The war to end all wars at your library |

The war to end all wars at your library

Mary Tuttle

In his new book “To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918,” historian Adam Hochschild (“King Leopold’s Ghost,” “Bury the Chains,” among others) paints a vivid portrait of the characters and events involved in the conflicts, both military and social, that made up World War I, but he emphasizes the resulting and unprecedented antiwar movement that the war precipitated.

Any study of World War I must, of course, acknowledge the horrendous carnage and suffering that took place. Hochschild unflinchingly describes these horrors to us, making this an agonizing but important book to read. He focuses on England, where the war took a terrible and bloody toll. On July 1, 1916 alone, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a mind-boggling 21,000 British soldiers were killed or fatally wounded. Unlike in more modern conflicts, the aristocracy, as military leaders, suffered nearly as high a percentage of casualties as the rank and file; for example, 31 percent of the 1913 Oxford graduating class was killed in the war.

Against this horrific background, Hochschild presents the story of an emerging antiwar movement in England by following the lives and careers of the courageous individuals who spoke up against the war and the aristocracy at a time when it was very dangerous to do so. They often risked imprisonment in vile conditions, forced conscription, and sometimes even death. Although these dissidents did not have a prayer of stopping the war, they persisted in carrying through with the courage of their convictions, and Hochschild’s goal with this book is to honor them by telling their stories.

The cast includes well known characters like philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, as well as lesser knowns like antiwar campaigner Emily Hobhouse, pacifist Charlotte Despard (her beloved brother, Sir John French, was her polar opposite philosophically and served as Commander in Chief on the Western Front), and John S. Clark, a circus lion tamer turned Marxist and antiwar activist. Hochschild closely follows the lives and careers of these noteworthy individuals, thereby creating a book that reads with the suspense and masterly narrative of a novel, but with well researched historical accuracy.

Hochschild’s views on the war are made clear in his introduction when he describes his thoughts on visiting one of the 400 World War I cemeteries in northern France. “Why does it bring a lump to the throat to see words like sleep, rest, sacrifice, when my reason for being here is the belief that this war was needless folly and madness?”

In the end, we know what the people of the time did not. Far from being a war to end all wars, as Woodrow Wilson somewhat flamboyantly and inaccurately described it, World War I, with its vengeful conclusion in the Treaty of Versailles, was a fertile breeding ground for the catastrophe that was to come two decades later.

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