No Man’s Land: Writings from a World at War, edited by Pete Ayrton, Serpent’s Tail, RRP£25, 500 pages

Illustration for No Man's Land book cover
© Chris Wormell

The first world war may have receded from living memory but its stories continue to emerge. New technology has brought thousands of private diaries, letters and memoirs into the public domain. London’s Imperial War Museum, for example, has made podcasts from recordings in its sound archive for its audio series “Voices of the First World War”. These sharply individual voices inflect our sense of how history may be told and understood. This is a quietly revolutionary development, because governments have always sought to control the narratives of the past. They intervene over school and university history curricula, promote favoured historians and, at the very extreme, destroy books that tell the wrong stories.

In his new anthology of writing about the first world war, No Man’s Land, Pete Ayrton includes three extracts from German author Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. This novel may now be a respected classic but to the Nazi government of Germany in 1933, Remarque’s view of the German soldier’s experience during the first world war was an outrage. The book was burnt in public. Heinrich Heine’s observation that “where they have burnt books, they will end in burning human beings” proved prophetic in this case, as in so many others. Remarque’s sister Elfriede was beheaded in 1943 after a trial in the Nazi People’s Court, where the president, Roland Freisler, stated: “Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach but you will not escape us.”

No Man’s Land seeks out voices from the whole of a world at war. An extract from Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters tells the story of Indian troops arriving in Marseille, and captures the thrill and dread of this passage from jubilant welcome to the front line. Vahan Totovents, in “Infidels and Curs”, writes limpidly of children playing the battle-game “Armenians and Turks”, watched “with a smile” by men “famed for their learning”. And then, in adulthood, real war erupts, and the Armenian genocide follows. Jean Giono is represented here by extracts from To the Slaughterhouse, in which a mountain community in Haute Provence is changed utterly by the absence, mutilation and death of its men. Michael Hofmann’s pure, eloquent prose translation of an excerpt from Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March describes how the blow of his son’s death falls on old Herr von Trotta.

Ayrton, founder of the British publishing house Serpent’s Tail, has selected a majority of writers who were critical of the war and its conduct, or became pacifists as a result of their wartime experiences. Here is the horror and pity of war, the waste of youth, the destruction of lives and communities, and rage against wartime governments that seized greater and greater power over the lives of their citizens. There is also a reflection of generational anger against the jingoists who were too old to fight and often “did well out of the war”. Ayrton includes John Galsworthy’s nightmarish vision of the young as hungry skeletons around the corpse of an elderly man, lynched from a lamppost for stealing their lives and futures. Rage also ignites the famous chapter from Kangaroo by DH Lawrence entitled “The Nightmare”. The naked bodies of conscripts, jeered at by doctors who make a joke of getting them to bend over so that their anuses can be inspected, become the image of state control over the individual.

Some of the most moving, detailed writing comes from the American and British women who worked as ambulance drivers or nurses. Ayrton includes an extract from a We That Were Young, a wide-ranging novel by Irene Rathbone that reflects on women’s work as nurses, in the YMCA in France and in munitions factories. The character of Joan Seddon expresses the commitment of the nurse, the regimentation of hospital life, and the throbbing fear of young women who realise the men they love or might have loved are dying. Mary Borden’s short story “In the Operating Room” is a packed, feverish dialogue piece, where order barely prevails over chaos in a field hospital:

“2nd Surgeon: What’s his ticket say? Show it to me. What’s the X-ray say? 3rd Surgeon: Abdomen. Bad pulse. I wonder now?

Meanwhile, the guns fire, an attack is expected at five in the morning, and orders are to evacuate every bed.”

In one of the anthology’s most desolate pieces, “Liquid Fire”, Helen Zenna Smith’s narrator is an ambulance driver in France, crawling along a rutted, snowy track in the dark with her load of terribly injured men. “Three different sets of screams now – the shriek of the madman, the senseless, wolfish, monotonous howl of the shell-shock case, and now a shrill sharp yell like a bright, pointed blade being jabbed into my brain.”

Anthologists, like historians, must select. Ayrton has done superb work in seeking out fiction that is little-known or previously unknown to an English-speaking readership, and reflects experience in 20 countries caught up in the first world war. Translations have been commissioned from Croatian, Catalan, Italian, French and Hungarian, among other languages.

The international, consuming quality of the war flares across these pages. However, the English-language fiction Ayrton has chosen does not include some of the finest examples. There is no Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That), Katherine Mansfield (“An Indiscreet Journey”, “The Fly”), Joseph Conrad (“The Tale”), Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms), Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway), F Scott Fitzgerald (Tender is the Night), Ford Madox Ford (Parade’s End), Rebecca West (The Return of the Soldier) or John Dos Passos (Three Soldiers). Also omitted are hugely popular novels published soon after the war ended, such as John Buchan’s Mr Standfast or Ernest Raymond’s Tell England. These bestsellers reflect a view of the war that readers consumed eagerly, and so their inclusion might have been illuminating.

Nevertheless, No Man’s Land is an impressive anthology that bears an extraordinary cargo of human experience, and is an enlightenment for those who think only of the western front when they remember the first world war.


Helen Dunmore’s novel about the first world war, ‘The Lie’, is published this month by Hutchinson

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