The literature generated from World War I is well documented and will hopefully serve as a reminder of how the world can fall apart. From Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, the poetry of Sassoon, Graves, Brooke, and Owen to All Quiet on the Western Front, there are numerous examples of acclaimed writing inspired by the Great War.
But what did the ordinary soldiers of World War I read on a daily basis during life in the trenches? Reading material was in heavy demand from the men living in cramped conditions in a war that was static for long periods of time.
Perhaps the safest answer is anything they could get their hands on. Most soldiers travelled light to the front and then craved books and magazines once they were embroiled in the stalemate. They would read anything that could take their thoughts off the mud, the rats, the shelling, the smell, the snipers and the prospect of going over the top and charging machine gun emplacements.
Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells and John Buchan were popular as were the horse racing novels of Nat Gould – the Dick Francis of his day, who penned more than 130 books, many of which were published as affordable yellowbacks. Captain R.W. Campbell’s Private Spud Tamson novel would also have offered light relief.
One of the most popular magazines in the British trenches was The War Illustrated – one of many magazines created at the outbreak of war. Targeted at working class men, the magazine was heavily illustrated and often carried stories about German atrocities – both true and fabricated.
In December 1915, War Illustrated published an article about how soldiers found solace from reading and needed books to be sent from Britain. It reveals the men had no appetite for “literary essays by literary men.” W.W. Jacobs, who is best known for his short horror story The Monkey’s Paw, is listed as being popular. Jacobs was also famous for humour writing, especially his marine tales, and those stories probably provided welcome relief.
The War Illustrated article explains “what is wanted there is the friendly companionship of a good and kindly book to take the mind away from the contemplation of the terrible environment.” It reveals demand for romance and Jane Austen in particular but little interest in adventure novels. (But would a soldier really read Pride and Prejudice without being mercilessly ridiculed by his colleagues?)
There was interest in adventure novels, particularly Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps – a book that became a wartime institution. Published in 1915, the novel has a man-on-the-run narrative and is set just before the outbreak of war in May 1914. Its quick-moving style where Richard Hannay travels across Britain must have contrasted greatly with trench life where movement was restricted. Soldiers needed literature that could be dipped into during off-duty breaks.
Soldiers had such an appetite for reading that both sides resorted to publishing at the front. The best known British trench magazine was The Wipers Times produced by the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters of the Nottingham & Derbyshire Regiment. Stationed in Ypres, Belgium, the Foresters found an abandoned printing press and put it to good use between 1916 and 1918. The Wipers Times featured poems, jokes and satire on military life.
Several books have been written about The Wipers Times, including a 1930 edition that reprinted the magazines. There is also Suffering from Cheerfulness: Poems and Parodies from the Wipers Times by Malcolm Brown. The French produced a trench magazine called Le Poilu – poilu (which translates as hairy) was a nickname for their bearded soldiers - while the German soldiers published Der Drahtverhau.
On the other side of No Man’s Land, the Germans would have been reading popular writers such as Wilhelm Busch (who created Max and Moritz, a forerunner of modern comic strips), Austrian poet Kurt Aram and Walter Bloem, who wrote nationalistic novels, Karl May, who is remembered for his novels about the American Old West and perhaps Theodor Fontane, one of Germany’s most influential writers. German publishers produced lightweight editions (Feldpostausgabe) of popular books.
The French would have read books by Gaston Leroux, most famous for Le Fantôme de L'Opéra (The Phantom of the Opera). His detective tales featuring Joseph Rouletabille had become popular in France at the outbreak of war – copies of Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room) and Le Parfum de la Dame en Noir (The Perfume of the Lady in Black) would have been passed around the trenches. Henri Barbusse’s novel Le Feu (Under Fire) would also have been read in the later stages of the conflict. It was published in December 1916 and is based on his experiences in the trenches – many in France criticised the book for being too realistic.