World War I stands as one of history's most senseless spasms of carnage, defying rational explanation. In his riveting narrative, Hochschild brings it to life as never before while focusing on the long-ignored moral drama of the war's critics, alongside its generals and heroes.
They called it the Great
Kaiser Wilhelm wanted to play at war, he always wore a uniform and he wanted to prove his country's superiority. The excuse used to start the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Joseph and his wife (he abhorred war - how ironic). The Austro-Hungary empire would have probably controlled the effects with a small military action in Serbia where the assassination had taken place, but as an ally of Austro-Hungary, Kaiser Wilhelm and Germany took it upon themselves to stress escalation.
So we have a war and the British, who had end the Boer wars several years before thought that they were ready to take on the Germans with the same tactics as used then. However, since the Boer wars the 20th century saw motor vehicles, machine guns, and airplanes come into existence. Gen. Douglas Haig would not accept that cavalry was no longer useful with the new methods available. Time and time again he would send men to certain death by commanding offensives directly into the German machine gun nests. Hundreds of thousands of men were killed in weeks and Haig just kept sending them.
On the home front, massive labor strikes and Conscientious Objectors filled the headlines. The Conscientious Objectors were sent to prison with sentence ordering hard labor (16 hours a day) half rations and no heat. Women were imprisoned if they argued against the war.
But really bothered me the most about what I learned was the actual cause of shell shock. Imagine sitting in a deep ditch for weeks on end and then suddenly being bombarded by artillery NON-STOP for days at a time so loud that you couldn't hear the person next to you talking. I personally can't handle a loud thunderstorm that's off again on again for 20 minutes - how can you handle this acoustic attack?
The Allied Forces were actually losing the battle until the Americans joined the fight. The Treaty that ended the war was so vindictive that many historians see it as the a contributor to World War II.
The book was slow to start, had some areas where it was extremely repetitive concerning the women that were against the war, but highly informative.
I am delighted to have been proven dead wrong. Hochschild has chosen a fresh angle to explore, one that most of those who write about war shy away from altogether. Is war moral? Is it necessary? Is it something to be celebrated and glorified, or something we should avoid as a socially destructive force? When World War One ended, it became known as the war to end all wars -- so horrific had the experiences of survivors been, that they insisted war could NOT be contemplated again. And yet, at the outset, the mood was something quite different -- even socialists who had celebrated the global union of working men voted in favor of war and, with rare exceptions like Britain's Keir Hardie (one of the heroes of Hochschild's story) supported it and turned out to fight men whom they had embraced as fellow workers only months earlier but who had suddenly become "the enemy".
Hochschild does a superb job of finding the characters through which to tell his story -- the divisions within the Pankhurst family, with Emmeline the matriarch suddenly becoming an ultra-patriot, abandoning her violent campaign for womens' suffrage, even as her daughter Sylvia clung to her pacifist convictions. Sir John French, one of the generals who seemed unable to grasp the way that technological developments such as the machine gun and barbed wire had transformed the nature of war and who thus oversaw and commanded battles that resulted in unprecedented carnage, had his own cross to bear: his elder sister, Charlotte Despard, was a vehement critic of the conflict at home. Hochschild puts forth both sides with tremendous empathy, telling of the loss of Rudyard Kipling's son in battle and Kipling's wrenching grief and unshaken support for the war, as well as the fate of conscientious objectors who were shipped overseas to the front lines (against government policy) to serve in the ranks, and who faced being court-martialed and shot if they refused to pick up their rifles.
While the war was a long and complex conflict, stretching literally around the world, Hochschild's narrative is both easily digestible and makes the Great War comprehensible on a basic level. It doesn't purport to be a comprehensive survey of all the fronts and all the battles -- there is little here about the Galician front, the battle of Jutland or other naval conflicts, for instance, and there is a definite bias toward the experiences of war in the trenches of the Western front, from Flanders to Alsace-Lorraine. What is it is, however, is a book that will give even a reader who isn't familiar with the war an overview of its causes and major events, even as it prods them to think about the nature of war itself.
