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"When this century collapses, dead at last,
This review is from: To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Hardcover)
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And its sleep within the dark tomb has begun,
Come, look down upon us, world, file past
And be ashamed of what our age has done.
Inscribe our stone, that everyone may see
What this dead era valued most and best:
Science, progress, work, technology
And death - but death we prized above the rest."
These verses, written by early 20th-century Czech playwright and author Karel Capek, sounded a fitting leitmotif as I read Adam Hochschild's "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918." The 20th century was one ravaged by two world wars, genocide, and countless `smaller' wars. But for sheer brutality, for the slaughter that turned hundreds of miles of trenches into a charnel house of unprecedented proportions it is hard to imagine a place or time when death was prized more than it was during the war to end all wars.
Histories of World War I abound, from Barbara Tuchman (The Guns of August) to Winston Churchill (The World Crisis, 1911-1918) to John Keegan (The First World War). There are no shortage of books about the bravery of the soldiers who rose from their trenches and marched into certain death. Similarly there are no shortage of books about the almost criminally incompetent British and French Generals whose strategic planning (if you could call it that) was horrifically simple: send hundreds of thousands of men forward against entrenched positions and hope the Germans ran out of machine gun bullets before the British and French forces ran out of men. Not so readily available are books that take a look at the relatively few people who stood up and spoke out against the indiscriminate slaughter. Hochschild balances the scales a bit by taking a look at the stories and motivations behind those few souls who opposed it.
The book is set up as a straightforward chronological narrative beginning with Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 celebrating the 60 years of her monarchy, through the Boer War and the introduction of concentration camps and the use of machine guns as one of the original weapons of mass destruction, the lead up to war, and then a chronological narrative of the war itself. This is all well-plowed ground and if this were simply a narrative of the war it would be a well-written popular history that would serve as a good introduction to the period. However, Hochschild intersperses the traditional narrative with a parallel narrative that was not nearly so familiar to me. While focusing on Britain's role in the war, Hochschild tells us the stories of people like Keir Hardie, Sylvia Pankhurst, Charlotte Despard (the brother of General John French, who was to become Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Forces), Emily Hobhouse, Bertrand Russell and others. These were people from all walks of life who for various reasons, political, social, or religious, opposed the war. Hochschild also looks at some of those who stridently supported the war from the sidelines, including Rudyard Kipling and the author John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps (Dover Thrift Editions)) who lashed out at those who did not adopt the motto For King and Country.
What Hochschild does very well in his book is to explore the family and social connections between the groups leading Britain into war and those few who opposed it. Causalities in World War I, as Hochschild points out hit the upper classes particularly hard. The officer class in the British military was almost exclusively drawn from the upper echelons of British society and their losses in the war were very high. One cliché about the American Civil War describes it as one in which brother fought against brother. Here we had upper class families rent asunder between those who fought (and often died) and those within their ranks who opposed it and sometimes went to prison for those beliefs.
The Russian memoirist Nadezhda Mandelstam once wrote of the great deeds that can be accomplished by people who with great courage stand up and speak out on behalf of their conscience: that "a person with inner freedom, memory, and fear is that reed, that twig that changes the direction of a rushing river." Hochschild does an excellent job writing about the twigs that desperately wanted to change the rushing river of blood that carried millions of people off to die. Their failure to achieve this goal, however, in no way diminishes their value and the value of this book. Highly recommended. L. Fleisig
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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 23, 2011 8:20:22 PM PDT
D. Blankenship says:
This is an aspect of WWI that I was aware of...in a vague sort of way, but had never given it much thought, I am sorry to say. I will put this one on my list. Thanks for doing such a nice review.
In reply to an earlier post on Apr 23, 2011 8:57:49 PM PDT
Hey D.B., thanks for the comment and I hope you enjoy the book. Nice seeing you around! Len
Posted on Aug 7, 2011 12:07:31 AM PDT
Robert D. Archer says:
Thanks for providing such an interesting review, as well as the lines from Capek. I went out and immediately got the book and plan to start it as soon as I finish writing this.
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2011 8:11:36 AM PDT
Thanks for the comment! I hope you enjoy the book, Robert.
Posted on Aug 11, 2011 10:40:20 AM PDT
Shouldn't the Germans be included in "the almost criminally incompetent" class of generalship as well as the allies?
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 11, 2011 12:16:25 PM PDT
Good question. Perhaps they should. I'd just add that this book does not really examine issues relating to the German side of the trenches.
Posted on Nov 13, 2011 5:16:48 AM PST
John Murawa says:
Now reading book and needed assurance that the book was not fiction.
Posted on Nov 23, 2011 10:03:09 AM PST
Edward Rabinowitz says:
The books story was intriguing and fascinating considering the folly of the Generals and the degree to which the country was so overwhelmed with warfever...to see who took up the right to object and their internecine connections and ways in which there views continue to prevail as the Western countries pursue self defeating approached to warfare...
Posted on Dec 6, 2011 1:59:41 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 6, 2011 2:02:50 PM PST
Posted on Apr 14, 2012 9:33:27 AM PDT
Cynthia W. Milsom says:
It is hard to rebut the legend of the criminal incompetence of WWI generals. However, there is a case to be made that some of them at least, did reasonably well in the circumstances, where defensive capabilities dominated the battlefield, particularly on the main theatre of war, the Western Front. On the German side, Ludendorff and von Lossberg showed considerable skill throughout, and the tactical innovations and achievements in the German attack of March 1918 on the British were remarkable, considering how degraded the German army had become after close to four years of war. On the French side, the defensive skills of Petain at Verdun and the strategic grasp and diplomatic skills of Foch later in the war are admirable. On the British side Rawlinson, commander at the disaster of the Somme, two years later showed skill and grip in the advances of the final months of the war on the Western Front. Plumer was relentlessly protective of his troops (on the other hand Gough, a 'thruster' whose contempt for staff work and battle preparation caused thousands of needless deaths, easily satisfies the criminally incompetent standard). Even the reviled Haig took a 120,000 army, built for decoration and colonial policing, and created a war winning machine of more than four million men. Away from the limitations of the Western Front, Allenby in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East, and von Lettow Vorbek in German East Africa were highly capable generals.
The real criminals were the political leaders in each country who lacked the courage and vision to say - "Stop! Look at we are doing! There is no great difference between us as nations - let's have a cease fire and negotiate a peace, rather than destroy our own societies in the name of destroying each others'." But no, the war went on to the end, to be followed by the mid and late century horrors, which haunt us still.