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To End All Wars. Adam Hochschild. A Review.

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To End All Wars. How The First World War Divided Britain. Adam Hochschild. Macmillan. 2011.

My grandfather, Albert, and his older brothers, were East End members of the socialist Clarion Cycling Club. On Sundays they would bike to Essex and sell Robert Blatchford’s paper of the same name. Soon after the outbreak of the Great War, summer 1914, my grandfather and a few of his friends had a few pints of bitter. Swept away by patriotic fervour they all went and enlisted.

Albert rarely spoke about his next four years on the Continent, except to say that trench warfare was unbelievably terrible. There was one story. He had once been in such despair that he’d resolved to shoot himself in the foot and get invalided out. But the gun had jammed. Returning from the battles he renewed his socialist commitment and was a member of the Labour Party all his life.

Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars is about how the Great War affected people like Albert – their opinions about it, before, during and after the combats. It’s about what it meant on the ground when, “For more than three years the armies on the Western Front were virtually locked in place burrowed into trenches with dugouts sometimes 40 feet below ground, periodically emerging for terrible battles that gained at best a few miles of muddy, shell-blasted wasteland.” It’s about mustard gas. And it’s about the Battle of Passschendaele 1917, where one single day saw 26,000 British, Australian and Canadian, causalities. The Times headline read, “Our Position improved: Heroism in the New Advance.” Not everyone saw it that way, then or since.


The British Empire, for which soldiers from all its corners fought, was at its zenith during the first decade of the twentieth century. Sir Arthur Milner, the “imperial lion of Cape Town” and his Kindergarten of advisers, suppressed the Boers in the first years of the 20th century, appeared to set the seal on Britain’s enduring power. It was at this point that the country’s rulers began worrying about growing German industrial and military might. Erskine Childers wrote The Riddle of the Sands (1903) warning of a Hun scheme to invade England. Hochschild describes countless other books in the years that followed, that imagined Teutonic invasions. A “novel depicted the imperial German black-eagle flying over Buckingham Palace, and signs declaring its verboten to walk on the grass in Hyde Park.”

Left and Right today agree that the First World War was a “great watershed” in modernity. The masters of the British Empire, its peculiar military caste and bureaucracy, infused with imperial pride, sent their people onto the fields of Europe, and Turkey, to face slaughter on a scale it’s hard to imagine. Arthur Miller, Douglas Haig, and Sir John French, solidly backed by patriotic politicians, sent millions to their graves. Propagandists like John Buchan saw “nobility and heroism” in the butchery. Fellow Imperialist Rudyard Kipling in his Stalky and Co. (1899) ends the tale with the schoolboys turned soldiers in the Great Game. This sacrifice of youth foreshadowed the fate of a generation across the continent. Remarque’s All Quiet On the Western Front (1929 – film 1930) opens with German Gymnasium scholars volunteering for the Front.

To End All Wars deftly travels from military history, through high politics, to the lives and careers of players like Haig and Sir John French. Adam Hochschild, as is appropriate for a founder of the magazine Mother Jones, does not leave the field to the militarists. To End All Wars has a “cast of characters” that brings those who opposed the fighting to the fore.

Sir John French’s sister, Charlotte Despard was one. A militant socialist and feminist, she maintained contact with her brother until their relations broke down. French had helped crush the Easter Rising in 1916; in 1918 he served his time as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. She supported Irish Independence. Sylvia Pankhurst has a more public dramatic inter-family dispute. Her suffrage mother, Emmeline, and her sister, Christabel turned violent jingoes as the outbreak of war. Sylvia had an affair with the anti-war Independent Labour Party leader, Keir Hardie, and agitated against militarism. Hardie, who died in the middle of 1915, was one of a small group of socialist internationalists, with counterparts across the Continent. Those at the top in every country did all they could to squash their protests.

Many war resistors were inspired by religious conviction. Hardie was Christian socialists other were religious pacifists. Amongst the actors Hochschild describes individual consciousness objectors, like Stephen Hobhouse, a Christian pacifist, gaoled, and his cousin Emily, who had cut her political teeth exposing abuses during the Boer War But by no means all. The anti-colonialist, Fenner Brockway (far from a believer – he was honorary president of my parents’ North London Humanist group), was imprisoned for his socialist agitation against the conflict. Strikingly there is the Wheeldon family, whose mother Alice was sentenced to 10 years hard-labour for a plot mounted by an agent provocateur, Alex Gordon. She was said to have planned to hide behind a golf course bush and, with a blowpipe, shoot Lloyd George with a poisoned-tipped dart. In prison Alice would face a grim battle of her own.

