To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion,
1914-1918

 

Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars is a seminal, compelling narrative about the Great War. As in all of Hochschild’s previous books, the writing is rich, luminous, uncompromisingly researched, and compassionate. If each of us is complicated—and we are—the characters in To End All Wars seem worthy of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Hochschild’s writing, at its best, interprets the world with the perspicuity of Anton Chekhov’s finest stories. Integrating the complicated lives of the war’s generals, Sir James French and Douglas Haig, and the narratives of courageous anti-war protestors like Charlotte Despard, Stephen Hobhouse, and Sylvia Pankhurst, Hochschild provides a trenchant analysis of what the Great War did to Britain, to its families, and to world history. For as Hochschild shows, the Great War helped precipitate Stalinism, World War II, and the Holocaust. And it was also the beginning, sadly, of new-fangled machines of destruction, of a time when, as Hochschild writes, “the magnetic attraction of combat, or at least the belief that it was patriotic and necessary, proved so much stronger than revulsion at mass death.”

All who think and write about war hearken brought back to the famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” with its brutal depiction of wartime misconduct; but the Great War, as Hochschild shows, provides examples of command ineptitude and arrogance unparalleled in battlefield experience. Generals French and Haig were, to put it kindly, self-righteous fools, willing to kill hundreds of thousands of men to abet their egos. Hochschild’s detailing of their willful disregard of the truths of modern warfare, their inability to understand what a machine gun and barbed wire might do to an army of ill-protected infantry, all of this is hard to fathom. And yet one million men died because of such misguided vanity. Hochschild’s descriptions of the Battle of Somme, with its mind-numbing litany of human savagery, is one of the most powerful and painful in memory, and yet this is only the first day:

Of the 120,000 British Troops who went into battle on July 1, 1916, more than 57,000 were dead or wounded before the day was over—nearly two casualties for every yard of the front. Nineteen thousand were killed, most of them within the attack’s first disastrous hour, and some 2,000 more who were badly wounded would die in hospitals later. There were an estimated 8,000 German casualties. As usual, the toll was heaviest among the officers. Three-quarters of whom were killed or wounded.

How men could advance against machine guns, die in plague-like numbers, and still soldier on is at the center of the book — and yet it is to Hochschild’s credit that we can understand how an army, and a world, can seemingly go insane. And as Hochschild reminds, this was a war where the upper classes died in extraordinary numbers — a war where nearly one third of the eligible males in Britain were killed.

And yet if war is undeniable folly, not all men and women charge madly to its call. Hochschild brilliantly describes those who chose the path of war resistance and pacifism, including Sylvia Pankhurst, whose courage rivals that of Sojourner Truth. Hochschild writes sympathetically of the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell who fights the dangers of jingoism and warmongering with a nearly incomprehensible output of well-reasoned treatises. It is he, in a deft program of political persuasion, who saves a group of pacifists from execution. And there is also the poignant narrative of Stephen Hobhouse who, though sentenced to solitary confinement, dared to speak to his fellow prisoners, even though it was not permitted. Hobhouse’s Quaker beliefs necessitated that he must speak to others, for his acknowledgment of their humanity was tantamount to celebrating God’s presence in each of us. For him, there was no subterfuge permitted in his actions — he would openly oppose evil.

In one of the most beautiful passages in To End All Wars, in the middle of the Somme stalemate, amongst the horrible litany of death and dying, the German and British troops meet for an “improvised Christmas truce,” playing soccer, singing carols, even cutting one another’s hair. As Hochchild writes “Later in the day, a German juggler who had been onstage in London before the war gave a bravura performance; soldiers from both sides chased and caught hares running between the trenches. Men from the Cheshire Regiment slaughtered a pig, cooked it in no man’s land, and shared it with the Germans, and some Saxon troops rolled a barrel of beer over their parapet and into eager British hands.”

I can’t do justice to this superb book in this short précis. I can only thank Adam Hochschild for writing it. When the Great War propagandist and jingoist Rudyard Kipling’s son dies in the war, Kipling and his wife Carrie, like any father and mother, became distraught. However grand Kipling’s paeans to the war effort, his loss is unendurable, and Hochschild makes us confront every parent’s worst fear. As Hochschild knows, we may fight in numbers, but we grieve alone.

As the world is presently engaged in numerous wars (be they in Afghanistan, Syria, or Darfur), To End All Wars becomes indispensable. Please read it, and please work towards peace.

-Ken McClane, 2012 finalist judge


2012 Nonfiction Winner

Adam Hochschild, photo credit Spark Media
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(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Adam Hochschild
To End All Wars

"Almost every war begins with the expectation of a swift and easy victory that will solve a problem. Seldom does this happen. This was the illusion that drove the world into war in 1914, and that has driven the United States into two disastrous wars in the last decade. Can we learn from history? I hope so--that's why I keep writing it."

—Adam Hochschild                        

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Adam Hochschild was born in New York City in 1942. His first book, Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son, was published in 1986. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times called it “an extraordinarily moving portrait of the complexities and confusions of familial love . . . firmly grounded in the specifics of a particular time and place, conjuring them up with Proustian detail and affection.” It was followed by The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey, The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin, and Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award. It also won a J. Anthony Lukas award in the United States, and the Duff Cooper Prize in England.

His Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the PEN USA Literary Award. His most recent book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award. For the body of his work he has received a Lannan Literary Award, the Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award of the American Historical Association, and a 2012 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His books have been translated into fourteen languages.

In addition to his books, Hochschild has written for The New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, Granta, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, and many other newspapers and magazines. He was a cofounder of Mother Jones magazine and is a teacher of narrative writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. He and his wife, sociologist and author Arlie Russell Hochschild, have two sons and two granddaughters.

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Excerpt from the book

The war left what Churchill called a “crippled, broken world.” The full death toll cannot be known, because several of the governments keeping track of casualties had dissolved in chaos or revolution by the war’s end. Even by the most conservative of the official tabulations—one made by the U.S. War Department six years later—more than 8.5 million soldiers were killed on all fronts. Most other counts are higher, usually by about a million. “Every day one meets saddened women, with haggard faces and lethargic movements, the writer Beatrice Webb noted in her diary a week after the Armistice, “and one dare not ask after husband or son.” And the deaths did not end with the war: the Times continued to run its “Roll of Honour” each day for months afterward as men died of their wounds. Except in a handful of lucky neutral countries, on virtually every street in Europe could be found households in mourning where, in Wilfred Owen’s words, “each slow dusk” was like “a drawing-down of blinds.”

 
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