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Kyle Smith (Twitter: @rkylesmith) is critic-at-large for National Review, theater critic for The New Criterion and the author of the novels Love Monkey and A Christmas Caroline. Type a title in the box above to locate a review.

Buy Love Monkey for $4! "Hilarious"--Maslin, NY Times. "Exceedingly readable and wickedly funny romantic comedy"--S.F. Chronicle. "Loud and brash, a helluva lot of fun"--Entertainment Weekly. "Engaging romp, laugh-out-loud funny"-CNN. "Shrewd, self-deprecating, oh-so-witty. Smith's ruthless humor knows no bounds"--NPR

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    A Must-Read

    By kyle | July 20, 2011

    I’ve been enthralled by Adam Hochschild’s devastating “To End All Wars,” a slightly different approach to WW I that, from a British point of view, focuses its attention roughly equally on the battlefields and the homefront. It keeps tabs not only on the butchers of the Western front but on such notable dissenters as Sylvia Pankhurst, Charlotte Despard — sister to John French, the chief commander of all British forces until he was replaced by the equally oblivious Douglas Haig — and Bertrand Russell. The folly of this war was immense but particularly so from the point of view of the British, who did not need to get involved and should not have. The result would have been a fairly quick crushing of the French by Germany, which was only modestly more obnoxious and saber-rattling than its historic enemy, which wanted the war (and foolishly signed a treaty with Russia) in order to regain Alsace and Lorraine and dreamt of stealing some of Germany’s colonies to boot. These tiny prizes were not nearly worth the cost, but both sides believed the war would be brief and that they would be the victors.
    Hochschild carefully sublimates his outrage with the devastating accretion of facts, but the story is still amazing. How could the generals have seriously believed that cavalry charges could carry the day when there had already been evidence of what machine guns could do? How could Haig assume that dropping millions of pounds of artillery shells at the Battle of the Somme would somehow solve the problem of barbed wire? Hochschild drily notes that the shelling created some of the loudest noises ever produced by man. And that’s about all it did, as the Germans simply waited out the rearrangement of the mud up top from 40 feet underground. When the shelling stopped, they figured the attack was coming. It was. So they jogged up to their machine guns and resumed mowing down Tommies.

    Much of this territory has been well covered in other books, notably Barbara Tuchmann’s superb “The Guns of August,” but Hochschild’s heroes are the lefties, mainly socialists, who spoke up again and again back home and in many cases went to prison on trumped-up charges. Russell himself did a brief stint in jail, while Sylvia Pankhurst was forced to bitterly part ways with her sister and mother — the suffragettes Christabel and Emmeline — because both of them (this is a particularly stunning moment as rendered by Hochschild’s novelistic prose) switched sides and joined the government in demands to keep the war going and going as Britain’s finest young men simply fell under the scythe. By the million. The Pankhursts had previously been so anti-government in their campaign for women’s votes that they had tried to blow up the house of David Lloyd George, who by the end of the war would be prime minister.

    And this was a war in which the rich disproportionately joined up, and in which upper-class company-grade officers were especially likely to lead doomed charges. Of Oxford’s class of 1913, 31 percent were killed or wounded. Of every 20 men from 18 to 32, 3 would die and six more would be wounded. Among them were John Kipling, whose jingoist father Rudyard pulled strings to get the boy into the service and who would later become obsessed by the idea that his fallen son might conceivably have survived to be taken prisoner. It would be the old imperialist himself who would supply one of the most memorable couplets of this monstrous mistake: “If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.” Britain fell prey to patriotism run amok — unquestioning deference to authority, no matter how ludicrous and self-serving those authorities’ beliefs — and fell for a poisonous propaganda machine that told the public at every turn that things were going much better than they were, that the Germans were much more despicable that they were, and that the nation’s finest were falling for a noble purpose. In fact they died for virtually nothing except national bragging rights and the politicians desecrated their memory by ending the war under conditions that virtually guaranteed WW II.

