The Road to Hell
by Murray Polner
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.”