12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
"When this century collapses, dead at last,
This review is from: To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain (Hardcover)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: How the First World War Divided Britain."
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 poet 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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Initial post: 4 Aug 2011 17:48:34 BDT
Last edited by the author on 4 Aug 2011 17:51:38 BDT
MR. PAUL J. BARTON says:
"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"
Apart, that is, from the Eastern Front in WW2 or indeed the Sino-Japanese War. Britain managed to avoid such slaughter in WW2 by not taking part in those fronts, not because warfare had become any less bloody.
"the almost criminally incompetent British and French Generals" would only be true if other strategies, tactics or technologies were available which they were too talentless to emply. This is not the case, and to sling terms like "incompetence" around is popular myth at its most witless. People on the past were no stupider than you or I, and in fact it insults the intelligence of our ancestors to suggest that they allowed themselves to be killed by leaders who were almost all "incompetent".
"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".
Actually, if you read more detailed military/political accounts like Prior&Wilson (superb and by no means hagiographic) you'll see that a vast amount of tactical innovation and planning went into battles like Third Ypres, eg the mine attack on Messines, or training men on carefully-built models of German trenches, or making the best use they could of the primitive tanks of the time. Artillery dominance was to WW1 what air power was to WW2 (and by that stage of the war accounted for the vast majority of casualties), but even that late in the war it still wasn't obvious even to able commanders like Maxse and Plumer just how many thousand yards of the enemy defences could realistically be grabbed at each "bite" and still remain under artillery cover.
Whilst Haig wasn't the murdering moron of popular legend, the jury is still out on him for more subtle reasons - his willingness to allow himself to be fed over-optimistic intelligence reports, or his willingness to go on attacking through the mud at Third Ypres. And that's the tragedy of Third Ypres - in purely military terms, by the time mud finally called a halt he had broken through the fifth of the six German defence lines (the sixth was called Flandern III), and I have little doubt that if he had called a halt earlier we would all have been reading decades-worth of stuff about his "Criminal Incompetence" for breaking off the attack at the very moment a breakthrough was within reach. In political and human terms, we went through all that horror without the final consolation of actually breaking through, and Lloyd George (who had agreed to it and allowed it to continue, whatever he later pretended) and others used it as the centrepiece of their blackening of the dead Haig's reputation in the 1930s.
That is my only real gripe about an otherwise good book - his snarky comments about the supposedly "unconvincing" modern scholarship which has done so much to strip away decades of "Lions Led by Donkeys" mythology - calling it "unconvincing" is, as it stands, as silly as calling nuclear physics "unconvincing" because you don't approve of nuclear weapons - although he does make the perfectly valid point that men like Haig and Foch are the kind of men who (in 1918) win wars - although men like Petain are sometimes needed to avoid losing them. Perhaps there is a lesson here that if politicians commit to sending vast military forces to war, they need to be clear about the price that will end up being paid.
In reply to an earlier post on 4 Aug 2011 18:08:10 BDT
Last edited by the author on 6 Aug 2011 16:28:01 BDT
S. Higgens says:
Paul - A good counter to Len's misconception about the British Army in WW1. Your post is far more eloquent than mine would have been.
Len - A very useful review but please have a look at Gary Sheffield's 'Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities' - the idea of 'Lions led by Donkeys' is somewhat out-of-date and hackneyed.
In reply to an earlier post on 19 Jul 2012 19:38:49 BDT
Benjamin Girth says:
What you "revisionists" all fail to allow for is that of course the British Army learnt and improved. But so too did the Germans and at a quicker pace. Operation Michael in March 1918 saw the British army routed. It was the failure of the Germans to sustain an offensive (logistics)that ended the war. Haig was a man of his time - the British army have always been outstandingly brave but habitually brainless. His greatest failing was not having the courage to stand up for the British Army in 1916 - the French in Verdun aside his duty was to engineer victory for the British Army, at a time and a place of our choosing. For me he was a weak but devious politician who was not under the control of the government and a poor commander.
