English Literature and the Battlefield

Reading Simon Armitage’s The Not Dead (2008) was, for me, a reminder of the beauty of war poetry and prose.  Armitage spent no time working in the armed forces; however, his works cast my mind back to that of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, phenomenal canons of British war poetry. Sometimes, those who have faced the most traumatic, brutal and violent of experiences are gifted with a remarkable set of literary talents. We have an endless fascination with physical war; our interest and never-ending exploration of this theme is instilled in us from a young age – the horrors of WWII discussed in History lessons, its territorial ramifications rediscovered in Geography, and, in no less effect its impact on language and prose debated over in English Literature classes. This year has seen war, once again, dominate our screens, from independent film noir productions such as Ida to movie blockbusters like Fury and 4th Estate’s very own book-to-screen adaptation Unbroken due in cinemas early next year. Petitions to extend The Tower of London’s poppy memorial exhibition, featuring 888,246 poppies to represent every single English casualty of WWI is a simple but pertinent example of the impact war has in shaping collective identities.

Unbroken-Gallery-02This is no less understood at 4th Estate. From Bernard Cornwall’s Waterloo (published by William Collins) to Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, the subject of war has a significant role in our publications. After his US Bomber crashes into the Pacific Ocean, the subject of the tale Louis Zamperini faces the enormous challenge of keeping himself alive and mentally sound following a series of horrors, whilst trying to survive in a seemingly infinite sea. From delinquent, to world athlete, to airman, our real-life hero has faced, and faces, a degree of hardship, suffering and pain most of us cannot even begin to imagine. His determination and will are severely put to the test in this masterfully written novel, which itself begs the question; what and where are the limits of the human soul? Zamperini’s heart, according to Hillenbrand, seems eternally compassionate even after time spent in Japanese camp as a prisoner of war (POW). Unbroken is a humbling testimony of how to face the tragedies of life and a reminder of how – upon re-inspection – trivial some of the issues we often face are, especially in the grand scheme of things.

Though the story of Unbroken was shared through the writing talents of Hillenbrand and not Zamperini himself, it nonetheless acts as an aide-mémoire to the unbelievable abilities of servicemen-turned-authors. War is timeless, and though unfortunate will play a part in all our lives whether we’re giving aid, listening to news reports from the safety of our homes or marching the streets of London in protest. It is thus, no surprise then that war is such a visceral and potent subject of discussion and no less so, that some of the best writers in English Literature writing history are those who have experienced first-hand.

It was only a few weeks ago that UK troops gave Camp Bastion to Afghan forces as part of the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. 453 lives have been lost so far and many ask: was this war worth all those lives? Reading the immense trial and tribulations faced by one soldier alone – Zamperini – only strengthens our questioning of the justifications of war. How much more pain and suffering should be felt by our servicemen and women? Legendary historian Eric Hobsbawm called the 20th century The Age of Extremes, an age were capitalism, the environment and, perhaps most terrifyingly, war pushed the human race to new levels of devastation. Zamperini is part of this legacy. And though he came out of war ultimately triumphant, the same cannot be said for the sixty million lives lost during WWII, the 888,246 English lives lost during WWI, the countless lives lost during the Afghan, Iraqi, Vietnamese and Korean wars just to name a few – literally, only a few conflicts of the 20th and 21st century.

The last and eponymous few lines of Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est ‘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 partria mori’* is pertinent to most, if not all wars in living memory. The sheer scale of destruction, damage and ruin – mental, physical, topographical or otherwise – affirms that. Novels like Unbroken are essential reminders not only of the infinite pain war causes but also serve as reminders of hope and the capacity for kindness in the human heart.

*It is sweet and right to die for your country

Words by Emmanuella Kwenortey 

Unbroken will be in cinemas on Boxing Day | The film tie-in edition will be published on the 20th of November

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