Apr/May 2011

The Good Fight

Revisiting the harsh lessons of the First World War

Matthew Price


There's not much good that reform-minded liberals can take away from the First World War. If the American Civil War was the first modern "total war," World War I greatly accelerated the West's passage into such conflict, involving fully mobilized home fronts and new modes of technological combat that produced unprecedented casualties. The Great War also proved a major setback to the European left, which was helpless as the international socialist movement's working-class constituencies fanned out in support of their home countries' nationalist causes.

For Adam Hochschild, author of two well-regarded accounts of Europe overcoming some of the ugliest parts of its past—King Leopold's Ghost, a 1998 account of the legacies of colonialism in the Belgian Congo, and Bury the Chains, a 2005 chronicle of the nineteenth-century crusade to abolish slavery in the possessions of the British Empire—the Great War still resonates with cautionary lessons for champions of social improvement. Hochschild effectively sums up the dilemma in the subtitle to his new To End All Wars—A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918. The periods political struggles forced participants to declare which side they were on, and for Hochschild the inner dynamic of the Great War pivots on the question of loyalty and rebellion. But this is not a story in which the rebels carry the day, and so To End All Wars does not have the Whiggish uplift that buoyed Hochschild's earlier studies—whatever the obvious brutality associated with their subjects.

The Great War presents supreme narrative challenges for any historian. It marked a dramatic break with the Victorian age and with the delicate (if bloody) balance-of-power accords that guided its vision of European diplomacy, but there's no persuasive single-bullet account of the conflict's origins. That's why, for example, the provocative British historian A. J. P. Taylor was moved in exasperation to blame the whole thing on railway timetables. Hochschild's account largely sidesteps questions of causation to highlight the way the war itself caused many of the signature ills of the modern age. "If we were allowed to magically roll back history to the start of the twentieth century and undo one—and only one—event," he asks, "is there any doubt that it would be the war that broke out in 1914?"

Of course, there is no such magic at hand, so Hochschild can do little beyond taking readers through the well-worn saga of the damage the Great War wrought on the modern temper. In doing so, he delivers up a litany of utterly conventional judgments: The conflict was horrifically bad; callous, inept generals doomed brave troops to needless slaughter; the Allies bungled the peace, paving the way for even greater horrors.

Click to enlarge

World War I British enlistment poster, 1915.

To End All Wars is not a comprehensive account of the fighting. Rather, Hochschild zeros in on the British experience. Moving from the western front to the home front, he counterposes two story lines that highlight "clashing sets of dreams"—one about those who opposed the war, the other about the warriors and politicians who carried it out.

Hochschild's freshest sections detail the many prominent antiwar Britons, among them the philosopher Bertrand Russell; Keir Hardie, miner-turned-MP and a founder of the British Labour Party; and the suffragette firebrand and devoted woman of the left Sylvia Pankhurst. But Hochschild also tells the story of several average men who refused to fight—some twenty thousand British conscripts declined to mobilize for battle, and more than six thousand of this number served harsh terms in jail. "It was in Britain, more than anywhere else, that significant numbers of intrepid war opponents acted on their conviction and paid the price," Hochschild writes.

The victories of British war resisters proved distinctly quixotic and short-lived. The war was a disaster for leaders of the socialist movement and the Second International: Working-class internationalism proved to have virtually no mass appeal once hostilities set in among Europe's great powers. Many British unions came out in favor of the war, a propaganda coup for the government. The suffragettes became bitterly divided. If Pankhurst opposed the war, her suffragette mother and sister, Emmeline and Christabel, were vehement in their support of it.

Hochschild laces his chronicle with pungent quotes that highlight the internal tensions that besieged the pacifist and internationalist left in Europe—and indeed, the conflicting impulses that often assailed the individuals who led the antiwar movement. Russell, though he loved England, could not accept the hypocrisy of Allied war aims: "This war is trivial, for all its vastness. No great principle is at stake, no great human purpose is involved on either side. . . . The English and French say they are fighting for democracy, but they do not wish their words to be heard in Petrograd or Calcutta." War resisters could claim exemptions from the draft if they were doing work of "national importance," and at a tribunal, one diehard socialist was asked whether he was doing such work: "No," he replied, "but I'm engaged in work of international importance."

