The Arts and the First World War

French school system: History, Arts, 3rd and 1st • Canadian grade level: Grades 9 to 12


The First World War produced a profound change in the way writers and artists interpreted war. Their works gradually moved away from celebrating action on the battlefield to become denunciations of the violence, barbarity and devastation of war.

Writers had long extolled courage, patriotism and self-sacrifice in tales of epic heroism such as The Iliad, and war had been a subject that had inspired painters and sculptors of all eras. The frequency of war as a subject of art may also have been due to the fact that works were often commissioned to praise governments or prominent figures.

Also, until this time, save for the rare exception, artists, even if they lived at the time of the wars they described or depicted, did not fight in them until mass conscription was instituted. In the Great War, on the contrary, novelists and poets, painters and musicians were caught up in the universal mobilizations of 1914. Some also enlisted voluntarily, carried along by a wave of patriotic fervour. They also wrote about, painted and drew what they saw and experienced. Not only did they leave us an authentic record of the war in art and writing, but they also broke new ground artistically with adventurous new forms.

This file provides examples of works inspired by the First World War, by artists and writers who were actual combatants, who were sent as witnesses, or who focused on this theme after the war, sometimes many years later. Each in his or her own way, they tried to capture the incredible brutality of the fighting, the fear of dying and the pain of the women and children left behind to cope as best they could. They expressed their horror of war, but in certain cases they also showed a morbid fascination with this modern, total type of warfare. 

Witness accounts and autobiographical narratives

The many well-known French writers who fought in the First World War included Guillaume Apollinaire, Alain-Fournier, Blaise Cendrars, Joseph Kessel, Henri Barbusse, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Jean Giraudoux, Raymond Dorgelès, Charles Péguy, Jean Giono, Roger Vercel, Louis Aragon and Romain Rolland. Of these, Blaise Cendrars lost an arm, Alain-Fournier and Charles Péguy were killed, and Apollinaire, injured at the front in 1915, succumbed to the Spanish influenza in 1918. American novelist Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver in Italy during the war; German writers Ernst Jünger and Erich Maria Remarque based their most famous works on their personal experiences in the Great War; English writers Harry Fellows and J.R.R. Tolkien fought in the Battle of the Somme, and poet Siegfried Sassoon was decorated for bravery; Belgian pacifist poet Émile Verhaeren and Austrian writer Stephen Zweig, who were deemed unfit for combat, wrote war propaganda.

These writers felt compelled to bear witness to the horrors of war. Those who had enlisted in the throes of patriotic exaltation expressed their disillusionment in the face of the absurdity and cruelty of the fighting. However, those who sought to publish witness accounts during the war were stymied by the censorship that blocked any writing that might have spread pacifist, anti-militaristic ideas. Some authors (Céline, Remarque, Giono and Hemingway) would have to wait several years after the war, when the threat of a new world conflict was looming, to be able to publish novels inspired by their experiences in the Great War. Authors who did manage to have their books published right after the war’s end had limited success: Les Croix de Bois by Raymond Dorgelès, for example, narrowly missed winning the 1919 Prix Goncourt, reflecting a loss of interest in war stories. Moreover, the advent of Dada and the Surrealist movement contributed to the devaluation of these authentic accounts in the period between the wars.

Aside from the better-known literary figures, the combatants who chronicled their war experiences ranged from ordinary soldiers to high commanders such as Philippe Pétain and Erich von Falkenhayn.

Henri Barbusse, Le Feu, Journal d’une escouade, 1916
A volunteer in the French army in 1914 at age 41, Henri Barbusse wrote of his personal experience at the front and in the trenches from December 1914 to 1916. His account first appeared as a series in the daily newspaper L’Œuvre, beginning on August 3, 1916, and was published in its entirety by Flammarion at the end of November 1916, winning the Prix Goncourt for that year. A passage from this narrative inspired German artist Otto Dix in his 1934 painting Flanders, the last work he dedicated to the Great War. The English translation of the narrative is entitled Under Fire.

Roland Dorgelès, Les Croix de bois, 1919
Dorgelès’s novel, published under a pseudonym, was inspired by his own experience in the war. He describes the daily lives of soldiers at the front and in the rear in a series of scenes that are not obviously interconnected. The wooden crosses of the title allude to the grave markers for fallen soldiers placed on the sides of roads used by the troops. The work was shortlisted for the 1919 Prix Goncourt (won by Marcel Proust for À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs), won the Prix Femina, and was a bestseller in France. It was translated into English as Wooden Crosses.

Maurice Genevoix, Ceux de 14, 1949 (a collection of war accounts published between 1916 and 1921)
Lieutenant Maurice Genevoix was 24 when he was mobilized for combat. In Ceux de 14, a collection of five narratives, he describes the eight months he spent at the front, notably at Verdun. The reader is privy to the author’s loss of idealistic patriotism and his growing demoralization in the face of the infantrymen’s horrendous living conditions—the frigid temperatures, the mud, and the omnipresence of death. Wounded in 1915, he was invalided out of the combat zone.

Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, 1920
The German author wrote this autobiographical narrative based on his war diaries and the photographs he took during his four years as a soldier in the Great War. At times, his lucid testimony seems oddly detached from the horrors of the war. Jünger was one of the writers who had trouble finding a publisher in a postwar society in which people had grown tired of reading this kind of account, which had appeared frequently during the conflict.

Joseph Kessel, L’équipage, 1923
A stretcher-bearer for a few months in 1914, Joseph Kessel joined the French air force at the end of 1916; this novel was inspired by his experience. The hero is Herbillon, a young man who leaves his family and the girl he loves to fight for his country. Kessel offers a rather idealized view of the war, which mainly serves as the background for a story of courage and brotherly solidarity in the face of death.

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929
This novel, written in the first-person singular and based on personal experience, takes place in Italy during the First World War. It relates the tragic love story of Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver for the Italian Red Cross (as was Hemingway), and Catherine Barkley, a British war nurse.

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929
Erich Maria Remarque’s personal experience of the war was the basis of this pacifist novel that garnered worldwide success. The hero, a 19-year-old German youth named Paul Bäumer, is swayed by patriotic jingoism to enlist, but soon discovers the horrors of the front. The Nazis declared the book degenerate literature; it was publicly burned and was banned in Germany from 1933 until after the war.

Siegfried Sassoon, Memories of an Infantry Officer, 1930
This pacifist autobiographical narrative by the British poet and novelist, who was decorated for bravery in the war, tells the story of George Sherston’s experiences in the trenches at the Battles of the Somme and Arras in 1916 and 1917. Invalided out, George decides to speak publicly against the war, but he is silenced when a medical board has him hospitalized as a victim of shell shock.

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, 1930–1943
Robert Musil fought in the First World War, mostly on the Italian front. Demobilized in 1916 after a diagnosis of depressive neurasthenia, he was interned in a Prague hospital, where he met Franz Kafka. Musil finished the war in the Austrian army press service. His notes from the period between 1915 and 1917 were the basis of the novel that literary critics consider his masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Voyage au bout de la nuit, 1932
Céline’s first and best-known novel, Voyage to the End of the Night in English translation, is told in the first-person singular from the point of view of the main character, Ferdinand Bardamu. Its first chapters describe the hell of the First World War and the futile violence of trench warfare. The novel, which missed winning the Prix Goncourt by two votes but won the Prix Renaudot, was stylistically groundbreaking with its use of ellipses, onomatopoeia, and colloquial language, including slang. The author, who was wounded in the war and was traumatized by his experience, denounced all forms of heroism: according to Céline, the only reasonable option for resisting the madness of war is cowardice.

Roger Vercel, Capitaine Conan, 1934
Roger Vercel’s novel (Captain Conan in English translation) was inspired by the author’s First World War experience on the Eastern Front during the year that followed the Armistice of November 1918. In the novel, instead of being demobilized after the war, the members of an irregular French army unit under Capitaine Conan are sent to Romania on a support mission. The former commandos have difficulty adapting to civilian life and its laws. The narrator, Norbert, a colleague of the captain’s during the war, is appointed to investigate and defend the soldiers at court martial hearings when they are accused of various crimes. When the captain himself becomes a suspect in a murder case, Norbert resigns from his new position of prosecutor to avoid having to help prepare the case against his comrade. The novel won the Prix Goncourt.

Jean Giono, “Recherche de la pureté,” 1939
This autobiographical text was published as the foreword to Carnets de Moleskine by Lucien Jacques (Gallimard, 1939), and it clarified Jean Giono’s pacifist stance in the postwar period. Giono was traumatized by his time at the front in the Great War, and, moreover, was incarcerated for two months for incitement to desert. This text was republished in 2013 in the collection Écrits pacifistes. Other writings in which Giono denounced the barbarity of war include the novel Le Grand Troupeau, published in 1931, and “Refus d’obéissance” (1934), which also appears in Écrits pacifistes.

Blaise Cendrars, La Main coupée, 1946
In August 1914, Swiss-born poet Blaise Cendrars enlisted in the French Foreign Legion as a volunteer. He fought at the Somme and participated in the great Champagne offensive. Seriously wounded in a German attack on September 28, 1915, Cendrars lost his right arm to amputation. In La Main coupée, he chronicled the year he spent at the front, condemning the ideologies that had triggered and exploited the violence. The episode of the amputation is described in the autobiographical short story “J’ai saigné,” written in 1938 (Paris: Hatier, coll. “Classiques et Cie. Collège,” 2012). Cendrars also assisted director Abel Gance during the shooting of the pacifist film J’accuse, in 1919.

