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If you’ve ever stood a picket line, leafleted about an unpopular cause,  been arrested for civil disobedience, fought and lost against the powerful, if you have raged about the lives lost to war,  here’s a book that should be in your hands –and half-way read.  If you vaguely sense that the  modern international order came spilling from the obscure depths of World War I, Adam Hochschild is the writer you should turn to.  His To End All Wars  is a  marvelous history not just of WW I and its generals and governments, but of the  mostly forgotten individuals who fought back against great evil and great ignorance, often reviled by their comrades of only weeks before.

Following his two other excellent books, King Leopold’s Ghost and To Bury the Chains  Hochschild has done it again with a stirring account of key players in England’s part in World War I; the Generals and politicians of course but the opposition figures as well — the COs who were threatened with death before a firing squad, the women  coming out of the very militant  suffragette  movement, who took on the war machine, the small handful of socialists and labor leaders who agitated continually against the constant calls to Join Up and Do Your Duty.  It’s not all a glorious story, either.  Not all who opposed the war before the shooting began, stayed true to their beliefs.  Many socialists and pacifists of every stripe, vociferous in their condemnation of war in the abstract, or insistent on the  reality of the brotherhood of workers around the world, fell fast into march step with the fevered nationalism of the day.  But some kept at it, spending virtually their entire lives in meetings, demonstrations, letter writing campaigns, and jails.

Hochschild spent some five years combing the histories and archives to come up with his “Dramatis Personae,”  some of them among the most famous Britons of the time, some of them, resisters,  famous then and forgotten now.  The military men,  Sir John French,  the Commander in Chief of the British Armies in France, Sir Herbert Horatio Kitchner,  as Minister of War  his boss,  General Douglas Haig, Winston Churchill,  had all been young men in the colonial wars of the 1880s,  thrilled to be in combat against Muslim Arabs of the Sudan who did not know their place or appreciate the benefits of being part of the Empire.  Many had enhanced their fighting mentality in vicious battles in South Africa against the non-British white colonists spread across the Transvaal, in the Second Boer War 1899-1902.

Charlotte Despard is introduced, as one of the great contrasts and tension points of the book.  She had come from a well-to-do British family and had early felt great compassion for the the poor she saw around her.  She married well and for 20 years engaged in political causes, and wrote long romantic novels.  In 1890, when Charlotte was 46, her husband died and she found her true calling, working in one of London’s poorest slums, opening community centers and attending to the lives and education of the poor, devoting herself,  as Hochschild quotes her, “to those who slave all their lives long … earning barely a subsistence,  and thrown aside to death or the Parish when they are no longer profitable.”

Charlotte Despard and Sir John French were brother and sister.  When he led the British armies in France from 1914 to his “promotion out”, in December of 1915, she opposed the war with all her being.  When he oversaw the suppression of the Irish fight for independence, she cheered for it, and opposed him.  And yet, until near the end, they remained close.  She was his elder sister and had raised him after the early death of their parents.

In Despard’s sixties she  was jailed for 21 days in Holloway Prison for suffragette activities.  It was with these women she met the other major players in To End All Wars, also members of a  split family:  Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters,  Christabel, Sylvia and Adela.  Militant suffragettes, Emmeline was both charismatic and dogmatic. She declared that suffragettes were “soldiers engaged in a holy war…”  and led them in window smashing, assaults on police officers, and arson.   When members of the WSPU [Women’s Social and Political Union], which she had founded, told her she was acting against the WSPU constitution, she flew into a fury and replied, “then I’ll tear up the constitution.” As war broke over the nation in 1914, Emmeline and Christabel called for an end to militant suffragette activities and to back the government — which had jailed her so often– against the German Peril.  She used her powerful speaking skills to advance the cause of British patriotism,  with accusations of treason for those who opposed the war, including Sylvia.

These were women to be reckoned with.  Others among the opposition to the war were Emily Hobhouse who, kicking and screaming, opposed the British concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War, and Keir Hardy, socialist leader of the Scottish miners, member of parliament, outspoken opponent of the Boer War and the war with Germany.  He was also Sylvia Pankhurst’s lover.

You gotta read this book just to know these folks!

