William Boyd: Why World War I Resonates

Roundup: Talking About History

William Boyd is the author of the forthcoming novel “Waiting for Sunrise.”

IN France I live near a little village called Sadillac. It’s no more than a cluster of houses, an old chateau, a church and a graveyard surrounded by a few farms and vineyards. The village probably hasn’t changed much since the French Revolution; its population hovers around 100. By the graveyard is a simple obelisk with the names of the 30 or so young men from Sadillac who died in the First World War, 1914-18. It’s almost impossible to imagine the effect on this tiny community of these fatalities over four years. Every year on Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. — the hour and the day of the 1918 armistice — villagers gather to participate in a short memorial service around the obelisk.

In 2014 it will be a hundred years since the First World War began, and yet its presence in novels, films and television has never been greater — in “Downton Abbey,” on television, in Steven Spielberg’s movie “War Horse,” in a mini-series of Sebastian Faulks’s “Birdsong” and, coming soon, in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End.”

The last old soldier or sailor has died and almost all of the witnesses have gone, but the war exerts a tenacious hold on the imagination.

For us British, the memories, images and stories of 1914-18 seem to have a persistence and a power that eclipse those of the Second World War. I’m symptomatic of this urge to revisit the conflict: my new novel will be my third with the First World War at its center. When I wrote and directed a movie, “The Trench,” about a group of young soldiers in 1916 waiting for the Battle of the Somme to begin, I was obsessed with getting every detail right: every cap-badge worn and cigarette smoked, every meal eaten. It was as if I wanted the absolute verisimilitude to provide an authentic, vicarious experience so the viewer would be in a position to say, “So this is what it was like, this is what they went through, how they lived — and died.”...

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