Collections of soldiers’ letters

Jean-Pierre Guéno, Paroles de poilus. Lettres et carnets du front, 1914–1918, 1993
From the back cover of the book:
“They were 17 or 25 years old. Their names were Gaston, Louis, René. They were grooms, bakers, peddlers, members of the bourgeoisie and the working class. Overnight, they became gunners, foot soldiers, stretcher-bearers. Travellers without baggage, they had to leave their wives and children, put on ill-fitting uniforms and hobnailed boots. Of the eight million mobilized between 1914 and 1918, more than two million young men would never see the church steeples of their hometowns again. More than four million suffered serious injuries. Eight thousand people responded to the Radio France appeal for the collection of the letters sent home by the poilus (French infantrymen), letters that had remained scattered until then. About a hundred of these letters appear here.”

John McKendrick Hughes, Unwanted: Great War Letters from the Field (2005)
Hughes, a major in the 151st Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote to his wife every day during the last two years of the First World War. He later published a selection of these letters, placing them in context in a narrative that includes his observations on the relations between the French civilian population of northern France and the British soldiers when they controlled this territory.


John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields,” May 1915

The poppy is the recognized symbol of remembrance for war dead in Canada, the other countries of the British Commonwealth, and the United States. The flower owes its significance to the poem ‘In Flanders Fields,’ written by Major (later Lieutenant-Colonel) John McCrae, a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery, in the midst of the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, in May 1915. The poppy references in the first and last stanzas of the most widely read and oft-quoted poem of the war contributed to the flower’s status as an emblem of remembrance and a symbol of new growth amidst the devastation of war.

The poppy is the recognized symbol of remembrance for war dead in Canada, the countries of the British Commonwealth, and the United States. The flower owes its In Flanders Fields.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae

 Wilfrid Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” 1917

In this poem written in October 1917, and published posthumously in 1920, this young Englishman brought the horrors of the Great War to life, underlining the cruel irony of the famous line by the Roman poet Horace, which in English reads: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Owen enlisted voluntarily in 1915 and after being wounded, shell-shocked and decorated for bravery, he was killed at age 25 while leading his men on November 4, 1918, seven days before the Armistice.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

Wilfred Owen

Poem by Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et décorum est”, 1917, in Poems by Wilfred Owen, edited by Siegfried Sassoon and Edith Sitwell. London: Chatto & Windus, 1920.

Guillaume Apollinaire, Calligrammes, Poèmes de la paix et de la guerre, 1918; Poèmes à Lou, 1947

French poet Guillaume Apollinaire enlisted in the French army as a volunteer in 1914. He suffered a head wound in combat in 1915, and finished the war in a weakened state. He succumbed to the Spanish influenza in 1918, after publishing Calligrammes, dedicated to a comrade fallen in battle in 1917. Among the more memorable of these “writing games” is “La colombe poignardée et le jet d’eau” (The Bleeding-heart Dove and the Fountain). In 1914 he had met a woman named Lou, with whom he spent a week in Nîmes. The letters and poems Apollinaire sent to her daily between 1914 and 1916 make up the collection Poèmes à Lou, published in 1947, 30 years after his death.

Guillaume Apollinaire, <i>La colombe poignardée et le jet d’eau</i>, 1918, calligram.<br>Paris, Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet.

The Bleeding-heart Dove and the Fountain

Gentle faces stabbed Dear flowered lips
Mia Mareye Yette Lorie Annie and you Marie
Where are you, oh young girls?
But near a fountain that weeps and prays
This dove is enraptured.
All the memories of long ago Where are Raynal, Billy, Dalize?
Oh, my friends gone to the war Whose names melancholize
Shoot upward toward the heavens Like footsteps in a church
And your gazes sleeping in the water Where is Cremnitz who enlisted?
They die melancholically Perhaps they are already dead
Where are Braque and Max Jacob? My soul is full of memories
Derain with grey eyes like the dawn The fountain weeps for my sorrow
Those who left for the war in the north are fighting now
Night is falling, O bloody sea
Gardens where the pink oleander, warrior flower, bleeds copiously.

Guillaume Apollinaire (translated by Anne Hyde Greet  in Calligrammes. Poems of Peace and War (1913–1916), A Bilingual Edition, University of California Press, 2nd Revised edition, 2004, page 123).

Nikolai Gumilev, “The Worker,” 1918

A Russian poet and critic, and the husband of poet Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilev was a co-founder of the Poets’ Guild. He enlisted as soon as war was declared and was twice decorated for bravery in 1915. During the Russian Revolution, he joined the Russian Expeditionary Force in France. Upon returning to Russia from Paris after the war, he was accused of anti-revolutionary activities and was executed by a Bolshevik firing squad in 1921.

The Worker

He’s standing there, beside the glowing furnace,
A small man, probably older than you’d think.
His gaze is peaceful, seems almost submissive
From the way his reddened eyelids blink.

All his workmates have knocked off—they’re sleeping
But he’s still working, showing what he’s worth,
Devoted to his task, casting the bullet
That soon will separate me from the earth.

He’s finished. Now his eyes get back their twinkle.
He’s going home. A bright moon shines ahead.
A house is waiting for him, warm and toasty,
A sleepy wife, blankets, and a big bed.

