To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918

  • Adam Hochschild
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 480 pp.

In lieu of battles, a look at the conflict between supporters and opponents of the war, mostly in Great Britain.

Reviewed by Kristie Miller

Two memorials on the Mall in Washington, D.C., reflect Americans’ different assessments of the two World Wars. The memorial to World War II sprawls over nearly 7½ acres. Sweeping ramps lead up to long pavilions and a shimmering pool with fountains. Nearby, almost invisible in a grove of trees, is the only monument in the Nation’s Capital dedicated to World War I, originally known as the “Great War.” A small domed structure, just 40 feet in diameter, honors the 499 citizens of the District of Columbia who lost their lives in that struggle.

And yet, World War I is far more important than this disparity in memorials suggests.   Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion shows that the issues in the First World War — how nations slide into conflict; how a skirmish projected to last weeks can last years; how governments misrepresent the reasons for going to war and censor reports of the consequences — are all painfully relevant today.

Hochschild, a teaching fellow at the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism, has written several award-winning books on human rights. Unlike most histories of World War I, which concentrate on battles between armies, To End All Wars focuses on the conflict between supporters and opponents of the war, chiefly in Great Britain.

In Britain, more than 20,000 men of military age refused to be drafted. Many also refused alternative service and went to prison, often under harsh conditions. Some continued to resist even when they believed they would be shot for disobeying military orders. “Their strength of conviction remains one of the glories of a dark time,” Hochschild says.

The antiwar movement included more than men of military age. It also included large numbers of women, labor leaders, socialists, Quakers, journalists, a philosopher, “a lion tamer turned revolutionary” and six future members of Parliament. These war opponents hoped that workers in all countries would band together and refuse to fight. Labor leader (and Member of Parliament) Keir Hardy called for a “United States of Europe.”

But Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium — just across the Channel from England — galvanized the British populace. Rudyard Kipling’s “seductively melodious poems” glorifying the common soldier and John Buchan’s spy novels fed war fever and led the public to believe the war “would rejuvenate the national spirit and the bonds of empire; that it would be short; that Britain would win by the time honored means [of] pluck, discipline, and the cavalry charge.”

The war was not short. Pluck and discipline led to orderly columns of soldiers being mown down by machine guns. However, the war did encourage “the fierce power of group loyalty” in the face of a common enemy. Even the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, who had steadfastly opposed the war from the beginning, and who would serve time in jail, acknowledged that he was nevertheless “tortured” by feelings of patriotism that he had to deny.

According to Hochschild, it took “rare courage” to resist pressure from family, friends and public campaigns. Typical was a poster showing a shamefaced man whose children ask, “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” (One Scottish mine worker said he planned to say, “I tried to stop the bloody thing, my child.”)

Hochschild’s sweeping narrative cuts back and forth between the battlefield and the home front, heightening tension. He provides the inevitable details of death and dismemberment, though some of the most shocking details are unanticipated, such as the soldier who inexorably sank into quicksand and slowly went mad.

Hochschild also weaves in stories that are ironic, humorous and even farcical, such as the German soldiers who taunted the so-called British Bantam Brigade (made up of men 5’3” and under) by making “rooster calls” across the trenches. Love stories — as inevitable in wartime as casualties — provide relief from scenes of battle and further humanize the little known figures in World War I.

Hochschild writes with a novelist’s flair, bringing the people in this book alive by quoting extensively from their letters and memoirs. He draws on recently opened files of government intelligence agents who infiltrated peace organizations.

All direct quotes are sourced, but there are few citations for other material. Trade publishers, under pressure to limit costs, have generally adopted a practice of only citing material directly quoted. This is disappointing for a compulsive reader of footnotes who longs to learn more about a story — say, that of a general yelling at a solder for being out of uniform, without realizing that the man was dead — to be unable to find out where the story came from.

In To End All Wars, Hochschild asks, “Was loyalty to one’s country in wartime the ultimate civic duty, or were there ideals that had a higher claim?” He clearly believes the latter, implying that we will only be able to prevent bloody international stalemates like World War I — or Vietnam, or Iraq — when a majority of us can say, along with Alice Wheeldon, who went to prison for helping men escape the draft: “The world is my country.”

Kristie Miller is the author of  Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies, published last year by University Press of Kansas. She is working on a biography of Mark Hanna.

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