To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.
This is a novel about the Great War.
Some years ago, I asked a good friend who knew a great deal about the topic to recommend a good history of the Spanish Civil War. He recommended several, but he said that to his mind the best book to read was a novel, The Cypresses Believe in God by Jose Maria Gironella. I read it, as well as some actual history books on the period, and he was right. Yes, the history books gave me more in terms of dates and numbers and places. But Gironella’s massive novel gave a real sense of why people on both sides fought the war and how it changed them. Reading it helped me understand what the war meant in human terms. The novel was not just set during the Spanish Civil War, telling about some specific characters’ experiences during it. It took on the war itself as a character and sought to bring the reader to an understanding of it.
The genesis for this project goes back far enough that I’m unable to put a precise date on it. I first became fascinated with World War One in high school, when I read the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, and although my interest waxed and waned over the years it’s always had a draw for me. It’s hardly a unique insight to say that the 20th Century was forged in the furnace of the Great War, but I don’t think it’s any less true for being commonplace. The idea of a big novel, or a series of novels, that dealt with the war, with characters on all sides, started to grow on me, and as I read more books on the topic I started putting in post-its and taking down notes for what turned out to be this project.
As my characters and their stories began to take shape, I quickly realized that the problem was not finding enough material to make a good novel, but rather limiting my material to make it even vaguely manageable.
First off, I decided that this would deal only with the European war in the narrowest sense. The Italian Front, which has been written about by authors ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Mark Helprin, makes no appearance in this novel. I’ve also left out Gallipoli and the Middle East, and even the Balkans in which the conflict began. My canvas is restricted to the Western Front in France and Belgium, and the Eastern Front in Poland, Russia and Ukraine.
My second major choice was to leave the English speaking peoples almost entirely out. This isn’t a matter of interest or significance. The British war writers are justly famous, and without the contribution of British, Canadian, Australian, Kiwi and eventually American troops, the war would have gone very differently. But because the British war experience, or at least a certain interpretation of it, is so well known to English speaking readers, I wanted to focus on less familiar territory. My main characters are French, German, Austrian and Russian/Polish. Soldiers from the English speaking powers will be seen in the novel, but I don’t have any among my main characters.
This is more one story in three volumes than three separate stories, though each volume has an ending which I hope will both satisfy the reader and keep people eager for the next volume. The breakdown of the volumes is as follows:
Volume One: Things Fall Apart (1914)
Volume Two: The Blood Dimmed Tide (1915-1916)
Volume Three: Mere Anarchy is Loosed (1917-1918)
The titles of the three volumes are drawn from W. B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming". First printed in 1920, "The Second Coming" is itself to a great extent a response to the Great War.
The whole novel exists in outline, and at least at the start I’m writing several chapters ahead of publication so that I have time to revise and put up a more finished draft. This web edition is, however, still something of a draft. I do hope very much that The Great War will someday be published as a “real novel” by a commercial publisher, and I’m sure that I’ll have to do another round of revision in the process of trying to achieve that. However, I am committed to publishing the entire novel here, in draft form. It will be finished, and there will not be a point when I announce that if you want to read the rest you’ll just have to buy it. (If I do my work here well, I hope you'll want to buy the final version anyway.)
One of the things I really enjoyed about writing my previous serialized novel was the chance to hear from readers as I went along, so please do feel free to comment on the posts or email me with any comments or criticisms.
And most of all: Thank you for reading. This book has been a labor of love for a long time, and I hope that it will prove enjoyable to read.