And the bullet he has cast now whistles
Over the Dvina’s grey rippling foam,
Homeward toward the heart it is seeking,
And now, the bullet he cast has found its way.

I am falling, dazed by my own dying,
Watching a lifetime of moments pass,
And my blood, as from a fountain, now starts spurting
Onto the dusty, dry, flat trodden grass.

And the good Lord will repay me in full measure
For a life too brief to toast, too bitter to drink.
He was wearing a grey shirt when he made it ?
That small man, probably older than you’d think.

Poem by Nicolai Gumilev, “The Worker”, 1918, translation by George M. Young, first published in the Southern Cross Review © 2005 George M. Young.


Jean Giraudoux, La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu, 1935
Wounded in combat in the First World War, writer and diplomat Jean Giraudoux became an ardent pacifist. In this play, he establishes a parallel between Europe in the 1930s, when people felt powerless to stem the tide of an oncoming war, and the situation in Antiquity, when no one wanted to believe Cassandra’s prediction of the Trojan War. The play was first presented at Théâtre de l’Athénée in Paris by Louis Jouvet and his company on November 22, 1935. It was translated into English as Tiger at the Gates.

Recent novels

Over the last 30 years, contemporary literature has taken up First World War themes as if to give voice to the last surviving combatants. The first-person singular is still favoured, but several narrators in these meticulously documented stories are witnesses who were overlooked by most of the writers who participated in the war?women and children, for example.

Roch Carrier, La Guerre, Yes Sir!, 1968
This is the author’s first novel, and the one for which he is best known. It was translated into English, keeping the original title, and was adapted for the theatre and the cinema. The allegorical story, set in a rough-hewn rural community of Quebec during the First World War, takes place during the wake and funeral ceremony for a war hero. The themes of conscription and the tense relations between French- and English-speaking Canadians are given a highly dramatic treatment.

Jean Rouaud, Les Champs d’honneur, 1990
The author has chronicled his family history in five volumes. The first brings us back to the era of the First World War, in which two brothers, Émile and Joseph (Rouaud’s great-uncles), were killed in 1916. More than a description of life in the trenches, Les Champs d’honneur evokes the emptiness and suffering created by the war. The novel won the Prix Goncourt. It has been translated into English as Fields of Glory.

Joseph Boyden, Three Day Road, 2006
Boyden’s first novel, based on a true story, pays tribute to the Native Canadians who enlisted during the First World War and features two Cree men, Xavier and Elijah, who fought in Europe. Xavier has now returned to Canada and during the three-day canoe trip to his home, he relives some of the traumatic moments of his experience as a combatant in northern France.

Sébastien Japrisot, Un long dimanche de fiançailles, 1991
To escape the hell of trench warfare, five French soldiers inflict injuries upon themselves in the hope of obtaining medical leave. But their ruse is discovered and they are condemned by court martial to be shot as examples. Mathilde, the fiancée of Manech, one of the five soldiers, refuses to believe that he has been killed and starts a long investigation to find him. This historical detective novel received the Prix Interallié and was made into a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet in 2004. The book has been translated into English as A Very Long Engagement.

Marc Dugain, La Chambre des officiers, 1998
This novella is a story of gueules cassées, meaning “shattered faces,” a term used by the French in the First World War for soldiers who suffered disfiguring facial wounds. This is the fate of young lieutenant Adrien Fournier, who spends almost all of the war in a hospital with others who have similar injuries, being looked after by pioneering plastic surgeons and nurses. As his palate and jaw are gradually reconstructed, he must learn to accept his fate and face a return to society. A bestseller that won some 20 literary awards, the novella was made into a film by Marc Dupeyron in 2000, and has been translated into English as The Officers’ Ward.

Laurent Gaudé, Cris, 2001
The first novel by Laurent Gaudé is a polyphonic narrative in which the First World War is brought into relief through the voices–the cries–of people at the front and in the rear. Jules, Marius, Boris, Ripoll, Rénier, Barboni and M’Bossolo are all given dramatic roles in cataclysmic war scenes, each reacting differently in the face of the horror and madness of combat. Translated into English as Battle of Will.

Alice Ferney, Dans la guerre, 2003
The novel follows Jules, a peasant from the Landes region of southwestern France, through the war, from the time of his mobilization orders in August 1914 to the 1918 Armistice. Alice Ferney recreates life in the trenches as well as the trials of the women who remained behind, waiting.

Claude Michelet, En attendant minuit, 2003
The novel takes place over a period of two hours during the Great War, at the end of 1916. The story is told in alternating parts from the point of view of a combatant at the front, Jean, who is waiting for midnight to be relieved from duty in the trenches, and that of his wife, Marthe, who has had to look after the family farm in southwestern France during his long absence, alone with her anxiety and fear.

