I think it’s safe to say that when I saw the trailer for Battlefield 1 I made a very, very not masculine sound, the kind of sound one makes when they see a puppy, or a kitten, or a baby do something cute and you feel the need to squeal. It feels just a bit odd to equate the joy felt by watching the antics of infant mammals and the computer-generated horrors of 1910s warfare, but alas, I guess I’m a little fucked in the head. But seriously, did you watch the trailer?! (If you haven’t, watch it. Even if you don’t enjoy video games you’ve got to admit that looks great.) It’s been nearly a century since the end of the Great War, but there is a stunning lack of visual media about one of the 20th Century’s worst conflicts. Unfortunately Dear Reader, there’s nothing you or I can do about the lack of (contemporary) movies and especially video games, but you know what there’s quite a lot of? Books! Yes, yes, I know, the collective groans are audible over time and distance, but listen, the following novels and nonfiction books will not only prepare you for the digital nightmare of trench warfare, but you’ll even get a little culture and a little information. Who doesn’t want those things? Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question, dammit!
Before you go forward take heed, the links provided are to Wikipedia and will be replete with spoilers, proceed at your own risk.
1. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
One of Hemingway’s most famous novels, A Farewell to Arms is based on Hemingway’s own experiences in Italy as a Red Cross ambulance driver during the First World War. It tells the story of Frederic Henry who is also an ambulance driver serving in the Italian Army. Not only is it an example of exceptional writing, it’s a helluva love story (also based on Hemingway’s experience with a nurse during the war), but it also shows the recovery process for a soldier during the Great War and the fighting in northern Italy against the forces of the Austria-Hungary. We tend to forget that a) Italy fought for the Allies (at least after 1915) and b)The Italians also experienced the horrors of that war. I won’t spoil the ending for you Dear Reader, because I’m not an asshole, but I will say: brace yourself.
Cinema bonus! There are two movie adaptations, but…they’re from 1932 and 1957, and apparently the ’32 adaptation is superior to the ’57 one, so give it a watch and tell me what you think.
2. The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks & Caanan White
I enjoy graphic novels, and I’m an English minor, so if any pretentious literati says to you, “Psh, those aren’t real books,” you can respond with, “Hey, a certified English minor says they count as books, so go to hell!” If the name Max Brooks sounds familiar to you it’s because he’s the author of World War Z and the Zombie Survival Guide. Now, I’m sure you might be asking, “Uh, is this some kind of awful crossover of World War I and zombies?” and no, it is not. Harlem Hellfighters is a gruesome, honest, and inspiring story of the 369th Infantry Regiment; the first African American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces in the First World War. The 369th wound up being assigned to fight with the French Army (because y’know, racism), and the French were like, “Hey, warm bodies! Cool!” By the end of the war 171 soldiers of the regiment had received the Legion of Honor of the Croix de Guerre and had earned the totally badass nickname “the Harlem Hellfighters.” The graphic novel itself is gritty and engaging, seriously, there’s one panel where a French soldier is vaporized by an artillery shell. That’s a selling point…right?
Cinema & video game bonus! Apparently a movie adaptation is in the works, and the 369th Infantry Regiment will be featured in Battlefield 1.
3. Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
Alright, this one is just grim. Like, really grim. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an American classic and it’s a great anti-war novel, but hot damn is it a downer. This one doesn’t focus on combat, it focuses on the effects of combat. Joe Bonham is a human stump. He wakes up in a hospital bed and comes to the realization that an artillery shell hit him causing him to lose his arms, legs, eyes, ears, teeth, and his tongue. He is kept alive with (at least at the time) modern medicine and has to cope with the new reality that he will live out his days in a hospital bed. “That sounds really depressing and…(shifty eyes and said in a mumble) kinda boring.” I won’t lie to you Dear Reader (unless it like, totally benefits me in some way), but I’ll be up front and say it’s a little slow at times, and yes it’s dark, but it’s not 300-some pages of the poor bastard’s internal narrative. There are memory sequences that serve as flashbacks to Joe’s life before the war. Like I said, this isn’t exactly an action packed novel, but it serves as a stark reminder of what it was like for the wounded of World War I. Come to think of it, Johnny Got His Gun could be about a veteran from the War on Terror. Dear Reader, if we ever find ourselves sharing a foxhole and I get blown up? Well, I think the implication is clear. (I DON’T WANT TO BE SENTIENT HUMAN HAMBURGER).
Cinema and music bonus! There is a film adaptation directed by Trumbo, and the song “One” by Metallica is based on the novel, so give it a listen.
4. Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
I read Private Peaceful a while ago, but it was a powerful story about two English brothers fighting in World War I. This one stands out from the rest because it’s a young adult novel. Before any of you snobby assholes (like myself) turn up your nose at the prospect of reading YA literature just hear me out! From what I recollect it was a mature take on a mature subject. Without getting too spoilery on all of your asses, I will also say that it shines a light on one of the atrocities committed during WWI: the often arbitrary, ruthless execution of Allied soldiers for “cowardice and desertion” (read: shellshock) by other Allied governments (side note: The good ol’ U.S.A. and Australia are the only two countries to have not executed anyone for desertion in World War I, yay us!)
Cinema bonus! There’s a movie, but I think you might have a little trouble finding it online.
5. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
I’m sure some of you might be saying, “Adam, you know there were other factions in the First World War, right?” Of course I know that! I WENT TO COLLEGE! Excuse me, but yes Dear Reader I know that there were non-Anglo-American factions in the Great War (I’m running out of ways to write ‘World War I,’ then again, how many different ways are there? What about, “European Death Struggle 1914” or “Royal Families Blood Feud”? No? Okay.) All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most famous novels about European Death Struggle 1914 (I’m using the different name, deal with it). It tells the story of the war from the perspective of German soldier, Paul Baumer. It also deals with something all soldiers have to cope with: coming home and finding that they have changed, but home has not.
Cinema bonus! The novel was adapted into an American film in 1930 and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1930. It also won an Academy Award for Directing. Seriously, I know you might be groaning about how old it is and that it’s in black and white, but sit your pampered, 21st Century ass in a chair and watch this movie.
6. Storm of Steel by Ernest Junger
Alright, so onto the nonfiction material! Storm of Steel is a memoir about Junger’s time in the 73rd Hanoverian Regiment while serving in Champagne. He eventually became a lieutenant and fought in the Battle of Arras, the Third Battle of Ypres, and the Battle of Cambrai. The man was wounded 14 times and got shot through the friggin’ chest! He was also awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class (which is a pretty big deal in Germany). Also, it’s an unflinching depiction of trench warfare. (What better way to prep yourself for Battlefield 1?) Now, there have been seven revisions, and some of the violence has been edited. Which, for the squeamish of you I’m sure that’s a “thank God” moment, but for the rest of us that aren’t six years old (sorry) it comes as a little disappointing to know that the raw, honest descriptions have been changed.
7. The Guns of August by Barabara W. Tuchman
I’m sure there are some of you thinking, “Hey, where are the women writers?” And I delivered! I mean, it’s only one woman writer, so it feels kinda token, but I made an effort, and that’s what counts…right? Nope? Okay. Anyway, this baby won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 (and for those of you unaware, that’s like the Oscar of the written word) and it is the book to cover the First World War from beginning to end. Also, Barbara actually witnessed a naval battle between a British ship and two German ships. So, while she wasn’t in the war, she still witnessed part of the war first hand.
Cinema bonus? I’m sure documentaries aren’t exactly the most exciting thing for you guys, but this book was adapted into a documentary. It’s pictures and sound, so it counts!
8. A History of the Great War: 1914-1918 by C.R.M.F. Cruttwell
This one is a little dry, if we’re being honest. But I promised you fiction and nonfiction, and this one is worth reading. Why, you ask? Well, not only did Cruttwell fight in the war (which I would say makes him worthy of, y’know, writing about the war), but he was an officer (a 2nd lieutenant), and he also worked at Hertford College. He was also a respected historian. So yes, this one may not be the most exciting out of the selected works, but it will serve as a good companion to The Guns of August and like that book, this one will give you more of a bird’s eye view of the conflict. Just pretend it’s an RTS! Or something. I don’t know!
Whew, so there’s a decent group of books to read to prepare you for Battlefield 1. Now you can join me and the legion of amateur historians who may want to tear the game’s historical accuracy apart, but also keep shouting, “Holyshithisissocool!” And hey, there’s four months to go before the game’s tentative release date of October 21, 2016, so get reading!
As usual, leave me a comment or shoot me an email. What did you like? What didn’t you like? What would you like to see me write about in the future? Sorry again about the delay in this post coming out, I already have another one pretty much written, so expect that one in the next couple of days (and if you’re a fan of Futurama then this is one you ought to check out). And I promise the blog post after that one will be about my own writing.
Thanks for reading, and as always, feel free to follow me on Twitter or contact me on Facebook.