I know it’s not as sexy as World War II, but these breathtaking WW1 books also deserve a place on your bookshelf as the best World War I books.
Like many readers, World War II is my favorite genre of historical fiction. On the surface, WWII is such a black-and-white, good vs. evil conflict that it’s easy to fall in love with the time period. When you look deeper, you can see a million shades of grey, but you almost always end with a feel-good story or a shocking, we will never let this happen again, message.
Then there’s World War I. The First World War is far from black-and-white. The entire war is messy and complicated and horrifying while being completely avoidable if history had played out differently.
Although often overshadowed by the popularity of WW2 books, WW1 books have these complex layers of nuance as they try to make sense of a painful period in our history.
From hard-hitting war novels to heartwarming historical fiction and informative nonfiction, I’ve collected the best World War 1 books I could find in this book list.
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Best WW1 Books
Erich Maria Remarque
Shortly after the start of the First World War, the compelling speeches of his teacher caused Paul Bäumer and his entire class to enlist in the Imperial German Army. Thrust into the chaos of the front, Paul faces emotional and psychological tolls greater than he could ever imagine. Yet, Paul finds no relief when he returns home and struggles to adapt to civilian life in one of the best WW1 books ever written.
In 1915, Eve Gardiner is overjoyed to join the Alice Network of the French Resistance during WWI, only to see it betrayed. Then, in 1947, Eve agrees to help Charlie St. Clair, an American socialite desperate to find her cousin, Rose. Rose disappeared in France during the Second World War, and Eve sees the shadows of her past in this new case. Combing both the major world wars, The Alice Network is quite a find for historical fiction readers.
This simple but unforgettable story focuses on the lives of two brothers – Charlie and Thomas Peaceful. Tommo, too young to enlist, has lied about his age to follow his brother to the front lines of the war. Told over the course of one night, Tommo reflects on the events of his life and contemplates a grim future. A poignant reminder of the horrible realities of war, Private Peaceful is a powerful book that will stay with you long after you’ve read it.
Ernest Hemingway’s semiautobiographical work recounts the story of Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver on the Italian front of World War I who falls in love with a beautiful English nurse. After initially falling for Catherine, Frederic is wounded and their love affair deepens as he recovers in Milan before being sent back to the front lines. Set against the horrors of war, A Farewell to Arms was Hemingway’s first bestseller and is considered one of the best World War 1 books.
The rise of anti-war sentiment in 1920 literature is readily apparent in Wilfred Owen’s poetry, placing it among one of the best war books to read. Discussing the horrors of the trenches and gas warfare during World War I, Owens’s firsthand experiences reverberate through his powerful verses. Owens died in action just one week before the Armistice was signed, and his first collection of poetry, with some of his most famous works, was published posthumously in 1920.
Nonfiction World War I Books
One of the best WW1 books ever written, military historian John Keegan’s The First World War is a definitive account of the war. Keegan explores the causes of the war – how diplomacy and communication failed, plunging almost the entire world into conflict. Better yet, Keegan’s keen eye analyzes the military conflict of the war, giving a panoramic overview of the history of the first world war.
Barbara W. Tuchman
While overviews of the entire war are great, it’s always fascinating to read WW1 books that narrow in on smaller pieces of the Great War. Tuchman won a Pulitzer Prize for her account of the first thirty days of the war. After using King Edward VII’s funeral to highlight the larger context of the war, Tuchman focuses on the summer of 1914 – from the decisions to go to war to the offensive to stop the German advance into France.
If you asked me what is the absolute saddest book ever, hands down the answer would be Vera Brittain’s autobiography. When the First World War comes to England, Vera’s older brother and all his friends enlist in the military. Not to be left behind, Vera herself ends up leaving school to become a nurse, serving in London, Malta, and the Western Front in France. By the end of the war, almost all the men she ever knew are dead.
While it’s invigorating to read about military victories, you can learn so many lessons about tragic defeats, such as the battle of Gallipoli. When Turkey unexpectedly allied with Germany, Winston Churchill conceived of a plan to break through the Dardanelles and reopen shipping lines with Russia. However, poor communication allowed the Allies to go from almost certain victory to soul-crushing defeat, in a battle that left a quarter of a million casualties for the Allies.
In 1915, Germany declared that they considered the ocean around Britain a war zone and their dreaded U-Boats wreaked havoc on shipping traffic. Yet when the luxury ocean liner Lusitania set sail for New York, the crew felt it inconceivable that the Germans would target a civilian target. With his powerful narrative nonfiction ability, Erik Larson describes the horrific sinking of the Lusitania, a tragedy that urged the United States closer to joining World War I.
