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.

29/01/2021
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. Here is our selection of some of the best war novels ever written. 

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

The Most Precious of Cargoes

Book cover for  9781529019568

Told with a fairytale-like lyricism, this is a moving fable of family and redemption set against the horrors of the Holocaust. Once upon a time, a poor woodcutter and his wife lived in a forest. Despite their poverty and the war raging around them, the wife prays that they will be blessed with a child. 

A Jewish man rides on a train with his wife and twin babies. When his wife no longer has enough milk to feed them both, in desperation he throws his daughter into the forest, hoping that she’ll be saved. When the woodcutter’s wife finds the baby she takes her home, though she knows this act of kindness may lead to her death. This moving tale is a testament to our capacity for kindness in even the darkest times. 

Pippo and Clara

by Diana Rosie

Book cover for 9781447293057

It’s 1938, Mussolini is in power in Italy and war is on the horizon. Pippo and Clara are brother and sister, newly arrived in an unspecified city with their family. When their mother goes missing one morning they both go in search of her, with Clara turning right and Pippo left. As a result of their choices, the children’s lives will be changed forever. This is a moving war novel about a country torn apart and two siblings divided by fate.

The Yellow Bird Sings

by Jennifer Rosner

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In Poland, 1941, Róza and her five-year-old daughter, Shira, spend their days and nights hiding in a farmer's barn after escaping being rounded up with the other Jews in their town. Róza tells her daughter stories of a yellow bird, the only one who can sing the melodies Shira composes in her head. Róza would do anything to keep her daughter safe, but eventualy she is faced with an impossible choice – keep her close, or let her go and give her a chance to survive. 

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

Book cover for 9781509848621

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

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 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.

Birdsong

by Sebastian Faulks

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Published to international critical and popular acclaim, this intensely romantic yet stunningly realistic novel spans three generations and the unimaginable gulf between the First World War and the present. It is the story of Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman who arrives in Amiens in 1910. Over the course of the novel he suffers a series of traumatic experiences, from the clandestine love affair that tears apart the family with whom he lives, to the unprecedented experiences of the war itself.