World War One changed the world -- it accelerated technological developments, transformed societies around the world, and laid the groundwork for subsequent conflicts that endure to this day in the Middle East. It did NOT end all wars, but it did make the question of whether war can be considered as valid a means of pursuing a nation's self interest as it was in the 16th or 17th centuries a legitimate one. Hochschild has done a brilliant job exploring the complex moral issues that surrounded that debate, without ever lapsing into platitudes or polemics.
I first received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley; I liked it so much that I ended up purchasing my own hardcover copy as soon as the book was published. Highly recommended.
So riveting are many of the details here that you end up feeling amazed and annoyed that they aren't included in more general histories of the conflict. I've read countless thousands of words on John French over the last year, yet I somehow had no idea that the field marshal's own sister was Charlotte Despard, one of the most intransigent, outspoken activists of the period. Despard denounced ‘the wicked war of this Capitalistic government’ while her brother was busy orchestrating it – and yet the two of them were as close as ever, regularly visiting each other and writing off their siblings' political views as charming quirks.
Despard also championed many other progressive causes of the time, notably women's suffrage. The so-called suffragettes are a key part of the story, and a good illustration of how divided liberal activists were when the war broke out. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel went from planting bombs in Lloyd George's house to working hand-in-hand with him from speaking-platforms and in editorials: ‘If you go to this war and give your life,’ Emmeline told a cheering crowd in Plymouth, ‘you could not end your life in a better way – for to give one's life for one's country, for a great cause, is a splendid thing.’ An argument that became impossible after Owen.
Perhaps it helped cement the votes-for-women movement as being within the establishment – sure enough, women were enfranchised in 1918 before the war ended. Nevertheless as a modern reader all your sympathies are with the younger Pankhurst daughter, Sylvia, who remained absolutely committed to the antiwar movement and was more or less thrown out of her own family as a result. Sylvia's secret lover – the pacifist independent MP Keir Hardie – is another key character in here, and one I'd previously known nothing about. Both of them were shunned, isolated, mocked.
Bertrand Russell also flits in and out of these pages, a towering moral presence. Every time I read about him I admire him more and more. Russell was jailed for six months for his antiwar activism (when the warder took down his details on arrival, he asked Russell's religion, and he replied, ‘agnostic’. Asking how to spell it, the warder sighed, ‘Well, there are many religions, but I suppose they all worship the same God’). He still managed to keep in touch with two of his lovers while in prison, too – he wrote to a French actress in French, a language his jailers couldn't understand, and sent letters to another woman smuggled out in copies of the Proceedings of the London Mathematics Society, which he told her was ‘more interesting than it appeared’.
Hochschild does a brilliant job not just in uncovering the activities of these characters, some of whom have been comprehensively neglected, but also in tying their stories together: the narrative often reads like a novel with a large but interconnected cast. The whole thing is animated by a steady but unintrusive sense of injustice, and the writing is clear, notwithstanding a few foibles (he deploys, for instance, that odd American hypercorrection ‘felt badly’).
What's particularly sad, after following these people for so long, and hoping for some kind of victory on their behalf, is seeing how desperately almost all of them latched on to the Russian Revolution in 1917. It's a harsh but enlightening test of moral character to see how quickly people could bring themselves to bail on the Soviet dream when things started going wrong – not a test many leftists passed with flying colours (but that's a story better told elsewhere). And overall, this is a story of failure and disappointment, though the tone is moving and hopeful rather than depressing. The title points up the overarching irony. President Wilson had called the slaughter the ‘war to end all wars’ – but Sir Alfred Milner was more prescient in 1918 when, peering into the future as the bodies were cleared away, he described the Treaty of Versailles as ‘a Peace to end Peace’.
The sub title is what caught my attention: A story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. This the
The author does a fine job of matching the efforts of the protesters et al against the backdrop of the events in war. Families were torn apart by differences of opinion. This included Field Marshal Sir John French, original commander of the BEF, and his sister, Charlotte Despard.
