To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain

To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain
Adam Hochschild
Macmillan, 356pp, £20

Is there any doubt, Adam Hochschild asks near the end of his vivid history of the First World War and protests by those in Britain who opposed it, that if we were allowed to undo only one event in the 20th century, this would be the one we would choose? Hindsight initially says no, there isn't: the nine million lives lost between 1914 and 1918 made it a calamity in its own right. Yet it was also the genesis of the even greater military catastrophe that followed two decades later.

Hochschild's book is not another lament for a lost generation, a mere backward look at the folly and waste of war. He sets out to restore to this story those who at the time proclaimed the fighting to be madness, in the face of mass conformity moulded by one of the greatest pro­paganda campaigns in history. He imagines a cemetery, besides the 2,000 well-tended British graveyards in France and Belgium, dedicated to those whom he believes were wise in rejecting the war. Here would lie the graves of Keir Hardie, Rosa Luxemburg, Sylvia Pankhurst and Ber­trand Russell - those who, in Russell's words, "were not swept off their feet".

One of the problems with Hochschild's narrative, however, is that not only did these dissidents fail to stop the war, but it is questionable whether they made a dent in history at all. He repeatedly acknowledges their impotence. At the beginning of the war their voices were few and unheeded. In the second half of 1916, after the carnage of the Somme, British soldiers did not contemplate rebellion, but rather were imbued with "dogged cynicism". And by the spring of 1918, despite all the weariness, even the sudden German advances were "by no means a boost to anti-war feeling". One is left wondering if the war really "divided Britain".

Hochschild focuses on Britain because only here was there space for this kind of dissent. The irony is that it was in Russia, and ultimately in Germany, that resistance to the war had the most direct consequences. Perhaps the most intriguing question is why the anti-war voices, so transparently sane to us now, failed to rouse Britain against the slaughter.

The anti-war socialist movements in Britain, Germany and France dissolved into partisan cheerleading once the hostilities began. Keir Hardie lamented that there were ten million socialist votes in Europe, but with no power to prevent war. Hochschild concludes that socialist solidarity was trumped by a deeper impulse towards nation rather than class. And once the war was under way, the powerful camaraderie of the soldiers was expressed in national terms.

When the pacifist Labour MP George Lansbury visited the front, he found that "every troop or regiment of troops on the march created a longing in me to get out and march with them". Such fellowship also reinforced and protected the rigid hierarchy of the British armed forces. Hochschild is aghast at the needless slaughter at the Battle of Loos on the Belgian Western Front in September 1915, when 10,000 British soldiers marched for half a mile towards a line of German guns. It was, he writes, "a blatant, needless massacre initiated by generals with a near-criminal disregard for the conditions their men faced". But he also notes that it never occurred to the survivors to talk about the battle in those terms.

Intense fellow feeling on the battlefield was not the only reason the anti-war camp failed. The transnational solidarity that they sought to develop had yet to establish an institutional foundation. Imperialism had substance; the notion of humanitarian universalism did not. There was also something ethereal about the anti-war crowd. Once the war had started, they did not have a credible plan to stop it. Russell argued in favour of appeasing Germany, but many of the others seem not to have been able to convert the principle of pacifism into a viable policy. There seemed no way to stop the war or to finish it quickly. Even Hochschild, so eloquently damning of the army leadership, concedes that, even in retrospect, "it is hard to see what military strategy could have led to a swift Allied victory".

Some of his most moving pages are not about the well-known anti-war polemicists, but the small number of rank-and-file dissenters. They included men such as Albert Rochester, a railway signalman court-martialled for questioning whether every single officer needed a personal servant; he later witnessed the execution of three soldiers who had deserted their post and campaigned against the injustice. Although Hochschild puts the conscientious objectors centre stage, he illuminates their cause just as well indirectly, using portraits of a trio of their opponents: Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the Scotland Yard counter-espionage chief Basil Thomson and the secretary of state for war and "British race patriot" Sir Alfred Milner.

Haig is portrayed as scheming, puritanical and stubbornly uncomprehending. He dealt with the lives of his men as if they were chips on a poker table. After the catastrophe of the Somme, he shifted his goal from achieving a decisive breakthrough to causing as many German casualties as possible. Perversely, these were to be extrapolated from the scale of British casualties: the more costly a battle, the more likely that the Germans had suffered the same. Thomson was a J Edgar Hoover figure who created a surveillance state, monitoring dissidents under the cover of chasing phantom German spies. Milner, whom Kipling admired more than anyone, was the dynamo of the war cabinet who worried more about the spread of revolution than about the outcome of an attritional conflict. He thought that if Britain and France settled with Germany, they could then partition Russia between them - an idea, Hochschild notes, that resembles the tricontinental world order that Orwell later described in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
As the war progressed, all of these men, titans of the imperial bureaucratic state, were unable to comprehend the deadly power of the new technology of warfare, schooled as they were in small colonial wars against badly armed opponents. But just like the begetters of the banking crisis of the 21st century, the men who led the world into what Lloyd George called "the boiling cauldron of war" got away with it. The war was a mass swindle. Hochschild has memorialised those who saw through it. l

Maurice Walsh's latest book, "The News from Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution", is newly published in paperback (IB Tauris, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan