man’s-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead.” The book ends with this ambiguous “cure,” his return as a soldier.

The rickety framework of tactics and strategies, stated goals, actual results (including horrific casualties), and questionable leadership is what motivated the decorated British officer Sassoon to venture his famous wartime protest against the politicians running the war. In his “Soldier’s Declaration” (July 1917), he attests that although he had entered the conflict believing it to be “a war of defence and liberation,” it “has now become a war of aggression and conquest.” Therefore he holds it necessary to speak out not “against the military conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” In Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), the second volume of his barely fictionalized Memoirs of George Sherston, the protagonist characterizes his declaration as “an act of wilful defiance of military authority because the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”

In Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, among the highly placed figures Sherston lampoons as being patently out of touch is the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion. Unnamed in the text, the primate concerned was the historically well-regarded Randall Davidson. The archbishop had issued his message to the nation regarding Christian responsibility during the war, counsel the combat veteran Sherston “imbibed” while “smiling sardonically.” The cause of his derision was Davidson’s granting permission to men and women to work in the agricultural fields on Sundays, prompting Sherston to recall “the intense bombardment in front of Arras on Easter Sunday.” He “wondered whether the Archbishop had given the sanction of the Gospel for that little bit of Sabbath field-work.” In London, Sherston “glared morosely in the direction of Lambeth Palace [the archbishop’s residence] and muttered, ‘Silly old fossil!’”

Disenchanted authors flung sharper barbs at their own military, attacking it for its stupidity, mendacity, and relentless efforts to make soldiers conform at all costs. This campaign to dehumanize is ably portrayed by John Dos Passos in Three Soldiers (1921). An ambulance driver on the Western Front near Verdun in 1917, Dos Passos became increasingly dispirited, decrying monotony, hypocrisy, regimentation, and mindless bureaucracy.

Writing to a friend in August, Dos Passos declaimed: “The war is utter damn nonsense… . Of all the things in this world a government is the thing least worth fighting for. None of the poor devils whose mangled bodies I take to the hospital… really give a damn about any of the aims of this ridiculous affair… .” In the summer of 1917, he wrote in his journal that “all the vestiges of old truths now putrid and false infect the air, choke you worse than German gas… .” At this time a man of the left, he wanted to overturn established systems and governments and start afresh.

These sentiments of radical alienation and resentment have their precursor in Under Fire (Le Feu, 1916), by Henri Barbusse, which in its first twelve months sold 200,000 copies. Doubtless the book’s reception was in part an echo of the exhaustion that had set in by the war’s third year. In its last pages, the narrator preaches social equality—more important to him than liberty and fraternity. With equality, he avers, will come the unity of mankind and peace. War, one soldier says, is an idol that devours fifteen hundred young people every day; its purpose is to please the “ringleaders.” Whole nations “go to the slaughter … so that a caste decked in gold braid can write its princely names into history” and so that wealthy merchants “can do more business.” When we open our eyes, “we’ll see that the divisions between men are not the ones we think, and that the ones we think aren’t the real ones.”

The narrator concludes that against the “great general interest, which … is identical with justice, there are only the sabre-rattlers, profiteers and crooks.” The bankers and the financiers are monstrous. Keeping “their faces closed like a money-box,” they “live by war.” These “traditionalists” are “mired in the past.” For them, “injustice has the force of law because it has been repeated so often.” They “long to be guided by the dead” and to subject future generations and the hope of progress to “the empire of ghosts and fairy tales.” Allied with these leaders of society “are all the priests,” who “put you to sleep with the morphine of their paradise so that nothing will change.” In league with the priests are the lawyers, economists, and historians, who proclaim antagonism between races, national pride, and military virtues. “They’ve built up a religion around the flag of honour which is as wicked and stupid and malevolent as the other kind.”

Barbusse’s harsh depiction of the enormity of war and the duplicity of the cultural elites set a precedent for authors to follow. Richard Aldington’s novel Death of a Hero (1929) incorporates criticism of both the hideous features of combat and the hypocritical aspects of society back home. The protagonist, George Winterbourne, has “the bottomless cynicism of the infantry subaltern,” an emotional carapace that does little to protect him. His death at the front in the last battle of the war, apparently by suicide, was piously accepted by his father (whom the narrator regards as a coward), a Roman Catholic convert who “took refuge in a drivelling religiosity.” The narrator is not shy about stating his theme: “The death of a hero! What mockery, what bloody cant! … George’s death is a symbol to me of the whole sickening bloody waste of it, the damnable stupid waste and torture of it.”


In various European countries, the interwar period saw a polarization of politics as parties moved in stark opposition to one another, sliding farther toward the extremes of left and right. For a thoughtful conservative today, the best answer to the sorts of texts we have been considering is not an equal and opposite reaction, starting with stolid acceptance of stultifying conditions or adulation of the military. In other words, the wisest course is not to embrace those editions of Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel—there were eight versions in all, the first in 1920—which appear, in the view of Bernard Bergonzi, a well-known student of this literature, “to exalt war as a great and ennobling experience.”

