Essential WWI Novels for ‘Downton Abbey’ Fans


It’s a whole new world on Season 2 of Downton Abbey — and that world is World War I. Servants and aristocrats alike are enlisting in the army, while the women are doing what they can on the homefront, and people from all walks of life are wondering how the conflict will affect Britain’s deeply entrenched class system. One episode in, we’ve only gotten a small taste of the Great War, but it’s reminded us of what a fascinating (and often horrifying) historical moment it was. If Downton has you curious to read more about the war, we’ve got just the book list for you. Nine great novels about World War I are after the jump.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Perhaps the most famous World War I novel around the world, All Quiet on the Western Front follows a young soldier named Paul Bäumer and his friends in the German army as they experience the simultaneous trauma and boredom of war. This realist account, written by a veteran, depicts the extreme alienation that comes from watching your compatriots die and becoming a killer yourself, and exposes the tragedy of a generation of men from around the world who have been pitted against each other for no good reason.

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon

For those who watched Downton‘s Thomas decide he’d rather be shot in the hand than spend any more time at the front, a British account of what life in the trenches will do to you. Best known for his poetry, which also vividly, gut-wrenchingly depicted the Great War, Sassoon recalled his time in the army — and growing disgust with the international conflict — in the second installment of his autobiographical Sherston Trilogy.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Published in 1991, Regeneration is yet another fictionalized account of Sassoon’s experiences in World War I. The book, which kicks off Barker’s trilogy of World War I novels, picks up more or less where Memoirs of an Infantry Officer leaves off. As a result of his antiwar rebellion, Sassoon has been declared shell-shocked and placed at Craiglockhart War Hospital, where the psychologist W.H.R. Rivers attempts to “cure” him and he crosses paths another famous British WWI poet, Wilfred Owen. (For further reading, Robert Graves, who also appears as a character in Regeneration, wrote a stirring 1929 memoir about his experience in and after the war, Good-Bye to All That .)

Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos

Another antiwar tale, John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers is a brutally realistic account that follows three young Americans from different economic classes and parts of the country as they become disillusioned with the cause. Beaten down by their harsh circumstances, the men find themselves driven to frightening extremes. According to H.L. Mencken, the 1920 novel is “the kind of book that anyone would have been arrested for writing while the war was yet in progress.”

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

As this list suggests, World War I inspired no shortage of bleak literature. But the vast majority of it seems positively sunny in comparison with Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel about a soldier who wakes up in the hospital and finds he’s missing his arms, legs, and face. Since he can’t see, speak, or gesture, Johnny is alone with thoughts and memories — which, as you might imagine, aren’t pleasant.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s famous novel may be about the titular rich lady preparing for a party, but it’s also about Septimus Smith — a shell-shocked World War I veteran who is haunted by the battlefield death of a friend and who serves as a sort of dark mirror for Clarissa Dalloway. If Trumbo’s Johnny is beyond help physically, then Septimus is in a similar place mentally, unable to control his thoughts and reintegrate himself into life in London with his wife. What makes Woolf’s depiction of post-traumatic stress so compelling is her ability to get into the character’s head, beautifully expressing his neurotic, obsessive thoughts.

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Woolf’s contemporary, Rebecca West, published the first World War I novel written by a woman in 1918 — and West’s book shares a common theme with Woolf’s. The Return of the Soldier is also the story of a severely shell-shocked veteran, but it’s told from the perspective of the soldier’s cousin, Jenny, and examines the impact of Chris Baldry’s return on his family. Of course, West’s prognosis for her character is quite a bit sunnier than Woolf’s…

Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Céline’s first novel, Journey to the End of the Night made headlines when it was published, in 1932, for its obscene language and shocking nihilism. Although this semi-autobiographical indictment of bourgeois society spans the globe and concerns itself mostly with the period between the First and Second World Wars, it begins in the trenches — which is exactly the kind of place where one might develop the dark view of human nature that underlies every sentence.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Finally, after all that unpleasantness, a love story — but don’t get too excited, because it’s a pretty depressing love story. Hemingway’s novel traces the romance between Lieutenant Henry, an American ambulance driver, and Catherine Barkley, a British nurse, as he convalesces in Milan after being wounded in Italy. Simultaneously capturing the couple’s prolonged personal saga and the cruel meaninglessness of war, A Farewell to Arms remains the best-known American novel about World War I.