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.