In reply to an earlier post on 20 Jul 2012 14:19:06 BDT
Last edited by the author on 21 Jul 2012 22:13:15 BDT
MR. PAUL J. BARTON says:
German attack techniques in 1917-18 (heavier and more sophisticated artillery fire, followed up by infantry fighting in small units with grenades, mortars, light machine guns etc) were - contrary to myth - little different from French or British. Third Ypres bogged down because it was in Flanders where the defenders were densely packed and because of atrocious weather in August and at the very end (the bits in late September under Plumer were quite successful). "Michael" achieved a spectacular initial success against Gough's Fifth Army which was spread very thin on line recently taken over from the French - "Bluecher" against the French in May was similar. "Georgette" in Flanders in April gained much less ground, as did other attacks against the French in June and July.
France had still been the senior partner in 1916 and Haig was expected to defer to their wishes - the Somme would have had a much larger French contribution had it not been for Verdun. He was certainly capable of "standing up to the French" when he had to - after 1 July 1916 he got into a heated argument with Joffre who tried to "order" him to carry on attacking in the northern sector where the infamous slaughter had taken place, but Haig insisted on concentrating his efforts in the south where the attacks had been more successful. If he had had his way he would have attacked in Flanders in 1916, with probably little success.
In 1917, when the British Army had become a much more effective fighting force, it might have been a different story had he not been told to support Nivelle by attacking at Arras - had he been able to start Third Ypres in April or May history might remember it very differently. Third Ypres was agreed by the politicians - reluctantly, as by then they were toying with the idea of concentrating on other fronts or waiting for the Americans - on the basis of rather dubious intelligence predictions that Germany could be beaten by the end of the year. Haig was not "brainless" but he can certainly be faulted for carrying on with the offensive even after it was obvious that Russia was dropping out, leaving the British Army weakened to face the German onslaught the following spring. Lloyd George can equally be blamed for the Nivelle Affair which completely destroyed trust between generals and politicians, and he was perhaps not really strong enough to forbid Haig, who still had a lot of political & press support, to attack - contemporary diarists noted that he might well have been giving Haig enough rope to hang himself.
It remains a matter of debate how far German defeat was accelerated by Allied Offensives like the Somme and Third Ypres, and how far the Germans threw away a chance of survival by their own folly - unrestricted submarine warfare which brought the USA in, then their own Spring 1918 Offensives which as you rightly say ultimately brought their defeat nearer. Those debates have been raging since the war itself, and will doubtless continue.
In reply to an earlier post on 22 Aug 2012 10:59:39 BDT
Last edited by the author on 22 Aug 2012 14:36:18 BDT
Benjamin Girth says:
It is the case that the Germans' lost World War One, but the Allies did not defeat them. Looking at battles and tactics is is fine but modern war is about political, economic and social mobilisation. For me Niall Ferguson "The Pity of War" - expalins that. I see you have read this, the economic (German fiscal situation specifically) is the core. Simply soldiers are expendable, pawns while the " larger pieces " win the game.
If you accept that. then World War One ended at Dunkirk in 1940. That we have made that victory (the miracle of being routed and running away) indicates the scale of the British defeat WW1 lasting from 1914-1940. Had the British army learnt much - with the humiliation of Singapore in 1942 (which we carefully ignore) self evidently very little. Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival, CB, DSO & Bar, OBE, MC, OStJ, DL - no doubt his reputation is due for an upgrade too.
Our finest hour was D Day. The British nation's total war effort, an astounding achievement. Of course it was enabled by the United States. But for every soldier that landed, how many more men and women not in uniform won that decisive battle?
And don't forget it was British cash - not men - that beat Napoleon. Had Wellington failed at Waterloo (it was actually the battle of Mont St Jean and he commanded a multinational force and Blucher won the day - but like the best British Generals he was above all a brilliant self publicist) the Prussians and Russians would have done the job.
My opinion - for what it's worth - is that British economists such as J M Keynes have far out classed our dismal Generals. If only we stuck to what we are good at! We had no business in France in 1914 - more than we did in 1870, 1848, 1830 and 1789 - all of which passed us by without destroying Civilisation.
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