The First World War (1914–18) has held a prominent place in the British literary landscape for almost a century. It was, as Angela Smith notes, a ‘cataclysmic conflict’, very different from previous conflicts. On one day in July 1916, 60,000 British soldiers died, mowed down by the recently invented machine gun. It was also
[a closer war than people were used to]: the guns of the Western front could be heard across the Channel; Zeppelins carried out bombing raids along the east coast of Britain. Men were conscripted into the combatant or non-combatant service. Women were encouraged to take the places of their men — in the workforce, in industry, on the land. Of the 5,215,162 men who served in the army, 44.4 percent were killed or wounded. Very few families escaped unscathed.
In the war’s aftermath, work began on building ‘a land fit for heroes’ (to quote Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s 1919 electioneering slogan) and on commemorating the dead and trying to come to terms with the unprecedented slaughter that had taken place. The first national two-minute silence was held on 11 November 1919. War memorials were erected. The playwright and broadcaster J. B. Priestly (1894–1984) expressed the views of many when he wrote that ‘nobody, nothing will shift me from the belief, which I shall take to the grave, that the generation to which I belong, destroyed between 1914 and 1918, was a great generation, marvellous in its promise’.