November marks Remembrance Day in the UK where we remember fallen soldiers from past & present conflicts. Here’s some ideas of World War set books and TV shows to find out more.
Some of these mentioned are historical fiction – where the story itself is fictional with either the First or Second World War taking place as a back drop. Others are non-fiction accounts of what happened. Furthermore, whilst some talk about the war exclusively, others mention the war alongside other events. For those wanting to learn more though I hope that these will provide inspiration.
If anyone has any other suggestions, please feel free to add them in the comments below and I will also be adding to this post as time goes on.
Books / Poems
1) Poems by Wilfred Owen (1920)
I’m going to start this list with one of the most famous wartime poets. Wilfred Owen was a serving soldier and poet during the First World War.
Initially influenced by the Romantic poets such as Keats and Shelley, Owen enlisted like many young men to fight in the war in 1915. During his service he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh with “shell shock” (as psychiatric condition we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD).
Whilst there he met fellow war poet, Siegfried Sassoon and his poetry became more bitter and angry as he talked about the horrors and futility of war.
After being discharged he returned to the front and to active service. Sadly, he never lived to see the end of the war and was killed in service on the 4th November 1918, just a week before the armistice was called on the 11th November 1918.
Many of his poems talk about the horrors and futility of war – with some of my favorites including:
In Owen’s poetry, he never holds back in showing the horrors of the war with some very gruesome images but are fascinating to also read as the experiences of an officer on the front line in the war.
2) Regeneration by Pat Barker (1991)
Pat Barker’s anti-war Regeneration Trilogy starts off with this novel, called Regeneration, with it’s sequels being The Eye In The Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995).
The first novel blends real and fictional as Barker imagines what happened at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh at the time of Wilfried Owen’s admittance to the hospital with shell shock. Both Owen and Siegfried Sassoon appear in the novel and the psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers who worked at the hospital investigating treatments for shell shock.
The novel also features fictional characters such as Billy Prior, an officer who grew up in the lower classes and his girlfriend, munitionette Sarah Lumb. The title of the novel comes form Rivers’ real life research into nerve regeneration.
I first read this book and Wilfred Owen for my A Level coursework and Barker’s novel is great in how it represents what happened at Craiglockhart with many critics stating how historically accurate it is. It is fascinating both to imagine how Owen and Sassoon met and also to learn about attitudes to PTSD during the war period.
3) Tomorrow will be a good Day by Sir Captain Tom Moore (2020)
For this next book I am moving onto the Second World War and the autobiography of one of the greatest men of 2020 – I don’t think that anyone will forget the story of Captain Tom Moore and his amazing fundraiser during the first corona virus lock down.
Whilst his autobiography isn’t a World War Two book specifically, I’m including it in the list as one of the travesties of the UK school curriculum is whilst the Second World War in Europe is taught heavily (from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1918, to Hitler’s rise to power and Nazism and the events of the war itself), the war in the Far East is often left out.
The only two events which are usually mentioned is the 1941 attack of Pearl Harbour which bought the USA into the war and the dropping of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ultimately ended the war in Japan and ended the Second World War.
Sir Captain Tom Moore was a captain in the Far East during the war and fought in campaigns in India and Burma which is fascinating to read about in his autobiography. Captain Tom Moore talks about his adventurous and idyllic upbringing in Yorkshire in the 1920’s and 1930’s and also writes about his post war life such as his marriage and divorce from his first wife Billie, how he married his second wife Pamela and became a father later in life as well as her awful battle with dementia and of course the story behind that wonderful fundraiser from 2020.
4) Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933)
Up next is Vera Brittain’s harrowing, heart-wrenching yet also bitter and angry memoir of her time as a nurse during the First World War, which I reviewed here. The book is her most famous work and is acclaimed for it’s description of the impact of the war on those back home, especially women and the middle classes, as well as a perspective on what it was like to be a young woman at the turn of the 20th Century, in the years where women couldn’t even vote.
The early part of the book talks about Vera’s longing to be educated and to go to university, something which her parents didn’t want for her until she managed to persuade them otherwise. However just as she manages to get into Oxford University and begin studying, as well as begin a relationship with her brother Edward’s friend Roland, war was called.
Being middle class, both Edward and Roland were officers in the war and Vera decided to join as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. Roland also proposed to Vera before heading to the front. The book then talks about her years in France and Malta as well as the losses she experienced of her brother, her fiancee’ and their childhood best friend. The book also discusses her life after the war and how she returned disillusioned before she met her lifelong friend Winifred Holtby and her husband George Catlin, who helped her to rise again.
The language Brittain uses does make it quite hard to understand in places but for a unique perspective on the role women played in the First World War, it can be a very interesting read.
5) The Diary of a Young Girl (1947)
The Diary of a Young Girl is the famous diary of Anne Frank.
The diary is a series of writings from Anne Frank, who was a young Jewish girl who spent tow years in hiding in Nazi-occupied Netherlands. The family were sadly apprehended in 1944 and Anne died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. The diary was retrieved by Miep Gies, who gave it to Anne’s father, Otto Frank, the family’s only known survivor, just after the Second World War was over.
At the moment this is a book which I haven’t read though I have wanted to read it for a long time. It is of course a powerful account of one of the worst atrocities ever committed in human history and it is very sad this young girl was caught up in it, purely because of being born Jewish.
