In our high school history classes, teachers might have mentioned Verdun or the Battle of the Somme, but it's unlikely they got around to the Brusilov Offensive, the Siege of Przemysl or the battles of the Masurian Lakes. Though World War I was the first truly global conflict, and the first to employ the technologies that now dominate warfare, most Americans' knowledge of the fighting that began 100 years ago this summer is limited.
One of the objectives of the anthology No Man's Land: Fiction From a World at War 1914-1918, edited by Pete Ayrton, is to fill gaps like that. The book's subtitle is a bit misleading, because the 47 authors sampled include memoirists and journalists, but Ayrton has captured the global sweep of the conflict by not awarding undue emphasis to the Western Front already so familiar to us from films and books.
No Man's Land includes, as it must, excerpts from some of the most esteemed literary works to emerge from the war: Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night, Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March, Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk and Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun.
There also are selections from celebrated authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather and William Faulkner whose reputations do not derive primarily from the war.
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Interestingly, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Graves are absent. Ayrton also has omitted Wilfred Owen and other poets because, he writes, their "war poetry has already been well represented in many excellent anthologies and was relatively well known."
The real strength of No Man's Land is the diversity of the voices, especially from fronts often overlooked or considered peripheral in the United States and Britain. Five excerpts from Stratis Myrivilis' Life in the Tomb, a fictionalized account of Greek troops fighting against Bulgarians and Turks, are an especially strong example, but we also hear from Serbs, Italians, Romanians, Turks, Slovenians and Armenians. All told, writers from 20 countries are represented.
No Man's Land doesn't favor either side and is unblinking in its portrayal of the generalized brutality that the war fomented. James Hanley's I Surrender, Camerade seems horrifyingly contemporary in its account of two working-class British soldiers who capture a German soldier, "a youth, about 18 years of age, tall, with a form as graceful as a young sapling, in spite of the ill-fitting uniform and unkempt appearance" and methodically abuse and ultimately kill him, like sociopathic children torturing a cat.
Ayrton's spirit of inclusion also seems to be the motivating force behind a few selections that try, with mixed results, to capture the female experience of the war years. Irene Rathbone's hauntingly bitter Who Dies if England Lives? very effectively portrays the anguish of the volunteer nurses who cared for the wounded and maimed, but Rose Macaulay's Evening at Violette, with its rendering of patriotic platitudes at a dinner party, might be the weakest of the book's selections.