BOOK REVIEW The human face of World War I To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam
Reviewed by Jim Ash
It is 1917, and frozen British explorer Ernest Shackleton has just arrived at a
polar station in South Georgia. After spending nearly three years leading a
disastrous Antarctic expedition, he is eager to hear the news of the world.
Shackleton asks when the war in Europe ended.
His party had left just after the outbreak of World War I, and like most
Europeans, the explorer had been convinced the war would be short and
victorious for his country. He is appalled when the station master tells him
that the war is still dragging on, that
millions have already been killed, and that Europe has gone mad.
Anecdotes like this are one of the elements that make Adam Hochschild's To End
All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 such a success.
Hochschild brings a novelist's flair to his history-writing, tightening his
focus onto the individuals - statesmen and civilians, soldiers and
war-resisters - who were caught up in the horrific events of World War I. The
result is a book that should appeal even to those who normally shy away from
The American historian is telling two stories in To End All Wars. One is
about how the war was fought, with particular attention to why it was so
agonizingly long and bloody. The other is less familiar: it is the story of
those who stood up against popular opinion and often-repressive governments to
condemn the war itself, and demand peace.
On the military side, Hochschild shows how the conflict in Western Europe
quickly became a gruesome stalemate. The two sides faced off over a
continent-wide system of trenches that barely moved for three years, with the
combatant countries taking turns launching massive infantry assaults that
gained little ground, but lead to the death and disfigurement of tens of
thousands of young men.
Like most historians of the war, Hochschild identifies technology as one cause
of all this carnage. The machine gun had made 19th-century military doctrine
suicidal, but it wasn't until late in the war that tactics were updated. The
author also highlights the role of another, lower-tech invention in making the
battlefield of the era such a charnel house: barbed wire.
Cheap and easy to lay, it was devilishly difficult to clear. Horrified soldiers
would often discover during their advance that the enemy wire remained uncut
even after the most intense artillery barrages, leaving them unable to move
forward while under merciless fire.
Hochschild also lays much of the blame for the war's awfulness on the top
brass. He depicts the generals that fed their armies into this meat grinder as
vain, inflexible fools. While a whole generation was bleeding out between the
trenches of the Western front, these men were more concerned with getting one
over a rival commander, or with finding some sort of role in the war for their
beloved cavalry regiments. At one point in the narrative, British General
Douglas Haig even complains to an underling that his army isn't suffering
enough casualties. How is that supposed to look for its commander, he asks?
This intertwining of deadly technology and callous leadership is well
illustrated in Hochschild's description of the Battle of Loos in 1915. The
British offensive in France is depicted as an obscene comedy of errors. British
poison gas blows back into the attackers' trenches, and waves of British
infantrymen march into concentrated machine gun fire, on one day of the battle
suffering 8,000 casualties out of an attacking force of 10,000 men.
When sheer numbers provide a breakthrough in one sector, the British are unable
to exploit it with reserves because Haig and his army rival, John French, are
incapable of working together and aren't even in radio communication. At the
end of the battle, the British have gained a mile or two of ground in return
for 61,000 dead, wounded or missing.
Hochschild's book might be starting to sound like an indictment of the ruling
class of the era (both Haig and French had been knighted), but it isn't that
simple. For one thing, he takes pains to show that the European nobility paid
its full share of the war's price. Unlike today's elites, who start wars their
own children will never have to fight, the ruling families of Europe had a
tradition of military service. They sent their young men into the thick of the
conflict, mostly as junior officers - where they died in droves.
And we see in the second arc of Hochschild's story that those who resisted the
war included some of Europe's most prominent people. Some were famous
intellectuals, like philosopher Bertrand Russell, who went to prison for his
pacifism in 1918. (Hochschild is too honest a writer not to point out that the
aristocratic Russell was treated with kid gloves in prison, unlike the
thousands of other dissenters who did hard labor on a near-starvation diet.)
And some high-profile families were divided by dissent or loyalty to the cause:
the aforementioned French, a field marshal in the British army, was brother to
Charlotte Despard. When the war broke out, she had already been to prison over
the battle for women's rights, and she quickly became a vocal opponent of the
Nor was support for the war something that had to be imposed on the masses from
above. Hochschild spends a lot of ink on the working-class opponents of the
war, and on the surprisingly numerous contentious objectors in Britain. But
what is striking about these accounts is the strength of the tide the war
resisters were swimming against. Despite all the agony and privation that World
War I inflicted, the vast majority of Europeans were fervent supporters of the
war effort, and opponents of the conflict faced open hostility that often led
to mob violence.
Even those who suffered at the war's sharpest edges didn't want to confront its
reality. As Hochschild writes about the aftermath of the Battle of Loos:
with many episodes from this war, it is hard for us to see the attack on
September 26, 1915, as anything other than a blatant, needless massacre
initiated by generals with a near-criminal disregard for the conditions their
men faced. Strikingly, however… few survivors talked of it this way. For them
to question the generals' judgment would have meant, of course, asking if their
fellow soldiers had died in vain. From the need to avoid such questions are so
many myths about wars born.
To End All Wars is a timely
reminder of what happens when these questions aren't asked, one that raises the
uncomfortable question of whether anything has changed.