The most memorable history lesson on war is found in fiction

Arifa Akbar in The Independent:

AkbarRemember Septimus Warren Smith? The returning First World War veteran who haunted the darker recesses of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway? Septimus Smith, who couldn’t stop being tormented by his raw, ravaging, suicide-inducing memories of the front, even as the sun shone on postwar London? He has remained with me in a way that no history lesson has. Sorry Mr Gove, but I’m not embarrassed to say that I learned the best lessons about the Great War through great fiction.

What fiction inspired by the Great War has done – and continues to do – is to bring back the smells, sounds, and electrifying sensations of the front line; the filth and terror of the trenches; and, alongside that, just as validly, the duller terror at the home front. These fictions take you back there; they make you care. And they do more than that. Read a collection of First World War poetry to take you through the intellectual and emotional debates that consider whether war was necessary, whether the ideological victory was worth the loss of 16 million lives, a debate that has been so fervently rehearsed in recent days. Read Mrs Dalloway for insights into the effects of “shell shock”, as it was called then (PTSD, as it is now), on young men returning – seemingly intact but actually psychologically shattered – from the front line.

More here.