Many of the world’s greatest wtiters also served their country. How did that experience affect the author and their classic works?
In this article we turn the pages to see who served and if it reflected in their writing.
- J.R.R. Tolkien
- Edith Wharton
- Edgar Allan Poe
- George Orwell
- A.A. Milne
- Jack Kerouac
- Kurt Vonnegut
- Agatha Christie
- Dr Seuss
The dark fantasy and epic battles of Middle Earth were grounded in the horrors of the First World War. J.R.R. Tolkien was in his early twenties when he signed up for duty fighting the Kaiser.
The National Archives note that the writer and academic took his time before entering the fray, ensuring his studies at Oxford were finished prior to donning the uniform.
Tolkien joined the Lancashire Fusiliers in late 1915, when he was in his early twenties. The New York Times mentions that he went to France in 1916 as a battalion signals officer.
Many of Tolkien’s comrades, some of whom he’d known since childhood, met their end during the conflict. The bloody Battle of the Somme claimed the lives of two good friends.
In the constant mud and narrow trenches, he began conceiving what would eventually become the land of Hobbits, wizards and dragons. Trench fever, caught through the lice on soldiers’ clothes and skin, put Tolkien out of action for a while. The effects were long lasting.
He ended the war as a lieutenant, and channelled what he’d been through into the adventures of Bilbo, Frodo and other much loved characters. Of note Tolkien’s military servant or ‘batman’ was called Samuel Hodges. The character Samwise Gamgee was a nod to this man.
A movie was made about his wartime connections. Tolkien (2019) starred Nicholas Hoult as the young author and Lily Collins as his wife Edith.
Edith Wharton’s acclaimed novels include The Age of Innocence (1920), written not long after the conclusion of the First World War. As the conflict with the Central Powers consumed soldiers, civilians and resources, Wharton used her organisational skills to help those in need.
Edithwharton.org details how she set up refugee hostels. Over 9,000 refugees were provided with aid through Wharton’s efforts, according to Library of America. She also oversaw schools and convalescent homes.
Her home base of Paris wasn’t exactly the safest place to be in the first place. Even so, Wharton went a stage further, traveling to the front line to see the horrors for herself.
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Her 1923 book A Son at the Front was directly inspired by her experiences, though she reportedly had a tough time selling it to publishers. They apparently saw this post war chronicle as a financial downer!
Edgar Allan Poe
One of history’s most renowned Gothic horror writers spent time facing the terrors of army training. On reaching adulthood, Edgar Allan Poe became a Private in the First Regiment of Artillery.
The US Army Corps of Engineers site details his chequered period in the military. Before enlisting, he’d racked up gambling debts, and lost the support of benefactor John Allan.
The young soldier went from Boston to South Carolina to Chesapeake Bay during the late 1820s. Poe attained the rank of Sergeant Major for Artillery, before heading down an educational route.
He switched to the legendary Military Academy at West Point, where the discipline was reportedly too much for him. As you can imagine, he did pretty well with the written work!
In terms of creativity, Poe had been attempting to ply his trade as a poet and writer for years. It certainly seems to have sustained him during tough times. For instance, a stanza was discovered that mocked Poe’s superior at the Academy, one Joe Locke. Poe was dismissed from West Point in 1831 and found fame over a decade later with The Raven (1845).
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Being in service appears to have filled a financial gap for the aspiring author as he waited for greatness.
The connection between his army experiences and his stories was touched upon in 2022’s The Pale Blue Eye, a movie set at West Point. Harry Melling featured as the iconic author. That title references a description from classic story The Tell-Tale Heart (1843).
Well known for his dystopian masterpiece 1984, George Orwell felt the effects of war in more ways than one. The politically-minded author, who rejected his imperialist background, decided to join the Republicans of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.
Lasting from 1936 to 1939, the conflict saw the old establishment battling against the relatively new Republican government for control of the country.
Left winger Orwell wanted to hit back at General Franco and his fascist supporters. As mentioned by Military History, he was out there for six months. The author’s time as a volunteer soldier ended prematurely, after he was shot by a sniper.
In 1938, he released the classic Homage to Catalonia. This personal account of Orwell’s thoughts and encounters in the country wasn’t appreciated much until the 1950s. By that point the writer had passed away.
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Not long after returning from Spain, Orwell felt the call of duty for World War II. However, he wasn’t admitted into the army on health grounds. Orwell had plenty to say about war, but ultimately wasn’t against the idea.
Cambridge University Press mentions that he opposed pacifism, and believed that conflict and politics were linked.
Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne could be spinning in his grave right now at the recent release of horror flick Blood & Honey, featuring his out of copyright creations. Yet he encountered far worse during his time in service as a World War I Signals Officer. He wrote poems and prose in response to the terrible sights being seared into his consciousness.
Before joining the army, he worked as assistant editor of Punch. Historic UK notes how his magazine pieces focused on considerably lighter fare than what he would see on the battlefield.