What I found shocking was the ruthlessness in the way Britian handled the protesters. Imprisoning them under horrible conditions: force feeding them, falsifying evidence to get convictions, solitary confinement, etc.
I do take issue with the author's broad brush in condeming the British generals, particularly Field Marshal Haig, for the handling of the war. After much reading I personally feel the generals did the best they could to fight (and win I must point out) a war which was unlike any before. Technology changed rapidly, communications did not which hampered command and control. By 1918, Britian had the only army in the field capable of winning after stopping the German offensive launched in March, 1918. I will not argue that case here, but I will draw any reader's attention to two well written, well researched books:
Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier by John Terraine
Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan
These present an updated view of the conduct of the war.
Overall, a well written, well documented volume. Worth reading; very thought provoking.
I've read too much WWI-revisionism lately, so it is heartening to see someone pick up diligently that contrary to what so many revisionist historians want to tell us, the British public and the soldiers themselves by no means were oblivious to the disastrous management of the war
At the heart of the book, what makes it unique, are stories of the trials and tribulations of the British anti-war movement. Peopled in large part by well-meaning persons of a socialist bent, the movement was undermined and smeared by the British government who had all aspects of the national press completely under its thumb. Part of the anti-war story is about the Conscientious Objector (CO) community. I'm so glad Mr. Hochschild is getting this story out with this book, for their treatment by members of the British police authorities, who shamelessly violated their civil rights, was horrendous. Early on the COs were sent to the front anyway, where the plan was to shoot them when they refused to obey orders. Fortunately, political advocates at home prevented this from happening. They were then moved to a filthy prison in Boulogne where the rats ran over them at night, and the food was disgusting. But even this, I suppose, was better than sitting at the front listening to the big guns thunder and wondering if you'd live to see your loved ones.
Another thing Hochschild does well here is to tell the tale of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent collapse of the Czarist state in 1917 in context with how the Brits were trying to win the war. This is fascinating.
I joined in the group discussion because it was a book that fit
Told almost entirely from the perspective of the British, Hochschild explains the history and concepts of Empire, class structure and struggles, and the entirely idiotic insistence of the British military of clinging to the use of Calvary in spite of the invention and use of more up to date tactics and weapons being used by the Germans.
Overlaid on this discussion is the story of Britain's conscientious objectors and pacifists, along with a look at the socialist and communist movements in Russia. The role of women in the anti-war movement is also well-documented. I was especially appalled at the treatment the "stiff-upper-lip" aristocratic officers and military hierarchy displayed to men who refused to serve because their conscience told them that killing was wrong. In several instances, these men were conscripted, sent to prison when they refused to serve, and even executed as traitors. It was at this point I become so angry, I had to put the book down and return to it several days later.
The author highlights several well -known Englishmen, including Bertrand Russell, Sir John French, Winston Churchill, Charlotte Despard, and Rudyard Kipling. Each had a specific view of the war, its rightness or its total stupidity. Each of their stories was heart-breaking, infuriating, and so well written that whether or not we agreed with the viewpoint, we understood it. What was so anger inducing however, was the recognition of all who were participating in the discussion of how little the world seems to have learned. We all could see clear and unequivocal correlations to wars that followed. The parallels between anti-war movements during Vietnam and today's conflicts were all clearly visible, and led us to the conclusion that this is a book that should be required reading for all Americans.
One caveat I must point out is that Hochschild wrote this book with an agenda. He believes WW I was unnecessarily provoked, accomplished nothing but the destruction of Europe and loss of a generation of young men, and that it caused WW II. For that reason, his book relates British military issues before and during the war. The concentration here is not on battles, military maneuvers, etc. but predominantly the people, the hawks and the anti-war protestors. Even though he is admittedly biased in his narration, he does have the facts to back up his beliefs and therefore the book is well worth reading.
