The Abattoir of the State


Adam Hochschild's haunting yet illuminating assessment of World War I (mainly concentrating on Great Britain) To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011) is a welcome addition to the vast historical and literary output literature of that pointless war. But it is different. By no means a detailed if conventional history of battles and strategies and politicians, it is, firstly, a powerful condemnation of a war that should never have been fought. The battle at Passchendaele (officially, the Third Battle of Ypres) cost the lives of at least 300,000 men. Hochschild rightly calls it "a blatant, needless massacre initiated by generals with a near-criminal disregard for the conditions men faced.' In northern Italy, German and Austrian armies at Caporetto caused more than 500,000 Italian casualties – dead, wounded or captured. On the eastern front the Russian armies, its generals and government corrupt and incompetent, were effectively defeated a year or so after the Romanovs entered the war.

What makes To End All Wars so original (mirroring to some extent Paul Fussell's splendid 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory) is that Hochschild also eloquently tells the story of courageous and principled Britons and to a lesser degree the French Socialist antiwar leader Jean Jaures, who opposed the war and even refused to serve in its ranks. Though he praises the great anti- war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (a combat lieutenant whose parents were told of his death in France the day the Armistice was signed) it also looks sympathetically at those who chose to volunteer or accept conscription "for whom the magnetic attraction of combat, or at least the belief that it was patriotic and necessary, proved so much stronger than human revulsion at mass death or any perception that, win or lose, this was a war that would change the world for the worse."

And indeed it did. The war was an abattoir, a charnel house consuming millions of soldiers, volunteers, reservists and draftees – (Britain, desperately needing ever more cannon fodder, instituted the draft in 1916). Poison gas (chlorine) and mustard gas were used as were tanks and aerial bombings. It was much like WWII and our own wars, large and small, laboratories for industrial warfare and the "prostitution of science for purposes of sheer destruction" as the conservative Lord Lansdowne, former viceroy of India and secretary for war in the Lloyd-George cabinet, presciently put it in a letter to the pro-war Times of London – which refused to publish it. The war, writes Hochschild, author of the brilliant King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, "forever shattered the self-assured sunlit Europe of hussars and dragoons in plumed helmets and emperors waving from open horse drawn carriages."

It was too a global war maintained by European empires – four of whom would crash – whose conclusion led to revolutions by a populace, who once cheered on its war-loving rulers and the men they sent away to fight. Among them were my uncle and father both drafted into the Russian army, my uncle eventually taken prisoner by the Austro-Hungarians and my father deserting after the Tsar's abdication, captured by a White army and pressed into service, and then deserting once more

Today, there are some two hundred British WWI cemeteries in Belgium and France alone, (separate graveyards contain the remains of Senegalese soldiers and Chinese laborers, "reminders of how far men traveled to die"), many containing only pieces of bodies while some remains have never been identified. The war touched all classes in Britain. Five grandsons of former Prime Minister Lord Salisbury were killed as were the eldest son of Prime Minister Herbert Agar and the two sons of the future PM, Bonar Law. In Germany, Chancellor Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg lost his eldest son. John Kipling, whose father Rudyard, was a zealous supporter of the war (like John Buchan, John Galsworthy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Emmaline and Christabel Pankhurst, former suffragettes, and of course Winston Churchill) until his 18 year old son John was killed in battle and suddenly the deeply aggrieved father, the perennial flag waver who never served in the military, composed an "enigmatic" couplet (to Hochschild, but not to me) in his "Epitaphs of the War":

If any question why we died

Tell them because our fathers lied

Georges Duhamel, a front-line doctor, reflected on what he – unlike Rudyard Kipling and other living room warriors – had lived through. In his memoir The Life of Martyrs and Civilization, 1914-1917 (Century 1919) he wrote about his experiences in anger, declaring, "I hate the twentieth century as I hate rotten Europe and the whole world…"

While the war was raging, 20,000 Britons. declared themselves to be Conscientious Objectors and 6000 British men were imprisoned rather than fight. A few were sentenced to death, but never executed. Charlotte Despard (whose brother General Sir John French commanded British forces in France until forced out by the equally incompetent and politically-connected General Sir Douglas Haig and who later sought to crush the Irish rebellion) wrote and demonstrated against the war. Sylvia Pankhurst, an early suffragette, who turned pacifist while her mother Emmaline and sister Christobel became fervent home front warriors) Keir Hardie, labor leader and socialist spoke and agitated from the very beginning against the war. Perhaps most prominently because of his family heritage, Bertrand Russell, the mathematician, antiwar crusader, plus many others, sadly now forgotten, refused to believe in the warmakers and their propagandists.. The British Government tried very hard to squelch opponents of the war, using Scotland Yard and its director Basil Thomson to pursue antiwar people – much like the U.S. used Edgar Hoover's FBI during the Vietnam War, a war Russell also publicly opposed. Not until 1919 were all British COs released from prison. (In the U.S. Eugene V. Debs, imprisoned by the Wilson Administration because he opposed conscription and the war, was not released until 1920 after the much-maligned Warren Harding became president). And not until 2006, following a campaign organized by a citizen's group "Shot at Dawn," did the British finally pardon more than 300 soldiers executed during WWI.

The Allies were rescued by the arrival of fresh U.S. troops. Within a year or so it was all over. According to a conservative count by the U.S. War Department in 1924 over 8.5 million soldiers died in WWI and more than 21 million were wounded, including hundreds of thousands who lost their limbs, eyesight and hearing while an astonishing number were badly shell shocked.. Hochschild movingly notes an epitaph placed by a mother and father on their son's grave at Gallipoli: "What harm did he do Thee, O Lord?"

In 1919, the Allies, having won a pyrrhic victory, forced Germany to sign a punitive treaty that declared themselves solely to blame for the war, thus virtually assuring another war. For antiwar people, Hochschild concludes, their struggle against mass industrialized violence "remains to be fought again – and again."

Originally published in History News Network.