Wars deform liberal democracies, and Britain was no exception. The onset of the war put its tolerance for dissent to a severe test—and it's easy to make the case that the nation failed it badly. Particularly egregious was the government's case against Alice Wheeldon, one of the most curious figures in Hochschild's narrative. A socialist and antiwar campaigner, she gave shelter to draft resisters in Derby House. In 1917, she was arrested for conspiring to attack Prime Minister David Lloyd George with a poison dart. The evidence was flimsy—as was the government's case, buttressed by the testimony of two rather dodgy secret agents.

The preposterous episode was right out of a John Buchan thriller—though Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, was among the many British imperialist cultural figures who were early and enthusiastic boosters of the war. Hochschild devotes much of his portrait of the British imperial cause to figures like Buchan, Rudyard Kipling, the British generals, and those who "actually fought the war of 1914–1918, for whom the magnetic attraction of combat, or at least the belief that it was patriotic and necessary, proved so much stronger than human revulsion at mass death or any perception that, win or lose, this was a war that would change the world for the worse."

British general Douglas Haig, the most controversial officer leading the nation's troops, comes in for especially harsh treatment, as he has in most chronicles of the Great War's brutal fighting. A stiff-necked man who lacked any common touch, Haig is an easy target, and Hochschild cannot refuse. On the second day of the Battle of the Somme, when told casualties were more than forty thousand, the bloodless commander wrote in his diary: "This cannot be considered severe, in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked." For Hochschild, Haig is criminally culpable, obsessed with cavalry charges and the "one last push" approach to field combat, but this account is a little crude. World War I brought about a new kind of strategy that evolved as the war progressed—to inflict great punishment, armies must absorb great punishment. In our age of nonstate actors, asymmetrical threats, and pilotless drones, it's hard to imagine the kinds of massed armies that clashed on the western front; but Haig, however inhuman and unsentimental he seems, resolved to see the fight through to the end, no matter the cost. (The recently published Three Armies on the Somme, by William Philpott, is superb on such matters.)

Similarly, Hochschild paints Prime Minister H. H. Asquith as a villain in his morality tale—frivolously gamboling on his country estate as young men bled to death in the trenches: "Derisively nicknamed 'Squiff,' the prime minister drank too much, allowed no crisis to interfere with his two hours of bridge every evening, and while hundreds of thousands died, spent leisurely nonworking weekends at friends' country houses." Yet Asquith and the oft-caricatured Kipling were also tinged with tragedy—both lost sons on the western front, facts Hochschild notes. For Kipling, the loss of his only son was a catastrophic event; his poetry and prose took an ambiguous turn. He may have been an imperial cheerleader, but he knew that such nationalist enthusiasms came at great cost.

In sizing up the war's longer-term legacies, Hochschild again falls back on conventional wisdom—insisting, for example, that "the postwar Treaty of Versailles would virtually guarantee the rise of Nazism." But this is far too pat a judgment. The peace terms that the Allies imposed were harsh, to be sure—but such accords are often the price of losing a war, and it's worth recalling that, unlike many conquered powers of the nineteenth century, Germany was neither occupied nor dismantled as a state. What's more, there's little doubt that had the Germans emerged victorious, their own settlement terms would have been no gentler—a point made decisively by the punitive 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which secured Russia's exit from the conflict.

While Hochschild gives us a gallery of sharply etched character studies, To End All Wars comes up well short of a persuasive assessment of how the Great War reshaped the military, political, and cultural order of the early twentieth century. In accelerating the European world's passage into the modern era, the conflict was too profound an upheaval to serve simply as the inevitable prelude to World War II. The conflict's origins were much too complicated to arise from a unitary cause—be it an archduke's assassination or a botched set of railway timetables. Its awful military and diplomatic course was far too convoluted and ambiguous to be reduced to a morality tale of rebels versus loyalists.

Matthew Price is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.

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