Bénédicte des Mazery, La Vie tranchée, 2008
In France during the First World War, when young soldier Louis Saint-Gervais is wounded, he is sent to work in mail control. This means that he must censor the letters written home by his comrades at the front. The emotions and experiences of the infantrymen are brought to life in the authentic letters included in this novel. This book has also been published in an abridged version for schools with notes, questionnaires, and supplementary material by Isabelle de Lisle (Paris: Hachette Éducation, coll. “Classiques Hachette. Bibliocollège,” No. 75, 2009).

Pierre Lemaître, Au revoir là-haut, 2013
Beginning with brutal scenes of trench warfare at the end of the Great War, the novel tells the story of two survivors, Albert, traumatized, and Édouard, disfigured, who are unable to adjust to postwar life in France. They decide to take revenge on the forces that ruined their lives by mounting a fraud involving monuments to the fallen, as spectacular as it is amoral. The novel won the Prix Goncourt and will soon appear in English translation.

Literature for young people

For about a decade, the First World War has been the theme of many publications in young people’s literature, principally historical novels, offering a new way for young people to learn about the events of this period.

Michael Morpurgo, War Horse, 1982
Joey, a young farm horse, is sold to British soldiers and thrust into the midst of the war on the western front. With his officer, he charges toward the enemy, drags artillery guns and pulls stretchers carrying the wounded. One day, he is captured by the Germans. This book was made into a film by Steven Spielberg in 2011.

Paule du Bouchet, Le Journal d’Adèle, 1995
In this tragic, eventful novel for older children, Adèle, a peasant girl from Bourgogne, is almost 14 years old when the First World War breaks out. She begins writing in her diary in July 1914, and keeps it up during the four years of the war. She describes the departure of her brothers, and later, her father, to the front; the trials of the women and children left to toil in the fields alone; the death of loved ones; and her correspondence, as a war godmother (pen pal and sender of packages), with Lucien, a young soldier at the front.

Catherine Cuenca, La Marraine de guerre, 2001
Étienne has been at the front for two years. His only comfort lies in his correspondence with Marie-Pierre, his “war godmother” pen pal whose letters and parcels give him the courage to endure the fear of death and the atrocious living conditions in the trenches. On leave, he decides to meet the young woman he only knows through her letters.

Yves Pinguilly, Verdun 1916, Un tirailleur en enfer, 2003
In 1915, Tierno, a Guinean youth, travels to Dakar, Senegal, to continue his studies. Once there, with other Africans he is forced onto a ship heading for France. After undergoing months of infantry training, he becomes a full-fledged Tirailleur sénégalais and is sent to fight in Verdun.

Michael Morpurgo, Private Peaceful, 2003
During the night of June 24 to 25, 1916, Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful, a very young British soldier, wants to stay awake at all costs so that he can remember. The novel retraces his childhood in the English countryside in the early 20th century, his enlistment in the British army and what he went through in the first half of the Great War. The novel denounces the draconian disciplinary measures enforced by the armies and pays tribute to the many soldiers unjustly shot by firing squad for desertion or cowardice when some of them had simply fallen asleep at their posts.

Sophie Humann, Infirmière pendant la Première Guerre mondiale, Journal de Geneviève Darfeuil, Houlgate-Paris, 1914–1918, 2012
1917. There is no end in sight to the war as the slaughter at the front continues unabated. Geneviève and her mother join several aid societies that bring succour to the soldiers. On her 16th birthday, Geneviève volunteers at the hospital in Houlgate, Normandy, and finds her calling: nursing.

Hervé Giraud, Le Jour où l’on a retrouvé le soldat Botillon, 2013
The story alternates between two eras: the First World War in which the soldier Botillon of the title is a combatant, and the beginning of the 21st century during a family gathering celebrating the 100th birthday of a great-grandmother. She is Botillon’s daughter, but never had a chance to know her father, who was killed in action.

Paul Dowswell, Eleven Eleven, 2014
On the morning of the last day of the First World War, November 11, 1918, on the western front, underage British soldier Will Franklin is on a mission to hunt down enemy soldiers who are hiding in the forest during the German retreat. Will, facing yet another test of his courage, is unaware that the war is effectively over, as are the other young protagonists in this novel.

For further discoveries:
The Canadian War Museum contains a reading list for young people on its site, under “Canada and the First World War,” in the Education tab.

Graphic novels/Comic albums

The books of French children’s author Benjamin Rabier had been the only comic-type publication dealing with the First World War until the beginning of the 21st century, when the war became the focus of several graphic novels (a literary genre that exploded in France in the last decades of the 20th century), including those of Jacques Tardi, who was inspired by his grandfather’s life.

Benjamin Rabier, Flambeau, Chien de guerre, 1916
In an example of the type of propaganda that was directed at children during this period, a scruffy farm dog carries out various heroic acts in 1916 France.

