Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

World War One Short Stories — Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

World War One Short Stories
Bob Blaisdell (ed.)
Published by Dover Publications, 2013

World War One Short Stories is a rare collection of tales from the trenches of France and Belgium by such well-known authors as May Sinclair, Mary Borden, Wyndham Lewis, Somerset Maugham, John Galsworthy, Rudyard Kipling, and Ford Madox Ford. Such stories are rare because soldiers at the front did not usually write short stories — at best, they wrote letters and poems, protests and songs. In England and Germany, editors and politicians did not want the facts of war to reach the noncombatant citizens at home; mass death and destruction were no longer news, and soldiers did not wish to enlighten their loved ones on the true nature of war.

As with all good literature, the stories collected in World War One Short Stories are concerned with the individual, his/her feelings, fears, hopes and dreams. With the exception of Somerset Maugham's "The Traitor," which features Ashenden, a British spy, the stories are non-political. Most of the writers are men.

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It is perhaps, however, Mary Borden's story "Blind" that is the most moving of the 18 stories. Borden describes how she received wounded soldiers from ambulances and tried to prevent them from dying before they reached the operating rooms. One of her most distressing tasks was to sort out the nearly dying from the dying:

Life was leaking away from all of them; but with some there was no hurry, with others it was a case of minutes. It was my business to create a counter-wave of life, to create the flow against the ebb. It was like a tug of war with the tide..

The price of this struggle is constant exhaustion. The story ends with a confirmation that however tired she was, the rewards were always worth it: a patient, for example, with only half a face smiles at her, or she is given a steaming mug of hot coffee because it is the best thing on offer at the time.

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The stories are arranged not thematically or by country of origin but chronologically, as determined by the events described in the stories. The first story, May Sinclair's "Red Tape," describes the patriotic enthusiasm of British men in 1914. The final story, Katherine Mansfield's "The Fly," depicts a businessman who is grieving for the loss of his soldier-son who was lost six years earlier.

The editor, Bob Blaisdell, points out that earlier collections of stories, such as The Penguin Book of First World War Stories (2007) and Women, Men and the Great War: An Anthology of Stories (1995) have traditionally presented primarily English stories, with just a few American ones. Blaisdell has modeled his collection on Major Humphry Cotton Minchin's Best Stories of the War (1931), which, he argues, is the best anthology because it contains 66 stories from America, England, France, and Germany. Of the eighteen stories collected in World War One Short Stories, eleven are from Britain, one is of Anglo-Irish origin, two are Russian, one is from New Zealand, one is French, and two are from America or Canada (the nationalities of the latter two authors are not known).

Each story is introduced by a short presentation of the author and his/her war career along with the date and place of the story's original publication. The collection includes a selected bibliography although this does not, it should be noted, contain any collections or works published after 1995. The stories themselves need no explanation: their descriptions of both distinctive national war experiences and universally tragic ones can be understood by all. Between four and 13 pages long, each story can be read relatively quickly. The message, however, will remain with the reader for some time to come.

At about four dollars, World War One Short Stories is excellent value and a really good read.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam


  1. This sounds like a most interesting book--one I'm going to get. Something about the short story makes it my favorite genre, and these sound fascinating. Didn't realize so many short stories came out of the war.
    Thank you!

  2. Short stories are always fascinating. I was infact hunting for something like this and my thoughts were masifested into the universe!!