Instead, the way forward, after gleaning the best elements of the first-rank works already mentioned, is a return to foundations and to the things of permanent worth. Not Ernst Jünger but Vera Brittain, a woman of the left who became a pacifist, provides a clue. It appears in the most piercing and unforgettable passage of her memoir Testament of Youth (1933), at the close of the first of her book’s three parts.

On the morning of Christmas Day 1915, Vera receives a message that she is wanted on the telephone. She imagines that at last she will hear the voice of her fiancé, Roland Leighton, a British Army subaltern home from the front: “I dashed joyously into the corridor. But the message was not from Roland but from [his younger sister] Clare; it was not to say that he had arrived home that morning, but to tell me he had died of wounds at a Casualty Clearing Station on December 23rd.”

What makes these statements so wrenching is the tension between two forces, the strong principles of life and death. In the nature of human affairs, Roland Leighton is killed; in the nature of human affairs, the hope was otherwise. One reality, death at the hand of man, blights another reality, life in community. His former fiancée’s phrasing makes it evident which condition should be superior: peace, fellowship, Christmas, celebration, love, joy, beauty, new beginnings.

To the end of her days, Brittain would participate in crusades for peace, such as the nuclear disarmament campaign, joining protests from which others could conscientiously abstain. As she became more involved in this work in the 1930s, she came to know Canon Dick Sheppard, founder of the Peace Pledge Union, and Corder Catchpool, a member of the Society of Friends. Their spiritual qualities influenced her, and she gradually moved from agnosticism to an appreciation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to Christianity as a way of life.

By the time of the Second World War, her activism was firmly grounded in Christianity, and she held the existence of God to be, in her words, “the fundamental fact of man’s life on earth.” An Anglican, she regularly attended services at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. Brittain’s wisdom lay not in her resolute pacifism but in this: her inclination neither to suppress the tragedy nor to succumb to despair, let alone to counter horror with hatred and violence, but to respond to the motions of grace in common life and to answer her vocation.

In his memoir Undertones of War (1928), Edmund Blunden comes upon scenes in wartime France which might remind readers of Nick Adams’s views of the burned-over precincts of Seney, Michigan. The difference in the former case is that the sites of destruction, beyond their literal and immediate import, are not only signs of the devastation within the protagonist but also palimpsests of two worlds. Blunden’s goal in his classic text is not to criticize the war directly, its origins or its conduct or its purpose, but to offer an account of his experience as a youthful British Army officer, a figure he refers to in his book’s last sentence as “a harmless young shepherd in a soldier’s coat.” This young shepherd regularly turns our attention to what lies just beyond the scarred fields and ruined choirs, in a time before the Great War and even prior to the Victorian age.

Blunden sees greenswards in the French countryside, properly used by grazing sheep, lately holed by high-explosive shells. On the modern battlefield he passes the track where, in earlier days, taking the path home, “the ploughman whistled as he loosed his team.” In the French village of Hamel, the church, “though stripped and tottering still had that spirit clinging to it which would have been the richest poetry to George Herbert.”

In the war literature, especially in the texts by English authors, references to pastoral scenes are common, as rural life in peacetime and existence in the trenches work as antipodes. What is vigorous and distinctive about Blunden’s images is that through them the author gives us what the literary critic Paul Fussell aptly designates a “repository of criteria” by which to assess what is happening to him and to his civilization. It’s a set of standards that is rooted in pre-industrial, 18th-century England. Menaced by German machine-gun fire, Blunden reads a poet from the 1700s and feels “the benefit of his grave and intellectual voice, speaking out of a profound eighteenth-century calm,” the “amusement of discovering lines applicable to our crisis kept me from despair.”

His demurral in the face of modernity has its representative scene in the book’s first pages, when Blunden arrives at the army base in Etaples. In this vignette, the memoirist marks the difference between two epochs: “I took my share of the tent… and laid on my valise the ebony walking-stick which had been my grandfather’s, and was to be my pilgrim’s staff. It went. I was away from it only a few minutes—it went. But this was before the war was officially certified to be making the world safe for democracy.”

Blunden’s meaning is not that previous generations knew no crime or simply that a gentleman ought to be able to expect integrity from his peers. Instead it is scorn for the whole utilitarian outlook according to which the big goal justifies all manner of present depredations. His reason for invoking rural values and the harmonies of the natural world is not tree-hugging escapism but rather an ethical outlook deriving from the manifest ends of the created order. The ploughman mentioned above appears in Blunden’s finest poem, “Third Ypres.” Its author’s belief is that the farmer’s use of the land is plainly right, consonant with the earth’s rhythms and with the vital realization of this gift of soil.

Edmund Blunden was one of the outstanding poets and prose stylists of his generation. For our discussion here, however, the dimension of depth in his moral and aesthetic imaginings and his 18th-century stance against machine-age deracination constitute his signal contributions. In his sensibility we detect a refusal to concede that old truths are putrid or that a shelled church signifies nothing more than a place on a map.