Jacques Tardi, It Was the War of the Trenches, 1993 (English version, Seattle: Fantagraphic Books, 2010)

Jacques Tardi, Jean-Pierre Verney, Putain de guerre, two volumes, 2008

Kris (Christophe Goret), Maël (Martin Leclerc), Notre mère la guerre, 4 volumes, Paris: Futuropolis, 2009–2014

Joe Sacco, The Great War. July 1, 1916, The First Day of the Battle of the Somme: An Illustrated Panorama, New York: W.W. Norton, 2013

Propaganda posters

Posters were essential throughout Europe and in North America for stirring up patriotic zeal: they urged young men to enlist, and above all exhorted civilians to contribute financially to the war effort by buying national war bonds. Also, through grotesque caricatures, they played on the fears of the population and provoked hostile feelings toward the enemy, as in this German poster depicting a French soldier whose grasping hands are reaching toward Alsace.


In approximately 1905, artists went far beyond the Impressionist heritage and, inspired by post-Impressionist painters like Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne, broke away from established tenets in art. Forcefully rejecting the Academy and its principles of imitating reality, art movements such as Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and abstract art were veritable pictorial revolutions in which artists, responding to the innovations and inventions (aviation and cinema, among others) that were changing the world at the beginning of the 20th century, not only arrived at new ways of representing reality but also of conveying realities that lay beyond concrete appearances. These revolutionary art movements were international: between Paris and Moscow, Vienna and Berlin, London and Brussels, their adherents corresponded, debated, and influenced each other. The move toward abstraction united several of the tendencies of this period across borders.

The First World War cast a pall over this élan of creativity. Several avant-garde movements that had arisen before 1914, such as Cubism, had died out by the end of the war. Georges Braque, who left nary a sketch of the conflict, was wounded in 1915; André Derain fought as a gunner for four years of the war, leaving painting for photography during this time. Fernand Léger barely survived Verdun. Former Cubist or Fauve painters were recruited to create camouflage. Some French artists, like Robert Delaunay and François Picabia, left the country to avoid being enlisted as combatants. In Italy, after painter and sculptor Umberto Boccioni and architect Antonio Sant’Elia were killed, Futurism was emptied of its substance. For most of the countries at war, moreover, there was no question of salons, exhibitions or debates on art.

Other artists who had been mobilized chose, on the other hand, to express their impressions of the war. How to represent a war that bore no resemblance to previous, more “noble” conflicts? The technological innovations of the first industrial war, but also the effacement of men by machines and the suffering they witnessed, led artists to seek new modes of expression. Artists of the European avant-garde?Expressionists, Cubists, Futurists?broke with the academic tradition of painting battles allegorically or realistically. Their aim was to create a pictorial language that could capture the admittedly modern, but fundamentally monstrous, reality that they faced.

In May 1915, Fernand Léger, who in La Partie de cartes depicted soldiers as dehumanized robots, wrote to a friend: “Still, it’s a very odd war. (…) It’s linear and dry like a geometry problem. A certain number of shells that hit a particular area of ground in a particular lapse of time; a determined number of men per metre, deploying in order at fixed times. All of this is set in motion mechanically. It’s pure abstraction, purer than Cubist painting itself. I won’t hide my sympathy for this way of doing things.” (Fernand Léger, “Une Correspondance de guerre,” Cahiers du musée national d’art moderne, Paris, 1990.)

Fernand Léger, <i>La partie de cartes</i>, 1917, oil on canvas, 129 x 193 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo (Holland).

British painter C.R.W. Nevinson and Italian futurist painter Gino Severini felt, as did Léger, that it was inappropriate to depict modern warfare in a traditional way. It was impossible to capture the image of shells exploding or guns firing their cannonades realistically: transcribing rather than imitating reality was in order. To express the dehumanizing process rooted in the extreme violence of this war, these painters used broken lines and eschewed detail to exaggerate forms and colours.

Christopher Nevinson, <i>A Bursting Shell</i>, 1915, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm, Tate Gallery, London.
Gino Severini, <i>Plastic Synthesis of the Idea of War</i>, 1915, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm, Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Munich

German Expressionist painters sought a style that could convey human anguish. The cry of despair that rings out from their paintings recalls the work of Edvard Munch, a precursor of this movement. Expressionist painting is characterized by nervous brush strokes and deformed shapes that provoke an emotional reaction in the viewer. German painter and printmaker Otto Dix dedicated much of his artistic career to the theme of the Great War and its effects on German society. His works were later categorized as “degenerate art” by the Nazis. 

Otto Dix, <i>Self-portrait as Soldier</i>, 1914, oil on paper, 68 x 53.5 cm, Kunstmuseum, Stuttgart (Germany).
Otto Dix, <i>Der Krieg</i> (<i>"War"</i>, triptych), 1929–32, tempera on wood, central panel 204 x 204 cm, side panels 204 x 102 cm, Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister, Dresden.

The war was also documented by official photographers, painters and illustrators such as François Flameng, many of whose sketches appeared in the Paris daily L’Illustration.

