To End All Wars: Adam Hochschild

Posted: June 12, 2011 in Visions
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I’ve only recently gotten into non-fiction, having preferred in the past to use the written word to make my escape from reality instead of learning more about it. Several good finds in the last few years, though, have meant that for every third or fourth work of fiction (be it science fiction, thriller, mystery, etc.) I seem to be finding these incredible palate-cleansers. Books like Maryanne Wolf’s Proust & the Squid and Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering were life-changers, and Adam Hochschild’s most recent effort has proven to be no less than that, too.

The sum total of what I knew about World War I prior to reading this gripping story?

  • Trench warfare, which probably sucked in a big, bad way.
  • Mustard gas, ditto
  • Started by assassinating an Arch-Duke and his wife
  • The “Trench Poets”
  • Its end pretty much teed up the rise of the Nazi party and WWII some 20 years after it was over

And that was about it.

Until now.

Hochschild’s treatise is subtitled, “A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914 – 1918,” and the leaf indicates that his chief focus will be the home front, the conflicts affecting both sides away from the fighting – everything from women’s suffrage in England to how Conscientious Objectors on all sides fared during those tumultuous times.

It’s much more than that, though. While I learned a lot about many of the sideline (and not so sideline) players I also learned a tremendous amount about the battles and the armies involved.

What I learned about the former includes how the Upstairs/Downstairs class mentality in Great Britain was still going strong not only at home but even in the trenches. Also, the propaganda machine that Britain created and maintained virtually throughout the war was terrifying in its efficiency in feeding the monster that was the War with ever more, ever younger bodies. I never knew, for instance, that when gathering some of the most capable and influential British writers of the time in that cause, around the table at that first meeting were people like Thomas Hardy, James Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. (Kipling I knew about, but not the extent to which he was involved in creating some of the more incendiary – and false – atrocities attributed to the Germans in order to boost enlistment figures.) These exaggerations helped feed the public’s fears and would lead to the Draconian terms of surrender forced upon Germany, which in turn facilitated the rise of the Nazi party and the inevitable start of World War II.

Regarding the latter – the specifics of what happened on and around the front lines – the figures alone are staggering, and more than once made me pause and curse in wonder. I won’t include all of those stats from the Butcher’s Bill here, but one that stuck with me was this one:

At the beginning of 1915, the first full year of the War, Germany had invaded France and Belgium and occupied over 19,500 square miles of formerly foreign territory.

At the end of the year, and at a cost of over 250,000 British casualties, the Allies had recovered exactly 8 of those square miles.

Which would cause the Allied leadership, one would think, to change their strategy, right? Nope.

World War I was sort of an arching, connective conflict, one that bridged the basics of near-ancient warfare to those of the modern. Both sides, Allied and Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary, mainly [incidentally, A-H was much bigger in terms of land area and influence than I ever knew,]) still had relatively large cavalries, and fully expected that once they broke the stalemate of the trenches the War would be won by a series of heroic charges, as recounted in endless poems and stories throughout the previous 200 years of warfare. Those cavalries sat idly by for nearly the entire War as the artillery barrages, machine guns, gas attacks and the immovable trenches devoured huge percentages of each country’s most able-bodied young men.

I’d heard of the battles of the Somme, and Ypres, but never of Passchendaele, even though all three had elements in common; they were horrendous, needless, borderline-criminal wastes of human life. Though the British were the aggressors in each of these battles, with extremely complicated battle plans that fell apart almost immediately in every case, they took the biggest hits on all three, with over 250,000 dead and wounded at Passchendaele alone, and virtually no ground gained in any of them.

One of the biggest lessons I learned in reading this riveting, reinforcing work was that the leaders on both sides, but specifically the Allies in the early and middle years, were absolutely clueless as to what was going on at the front. They would order charge after charge into no man’s land, only to have entire regiments, thousands of men at a time, eradicated. Many was the time an Officer made it across and nearer to the enemy trenches, only to look around and wonder, “God, God where are all my men?” He was the only one of several thousand to remain standing. It was not unusual for five to ten thousand men to fall in one afternoon.

