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Originally published Sunday, June 29, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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New reprints from WWI: the plight of the common soldier

New reprints of books about World War I, including works by Siegfried Sassoon, Vera Brittain, Gabriel Chevallier and others feature a soldier’s eye view of a bloody, terrible, seemingly never-ending war.


On June 28 100 years ago, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, shot to death by a Serbian nationalist, set World War I in motion. This bloody political murder would spark a global cataclysm, the extent of which few could have foreseen.

Many just-published books on World War I focus on history, military strategy or lingering political impact, but the following reprints and fresh translations offer powerful testimony from those who experienced the Great War firsthand.

For contemporary readers, British poet/ novelist Siegfried Sassoon’s trilogy of autobiographical novels — “Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man,” “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer” and “Sherston’s Progress” (Penguin Classics, $15 each) re-creates the profound sense of lost innocence that ushered in the modern era.

Lulled by endless golden days of horses, hounds and cricket, readers are stunned when the black and terrible storm descends, sweeping young lives into oblivion. Our sensitive young narrator glimpses pastoral beauty even amid the killing fields of France, creating an uncanny sense of war’s strangeness and sorrow. Readers familiar with Sassoon’s story through Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy will find his own account fascinating.

Vera Brittain’s beloved memoir “Testament of Youth”(Penguin Classics, $20, film in production) makes an intriguing counterpoint to Sassoon. While both authors traveled paths from provincial privilege through the crucible of war to pacifism, the forthright passions of Brittain’s often heartbreaking lines stands in sharply etched contrast to Sassoon’s wistful evocations.

That same emotional range can also be found in the pages of Tim Kendall’s excellent “Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology”(Oxford University Press, $19.95), which includes many women poets, noncombatants and trench songs not found in similar collections. Kendall also includes a tantalizing excerpt from Welsh fusilier David Jones’ hypnotic trench panorama “In Parenthesis” (New York Review Books, $14.95). Intrepid readers who are tempted to tackle this remarkable verse epic will experience what James Joyce might have written had he gone to war.

A pair of newly translated French classics offer visceral accounts of the trenches. The very title of Gabriel Chevallier’s unsentimental 1930 novel “Fear” (New York Review Books, $16.95) stands in angry denunciation of any presumed heroism in himself or his fellows, who are likened to vermin and worms cowering in filth, nauseated with panic and cravenly clinging to life.

This is what has become of jaunty young fools who marched off to war dreaming of adventure and conquest, of tasting exotic foods and women. Faced with the enormity of this cruel joke, laughter and tears merge in one prolonged cri de coeur as Chevallier’s relentless narrative charges headlong through hell.

The author of “Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918”(Yale University Press, $30) suffered no illusions when he became an enlisted “poilu,” (“hairy one,” or “grunt”). Thirty-five years old when war was declared and a staunch trade unionist, the sardonic Barthas saw this conflict as an escalation of the eternal war between haves and have-nots.

In Barthas’ telling, the fighting men on both sides of No Man’s Land shared a more natural bond with their fellows than with those career officers who pitted them against each other. Barthas’ detailed real-time reportage captures instances of informal truces and slowdowns between combatants, as they tacitly aid one another in their shared struggle to survive the madness.

This same bond between dogged infantrymen is brilliantly depicted in Australian writer Frederic Manning’s 1929 novel “The Middle Parts of Fortune,”(Text Classics, $14.95). Manning’s profane, plotless masterpiece tells of the interactions and ruminations of a group of soldiers in a lull between two horrific battles. Ernest Hemingway wrote of it: “It is the finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read. I read it over once each year to remember how things really were so that I will never lie to myself nor to anyone else about them.”

Emilio Lussu’s“A Soldier on the Southern Front” (Rizzoli, $26.95) offers a rare glimpse at the Italian theater of war, a tragic farce presided over by commanders who ranged from incompetent to insane. Engagements with the enemy are foreshadowed by the smell of brandy on the breeze, as soldiers desperately drink their courage.

Fighting with too clear a head can lead to awkward moments, as when Lussu realizes that the young Austrian officer he is lining up in his gunsights is a fellow human, and duty becomes murder. By all accounts a beloved and courageous captain, Lussu relates a single year of combat with a stoic humor that makes this a curiously likable account of a great and terrible tragedy.

David Wright is a reader services librarian with the Seattle Public Library. Hear David read thrilling nautical tales at SeaFair Stories at the Central Library, at noon each Monday in July.

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