The intricacies of World War II are often discussed, but those of The Great War before it seem to be left only to historians, including a large, divisive protest movement, egotistic imperialism around the world, and the definition of patriotism. Their importance is fully captured, along with the players behind them, in this month’s Damn Good Reads.
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild, 448 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Whatever your personal opinion is of the worldwide Occupy movement, history teaches us that this newest mass demonstration is far from being the first of its kind, both in scope and—insofar as today’s Occupy movement has somewhat discernible goals—aim. The Hooverville encampment of the early 1930s is one that comes to mind. But in July 1914, on the brink of a war that would, quite literally, pit people from around the world against each other on the trench-lined battlefields of Europe, avowed socialists from around the continent—from Britain, France, Germany, Russia—met in Brussels for an emergency meeting, in the express hopes that they could foment a general strike of Europe’s working classes and, thereby, forestall and even stop outright the start of World War I.
That meeting is just one of many critical moments Adam Hochschild points to in To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. If you’re looking for a competent accounting of the battlefield events of the Great War, Hochschild certainly delivers: like any good history of WWI, he touches on the important battles—Ypres, Verdun, Sommes—and the megalomaniacal events—the first use of poison gas at Ypres; stubborn field commanders ordering tens of thousands of men over parapets and straight into lines of machine gun fire; a wide-scale rebellion in Russia that would lead to civil war and a totalitarian state.
But Hochschild’s real contribution is the amount of attention he pays to the forces opposing the war, period, in Britain and beyond. To do so, he juxtaposes key figures: John French, Britain’s first field marshal, with his sister, Charlotte Despard, a pacifist, communist, and suffragette; Rudyard Kipling, who staunchly supported all of Britain’s military engagements, and Bertrand Russell, whose objections to the war would ultimately earn him a prison sentence; Sylvia Pankhurst and mother, Emmeline, both of whom were suffragettes and socialists, though once war came, Emmeline supported it and vehemently denounced, in public and private, her non-compliant daughter.
All of this rhetorical effort is poised to have the reader think on one, central question, which Hochschild states shortly into the work: Is loyalty to one’s country in wartime the ultimate civic duty, or were there ideals that had a higher claim?
It’s a good question for we readers of Primer to ruminate upon. Hardly because we are at the brink of another global conflict that calls for each of us to reassess our values, understand our beliefs, and hold fast to some girding principle, but because the idea that Hochschild puts up for discussion—what, precisely, earns the loyalty, admiration, and ethos of the minds of men?—is something readily applicable to our own lives.
Of course, hindsight makes any argument against World War I much more potent. But in reading Hochschild’s To End All Wars, what amazed me was how so many powerful men—King, Kaiser, and Czar, field marshal and propaganda officer—bent virtually an entire globe to their whims and brought the world into a war they all deemed inevitable. The event people routinely point to as the catalyst for the war is the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914, but the specter of all-continent warfare had loomed for some forty years prior, during which the European powers of the day—most notably, Britain and Germany—carved up the continents of Africa and Asia, conquered lands, raced each other to build more arms and munitions, and chatted nonchalantly about which generals would lead marches into Paris or Berlin.
Again, though, the real story here is about the characters who remained steadfast in their opposition to the war, despite the tidal wave of nationalistic fervor washing over Britain. John Clarke, who at 17 became the youngest lion tamer in Britain, would go on to publish scathing articles of his country’s war efforts in the Socialist, the newspaper of the left-wing Socialist Labour Party. The Wheeldon family, members of the No-Conscription Fellowship, would be arrested and go on numerous hunger strikes while in prison. Mentioned are the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Equal attention is paid to figures working in support of Britain’s war effort, men like John Buchan, the chief propagandist, and Basil Thompson, the “spy-catcher” of Scotland Yard.
But looming over the entire work is that central question: Are there ideals that hold a higher claim to the motivations of humankind? Regardless of personal politics—let’s just say Clarke and I would have many things to argue about—I ended Hochschild’s book and thought, discouragingly, that the First World War was the dumbest war quite possibly ever fought. Nothing more than a sporting match between the powerful men of powerful countries, who were too concerned with displaying their respective nations’ military mights, and not enough concerned with the rows of young men linking arms once they climbed out of the trenches to meet a swift death in a hail of machine gun fire.
In many ways, that lack of concern showed. During the Battle of the Somme, 5,000 men lost per week was considered “normal wastage” by the British high command; its army lost 58,000 men the first day. On the inaugural day of battle, a company of men from East Surrey, rising from its trench when the whistles blew at 7:30 a.m., kicked off four soccer balls along the “pitch” of No-Man’s Land. They were, in the words of the poet Henry Newbolt, “playing the game”:
The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—
The Gatlin’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
Check out To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 on Amazon.