Yet the carnage continued with virtually no change in the battle strategy on either side until Germany, its back against the wall with the knowledge that the Yanks were coming, and coming strong, any day now, broke out of the trenches and launched a series of hugely successful raids into France and Belgium. They knew it was all or nothing, and though they made it hundreds of miles into French territory, at one point getting only 37 miles away from Paris, the advance ultimately broke down. They’d moved so fast that they’d outrun their supplies, and with no permanent defensive fortifications the British – reinforced by the now arriving Americans – rolled them all the way back to Germany and the War was, in essence, over.

No cavalry charges of any consequence were ever made. 21,000,000 killed on all sides, which didn’t include the civilian numbers in France, Belgium and around the rest of world. (Did you know there were battles in such far-flung locales as Cameroon, Mesopotamia, and the lower third of Africa? I didn’t.) The toll from the Russian Revolution, begun near the end of the War, was by itself responsible for at least 20,000,000 dead, and probably many more.

And all that was achieved was a virtual guarantee that something like the Nazi party would arise to fill the gaping holes left in Germany’s infrastructure, and that the same battlefields – and many more – would be revisited in 20 years or so.

A note on the so-called Trench Poets.

Men like Siegfried Sassoon, John McRae, Rupert Brooke, and perhaps most famously, Wilfred Owen, were brave soldiers who fought and in most cases died in battles scattered along the front lines. The fact that they could, between skirmishes and charges “over the top,” pause to reflect and capture such thoughts in verse boggles the mind.  (Note: only Wilfred Owen is mentioned in Hochschild’s book; I remembered reading about these others a few years ago and included them here knowing that such an opportunity may not present itself again any time soon.)

Some samples:

From Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches”:

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye

Who cheer when soldier lads march by,

Sneak home and pray you’ll never know

The hell where youth and laughter go.


 From McRrae’s “In Flanders Fields”:

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

            In Flanders fields.


From Brooke’s “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England. . .

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And, perhaps most tragically, this quote not from one of his poems, but from a letter Wilfred Owen wrote home:

“My senses are charred. . .” When it came to sorting mail for the men in his regiment, he added, “I don’t take the cigarette out of my mouth when I write Deceased over their letters.”

He was 25. He’d been severely wounded and had spent months recovering at home in England and could have stayed there, but instead he returned to the front to ensure that his men were protected as much as possible from the folly of the generals. As his mother was celebrating with everyone in the streets of England on Armistice Day, she received a black-bordered telegram informing her that her son had been killed the week before in some gainless, nameless place she’d never heard of, one month after being awarded the Military Cross for exceptional bravery.

Hochschild may have intended his primary focus to be the lot of those who protested the War; those who refused to fight; those who promoted it from behind the lines; those who mismanaged and misunderstood it, and who sent uncounted thousands upon thousands to their deaths; but the passages which stayed with me longest and which had the strongest impact were those relaying the stories of the soldiers themselves. Their generals simply had no idea what they were asking these men to do, and couldn’t understand why their plans never, ever worked. They only produced more graves.

Which is where, for me, Hochschild’s narrative shines: in the telling of how these tremendous events affected the individual, whether at home or in the trenches, friend or foe. In this book he was able to personalize events that were truly on a worldwide scale, at the same time making them relatable to readers living nearly 100 years after these events occurred.

The verse he cites that stuck with me the most was written not by someone who lived beside these men in the trenches of France and Belgium, but from one who had employed his prodigious talents to craft untruths, to cajole and embarrass young men into enlisting and going willingly into Hell.

Conversely, in writing about Armistice Day, when the four years of previously unimaginable carnage was finally over, Thomas Hardy wrote,

Calm fell. From heaven distilled a clemency;

There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery;

The Sinister Spirit sneered: “It had to be!”

And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, “Why?”

Like in all wars, arguments can be made as to whether it was pointless, or whether some end or other was achieved. But one thing common to all such conflicts is the waste of human life for what is almost always a nebulous, impossible to define gain. Our modern leaders and generals would do well to remember that, though all recent evidence indicates that they have not.

  1. Jetson says:

    You have the monopoly on useful infomrtaoin—aren’t monopolies illegal? 😉

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