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 10, 2015

The Short Story and
the First World War

Reviewed byJane Mattisson Ekstam

The Short Story and the First World War
 by Ann Marie Einhaus. 
Cambridge University Press, 2013

The Short Story and the First World War is a fresh and fascinating exploration of World War One in prose. While much has been written about the poetry of the war, memoirs of veterans, and the role of memory and remembrance, the short story has been largely neglected. The several hundred stories discussed in Einhaus’s study have been selected because they complement our picture of the war. They are also ephemeral because they either appeared in magazines or have been collected in anthologies that are now out of print. Written over a long span of time, from the war to the early 21st century, the stories are an invaluable source of information about the events of 1914–18 both at the front and at home.

An Observer by Edward Handley-Read

What makes the short story genre so special? Einhaus argues that short stories describe a diversity of experiences and memories of the war without giving precedence to any one specific version, enabling us to complete our image of the war. When first published, the short stories offered readers a means of comparison with their own war experiences, helping survivors and witnesses to place themselves in a context of readily available and diverse fictional war narratives. Each story is a snapshot that gives us access to a specific view of the war, constituting a valuable source of alternative cultural history. Why then did these stories not become a part of the war’s literary memory? Einhaus believes the main reason is that readers have found it difficult to move beyond the myth of the war produced in wartime trench poetry, disillusioned novels, and the memoirs of the late 1920s. It is time to move on, she argues, and to consider a new view of the war. This is one of the primary purposes of The Short Story and the First World War. It is only now, claims Einhaus, that we are beginning to understand the importance of the short story genre as a cultural archive of the war for modern readers and to see its potential to challenge and add depth to the myth of the war.

Arranged according to themes, the short stories cover a range of topics and writers from within British society: men and women, combatants as well as non-combatants/pacifists, young and old, comic and serious, mainstream and avant-garde. In other words, the selected stories represent the heterogeneous experience of the war in Britain. Well-known names such as Richard Aldington, John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle, Katherine Mansfield, and Hugh Walpole are to be found alongside unknown writers, the latter being very much in the majority. Einhaus favors the home front and the popular magazine market as they are the most productive arenas for short story writers describing the war.

Elephant & Castle  Underground During an Air Raid, Walter Bayes

The Short Story and the First World War is divided into six chapters: “Canon, Genre, Experience, and the Implied Reader”, “The War in the Magazines”, “Post-War Publication and Anthologisation”, “Negotiating Disaster in Popular Forms”, “Narrative Rehearsal of Moral and Ideological Alternatives” and “Commemorative Narratives and Post-War Stories”. The first chapter discusses the short story as a genre; the second and third chapters describe the publishing context of World War One short stories from 1914 to the present day, focusing on a range of short story anthologies. Chapters Four and Five provide wide-ranging readings and analyses of war stories written and published between 1914 and 1956, focusing on such subjects such as loss, grief, mourning, and physical and psychological damage sustained in the war. Chapter Five illustrates how short stories offered readers a range of alternative interpretations of the war which acted as foils for their own experience of the conflict. Chapter Six explores a selection of inter-war and postwar stories written and published from the later 1930s to the present day showing how these responded to the immediate interests of an intended readership involved in war and the commemoration of war. Well-known names such as Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks, and Michael Morpurgo are mentioned in this chapter.

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The Short Story and the First World War not only covers the above-mentioned topics but also stimulates the reader to consider other possible themes and subjects. And if he or she is in any doubt as to what these might be, the copious notes at the end of the book provide important and detailed clues. The extensive bibliography, covering over 30 pages, provides many suggestions for further reading although it should be noted that the majority of the stories are only to be found in magazines or out-of-print anthologies. The diversity of the topics covered in Einhaus’s study amply reflects the diversity of stories published during or since the war. There is something for everyone in this fascinating and exceptionally well written study. Readers may also wish to explore the 2007 collection of  WWI short stories that Einhaus helped prepare for Penguin books titled The Penguin Book of First World War Stories (Penguin Classics).

Jane Mattisson Ekstam


  1. What short stories did Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks write on the war?

  2. Jane Mattisson EkstamMarch 11, 2015 at 10:29 PM

    Thank you for your question! Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks are chiefly known for their novels: Pat Barker, for her 'Regeneration Trilogy' and Sebastian Faulks, for his 'Birdsong'. I can warmly recommend all four novels! I have taught Faulks's novel on an evening course. The students were Swedish speakers but they wanted to read the novel in English - and loved it! In 2012, 'Birdsong' was made into a mini TV series. See
    With all good wishes,