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To end all wars: how the first world war divided Britain

Lindsey German says if you read one book on the first world war make sure it is this readable and gripping account of the prelude to war, and the political and military decisions which accompanied it.

to end all warsIn the first months of the First World War, one third of British soldiers in the British Expeditionary Force were killed in a series of battles which shocked the military and general public alike by their industrialised carnage. By Christmas, 90,000 British soldiers would become casualties. While the army top brass revered above all the cavalry, and expected that key battles would be won or lost by Hussars on horses, the German enemy made use of two relatively modern inventions: the machine gun and barbed wire. Between them, they were destined to produce a form of trench warfare which far surpassed anything before seen. Men made their dugouts below ground, where they subsisted on the most basic forms of food and shelter, coming out to engage in a series of charges which would certainly result in the deaths of many of them.

Four years later, after millions of deaths in Europe but also further afield, little progress had been made geographically. The battles had been to secure very little territory, and men fought and died to regain a few miles or even less. Their brutal sacrifice led to revolutions and the overthrow of empires, but even to the end, the killing machine seemed not to know how to stop. In the hours between the signing of the armistice at dawn and it coming into effect at 11am on 11 November 1918, 2738 men from both sides died and over 8000 were wounded.

If you read one book on the First World War and its impact, make sure it is this one. Adam Hochschild has written a readable and gripping account of the prelude to war, and the political and military decisions which accompanied it. He goes through the prosecution of the war itself, highlighting the almost unbelievable slaughter visited on the young men of Europe and of its empires. He also pays a great deal of attention to those who opposed the war and spells out the severe and sometimes deadly consequences for those who did so.

It is particularly relevant given the 100 year anniversary of the start of the war next year, and the attempts by government and the establishment to present a certain view of the conflict. The agenda seems to be this: encourage local activity which stresses commemorating the dead, and where people find out local history and family links to the war, but avoid dealing with any criticism about how the war was conducted. In particular, the Ministry of Defence is apparently worried that the generals who decided the often disastrous strategies, especially Douglas Haig, will come in for too much criticism.

This fear should be well founded, for the generals of the First World War deserve bitter criticism. This view is hardly a new one: the idea of 'lions led by donkeys' has long been one of the most cited historical views of the war. However, it is not sufficient to explain the war simply by the bumbling arrogance and incompetence which characterised these generals. Their actions were symptomatic of a ruling class which, in the case of Britain, had amassed an empire on a scale far greater than any of its rivals, but which had found its wealth and industrial pre-eminence severely challenged in the latter half of the nineteenth century by a series of rivals, most importantly the US and Germany. The 'scramble for Africa' in the final quarter of the nineteenth century saw rivalry between European powers about the carve-up of colonies and empires. This rivalry culminated in a series of military crises in the years before 1914, and then the conflagration itself, triggered by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Archduchess in Sarajevo (in the Balkans, scene of a series of wars just before 1914).

For those on the left, the First World War has long been recognised as the culmination of intense economic and military rivalry between the European powers. In recent years however, a new strand of revisionism seeks to portray the war as one for democracy against the authoritarian dictatorial tendencies of the German and Austrian empires. The evidence of Hochschild's book demonstrates that all the major powers in Europe behaved in such ways. To portray the British Empire as champion of democracy is a travesty: the empire was ruled from London and was subject to brutal repression, as the Irish and the Indians were to find out repeatedly as they fought for independence in the years during and after the First World War.

Britain's internal policies also enforced a high degree of punishment on anyone who opposed the war. The years before 1914 were marked by great turmoil on three fronts: the fight for women's suffrage, the campaign for Home Rule in Ireland, and the high level of militancy and strike action arising from the working class, expressed through the trade unions. Threats of war had also led to a major body of socialist and pacifist opinion, both in Britain and across Europe, which opposed the coming of such an imperialist war, as it expressed repeatedly in international conferences, statements and resolutions. In some ways it is possible to see the move to war as an attempt to resolve some domestic discontents, which were occurring across Europe in different forms. In the short term, this was successful.

