Skip to main content

World War I in Works of Art

Daniel Hautzinger
Matthew Sandiford in the Great Performances broadcast of 'Young Men.' Photo: Sophie Harris-Taylor
Matthew Sandiford in the Great Performances broadcast of 'Young Men.' Photo: Sophie Harris-Taylor

April 6 marked 100 years since the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I. The Great Performances broadcast ofYoung Men, a film that dramatizes through dance the experience of men who enlisted in the war and emerged terribly changed, can be streamed for free until May 5, 2017. (A three-part American Experience on America's involvement in World War I is also available to stream.) The Great War left in its wake awful physical and psychological devastation, and many artists – both participants and those from later generations – have grappled with it in poetry, novels, films, and music. Explore some of them here.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen in a plate from his posthumous 1920 'Poems'Wilfred Owen in a plate from his posthumous 1920 'Poems'

Perhaps no other poet is more associated with war than Owen. He enlisted in the English army in 1915 but eventually convalesced in a military hospital, where he met and was inspired by Siegfried Sassoon. He returned to the war in 1918 and was killed a week before the armistice. His poems reveal the terror and horror of modern warfare – which led to their use in a later pacifist masterpiece, Benjamin Britten’s 1961 War Requiem.

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon in military uniform, in a 1915 print by George Charles BeresfordSiegfried Sassoon in military uniform, in a 1915 print by George Charles Beresford

A novelist and poet, Sassoon’s career was defined by the war. He valiantly served in the British military until 1917, when he wrote a public letter condemning the war. He was declared unfit for service and sent to a war hospital, where he met and influenced Wilfred Owen. Sassoon’s poetry transformed from light Romanticism to tragic and grisly realism during the war. He is best known for a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels known as the Sherston Trilogy.

The Return of the Soldier

Rebecca West's 'The Return of the Soldier'Rebecca West's 'The Return of the Soldier'

Rebecca West’s debut novel was published in 1918 and deals with the psychological damage wrought by the war upon soldiers. While this depiction of shell shock – at the time a newly recognized, little-understood consequence of war, now known as PTSD – was mostly forgotten until later in the twentieth century, it marked the beginning of an illustrious career for West, who went on to gain fame covering the Nuremberg Trials for The New Yorker, for her esteemed book about Yugoslavia The Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and for her literary criticism.

One of Ours

Willa Cather's 'One of Ours'Willa Cather's 'One of Ours'

This novel by Willa Cather won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. It describes the life of a frustrated farmer who only feels fulfilled and finds purpose upon enlisting in the military and fighting in France. Despite the Pulitzer, Cather’s book was criticized, especially for its romantic depictions of war. She also encountered sexist dismissal, as evinced by Ernest Hemingway’s comment calling her a "poor woman" over the inauthenticity of her battle scenes, since she couldn’t go to war herself.

All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Maria Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front'Erich Maria Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front'

Erich Maria Remarque’s novel was hugely popular around the world upon its publication in 1929. Like The Return of the Soldier, it depicts the destruction by the war of the surviving soldiers and their struggle to readapt to society. It was made into an Academy Award-winning film by Lewis Milestone in 1930.

A Farewell to Arms

Ernest Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms'Ernest Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms'

Often called Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms drew upon his experience in the war. He was one of several writers – e. e. Cummings, John Dos Passos, and Somerset Maugham among them – to serve as an ambulance driver, in Hemingway’s case because he was rendered unfit for duty by bad vision. He was injured while delivering food to the frontlines and spent several months in a hospital in Italy, where he had an affair with a nurse that provided the basis for A Farewell to Arms.

Lawrence of Arabia

The movie poster for 'Lawrence of Arabia'The movie poster for 'Lawrence of Arabia'

Although all of the other works listed here concern Europe, the war was called a World War for a reason. This 1962 film depicts the life of T. E. Lawrence, a British military officer who played a role in the Arab Revolt against the ruling Ottoman Turks. It won seven Academy Awards and is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time, though it is also criticized for giving the role of the Arab Prince Faisal to the white actor Alec Guinness.

War Horse

The poster for the stage adaptation of 'War Horse'The poster for the stage adaptation of 'War Horse'

The original work of this name is a 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. It became famous in a 2007 Tony award-winning stage adaptation that utilized elaborate puppetry to portray the titular animal. That play was then made into a film by Stephen Spielberg.

 Le tombeau de Couperin and La Valse

Maurice Ravel in French Army uniform in 1916Maurice Ravel in French Army uniform in 1916

Maurice Ravel was eager to enlist in the French military at the outbreak of the war but was rejected on account of his health and age. He eventually became a lorry driver, and during the war years composed the suite Le tombeau de Couperin, each movement of which is dedicated to a friend who died in the war. La Valse was written in 1919 and 1920, and although Ravel himself denied that it was a depiction of the collapse of turn-of-the-century society after the brutality of the war, many others have heard it that way.