If anyone has read this book, I would love to hear in the comments below what you think about it.
1) 1917 (2019)
For my first War film recommendation I’m going to start with one of the most recently released (at the time of writing). 1917 was directed by Skyfall and Spectre director Sam Mendes.
The film takes place after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich and follows two officers, Will Schofield and Tom Blake in a mission to deliver a message to call off a doomed offensive attack.
What I really liked about this film is that it depicts two central characters and is filmed almost as one continuous scene as it follows these two characters and all of their interactions which is a very different way of telling a war story on film. It also for me gave the film more of an emotional punch as it felt like you were with the characters rather than cutting between those on the front line and the officer and generals safely back home so I would recommend giving this film a look.
2) Saving Private Ryan (1998)
No war movie list would be complete without this one, the 1998 Steven Spielberg blockbuster Saving Private Ryan begins with the D Day landings at Omaha Beach in Normandy where Captain John Miller overwhelms German resistance.
In the meantime, at the United States Department of War, it is learned that James Francis Ryan is the last of four brothers presumed alive but missing. General George C. Marshall orders Ryan to be found and sent home and Miller is sent on a mission to lead a unit to find and rescue Ryan.
The movie was a massive hit in 1998, become the second highest-grossing film of the year, behind Armageddon and won 5 of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for, namely Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing, and Best Director for Spielberg. It is also praised for its brutal unflinching battle scenes, with reports at the time that war veterans’ PTSD was triggered by the violence shown in the film.
3) Dunkirk (2017)
My next movie selection is the 2017 war movie directed by Christopher Nolan. The movie was also noted at the time for being pop star and 1D member Harry Styles’ first movie role. The story is about the true events of Dunkirk in 1940 – when a flotilla of boats was sent to the coast of Dunkirk as Nazi Germany swept through Europe and forced the British army back to the beaches of Dunkirk. The mass evacuation effort involved civilian boats which sailed to the beach to evacuate almost 300,000 soldiers.
The film takes another unique approach to telling the story – instead of sequential events the film uses three different timeframes, events on land (one week of action), events at sea (one day of action), and events in the air (one hour of action). This different time frame helps to explain the soldiers’ retreat to the beach and the desperate and hurried action of the flotilla arriving to evacuate them and the air force defending the boats as they do so. It is a well acted and excellent war movie and one worth checking out.
4) The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (2008)
Now we come to the first of two adaptations. This film is based on the 2006 John Boyne novel of the same name though I haven;t read it and explores one of the worst atrocities in the war with the Holocaust.
Bruno is an 8 year old boy and is the son of a Nazi commander. His father is promoted to oversee a concentration camp in occupied Poland so his family have moved there. Bored however, Bruno discovers the concentration camp and as he is unaware of what is happening to the Jewish people thinks it is a farm.
The tutor of Bruno and his sister Gretel, educates them on antisemitism and Nazism. Greta becomes fanatical but Bruno is just confused as the pictures of Jewish people he is shown doesn’t match the only Jewish man he knows, the families servant=prisoner Pavel.
He meets and befriends another 8 year old boy through the fence, Shmuel. However both are ignorant of the camps true purpose with Bruno thinking the striped uniforms they wear are pyjamas and Shmuel thinking his grandparents died on the journey to the camp and weren’t exterminated. Events however take a very tragic turn in a horrifying, gut-wrenching final scene.
Though this film isn’t quite as “Hollywood” as the other films on this list – it’s story of a friendship and innocent naivety and the costs of hatred is important and the film for that reason is worth a watch.
4) Testament of Youth (2014)
My next film choice is a film adaptation of one of the book mentioned above. Testament Of Youth is the memoir of Vera Brittain and is adapted here with Alicia Vikander playing the role of Vera.
I really liked the film and it was actually a film which encouraged me to read the book. It is much pacier than the book and misses out certain sections – in particular Vera’s time in Malta isn’t mentioned but the book and the film finishes after the war, with Vera attending a public meeting about how to punish Germany for the war and she stands up and says “No” to punishing them. She also finishes with a dedication to never forget her war dead whereas the book talks about the years after the war – more or less up to 1933 when the book was published.
It is however a beautifully acted film which like The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas explores the human cost of war and it is also interesting to see it on screen from a female perspective as well.
5) War Horse (2011)
The next movie is the third book adaptation on my list, this time the novel of the same name is written by Michael Morpurgo. It is also the second film directed by Steven Spielberg.
I haven’t actually read the book this film is based on but the story is about a farm boy named Albert, whose father Ted suffers from shell shock and alcoholism buys a colt at an auction, much to the dismay of his wife. Albert names the colt Joey and manages to train him up to plough a rocky field and save the farm. At the same time the first World War is called the farms crops are ruined in a storm, forcing Ted to sell Joey to the army.
The film then shows Joey’s adventures in the army as he moves from owner to owner and eventually Albert’s time in the war as he comes of age.
Again I chose this film as it is different from the other stories in telling the story of an animal rather than a person, however it is a very emotional film, with great acting and special effects. John Williams amazing score also deserves a mention for tugging at the heartstrings and making you will for Joey to be reunited with his owner.
Update 07/09/2022: I have recently read the book this movie was adapted from, which you can check out my review here.