Mass anti-war rallies, held right up to the beginning of August 1914, dissipated after war broke out. Principled anti-war activists and socialists found themselves deeply unpopular and sometimes hounded. The MP Keir Hardie was booed and isolated, and died early in 1915 a disillusioned and broken man. The suffragettes split, with Sylvia Pankhurst engaged in anti-war activity, while her mother and sister aided the war effort and championed the practice of giving the white feather to men in civilian clothing as a sign of cowardice. The trade unionists were divided for and against the war. The Irish movement momentarily ceased, to resurface after the repression following the Easter rising of 1916 and the deeply unpopular introduction of conscription into Ireland. Support for the war swept much of the socialist and labour movements of Europe with it, leaving anti-war socialists isolated and demoralised.

Those who refused to fight, 'conscientious objectors', were treated harshly and shamefully, put in prison and sometimes even sent to the front. The anti-war movement in Britain was substantial, remarkably given this persecution. A series of trials condemned pacifists and socialists to long periods of incarceration, with such figures as the Scottish socialist John Maclean, the Derby socialist Alice Wheeldon and her family, and the left-wing intellectuals Bertrand Russell and Fenner Brockway found guilty of various supposed crimes against the state (in Alice Wheeldon's case of allegedly trying to poison the Prime Minister, Lloyd George).

The levels of jingoism and pro-war propaganda were intense: the poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a series of pamphlets on different sections of the military. He loved the involvement of Indian troops, seeing it as a means of unifying a now fraying empire. Other well known authors, JM Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy and HG Wells, were some of those who signed up to the war effort and the defence of the 'English-speaking race'. Some became part of the War Propaganda Bureau, which spread atrocity stories about the behaviour of German troops. Those who challenged the jingoistic consensus found themselves isolated at least for the first part of the war, and even quite late on anti-war demonstrations were attacked by mobs.

Eventually, however, this changed. What brought about the change? Undoubtedly the direct experience of the war itself, both the terrible casualty figures and the worsening conditions of those who survived. The Battle of Paschendaele, fought in the low lands of Flanders, saw many of its dead drowned in mud. The introduction of conscription to replenish the stocks of young men in the battlefield was unpopular. Conditions for those who remained behind, especially women with families, deteriorated amid rent rises, food shortages and rationing, and air attacks. Munitions workers worked long hours in dangerous conditions. Women were subjected to draconian laws if they were thought to be prostitutes.

There was ever greater opposition to the war, famously from the poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who were drawn from the officer class (younger officers suffered a high death toll and unlike the generals were engaged in battle alongside the men). But there was growing working-class opposition to the war. This received a huge boost when the Russian monarchy collapsed as a result of the February revolution of 1917, inspiring working people everywhere. In March 1917 there was a 12,000 strong pro-revolution rally in the Albert Hall and a major conference in Leeds that summer. May Day 1917 saw 70,000 demonstrate in Glasgow, a rally in Liverpool with Russian sailors, and a big peace rally in London.

The October revolution pulled Russia out of the war, and despite a final and apparently successful push by the Germans in 1918, the empires of Germany and Austria were overwhelmed by the greater industrial might on the other side, especially with the entry of the United States into the war. Revolution spread throughout the defeated powers and for some years the prospect of revolution across Europe, following in Russia's wake, seemed highly likely. Even in the victorious countries there were strikes and protests. In Britain, a series of mutinies by soldiers shook London in early 1919, and were followed by mass strikes in one of the biggest years of strike action in British history.

The discontent created by the worst carnage ever seen in war was profound and led to major social and political changes, including the vote for all men and some women in 1918, and the establishment of radical anti-war sentiment. Brockway and Russell were still campaigning against war in the 1960s, when Russell tore up his Labour Party card in protest at the war in Vietnam.

Hochschild's book reminds us, as we face another threat of war in Syria and an attempt to justify this deadly past war, of the importance of protest and of how support for war can be turned into its opposite.

Source: Counterfire