Today is the 11th day of the 11th month. Armistice Day. The anniversary of the end of the First World War, 11th November 1918. The Great War. The War to End All Wars.
I thought I’d list some of the best books I’ve read about the Great War, Second World War, or even war in general. They are for both adults and children.
War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo
I’ll start with one set squarely in kids/MG genre. I think this presents the horrors of war to young people from the perspective of the horse, which is a lot easier to bear, however much you love horses. It’s a book that’s well worth reading, and reading again. I’ve reviewed War Horse here.
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon
Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man was one of the books on my set list for my O Levels (aged 15-16 national exams). To put this in context, the others were Macbeth, Strife, Lord of the Flies and some modern poetry. I was so gripped by the adventures of George Sherston (aka Siegfried Sassoon) that I had to read this sequel, and the others. Read it and see the trenches from the inside.
Regeneration et al Pat Barker
I read all four in the Regeneration series, and I got lost at times. If you haven’t read them, I recommend them. Worth persisting with.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
I confess I haven’t read this yet, but I was extremely moved by the film. There was particular resonance for me in the hospital conditions where they brought the evacuees from Dunkirk: I recognised my mother’s nursing uniform on Kiera Knightley. I thought the evacuation of Dunkirk was particularly good.
The Snow Goose, by Paul Gallico
Another Dunkirk reference, and a book I’ll be reviewing for my Classic Children’s book in the next few weeks. The wild snow goose is found on the marshes, injured, and is nursed back to health. Many people have scars that cannot be seen, and need nursing back to health.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
I hung back from reading this until I succumbed to Simon Schama’s love for it as expressed in the BBC Books competition a few years ago. I was swept up in the drama, the lives, the loves and the changes to society. If you like Dr Zhivago and are happy to skip the more essay-like parts of this book (on war, mainly), you should try it.
The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
Although a biography of the author’s family, tracing how the collection of netsuke – including the hare – came into his possession, this book sweeps through France, Austria and Japan encompassing both world wars and a few other disturbances in between. It made me understand war as it affects peaceable people far better than any of the countless books or films about life in the war years in the UK. I reviewed it here. (Note, my book club didn’t like it!)
Carve Her Name With Pride by R J Minney
The biography of Violette Szabo, an English woman serving undercover with the French Resistance. The sort of role model girls need, even if they don’t want ever to go to war. This was one of a compendium entitled “3 Great War Stories” that I got as a year prize from my secondary school. The others were The Tunnel and The Man Who Saved London.
A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute
One of my all-time favourite books, this swings between London, Singapore, the Japanese POW camps, and the Australian outback. It probably is only matched by Neville Shute’s On the Beach, but that is post-apocalyptic. A Town Like Alice is the story of the search to put something right, something that lodges in the memory during a time of privation and probably death. It’s also a love story. I feel a re-read is needed.
I was searching for a book of this title that I read in paperback about ten years ago. I was gripped by the suffering of the Russian soldiers in truly awful winter conditions. It may have been Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 by Antony Beevor. If anyone knows which one I read, do tell me!
So many aspects of heroism and courage in these books. And On the Beach reminds us just why we should never forget.