Wade Davis' 6 favorite books about World War I
National Geographic's explorer-in-residence recommends works by Robert Graves, Vera Brittain, and T.E. Lawrence
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (Penguin, $18). Brittain lost her fiancé, her two best friends, and her beloved brother to World War I. By the end of the fighting, she wrote, there was no one left to dance with. This heartrending memoir traces a journey from innocence to horror, from agony to revelation.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (Wilder, $13). Lawrence was deeply conflicted about his public image as the hero of a war that had crushed the very notion of heroism. He began his first chapter: "Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances." He goes on to describe how his men lay naked together, shamed, beneath "the innumerable silences of stars." If he had to be a war hero, British society would have to deal with the truth of his desires and compulsions.
Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves (Anchor, $16). At the Somme, in 1916, a severely wounded Graves was left among the dead, and lay delirious beneath the searing sun for days. In this stirring memoir, he also recalls the night the war ended: "The news sent me out walking...cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead."
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage, $16). Throughout the war, 25,000 British coal miners lived underground, tunneling beneath enemy lines to lay charges of TNT. The Germans were doing the same. The climactic scene of Birdsong, in which both sides engage in combat in the darkness far underground, is the most harrowing in the vast literature on the war.
Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (Penguin, $15). Boyden's novel follows two Cree men recruited as snipers by the Canadian army. Spare in style, it reads as one long, haunted hallucination — the Western Front as seen through the eyes of the shaman.
The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell (Oxford, $20). If the war shattered the last vestiges of the old order, peace heralded the birth of modern times. This is the seminal book for understanding what the war implied for a "lost generation," and for the world to come.