Starting in 1916, the British Expeditionary Forces in Europe included artists whose work was exhibited at the Imperial War Museums after the war. Besides C.R.W. Nevinson, they included William Orpen, John Singer Sargent, John Nash, and his brother, Paul, whose war scenes of Ypres were exhibited in London in 1918. Paul Nash’s last weeks at the front were spent with the Canadians at Vimy Ridge. Wyndham Lewis, a British painter who founded the Vorticist group of artists, fought at Ypres and was appointed as an official war artist for both the Canadian and the British governments. The Senate room in Ottawa contains several paintings of the Great War, commissioned by Canada but mostly done by British artists. The Canadian War Museum collection contains the work of a number of Canadian artists who witnessed the Great War or its aftermath. A travelling exhibition, Canvas of War: Masterpieces from the Canadian War Museum, showed 72 of these works in various cities from 2000 to 2005; they can be seen on the Canadian War Museum website, in the Education tab. It was due to the influence of Lord Beaverbrook that the Canadian government sent selected painters to the battlefields as war artists. This particular subject is also dealt with in an article on the Canadian War Museum site. Two Group of Seven painters, A.Y. Jackson and Frederick Varley, were among these war artists, and they were strongly affected by witnessing the devastation. The bleak style of the war paintings done by Jackson carried over into his later work in the wilds of northern Ontario. Other eminent Canadian painters who were official war artists in this conflict were Maurice Cullen, Arthur Lismer and David Milne. On the home front, Henrietta Mabel May painted scenes of women working in Canadian munitions factories. 

The following works are among many that were inspired by the Great War:

  • Eric Heckel, Zwei Verwundete, 1915, Folkwang Museum, Essen
  • Félix Vallotton, Les barbelés, 1916, Galerie Paul Vallotton, Lausanne
  • Oskar Kokoschka, The Isonzo Front, 1916, Musée Jenisch, Vevey, Switzerland
  • George Grosz, Explosion, 1917, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Marcel Gromaire, La Guerre, 1925, Musée d’art moderne, Paris


Sculptures and monuments relating to the war are essentially commemorative works. Monuments to the fallen proliferated after the end of the Great War. They can be found in almost all the villages, towns and cities of France and most of the other belligerent countries.

  • Eugène-Paul Benet, Le Poilu victorieux, 1920, cast-iron statue mounted on various monuments to the fallen (approximately 100 in France)
  • Walter Seymour Allward, Canadian National Vimy Memorial, 1935–1936, Nord-Pas de Calais, France
  • Constantin Brancusi, The Endless Column, 1937, Targu Jiu, Romania
Canadian National Vimy Memorial, designed by Walter Seymour Allward, 1935-1936, Nord-Pas de Calais, France.


According to film historian Laurent Veray, films on the First World War fall into four distinct phases. Cinema played an important role during the conflict. It was the first time that war had been filmed; fictional and documentary films, as well as news reels, served propaganda purposes with their patriotic depictions glorifying the combatants’ actions. One of these, The Battle of the Somme, a documentary made under the auspices of the British government, was shown in London in 1916. In the United States in 1918, Charlie Chaplin made a film called The Bond which urged the public to invest in Liberty Bonds. After the war, and especially in the 1930s, films generally represented the Great War from a pacifist perspective. The Second World War eclipsed the First as a subject in cinema productions for a while, but in the 1960s and ’70s, the latter returned as a centre of attention in an even more transgressive and anti-militaristic manner, as a focus on the Great War in the context of decolonization was used to denounce other conflicts. Finally, in the 1990s, with war raging anew in Europe, notably in Sarajevo, there was new interest in the Great War in the cinema, where it was frequently represented as the point of departure of a European history that continues today.

Malins and McDowell, The Battle of the Somme, 1916
Considered the first full-length documentary on war, this British film was made by Geoffrey H. Malins and John B. MacDowell in 1916, at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916). The film was released in London only a few weeks after the first day of the offensive. It shows soldiers in action, alternating real events with re-enactments. The original objective in making the film was to boost morale on the home front and encourage enlistment, but the opposite reaction occurred when shocked audiences saw images of the violence of modern warfare. The film was screened in 30 movie houses in London; 20 million people saw it in the autumn of 1916. The Battle of the Somme was one of the films that met with the approval of Canadian censors, who even encouraged its distribution in Canada.

Abel Gance, J’accuse, 1919
This silent feature depicting mass killing was one of the world’s first pacifist films. The fallen were portrayed by soldiers on leave who had to return to their units after finishing their scenes. The cast also included men whose faces had been disfigured by wounds received at the front. Abel Gance made a second version of the film (with sound) in 1938. “The main characters are two men from the same town, who couldn’t be more different from each other. Jean Diaz is a poet who loves life; François Laurin mistreats his wife, Edith, who was pressured into the marriage by her father. Jean and Edith fall in love. The First World War begins, and Jean and François come to know each other during the conflict. Edith is deported to Germany, like many other women in the town. She is raped by German soldiers, but manages to escape and return home. François is killed in the war, while Jean loses his sanity. He has macabre visions? accusatory denunciations of the horrors of war-before he too dies.”

