Apocalypse then

Hochschild’s history shakes its head at the death, destruction, and disillusionment of World War I, which not only failed to end global conflicts but set all on the path to World War II

By David M. Shribman
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2011

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The most inaccurate phrase in all of warfare still clings to the conflict of 1914-1918, so much so that it is difficult to conceive that anyone could pick up “To End All Wars’’ without knowing that Adam Hochschild is speaking of World War I and doing so with the morbid sense of irony that all literature has attached to that struggle in the trenches, on the sea and, for the first time on a large scale, in the air.

Nearly a half century ago, in 1963, the redoubtable A.J.P. Taylor could conclude that the conflict “did rather better than most wars.’’ But the past has a surprising way of changing, and Hochschild is here to conclude that “this war was needless folly and madness’’ — and that “we live in a world that was so much formed by it and by the industrialized total warfare it inaugurated.’’

That latter phrase is usually applied to the global conflict that followed, but Hochschild, who has written readable accounts of the British antislavery movement and the effect of Leopold’s corruption on the Congo, has produced a convincing indictment of World War I, which accounted for the deaths of 8.5 million, the amputations of limbs of 41,000 in Great Britain alone, and the phenomenon of shell shock, the antecedent of post-traumatic stress disorder. All this before the influenza hit and things really got bad.

Hochschild’s book is a meditation on war loyalty and war protest, primarily in Great Britain, and he offers a grim outlook befitting a conflict that produced both a “Lost Generation’’ and the most sullen and cynical generation of poets in history: “The war that prevented a German conquest of Europe in 1914 virtually guaranteed the one that would begin in 1939,’’ he argues, adding: “The most toxic legacy of the conflict and its misbegotten peace settlement lies in the hardly imaginable horrors that followed.’’

The war sent to the dustbin the Czarist, Ottoman, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires, and a good case has been made that it prepared the British Empire for disposal. It gave the world the communist revolution and savage warfare that extended to innocents and civilians; it obliterated earlier notions of immorality; and it introduced to the globe a horrifying numbness to mass casualties, all of which would pay dread dividends before the century, or even the half century, was out.

Hochschild builds his book around characters who grow familiar and fallible chapter by chapter — the suffragist Pankhurst family, for example, Labour Party leader Keir Hardie, writer Rudyard Kipling, war strategist Alfred Milner, philosopher Bertrand Russell. And he reminds us that, from the British perspective, the world was ablaze with conflict before the conflict began, with mounting tensions in Ireland, growing suffragist agitation, mounting labor strikes and Labour political activity, and that’s without mentioning the Anglo-German naval war that produced so much tension and, years later, so many compelling books.

Then came the shots at Sarajevo and the fateful plunge to war. “All Europe,’’ he writes, “was on a downward slope toward the inevitable, and few were those on either side who cared to press on the brakes.’’ Though new tensions were emerging in Britain, the centrifugal forces of war were irresistible. Protest movements disappeared with sudden speed.

They would return, however. The war defied all expectations, a notion that can be applied to all wars of all times, including our own, but particularly this war. Only the wounded and dead were home by Christmas. Hochschild has an important insight: Since the European powers had only fought against poorly armed and trained African and Asian rivals, they underestimated the perils and costs of fighting against well-trained and well-armed European foes. And none of them had “spent much time on the receiving end of fire by machine guns or other modern weaponry.’’

That said, there was ineptitude everywhere, especially among the Russians, who discovered that their troops outnumbered available rifles 2 to 1 and that antiaircraft guns were virtually nonexistent; the only ones that nation possessed were dispatched to protect the czar’s summer palace. A third of Russian conscripts could not read. Many of the others had no familiarity with the technology of the time, which is why Russian soldiers needing firewood sometimes chopped down telegraph poles.

This was an altogether new kind of war, a struggle among industrialized nations, dependent upon industrial production, from bullets to binoculars (a surprisingly essential element in trench warfare). But unlike the war that would follow, this conflict, and its “mass-production slaughter,’’ was not conducted with industrial precision.

Three out of five German tanks broke down, for example, and the failure of the new mechanized forces to move swiftly, or at all, led to the signature characteristic of the war, the trench — and to the irony that two low-tech elements, the spade and barbed wire, became the principal elements of warfare.

At the start it looked as if one of the victims of the conflict, along with votes for women and home rule for Ireland, would be socialism. Later, however, it became clear that the war provided the roots and rationale for revolution, with a successful revolt in Russia and scattered uprisings in Germany.

This war was nasty, brutal, but not short. The gains were hard and harshly won. The result, Hochschild argues, was the worst catastrophe to befall Europe since the Black Death of the 14th century, and as a result he puts the antiwar movement, and conscientious objectors, on an equal moral footing with the warlords, perhaps on an even higher one.

Just before he concludes, Hochschild poses a provocative question: “If we were allowed to magically roll back history to the start of the 20th century and undo one — and only one — event, is there any doubt that it would be the war that broke out in 1914?’’ To that question we must answer no, there is no doubt. This was not the war to end all wars.

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at

TO END ALL WARS: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
By Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 448 pp., illustrated, $28