His poem From a Full Heart describes the effects of shell shock. Like many, he developed anti-war sentiments. However, Milne also did his duty when the Second World War broke out.
In his thirties the first time round, Milne was getting on a bit by 1939. He took the rank of Captain in the Home Guard, otherwise known as “Dad’s Army”. Over a decade earlier, he’d created the world of Pooh, Christopher Robin and friends at the Hundred Acre Wood. Milne reportedly wasn’t thrilled with the little bear’s big profile, which overshadowed his other efforts as an author.
The wartime backstory was covered in 2017 movie Goodbye Christopher Robin, which starred Domhnall Gleeson as Milne and Margot Robbie as his wife Daphne.
While you probably wouldn’t associate beat poet Jack Kerouac with the services, the fact is he signed up with the navy aged 20 in 1942. The details of this period weren’t known about until the Noughties, after long-sealed records were declassified.
Kerouac spent a total of ten months as a young recruit, where his psychological state became a cause for concern. He reportedly failed boot camp.
Kerouac’s first novel, The Sea Is My Brother, was written whilst serving in the merchant navy. By 1943, he’d been sent home. It would be another fourteen years before On The Road made him a household name.
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His spell as a serviceman was brief, with alcoholism looming large in his life. It eventually killed him in 1969 at the age of just 47.
Offbeat author Kurt Vonnegut created memorable and mind-bending stories, such as Slaughterhouse-Five – his literary break from 1969 – and Breakfast of Champions (1973). The former was based on his wartime experiences, where he’d served time as a POW.
His capture took place when he fought in the famous Battle of the Bulge, December 1944.
The National World War II Museum describes how author ,Vonnegut went to Le Havre in France that month as an intelligence scout. He was part of the 106th Infantry Division, 423rd Infantry Regiment. The author was kept at Stalag IV-B, before being sent to labour in a Dresden malt syrup factory.
Vonnegut’s time in service also saw him witnessing the firebombing of the city. There he and his fellow prisoners were given shelter in Schlachthof 5, or “Slaughterhouse-Five”.
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The author was inside an old meat locker, protected from the blasts, but the overall carnage had a profound impact.
The story of Slaughterhouse-Five the novel focuses on Billy, whose journey through the Second World War and the ensuing years are infused with Vonnegut’s own unique perspective. The forced labour and grim structure of the title are revisited on the page.
Eventually, Billy goes beyond our planet to an alien civilization, though the real world is never far behind.
Agatha Christie is often highlighted as the world’s greatest murder mystery author, but where did her inspiration come from? World War I appeared to play a large part. Christie took the role of a nurse for the Voluntary Aid Detachment, or VAD.
She was in her early twenties when volunteering in 1914. The Literary Ladies Guide website notes that she spent over 3,000 hours providing medical support. Meanwhile, The Guardian writes that she was based at a hospital in Devon, England, where she was born.
By 1918 the war was over and she returned to civilian life. However, a spark appears to have come from this turbulent period. In 1916 she wrote her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
The seeds that gave rise to Hercule Poirot and of course Miss Marple were planted in the midst of her daily duties. Commentators have observed the presence of military personnel as prominent characters in her stories, such as Poirot’s right hand man Captain Hastings.
Despite the blood and slaughter on the battlefield, Christie was more inclined to write about subtle forms of killing. Poisons are another recurring theme in her work, with approximately half the stories featuring an ingested threat.
These elements came in no small part from her time spent on the ward, learning about various chemicals and their effects.
As mentioned by the “Ah Sweet Mystery!” site, Christie also touches on the trauma soldiers face in conflict, and how they adjust to the world once the shelling stops.
The playful and world famous writings of Dr Seuss captivate children and general readers everywhere. Otherwise known as Theodor Seuss Geisel, he worked on entertainment for the troops, in the form of animation and also literature such as pamphlets.
The US Department of Defense writes that he served with pen and ink, in the army’s 1st Motion Picture Unit during World War II.
Having initially used his artistic skills to create posters for the likes of the Treasury Department, the good Doctor explored the global conflict through cartoons such as Private Snafu. It’s noted that the theatre of war enabled him to make adult-oriented content at times. This relative freedom was due to the niche audience, who weren’t exactly PG-13.
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Away from the hand drawn characters, Seuss was behind the 1945 short Your Job in Germany. Targeted at troops who would inhabit the enemy’s country after the end of hostilities, it was written by Seuss.
On directing duties was none other than acclaimed director Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life). Containing a stark warning over the spectre of Nazism, it was seen as heavy-handed by some. And reviews don’t come much worse than that dished out by General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Judith Morgan and Neil Morgan’s 1995 book Dr Seuss and Mr Geisel states that the General said it was “Bullsh*t!”, and reportedly walked out.
In 1946, the then-Lieutenant Colonel Seuss left the military. He wrote the career–defining Cat In The Hat in 1957, though he’d released some books prior to that. It’s thought his experience with wartime animation influenced the stories that delight generation after generation.