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Writers at war


Posted on 19 February 2018

For all its horrors, the First World War captured the literary imagination, inspiring some of the 20th century’s greatest poetry and fiction.

The war produced a variety of responses, ranging from idealism and compassion to disillusionment and anger. It also saw a staggering rise in the number of English poets—the leading figures including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen.

Author Katherine Ashenburg found various reasons for the proliferation of talent:

‘The Great War had a horrid novelty … it was the first war that was fought by many European countries in almost a century and the first mechanised war. It began with idealism and naïvete, and sooner rather than later many people realised the whole thing was an apparently endless muddle.’

Siegfried Sassoon described the horrors of the trenches and he protested with his poem, ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ (1917), after which he was admitted to a military psychiatric hospital.

There he became friends with another poet, Wilfred Owen, arguably the finest poet of his time, who was killed in action at Sambre-Oise Canal, one week before the Armistice.

Some of the great literary works produced following the First World War include:

  • All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque, 1929
  • A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway, 1929
  • The Complete Memories of George Sherston, Siegfried Sassoon, 1937
  • Undertones of War, Edmund Blunden,1928
  • Good-bye to All That, Robert Graves 1929
  • Testament of Youth, Verga Brittain, 1933

Australia had its share of literary responses too, often focussing on the nation’s loyalty to England and desire to provide its nationhood with the notion of the brave bushman fused with the resourceful digger.

Among the most popular are:

  • My Brother Jack by George Johnston, 1964
  • A Fortunate Life, Albert Facey, 1981
  • The Desert Column by Ion Idriess, 1932
  • Flesh in Armour by Leonard Mann, 1932
  • The Middle Parts of Fortune: Somme & Ancre 1916 by Frederic Manning, 1929

My Brother Jack has become an Australian classic, recalling the childhood of suburban David Meredith, who grew up in the ‘formless shadow’ of the war, in awe of his larrikin brother Jack, caught up in the momentum of the times:

‘… the city was fiercely generating a life of its own that was exactly in key with his wild, gay, rebellious outlook. The Jazz Age had reached its crescendo … Beyond our neat hedged perimeters, the world suddenly seemed transformed … And in eager, effervescent pursuit, went my brother Jack, with Brilliantine on his hair.’

The war also produced children’s writers, notably Alan (AA) Milne, who served on the Somme and, after being invalided, was recruited to write propaganda for the British Military Intelligence Service MI7b.

Milne was a pacifist who had moral difficulties with his role. After the war, he wrote children’s books based on his son’s toys—the most famous being Winnie the Pooh. He named the bear ‘Winnie’ after a Canadian bear (Winnipeg) kept at London Zoo while its owner served in France.

Biographer Ann Thwaite found that Winnie provided Milne’ with an escape from the traumas of war:

‘He could not write about the filth, the smells, the lice, the rats, the lack of privacy, the constant fear. He could not describe the corpses … [and] the meaningless lunacy of the whole horrible business.’

George Johnston, former war correspondent and author of My Brother Jack
Canadian soldier Harry Colebourn and his black bear Winnie


  • Ann Thwaite. A. A. Milne: His Life. London: Bello, 2014.
  • Paul Fussell. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Phyllis Fahrie Edelson. Australian Literature: An Anthology of Writing from the Land Down Under.
  • George Johnston. My Brother Jack. Angus & Robertson. 2012.

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