David Stevenson at the Financial Times:
The canon of first world war reminiscence was established early. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front blazed the trail, selling nearly 2m copies in 1929. An avalanche of testimonials followed, several – including those by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Vera Brittain, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) – having stayed in print ever since.
During the first postwar decade, the memoirs of politicians and commanders had filled publishers’ schedules, and there had been little market for the worm’s eye view. What the “war books boom” offered, in contrast, was witness testimony written from the perspective of the junior officer (or, in Brittain’s case, from that of a bereaved civilian and army nurse) that highlighted not grand strategy but ground-level chaos and suffering. The most enduring memoirists were skilled and often practised authors, who at the distance of a decade used literature as a tool of therapy, for themselves as well as others. In addition, they established a standard trajectory – from innocence to disenchantment, via black humour, horror and the grotesque – that set the mould for later testimony to conflicts ranging from the second world war to Vietnam.