    Topics: Books, History | 10 Comments »

    10 Responses to “A Must-Read”

    1. Ewald_the_Black Says:
      July 20th, 2011 at 11:27 pm

      I read in John Mosier’s Myth of the Great War about just how much more effective the German army was, pound for pound, than the allies. The Allies weren’t just making the public believe their BS about great wins and Allied superiority, they started believing it themselves. Battles like the Somme and Ypres were inevitable at that point.

    2. Sherlock Says:
      July 21st, 2011 at 1:57 am

      The allies should have done to Germany in 1918 what they did in 1945: Over-run them, crush them, dominate them. You got that much exactly right. But your ideas on the Kiplings are daft. Rejected on his first application for a commission, John said he would volunteer to serve as a private. Rudyard didn’t get John “into the service.” He got him into the Irish Guards, or “Bob’s Own,” by talking to Lord Roberts of Kandahar, a friend from Simla, going back 30 years. And anyway, as George Webb has said, “It ill becomes anyone today to trivialise John’s determination to play his part.” The boy was no idiot, fooled by “propaganda.” (And German atrocities aren’t just make believe.) More than a million British men volunteered in 1914. They had reasons, which you will ignore, and arguments, which you will not read, if you think Tuchmann and Hochschild are the great historians of the First World War. “Send out your big warships to watch your big waters,” as Rudyard wrote in 1911, in words that little kids understand, “that no one may stop us from bringing your food. For the bread that you eat and the biscuits you nibble, the sweets that you suck and the joints that you carve, they are brought to you daily by all us big steamers, And if anyone hinders our coming you’ll starve!” He’s mocking the British government and its German policy, in this poem from 1911, not deferring to some “authority” that he didn’t grant to politicians or other short-sighted, short-term, types. He’s pointing out that Britain has a coast. True, the Germans did not rape Belgian girls. They just shot unarmed civilians en masse. Deported survivors to forced labour camps. Bombed civilians in Antwerp and Scarborough from the air. Torpedoed fishing boats and hospital ships from submarines. Flamethrowers. Chlorine gas. No reason for the British to defend their allies or to defend the seas.

    3. Kyle Says:
      July 21st, 2011 at 8:27 am

      1. The Irish Guards are part of the service. R. Kipling pulled strings as you say to get John into the Irish Guards.
      2. J. Kipling, R. Kipling and essentially the entire British nation essentially fell prey to the propaganda machine (although you could argue that Rudyard was driving that machine). “This is the life,” he wrote his father, and “what he doesn’t know about the game isn’t worth knowing” (this of a senior officer, but there was no game, only misery and destruction on an unprecedented scale), and, in some of his last words home, “One will be in the thick of it tomorrow.” All of Britain expected a fun 19th century war and its leaders were willfully blind to the fact that technology had already made that impossible. Kipling’s jingoist pro-war writings helped nudge the country toward the disaster.

      3. Britain did not join the war because of atrocities against Belgium — it joined because it had previously and foolishly guaranteed Belgian neutrality and was anyway fighting on the same side, from day one, as a corrupt monarchy in Tsarist Russia. Nor can Britain make much of a claim about concentration camps as the UK ran concentration camps in South Africa just a few years prior to the Great War. 28,000 Boers–almost all of them women and children — perished in these hell-holes, nearly twice as many as the number of Boer soldiers killed in combat. Britain put these noncombatants in camps after engaging in group punishment of burning farms to punish a few scattered guerillas. Nor did the British consider themselves above using flamethrowers or poison gas.
      4. To say that “you’ll never learn anything from the likes of left-leaning writers” is to say that one should wall oneself away from possible contrary opinions. But even socialists can sometimes be right: See George Orwell.

    4. Brian Moore Says:
      July 21st, 2011 at 11:23 am

      It sounds like a great book and I look forward to reading it. But it seems much of this was covered in Niall Ferguson’s “The Pity of War.”

    5. Hugh Says:
      July 21st, 2011 at 7:15 pm

      Kyle –

      As a relative fellow ideological (at least as far as I can discern) traveler, it is this type of perspective and willingness to entertain arguments from the “other side” that makes you one of my favorite bloggers.

      Keep up the good work.

