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Bring the literary giants of the great war to life


Thanks to Project Gutenberg and Oxford University's poetry archive, the literature of the first world war has never been more accessible

It's still months to go till the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but given the number of TV programmes, books and angry political debates we've already had about the first world war, we're in danger of getting battle fatigue by Christmas. Now's the time, before great war weariness sets in, to explore the literature of the period. I've always found reading novels, poetry and memoirs the best way to make history come alive, and the internet makes this easier than ever.

First port of call has to be Oxford University's incomparable first world war poetry digital archive. Launched in 2008, it contains thousands of digital facsimiles of primary material from all the major (and minor) war poets. It's all here, from Edward Thomas's letters home, to Ivor Gurney's annotated copy of War's Embers, to the first draft of In Parenthesis by David Jones. The site isn't the easiest to navigate – it needs a revamp to make the most of the riches on offer.

As the literature of the great war trickles into the public domain, Project Gutenberg is collecting some of it on a helpful bookshelf. Dig deep and you'll find fascinating early historiography (History of the American Negro in the Great World War), regimental histories (there's one about the Sherwood Foresters, which Vera Brittain's brother and fiance belonged to), memoirs galore, and literary curiosities including propaganda by Arthur Conan Doyle, Mrs Humphry Ward and Arnold Bennett.

Three must-read novels missing from the collection, but also free to download, are The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, Le Feu by Henri Barbusse and – for a jolly-hockeysticks counterpoint to the misery of the trenches – Angela Brazil's A Patriotic Schoolgirl ("'There used to be riding lessons before the war,' sighed Irene").

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