Léon Poirier, Verdun, visions d’Histoire, 1928
Made for the 10th anniversary of the Armistice, the film chronicles the Battle of Verdun. Halfway between a documentary and a feature film, it is divided into three acts, or “visions”: Strength, Hell, and Destiny.

Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930 (adapted from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque)

Raymond Bernard, Les Croix de bois, 1931 (adapted from the novel by Roland Dorgelès)

Jean Renoir, La Grande illusion, 1937
“Two French aviators are captured by von Rauffenstein, a German officer of aristocratic background. In the prison camp, the French officers help their dormitory mates dig a tunnel. The day before the planned escape, all the prisoners are transferred elsewhere. Eventually, the aviators end up in a high-security fortress commanded by von Rauffenstein. He treats the prisoners courteously, but the French officers plan a new escape.”  

Stanley Kubrick, Paths of Glory, 1957 (adapted from the 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb)
In this anti-war film, shot in black and white, Kubrick, like Bernard Tavernier with his adaptation of Roger Vercel’s 1934 novel Capitaine Conan, focuses on the role played by officers who defended soldiers accused of cowardice during the First World War. In 1916, following a suicide attack, a French general wants to execute 100 soldiers, accusing them of having disobeyed his orders to advance with the others. Finally, only three soldiers, one chosen at random, will be judged in a court martial. The solders’ commanding officer, Colonel Dax, futilely defends them and they are condemned to death “as an example to the others.” The film was banned in France for almost 20 years after its release, as it was seen to “impugn the dignity of the French army.”

Bertrand Tavernier, Capitaine Conan, 1996 (adapted from the novel by Roger Vercel)

François Dupeyron, La Chambre des officiers, 2000 (adapted from the novel by Marc Dugain)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Un long dimanche de fiançailles, 2004 (adapted from the novel by Sébastien Japrisot)

Christian Carion, Joyeux Noël, 2005
The film tells the story of the fraternization between enemy soldiers at the front on Christmas Eve, 1914, a spontaneous expression of goodwill that dismayed the chiefs of staff of the respective armies.

Paul Gross, The Battle of Passchendaele, 2007
“Set during the height of the First World War, Passchendaele tells the story of Sergeant Michael Dunne, a soldier who is brutally wounded in France and returns to Calgary emotionally and physically scarred. While in the military hospital, he meets Sarah, a mysterious and attractive nurse with whom he develops a passionate love. When Sarah’s asthmatic younger brother David signs up to fight in Europe, Michael feels compelled to return to Europe to protect him. Michael and David, like thousands of Canadians, are sent to fight in the third battle of Ypres, a battle against impossible odds, commonly known as Passchendaele. It is a story of passion, courage and dedication, showing the heroism of those that fought in battle, and of the ones that loved them.” 

Music and song

Like artists and writers, many musicians and composers joined the war effort. German composer Arnold Schoenberg, father of the dodecaphonic method, and French composer Claude Debussy both enlisted for patriotic reasons. Composer Maurice Ravel also wanted to join the army, but was rejected due to his small stature. Some musicians played near the front lines to boost the soldiers’ courage (for example, violinist Lucien Durosoir’s organization of “Général Mangin’s quartet”). Songs played an important role in the trenches: patriotic anthems, bawdy ditties and protest songs helped maintain the soldiers’ morale and arouse their zeal for combat. Finally, the arrival of African-American soldiers on the continent introduced Europeans to a new musical genre: jazz. The Great War has been a lasting source of inspiration for the great French singer-songwriters of the 20th century.

Claude Debussy, “Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon,” 1917
In February, 1917, Debussy composed this short piece whose title is a line from a poem by Charles Baudelaire.

Gustav Holst, Mars, Bringer of War, first of the seven movements of The Planets, composed in 1914 and first performed in 1918
This symphonic work full of hammering rhythms and dissonances extols the zeal and courage of combatants. A powerful, chaotic warriors’ march, it has been used in films and has also influenced film music composers like John Williams (Star Wars).

Maurice Ravel, Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major, 1929–1931
This concerto of one movement for piano and orchestra, composed between 1929 and 1931, was written for the left hand and requires great virtuosity. Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm while fighting on the Russian Front, commissioned the work from Ravel and performed it for the first time in Vienna on January 5, 1932.

“La Chanson de Craonne,” 1915
This protest song, seen as subversive and anti-military, was banned by the French army commanders.

Jacques Brel, “La Colombe,” 1959
This pacifist song is against war in general, but was written during the French-Algerian war.

Barbara, “Le Verger en Lorraine,” 1962 (lyrics by J. Poissonnier)

Maxime le Forestier, “Les lettres,” 1975
This song was inspired by letters, found in an attic, written by a soldier at the front to his wife.

Michel Sardou, “Verdun,” 1979


Bibliography / Webography

© Réseau Canopé, 2015