Tag Archives: John Buchan

Forgotten authors of the First World War

The 39 Steps by John BuchanDuring the past year we have been focusing on books about the First World War. The centenary of the war’s commencement has seen a surge in authors writing about the war and its aftermath and we have highlighted many of these in our WW1 reading lists. There has also been a renewed interest in some of the contemporary authors who were influenced by the conflict. One of these, John Buchan, has been consistently popular, with his eve-of war thriller The Thirty-nine Steps having had a number of film adaptations as well as spawning a current West End musical.

However, there are other authors, once household names, but now largely forgotten. Their tomes gather dust in library stores like old soldiers awaiting a recall to arms…

A Sub and a Submarine, by Percy F WestermanTake for instance Percy F Westerman (1876-1959). He wrote his first book for boys in 1908, giving up an Admiralty appointment to write full-time in 1911. During World War 1 he was initially employed on coastal duties by the Royal Navy, but in 1918 he was commissioned by the Royal Flying Corps as an instructor of navigation. In the 1930s he was voted the most popular author of books for boys. Most of his books were adventures with a military or naval theme. He continued writing until his death, publishing at least 174 titles. Amongst these are With Beatty off Jutland and A Sub and a Submarine.

Biggles in France, by Captain W E JohnsA similar author was Captain WE Johns (1893-1968). William Earle Johns first enlisted in the Territorial Army in 1913. He was sent overseas in 1915, serving at Gallipoli, and later in Egypt and Greece. In September 1917 he was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps. He was shot down in Germany in September 1918 while on a mission to bomb Mannheim and remained a prisoner of war until the end of hostilities. He continued an RAF career until 1931. He started writing in 1922, creating his most famous character, the ace pilot ‘Biggles’ in 1932, who was then to feature in some 100+ stories until the author’s death in 1968.
The Biggles books were the staple diet of boys’ reading material in the 1950s. The ‘Captain’ was self-awarded – his final RAF rank was Flying Officer (equivalent to an Army Lieutenant).

Sir Henry John Newbolt (1862-1938) graduated from Oxford and at first practised law before becoming a poet, historian and novelist. At the start of the War, Newbolt along with over 20 other leading British writers was brought into the War Propaganda Bureau which had been formed to promote Britain’s interests and maintain public opinion. He later became Controller of Telecommunications at the Foreign Office, being knighted in 1915. His written works include The Naval History of the Great War and Submarine and Anti-Submarine (1919) He is probably best remembered now for his cricketing poem Vitai Lampada which includes the line: “Play up! Play up! And play the game!

Submarine and anti-submarine, by Sir Henry John Newbolt

Bernard Newman (1897-1968) was a great nephew of the author George Eliot. He initially served in the trenches in World War 1, lying about his age to enlist, but because of his fluency in French his French liaison officer used him to go undercover in Paris. Accompanied by a female French agent they investigated loose talk by Allied soldiers about troop movements. He developed an interest in espionage on which he became an authority, writing fictional and non-fiction books on this subject. He was to write more than 100 books in total raging from politics to travel, mystery novels, science fiction and children’s books. The Cavalry Went Through (1930) is a novel about the Dardanelles campaign

The War in the Air, by H G WellsHG Wells can hardly be described as a forgotten author! His novels The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine are still widely read and seen as classic works of early Science Fiction. However, there are some other works which are less well-known and largely unread now. During the early 20th century he wrote a number of ‘fantasies of possibility’ based on his futurological writings. Most of these prophesied a future world war and include The War in the Air (1908). This was written only five years after the Wright Brothers pioneer heavier-than-air powered manned flight, and a year before Louis Bleriot made the first cross-channel flight. However, such was the rate of technical development that aerial warfare became a reality in World War 1.
The British Government actually established the Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner of the Royal Air Force) in 1912. He also wrote The World Set Free (1914) which foretold of an atomic bomb. A short story The Land Ironclads (1903) was acknowledged by Winston Churchill as originating the idea of the tank. In 1914 he wrote The War that will End War which set out his case for supporting the allies. A novel Mr Britling Sees it Through (1916) was an account of war on the Home Front.

In 1918 he was recruited by Lord Northcliffe’s Ministry of Propaganda to work on a statement of war aims, which included the setting up of the League of Nations. After the end of hostilities, Wells viewed the war as an inevitable result of the rivalries between nation states, fuelled by a nationalistic teaching of history. He envisaged a new kind of history textbook, and assembling a team of specialist advisors wrote his ‘Plain History of Life and Mankiind’ – The Outline of History (1920) which became an international best-seller.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was an American author, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 (the first woman to win this award), and nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature on three occasions.  She is probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning book The Age of Innocence and for Ethan Frome. But another of her works was A Son at the Front (1923)

Many of the books listed above have long been out of print, but some can be found in the stock of Westminster Libraries (click on the links in the text), whilst those not in stock might be obtainable through the interlending service.

More information about the authors featured here, including complete lists of their works, can be found in Contemporary Authors, and in some cases through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in to both with your library card number).

A selection of novels set in the prelude to, during and in the aftermath of the Great War, plus a selection of non-fiction works about the war and its aftermath can be found on our ‘book lists’ page:

First world War reading list - screen shot