A conservative instinct for depth and mystery, with moral implications, is discernible as well in the last pages of William Faulkner’s first novel, Soldiers’ Pay (1926). Two important characters in this story, an ex-soldier and the local rector, discuss providence and hear the singing from an African-American church service: “It was nothing, it was everything; then it swelled to an ecstasy, taking the white man’s words as readily as it took his remote God and made a personal Father of Him. Feed Thy Sheep, O Jesus.”

Although functioning as little more than a coda to the main plot of Soldiers’ Pay, an inquiry into mystery is a focus of Frederic Manning’s highly regarded Her Privates We (1929). This novel draws in the reader with thorny questions: What is the secret that resides in every human being? How can a person’s humanity and singular identity be preserved in spite of physical violence and spiritual assault? Neither a pacifist’s nor a militant’s text, Her Privates We is laudable for its compelling, if necessarily tentative, exploration of this mystery of personhood under extreme pressure.

At the end of this book, after the main character, Bourne, has been killed in a raid on the Germans’ position, Sergeant-Major Tozer reflects on his life. He was “more sorry than he could say,” the omniscient narrator tells the reader. “[Bourne] was a queer chap,” with “a bit of a mystery about him; but then, when you come to think of it, there’s a bit of a mystery about all of us.” As Tozer pushes aside the blanket at their dug-out’s entrance, he sees his fellow soldiers in “the murky light.” They’re preoccupied with their own musings, “as Fritz began to send a lot of stuff over in retaliation for the raid.” The infantrymen sit and wait in silence, “each man keeping his own secret.”

Insisting on the irreducible mystery and value of every human being, conservatives warn against the dangerous entailments of radical revolution. They do so for the simple reason that, as Roger Scruton observes, revolution “leads to murder” by ridding “the world of the experience upon which the refusal to murder depends.” This crucial experience is what we come upon in Her Privates We: the awareness—in Scruton’s words—of the “incarnate person: the animal in whom the light of reason shines, and who looks at us with eyes which tell of freedom.” Apprehending our fellows’ intrinsic dignity underlies our respect for them and prompts acknowledgment of their basic rights—their equal claims to liberty—and of our corresponding duties toward them.

There’s a secret, a mystery, about each person which bids us, as Scruton makes clear, never to “treat another’s life and freedom as expendable” or to use him or her as a tool for my own satisfaction or profit. In all too many cases, “the first effect of the revolutionary mentality is to undo this experience” of the sanctity of the other person’s spirit and body. In first-rate prose and through memorable characters, Her Privates We conveys a powerful sense of this sacred boundary, the mystery of our fellow humans’ selfhood.


Without question the World War I classic that would rest most comfortably on a shelf hard by the works of Izaak Walton, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and Roger Scruton is Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy (1924–28). Its main character, Christopher Tietjens, the son of a country squire, is “the last surviving Tory,” a Christian gentleman and a sincere Anglican, a man of honor. He is “an eighteenth-century figure of the Dr. Johnson type”; indeed, he asserts that no book written later than the 18th century is worth reading. He would have liked to have been a 17th-century parson, lean and contemplative, with a cure in the country—along the lines of George Herbert’s parish in Bemerton, near Salisbury. His devotion to England is profound: “He loved this country for the run of its hills, the shape of its elm trees and the way the heather, running uphill to the skyline, meets the blue of the heavens.”

In his characterization of Tietjens, Ford relies upon his knowledge of his late friend Arthur Marwood, a Yorkshire Tory. In the words of his biographer Alan Judd, Ford combines Marwood’s “practical paternalism” with his own “feudal Toryism” to create Tietjens, who is “devoted to pre-industrial ways and values,” follows the old moral code, loves good books, knows horses and antique furniture, and shuns ambition. Ford’s protagonist is honorable and suffers for it; loved by some, but misunderstood and maligned by many who would use him—or destroy him—to their advantage. Frequently anguished, he stumbles along, doing the best he can. As Tietjens says, “But one has to keep going… . Principles are like a skeleton map of a country—you know whether you’re going east or north.”

In more than one instance, readers will likely find Tietjens exasperating, nearly unbelievable, but what Ford is trying to do in his work is to build up a lasting impression. The overall effect, more than every detail, is what counts. In Parade’s End, the war nearly kills Captain Tietjens. It changes him in significant ways. Afterward, he cannot go back to his feudal past. Necessarily he makes considerable adjustments—toward a simpler and more democratic mode of living. But despite harrowing circumstances, he appears to remain a man of principle. His Christian ethics incline much more heavily to the deontological side than to the utilitarian, come what may. Although his against-the-grain rectitude costs him, he keeps going and with honor. That’s our clear impression.

Coming out of the First World War, in which he is blown up and shell-shocked during the Battle of the Somme, Ford Madox Ford confronts a blasted religious and ethical landscape. In the wake of the turmoil not only of the war but also of the prewar decades, with their own hypocrisies and moral shabbiness, he does not surrender to a feeling of futility but offers a complicated and difficult countercultural alternative. Nearly a hundred years on, his contribution to the literature of the Great War, alongside fine books by others, will repay a conservative’s consideration.

David Hein is senior fellow at the George C. Marshall Foundation and coauthor of Archbishop Fisher, 1945–1961: Church, State and World.