After introducing us to the major players, Hochschild takes a brief look at the contending forces in the war to come: the Germans with their dream of equaling the British and French in power, prestige and colonies, Austro-Hungarians furious with the Slavs of Serbia who were straining to leave their  Empire and calling on their “brother Slavs” of Russia to lend a hand; the Russians with their fear of German territorial designs, humiliated by the Japanese 10 years earlier, held in contempt around the world [Roosevelt said that “No human beings, black, yellow or white could be quite as untruthful, as insincere, as arrogant  … as untrustworthy in every way, as the Russians.”] were spoiling to prove their mettle by assisting Serbia’s Slavs.  France had recent memories of a German invasion, loss of Alsace-Lorraine, and occupation of Paris in the War of 1870,  the Franco-Prussian war.   England would have liked to stay out of the brewing mess, but there was there treaty with Belgium to consider.  All parties, including Germany,  had signed to honor Belgium’s neutrality but England which had created an independent Belgium after the revolutions of 1830, had a particular interest.  Wellington had defeated Napoleon on the wide open fields of Belgium.  England did not want any competitor nation to control that area.  Belgium’s coasts are England’s frontiers as Barbara Tuchman memorably puts it.

And then the story unfolds. Germany invades Belgium.  England is forced to respond.  France, despite its years-in-the-making plan to attack-attack  is beaten back to the doorstep of Paris and then, in a miracle, holds at the Battle of the Marne — all within the first  month of the war– and all settle-in for 4 years of disastrous static warfare: 10 million soldiers dead;  6 million civilians. 60% of French men between 18-40  killed or injured.  At the books end we not only have gripping knowledge of the struggle to make anti-war voices heard — in the face of formidable, and often ugly responses, but we know quite a bit about British colonialism, the primer of the Boer War, as well as the lack of generalship and diplomacy which led to such horrific losses.

There were only a couple of things I’d wished.  Though he spends a good chapter on the young officers of the Boer war who became British generals in WW I, I felt a bit more time could have been spent to help us understand the popular explosion of war-fever in England, against the Germans.  It turns out that Germany supported the Boer “rebels” against the British in this war, and so there was considerable popular feeling against those who had helped “kill our boys.” Similarly, the effect memories of the Franco-Prussian war had on the French.  It is amazing to read, or see in documentary movies, but in all three countries, ordinary citizens took to the streets following the declarations of war, as though unexpected holidays or a rain of wealth had been announced.

Hochschild also suggests that had the assassination of the the Archduke Ferdinand had not happened, and the Austrians not thought it a Serbian plot, the war might have been avoided.  That’s not my reading at all.  Germany’s Count Alfred von Schlieffen has been drafting his infamous plan, to open a two-front war, for years.  Diplomats and military men all across Europe thought a war inevitable.  There were predictions in the spring of 1914 that it would start no later than October.  The assassination was just the particular bullet to hit the powder keg; any of a hundred others would have done as well.  The time to stop wars is not after the powder is exploding it was years and years earlier when the competition for colonies and the wealth they brought was growing, when all “the dirty looks” and “dissing” between countries, and leaders and citizens were festering.  Too many heroes wait from war time to manifest themselves, and not enough show up when it’s really hard and idiocies and wrong headed polices have to be opposed.

Of course the definitive military-political book of the first month of the WW I  is Barbara Tuchman’s justly famed The Guns of August.  If To End All Wars  grabs your attention you will meet many of the same characters –mostly not at their finest– in her book.  Sir John French, in particular, comes out looking like he should have paid attention to his big sister, and retired to their estate.  Had others not intervened, his leadership — lack of– would have shamed England for decades, and likely led to the German occupation of France.

With three connected histories about the interconnecting popular movements against man’s inhumanity to man, the African slave trade, the Belgian Congo rubber slavery and anti-war warriors, it will be wonderful to see what Hoschschild comes up with next.  With such a depth of knowledge in the European human rights movements it would make sense for him to add to that.  The British CND [Committee for Nuclear Disarmament] which gave us the famous “peace” sign, would be one options, or perhaps a history of some of the early and long lasting NGOs like Oxfam, Amnesty International, Human Rights watch — and looks at their significant campaigns, often carried out on war-footings as dangerous and demanding of great courage as for any soldier.

[For documentary pictures of war celebration, see Wooden Crosses [Les Croix de Bois], Raymond Bernard’s 1932 film of French soldiers on the Western Front.]