    6. hedge Says:
      July 21st, 2011 at 10:19 pm

      ‘In fact they died for virtually nothing except national bragging rights and the politicians desecrated their memory by ending the war under conditions that virtually guaranteed WW II.’

      I was hoping this would be mentioned as the wrap up…such a bang up job was done that we threw another party for Germany 22 years later.

    7. Floyd R Turbo Says:
      July 21st, 2011 at 11:18 pm

      Thanks for the head’s up Kyle. I second Barbara Tuchman’s classic Guns of August. I also recommend John Keegan’s First World War and if any of y’all are interested in naval history Donald Massie’s books Dreadnought and Castles of Steel about the Royal Navy v. Imperial German Navy are masterful.

    8. Sherlock Says:
      July 22nd, 2011 at 4:25 am

      Those words you placed between quotation marks: Your words, not mine. It’s not even a paraphrase. About the closest you might get to what I actually said is that Tuchmann and Hochschild are not, I was implying, “great historians of the First World War.” Avner Offer, on the other hand, is a specialist, an excellent historian, not a “presentist” as historians define that term, and not an author of popular polemical tracts, but a Marxist whose arguments are interesting. I mentioned him in a list about five weeks ago, when Michael Kinsley was your example of the interesting left. There’s nothing interesting about being, like the character in a Peter Cook routine, “against the war.” The interesting books are by Robin Prior, Trevor Wilson, Gary Sheffield, and Ian Beckett, to start with. “Did they consider when they went headlong into a war like this,” Kitchener said, “that they were without an army, and without any preparation to equip one?” So no “fun” there, and no army, too. “We are going to suffer,” Grey said, “I am afraid, terribly in this war, whether we are in it or whether we stand aside. Foreign trade is going to stop, not because the trade routes are closed, but because there is no trade at the other end. Continental nations engaged in war all their populations, all their energies, all their wealth, engaged in a desperate struggle they cannot carry on the trade with us that they are carrying on in times of peace, whether we are parties to the war or whether we are not. I do not believe for a moment that at the end of this war, even if we stood aside and remained aside, we should be in a position, a material position, to use our force decisively to undo what had happened in the course of the war, to prevent the whole of the west of Europe opposite to us—if that had been the result of the war—falling under the domination of a single power, and I am quite sure that our moral position would be such as to have lost us all respect.” No jingoism there, unless that’s the word you use to mean, “I don’t understand why other people disagree with me about this particular war launched by Germany.” There is, in what Grey said, a reference to the sense of honour and decency that was still conceivable in 1914, as inconceivable as it is, in 2011, to you. “We cannot allow Germany to use the channel as a hostile base,” Asquith said, which is more down to earth. The idea that Britain went to war by accident, in accordance with a treaty, or a train timetable, for no particular reason, is daft. The reason was plain enough in 1588, and 1939, and in between. But added to that, the Kiplings had a sense of honour, as well as the threat. John was going to fight, with or without Rudyard’s help. That was my point. He disagreed with you. He didn’t want “bragging rights.” He volunteered to do what he thought was right, in facing down Germany’s threat. Hochschild wants us alert to the French threat instead. The danger of France, he’s attempting to stress. The French hordes. French militarists. And were the Germans objectionable too? Or does he play all that down, to play up the French menace instead? Are these non-specific “butchers” actually French?

    9. Kyle Says:
      July 22nd, 2011 at 9:28 am

      I fail to understand your point. If you can find one quote that is non-jingoist –is that supposed to mean that there were not also thousands of quotes that were undeniably jingoist? Clearly you are smart enough not to challenge me to quote chapter and verse.

    10. Sherlock Says:
      July 22nd, 2011 at 5:39 pm

      You think Britain had nothing at stake in 1914, and that in 1939, they did. But I’m not smart enough to see the distinction you see. The situation Britain was in was unchanged since 1588. “It had long been British policy,” Churchill said, “and still is, to support the independence of the Low Countries and prevent any of their provinces from passing under the control of a menacing Power.” The decision wasn’t jingoist in 1939, or 1914.