It was not just outright refusal to serve in the armed forces, or militant agitation that earned people a spell in goal –or being sent to the Front. Draconian censorship operated, amid hysterical attacks on opponents of the war. Bertrand Russell who “loved the tradition of English liberty, and would prefer an Allied victory to a German one” Russell perhaps best symbolises a quieter, more gradual, disenchantment with the conflict. He finally backed the No-Conscription Fellowship and ended up in a cell – as “first division prisoner” with the privileges of his class – for suggesting that American troops might be used as strike-breakers.

The Left and Internationalism.

To End All Wars weaves together many threads. It is a collection of narratives, from below, and from above, about defining historical events whose legacy, he cites Churchill, was a “crippled broken world.” Some may concentrate on the callousness of the army top brass, and their obsession with outmoded cavalry charges, or their sheer incompetence. Others on the harsh conditions conscientious objectors faced, including execution. This slots into the moving war literature of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and the poety of Wilfred Owen that has shaped the images and feelings of many subsequent British generations.

One issue that is perhaps of greatest contemporary interest for the left is how not only the working class was overwhelmed with patriotism, but that much of the socialist movement supported imperial causes. In the first respect we can see that the rule of bellowing John Bulls was not complete.  If the workers were not opposed to defending the country, Hochschild notes, they “they showed less zeal than the better off.” We should not imagine that this was wholly misguided, “In late 1914 it was easy enough for a reasonable person to support a war against Germany, which seemed bent on dominating Europe. Stopping Germany might seem a moral imperative, albeit a tragic and regrettable one, given the inevitable bloodshed. Millions of quite unmilitaristic people in Britain felt this way.” Some, workers, given that we would not imagine them generally unreasonable, would surely have reacted in thsi way – until evidence proved the claim wrong. To End All Wars does sketch out some anti-war resistance from this quarter, caught up in wider protests about harsh conditions in the factories and lowering standards of living. Grumbles turned to protests and strikes as this continued.

What is far more remarkable is that  the socialist movement threw up some of the most unreasonable jingoistic ideologues imaginable. A brief moment of international solidarity in 1914 soon passed as the Second International fell apart, like a bad transmission on digital television, into splintered fragments. The anti-war French socialist, Jean Jaurès was assassinated by Raoul Villain, in 1914 following a press campaign from the national right screaming at the “Prussian agent”, “Jaurès-Traïtre, Jaurès-Thaler”. But he did not just face hatred from this excepted quarter. Charles Péguy, the Catholic socialist and poet wrote that Jaurès should face the tumbrel “amid a roll of drums to drown out that mighty voice.” The syndicalist Hervé, who had proposed to plant the national flag on a dung-heap, rallied to the cause of National Defence, as did the Marxist Jules Guesde. Anti-militarists like the soon-imprisoned Rosa Luxemburg and the less forthright German social democratic centre were in a small minority. A hefty chunk of heir former comrades actively supported the war. The rhetoric of the pro-war left, while with some democratic – or anti-Prussian – cover, was unbridled patriotism.

In Britain it was not the bull-dog trade unionists who backed the state-funded British Workers’ League and attacked anti-war supporters of the Independent Labour Party that make the most impression. Nor that upper-class suffrages like Christabel and Emmeline rallied to the flag. It is that the leader of the British Socialist Party, and the founder of the country’s first Marxist organisation, Henry Hyndman, formed, with Belford Bax, the National Socialist Party to support resistance to “Prussian aggression.” The Editor of the Clarion Blatchford, outdid himself in loyalty to the Allies.

One would have wished for something in To End All Wars exploring this theme. The reasons for this people’s divergent  stands and the reeking chauvinism of some,  still merit attention. When the chips were down, they say, nation trumped class, let alone socialist principle and internationalism. But it was also a socialist principle to defend national communities against external aggression and to support those oppressed in or by other states. At the same time, as Hochschild notes, nobody at the time seemed much concerned about the war in Africa, where over two million people were conscripted into forced labour, and an estimated 400, 000 died. The issue appeared resolved for a minority when the Soviet Union declared itself the workers’ homeland. The flaws in, say, Charlotte Despard’s later enthusiasm for the 1930s Soviet Union, can be seen in the 1937 execution of Willie Wheeldon, who had settled there. Socialist thinking on internationalism has yet to settle down in a consensus.

To End All Wars is a finely crafted study. It is a worthy successor to King Leopold’s Ghost and Bury the Chains. The latter, a study of the anti-slavery campaigner and supporter of the French Revolution, Thomas Clarkson, buried just outside Ipswich at Playford, rescued a great man from near-obscurity. Hochschild is treading  more familiar ground here. But he has done honour to those who felt like Alice Wheeldon, that “The world is my country.”


Written by Andrew Coates

September 2, 2011 at 11:37 am

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