All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front
by Erich Maria Remarque
Remarque fought on the Western Front in 1917 and was wounded by shrapnel.

Many young men with a talent for writing have gone off to war. Some did not return but many did and went on to enjoy illustrious literary careers. Their experiences often inspired books with lasting legacies - Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut are three famous examples.

JRR Tolkien deliberately kept his World War I experiences out of his writing but he seems to be the exception rather than the rule. War gave Roald Dahl his big break into writing. Dahl was a World War II fighter pilot, rising to the rank of wing commander, and his first published work - a description of crashing in the Libyan desert - was printed by the Saturday Evening Post in 1942.

A good number of authors put pen to paper very quickly after the end of their service and produced novels or memoirs. Is writing a cathartic experience after years of witnessing conflict at first hand? Did these authors simply have so many stories to tell that the desire to write was irresistible? Were those plots and narratives formed during the long hours of waiting endured by those in the armed forces?

A surprising amount of comedy– straight up for laughs and the dark humor variety – can be found in books inspired by war. Comedian Spike Milligan wrote seven books about his experiences in the British army during World War II.

This selection of fiction and non-fiction stretches from the Napoleonic Wars, across both World Wars to the Spanish Civil War and also Vietnam.  It covers privates and officers, and soldiers, sailors, submariners and airmen.

 

Books by Authors Who Went to War

The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean
The Guns of Navarone
by Alistair MacLean

MacLean served in the Royal Navy in WWII. A number of his thrillers are war-time adventures.
A Moment of War by Laurie Lee
A Moment of War
by Laurie Lee

Lee was in the International Brigade in Spain’s Civil War. This book is an account of his experiences.
Williwaw by Gore Vidal
Williwaw
by Gore Vidal

Vidal was private in the US army in WWII. Williwaw was his first book published in 1946.
Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh
Men at Arms
by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh had a miserable WWII in the marines and commandos. Men at Arms was the first novel in a trilogy.
The Enormous Room by ee Cummings
The Enormous Room
by ee Cummings

An ambulance driver in WWI, Cummings was imprisoned by the French. This is his autobiographical novel about those experiences.
Scum of the Earth by Arthur Koestler
Scum of the Earth
by Arthur Koestler

A memoir about the chaos in France just before WWII. Koestler served in the Pioneer Corps and French Foreign Legion.
The Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle
The Bridge on the River Kwai
by Pierre Boulle

Boulle served in the Free French Army and was a secret agent in Asia. He was captured and his experiences inspired this book.
The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hašek
The Good Soldier Schweik
by Jaroslav Hašek

Hašek fought for the Austrians and the opposing Czechs in WWI. This novel is a dark comedy set during the conflict.
Glide Path by Arthur C Clarke
Glide Path
by Arthur C Clarke

Sci-fi guru Clarke was a radar instructor in WWII. Glide Path is his only non-science fiction novel.
The Deceivers by John Masters
The Deceivers
by John Masters

Lieutenant Colonel John Masters served on the Northwest Frontier. A full-time soldier, he wrote many novels set in India.
Revolt in the Desert by T.E. Lawrence
Revolt in the Desert
by T.E. Lawrence

When the Arabs rebelled against Turks in 1916, the British sent Lawrence as their liaison officer.
Turvey by Earle Birney
Turvey
by Earle Birney

Part of the Canadian Forces in WWII, Birney (best known for his poetry) was inspired to write this comic novel.
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer
by Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers in WWI. This is a fictionalized account of his war and life immediately afterwards.
Battle Cry by Leon Uris
Battle Cry
by Leon Uris

A novel based on his own experiences in the US marines during WWII.
In the Midst of Life / Tales of Soldiers and Civilians by Ambrose Bierce
In the Midst of Life / Tales of Soldiers and Civilians
by Ambrose Bierce

Story short collection published under two titles. Bierce served in the Union Army.
The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (Marie Henri Beyle)
The Charterhouse of Parma
by Stendhal (Marie Henri Beyle)

A Napoleonic Wars veteran, Stendhal’s novel concerns a young Italian nobleman and several battles.
Blasting and Bombardiering by Wyndham Lewis
Blasting and Bombardiering
by Wyndham Lewis

Lewis was a WWI artillery officer and war artist. This autobiography reflects those experiences.
Rites of Passage by William Golding
Rites of Passage
by William Golding

Golding fought in the Royal Navy in WWII. This novel features a young, aristocrat on a British warship.
Under Fire by Henri Barbusse
Under Fire
by Henri Barbusse

Barbusse was invalided three times out of the French army in WWI. This is his most famous work.
The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat
The Cruel Sea
by Nicholas Monsarrat

This author finished WWII as a frigate commander. The Cruel Sea is regarded as his best work.
Run Silent, Run Deep by Edward L Beach
Run Silent, Run Deep
by Edward L Beach

A decorated US submarine officer in WWII, Beach’s novel became a memorable Clark Gable movie.
Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien
Going After Cacciato
by Tim O’Brien

A Vietnam soldier deserts in this novel. O’Brien served in the 23rd Infantry in Vietnam.
Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall by Spike Milligan
Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall
by Spike Milligan

British funnyman Milligan fought in WWII and this is the first of his seven humorous volumes on those experiences.
The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall
The Machine Gunners
by Robert Westall

Westall served in the Royal Corps of Signals in the 1950s. This landmark children’s novel is set in Northeast England in WWII.
Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby
Love and War in the Apennines
by Eric Newby

Newby fought in WWII with the Black Watch and SBS. This memoir details his escape from a prisoner of war camp in Italy.

 

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