Historical Fiction Books About WW1
Ken Follett’s epic historical fiction World War 1 novel tells a tale of five interconnected families. In 1911, thirteen-year-old Billy works in the coal mine just as George V is crowned king. When the daughter of the coal mine owners falls in love with a German spy in London, her affair drags Billy into a greater conflict and connects their storyline with that of an aide to US President Woodrow Wilson and two orphaned Russian brothers trying to emigrate to America.
WW1 books about life on the homefront far from the front lines can be just as captivating as war novels. Scarlet Carnation follows the lives of two women as they seek independence in 1915 Virginia. May, a white woman, feels her dreams shattered and is forced to rely again on her mother. Meanwhile, Naomi, a Black Nurse and leader of the NAACP, finally buys her own home, but the majority-white neighborhood wants to force her out, even as Naomi’s sons are off fighting in the war.
In 1918, Nurse Julia Powers struggles to manage an Irish maternity ward ravaged by influenza and short-staffed by the war. With the help of volunteer Bridie Sweeney and controversial Doctor Kathleen Lynn, Julia tries her best to save the lives of expectant mothers as they bring new life into the world. An interesting character study, Donoghue’s novel reflects the strain of being a healthcare worker during a crisis.
Publication Date: 21 July 2020
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In one of the most classic WW1 books, Sebastian Faulks highlights the trauma of WWI veterans. Young English soldier Stephen Wraysford finds himself on the front lines in France, caught in a wild love affair with Isabelle Azaire. Yet, it’s the world of the trenches in the Battle of Amiens that ultimately ends the war but also forever changes Stephen. Later, in 1970, Stephen’s granddaughter Elizabeth tries to understand his war experiences.
If you are interested in books on World War 1 that showcase the psychological damage to soldiers, you should read Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Blending real-life characters with fictional ones, Regeneration starts with a decorated war hero Siegfried Sassoon denouncing the war and being sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, a military hospital for the treatment of shell-shocked officers. Just be sure to read up on the actual histories of the real characters after reading the novel.
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Heartwarming WWI Historical Fiction
At the end of the First World War, Pauline Deng runs away from her Chinese family in Paris to escape an arranged marriage back in Shanghai. In the French countryside, Pauline finds shelter with Camille, a French woman planning to escape her own abusive marriage. Until Pauline finds out a terrible secret about Camille, forcing them to make a decision that will bind them together forever.
In April 1917, a charismatic alumna gives an impassioned speech at Smith College urging the women to go to France to help with relief efforts. Kate Moran has no plans to go, but when a girl drops out, Kate’s best friend Emmeline begs her to fill the slot. Based on a true story, Band of Sisters tells of these brave women coping with the hardships of the war while navigating old rivalries and betrayals.
Marie Benedict turns her creative eye on Clementine Churchill, in this intriguing historical fiction novel that covers both the World Wars. In 1908, Clementine Hozier married Winston Churchill. Instead of just being a wife to a powerful political figure, Clementine proved herself his equal, from saving his political career after his disastrous WWI defeat at Gallipoli to refining his famous World War II speeches.
Martha Hall Kelly
Inspired by true events, Lost Roses recounts the story of Eliza and other fierce women during World War I. At the outbreak of the war, Eliza finds herself in St. Petersburg with her Russian friend Sofya Streshnayva. While Eliza escapes back to the US, Sofya must remain to face a country at war. If you loved Kelly’s WWII novel, Lilac Girls, and want to take a jump into WWI historical fiction, be sure to check out this book.
Jenni L. Walsh
If you can’t get enough of WW1 books that span both World Wars, try Walsh’s touching novel. In 1917, Marion joined the Wrens, the Women’s Royal Navy Service, serving as a motorcycle despatch on the front lines of the Western Front training and delivering carrier pigeons. Marion has finally found a place she belongs until tragedy strikes and her dreams are shattered. In 1936, society girl Evelyn wants to enroll as a despatch driver but her parents threaten to cut her off. Meanwhile, a fellow Wren asks Marion to serve her country once again.
In June 1917, US General Pershing arrived in France and realized the Allies were desperately in need of skilled telephone operators. Although women were not allowed to enlist, or even vote, the U.S. Army Signal Corps began recruiting women and they enthusiastically accepted the call. Based on true events, Switchboard Soldiers follows three such women – Grace, a Barnard alumna; Marie, an aspiring opera singer; and Valerie, a Belgium native living in Los Angeles.
What WW1 Books Do You Recommend?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my WW1 Books List? What World War 1 Books have I forgotten? As always, let me know in the comments!
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