One revelation that bothered me, but didn't surprise me, was that when Great Britain desperately needed the type of high grade optical instruments (binoculars, gunsites, etc.) that they had previously purchased from Germany, they approached the enemy through a neutral country and set up a deal to buy them. In return, Germany got the rubber it desperately needed for tires but hadn't been able to smuggle through the British blockade. Astounding!
Another point is that simple barbed wire invented by an Illinois farmer was the best military weapon used in the war. That explains why for two years plus the two sides sat in waterlogged trenches in Flanders unable to advance. It was only the invention of tanks that overcame this obstacle.
There is an excellent discussion of why Germany felt compelled to conduct a U-boat (submarine) war on merchant ships despite the knowledge that it would surely bring the U.S. into the war. Also, the effect of the Russian Revolution on the war.
I found this to be a very readable book and fascinating in its dissection of British Army intransigence in the face of changing warfare. I highly recommend To End All Wars.
Audiobook: I love audiobooks, but not all books convert well, such as this one. The narrator is excellent but the book is meant to be read, reasons include: Paragraph breaks are significant to the style but invisible in the audio; large cast of names with constant moving back and forth between stories creates a sense of vertigo, perhaps an intentional aesthetic to mirror the era, but is magnified to the point of confusion by the machine-pace of the audiobook; certain thoughts and transition points demand pausing for reflection, but they are not clear until the moment is past and the narrator has marched on.
Hochschild also offer a good overview of the First World War, aptly summarizing the criminal folly of the battle of the Somme and also highlighting less well known facts such as the First Russian Women's Battalion of Death led by Maria Bochkareva. In contrast to later and especially modern wars, the British upper class sacrificed the lives of their sons in higher proportion than the other classes. They accepted seeing their sons killed beside the poor common soldiers, which gave them legitimacy for a foolish action, a stark contrast to today's armchair strategists sending the poor off to fight their wars. It remains a strange fact that pacifism, despite its noble and inherently sensible goal, is such a weak force in politics. The warmongers, playing to the baser emotions, enjoy a titled playing field. World War I shattered the idea of "ending all wars" (a precursor to the "end of history"). The often dubious candidates who win the Nobel Peace Prize profit from the remnants of that idealistic era.
Hochschild examines the causes, conduct, and outcome of World War I from the perspective of the British people. Hidebound by tradition, the military establishment insisted on
There was considerable anti-war sentiment among the population, shared by people from the lowest classes to individuals as prominent as Bertrand Russell. The author traces the rise and fall of various political movements, ranging from suffragettes to socialists to full-fledged pacifists. But the sheer momentum of the war kept it moving onward inexorably.
Highly, highly, very highly recommended.
Along with the ongoing dispute with his sister the book chronicles the political infighting between Douglas Haig, commander of the British 1st Corps, and French. Haig wanted French's job and wrote letters to everyone who would listen to him. He even had dinner discussions with the King about French's failings as a general. The British lack of victories and his machinations led to Haig being named Commander-in-Chief of the BEF in December of 1915.
Those who opposed the war paid a stiff price. Conscientious objectors were placed in prison with murderers where all had to observe the "rule of silence" something which emphasized their isolation from normal life. Six months at hard labor was enough to break a strong healthy man and lead to his early death. Opposition newspapers had their presses destroyed and speakers against the war were attacked and beaten.
Pro-war propaganda came in many forms. Early in the war they used a poster of Lord Kitchener pointing and saying "Britons wants you". Later in the war and a bit more subtle was the poster of two children asking their father" What did you do in the Great War Daddy?". John Buchan, the author of "The 39 Steps", was one of the most prolific writers for the propaganda department.
Late in the book the author quotes Niall Ferguson as saying that it would have been better to let Germany win the war than have England suffer the death and destruction of the war. The author's documentation of that death and destruction is very thorough and makes you wonder if perhaps Ferguson may be right.
It takes a lot of courage to ask that question, even now. This book shows that the answer is not as clear cut as we would like to think
The close of the Great Empire leading to the full onset of the now closing US era is introduced and awaits further studies.