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Letters, Diaries and Autobiographies

"Just as this war did not begin with the start of military hostilities, so it did not end with the Armistice of 1918.  When the soldiers left the battlefields, they took the war with them in their heads and bodies." - Barnd Hüppauf. "War Literature" in Brill's Encyclopedia of the First World War.

"Almost anyone who was alive during the years of World War I and later wrote an autobiography has some reflection to make upon the cataclysm, and on the impact of the war on the next generation." - Velma Bourgeois Richmond, "World War I Writings" in Encyclopedia of Life Writing.

Modern readers seeking to understand the nuances and subtleties of the Great War are often directed toward published diaries, collections of letters, and autobiographies of the participants.  These provide a close glimpse of life from the perspective of one of the participants and can challenge or validate the accepted and official accounts - especially in the form of diaries and letters which provide an "at the moment of writing" viewpoint, unmediated by reflection or change in circumstance.  Indeed, when read in aggregate, they provide hints at the commonalities of experience across cultures and the unique perspectives that some experienced.

On the other hand, autobiographies, often written years or decades after the times in question - and, on occasion, without the availability of primary source materials such as diaries or letters and instead relying solely on memory and recollection - are often more polished and literary but lack the immediacy of the diary or letter and are subject to the changes of memory and the at-times subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) effort to paint a more glorious or heroic role for the author.  Propaganda, whether written, photographic, or cinematic, was used broadly and easily altered the recollections of participants' autobiographies.  Indeed the line between fictional and "true" accounts of the war blurred without clearly distinctive boundaries.  

While many of these materials have been published in the last 100 years, several of these texts are much more commonly read, often being assigned as readings for a course of study, and now they form a canon of literature about the conflict.  In Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography, first published in 1929, Robert Graves, a noteworthy poet of the war, shared his transition from life as a schoolboy to that of a British officer.  Still widely read today, contemporaries questioned many of the details of Graves's account of the conflict.  The noted war poet Siegfried Sassoon's life experiences were published as a multipart autobiographical novel, first as Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and later followed by Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.  The overt branding of a life writing as a fictional "novel" has become a commonplace in the 20th century.  On the Axis side, Ernst Jünger, a German Infantry officer, in 1920 privately printed his war diary as In Stahlgewittern  (The Storm of Steel).  Rewritten seven times, Jünger's view of the war - especially the nobility of participants and graphic descriptions of violence - changed dramatically in each revision.  In Testament of Youth, the first volume of Vera Brittain's memoir, published in 1933, the life of the British nurse and life on the homefront are shown in detail.  One of the most frequently read accounts from an American is Hervey Allen's Toward the Flame : a War Diary, first published in 1926, but newly available online in fulltext courtesy of the State Library of Pennsylvania

As organizations commemorate the Centennial of the First World War, new efforts are being made to provide access to long unread diaries, letters, and other documents.  Full transcription and digitization of this content is one of the aims of Home Before the Leaves Fall: A Centennial Exposition, but other efforts are ongoing, such as the crowdsourced transcription project Operation War Diary.  In addition, publishers are bringing new editions and new translations - as well as new analysis in the form of secondary literature - to the public on the occasion of the Centennial anniversary.  Especially noteworthy in this category, is the newly translated into English, Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918.  Barthas, a French enlisted soldier and a committed socialist from the rural South who served at most of the battles on the Western Front, provides an inside seat at the table of the troubled French army.  [MPF]



Further Resources:

Letters, Diaries and Autobiographies

Life-writings as related to the Great War are described and an overview of some of the canonical texts is provided.


Scrapbooks weave items otherwise considered ephemeral into new stories and are valuable sources for research.


This page links the descriptions and overviews of the primary material types found in World War I repositories, including: letters, photographs, scrapbooks, realia, published autobiographies, diaries,and newspapers.


Last Modified: 2023-08-03 16:24:03