The best war novels of all time

Wars devastate countries and continents, with profound effects on both individuals and society as a whole.  Here is a collection of some of the best war books ever written.

03/11/2020
3 minutes to read

Few events have such a profound and devastating impact on society and individuals as war, and novelists have drawn inspiration from conflicts throughout history. The greatest novels about war give readers an insight into the way that war can change us, both individually and as a society. Here is our selection of some of the best war books ever written. 

The Winter Soldier

by Daniel Mason

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This war novel opens with the beginning of WWI. Readers follow Lucias, a medical student in Vienna, who enlists and finds himself stationed in a remote field-hospital ravaged by typhus. His dreams of saving lives are confronted with the stark reality of war, which is unlike anything he could ever have encountered in glamorous Vienna. With the help of a battle-hardened nurse he learns a brutal makeshift medicine, but when an unconscious soldier is brought to him for treatment, the decisions Lucias makes will change his life forever.

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The Regeneration Trilogy

by Pat Barker

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1917, Scotland. At Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, army psychiatrist William Rivers treats shell-shocked soldiers before sending them back to the front. In his care are poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and Billy Prior, who is only able to communicate by means of pencil and paper . . .

RegenerationThe Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road follow the stories of these men until the last months of the war. Widely acclaimed and admired, Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy paints with moving detail the far-reaching consequences of a conflict which decimated a generation.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

by Ernest Hemingway

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Inspired by his experiences as a reporter during the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American volunteer in the International Brigades fighting to defend the Spanish Republic against Franco.

 After being ordered to work with guerrilla fighters to destroy a bridge, Jordan finds himself falling in love with a young Spanish woman and clashing with the guerrilla leader over the risks of their mission.

The Nightingale

by Kristin Hannah

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Set in France during the Second World War, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is a story of two sisters, Viann and Isabelle. The pair are reunited after Viann’s husband is sent to fight, with Isabelle travelling from Paris to rural France to support her sister. Together, they face extraordinary hardships and heartbreak. This is a gripping account of the real horrors of war.  

Half of a Yellow Sun

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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This heartbreaking and beautifully written book lays bare the horrors of the Nigerian Civil War. In the 1960s, Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, goes to work for a university professor.    When the professor's girlfriend, Olanna, moves in, Ugwu becomes close to the couple. But their lives will be upended and changed forever by the conflict to come. 

All Quiet on the Western Front

by Erich Maria Remarque

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This classic war novel of the First World War is written in the first person by a young German soldier. Paul Bauer is just eighteen when he’s pressured by his family, friends and society to enlist and fight at the front. He enters the army with six school friends, each filled with optimistic and patriotic thoughts. Within a few months, they are all old men, in mind if not completely in body. They witness such horrors and endure such severe hardship and suffering, that they are unable to even speak about it to anyone but each other.

Testament of Youth

by Vera Brittain

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In 1914 Vera Brittain was 20, and as war was declared she was preparing to study at Oxford. Four years later her life - and the life of her whole generation - had changed in a way that would have been unimaginable in the tranquil pre-war era.

One of the most famous autobiographies of the First World War, is Brittain's account of how she survived those agonising years; how she lost the man she loved; how she nursed the wounded and how she emerged into an altered world

All the Light We Cannot See

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A beautiful, stunningly ambitious war novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Doerr weaves together the stories of a French girl named Marie-Laure who has lost her eyesight and a German orphan named Werner. As Hitler’s occupied territory grows, Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives and families are torn apart by the war, yet this beautiful novel is the story of people who, against the odds, find good in one another.

Catch-22

by Joseph Heller

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A satirical indictment of military madness and stupidity, and the desire of the ordinary man to survive it. 

Set in the closing months of World War II, this is the story of a bombardier named Yossarian who is frantic and furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him.

Slaughterhouse 5

by Kurt Vonnegut

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Prisoner of war, optometrist, time-traveller - these are the life roles of Billy Pilgrim, hero of this miraculously moving, bitter and funny story of innocence faced with apocalypse.

Slaughterhouse 5 is one of the world's great anti-war books. Centring on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden in the Second World War, Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.

The Hunters

by James Salter

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Drawing upon his time as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, James Salter’s first novel is a landmark masterpiece in the literature of war.

Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace pilot. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill - sometimes under dubious circumstances - Cleve’s luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever.

The Things They Carried

by Tim Obrien

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A startling exposé of humanity in the Vietnam war. Presented as a chain of interconnected short stories, O'Brien intrinsically links the weight of things individual soldiers carried on their backs and in their hearts. In a thought-provoking metafiction that will make you laugh and cry he unmasks the masculine facade, debunks the ideal of heroism, and reveals the Vietnam soldiers for what they really were: children.

The Kite Runner

by Khaled Hosseini

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Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Hosseini explores the nature of friendship, of forgiveness and of redemption, set against the turbulent background of his native Afghanistan.

The Story of a Brief Marriage

by Anuk Arudpragasam

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Set during the closing days of the horrors of the Sri Lankan civil war in the north of the island, Anuk Arudpragasm’s beautiful debut, The Story of Brief Marriage, tells the story of two young people thrown together by their perilous circumstances, learning to feel as people again as the fighting closes in around them. Hypnotic in its detail, this devastatingly moving war novel bears unflinching witness to the lives of those caught up in a conflict now much forgotten by the wider world.

The Yellow Birds

by Kevin Powers

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An unforgettable depiction of the psychological impact of war, by a young Iraq veteran and poet.

Everywhere John looks, he sees Murph. Back home after a year in Iraq, memories swarm around him: bodies burning in the crisp morning air. Sunlight falling through branches; bullets kicking up dust; ripples on a pond wavering like plucked strings. The promise he made, to a young man's mother, that her son would be brought home safely. It vividly captures the desperation and brutality of war, and its terrible after-effects.

The Good Lieutenant

by Whitney Terrell

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The Good Lieutenant, literally starts with a bang, as an operation led by Lieutenant Emma Fowler goes spectacularly wrong. From here we unspool backwards in time as Fowler and her platoon are guided into disaster by suspect informants and questionable intelligence. Terrell reveals what can happen when good intentions destroy, experience distorts, and survival becomes everything.

If you're looking for inspiration for your next read, discover our edit of the best historical fiction books, here.