Saturday, June 4, 2011

The trenches and the protests

With books about war you usually either get an overview of the big picture of what happened and the role generals played in it, or you get a ground's-eye view from the soldiers who did the actual fighting. The first frequently treats war in an impassive way where men and lives are represented by cold numbers, whereas the second often sacrifices that higher-level and the significance of the events taken as a whole. Occasionally a book will come along that gives both perspectives successfully, but more often than not you'll want to read books that represent both viewpoints to get a better understanding and feeling for what happened. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild takes a slightly different approach.

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918Although overshadowed by the Second World War, WWI was a senseless tragedy that saw old world ideas clash with modern technologies. British commanders still believed in the gallantry of a mounted cavalry charge even though machine guns and a field full of trenches and bomb craters made it impossibly suicidal. The first World War saw the first widespread use of chemical weapons such as chlorine, mustard, and tear gas - and gas masks for the soldiers and those ineffectual horses. Tanks were new but slow and broke down easily and flame throwers had a short range, but the very sight of either was terrifying. And barbed wire turned out to be just as good at stopping soldiers as it had cattle. In the end, the whole Western Front bogged down in trench warfare that was basically a stalemate - except the killing and dying didn't stop.

Hochschild takes a new look at the war with a view largely framed from the British trenches of the Western Front (although he occasionally reports the strategies of the generals in the rear), but he skillfully mixes in the story of the very few pacifists in England who stood against the war in a time when nationalism and eagerness to serve was running at an all time high. They were small in number but their story helps to emphasize the absurdity of the war. People like Charlotte Despard, who ironically was the sister of John French, the British Commander in Chief, and the Pankhurst family, protesters for women's rights who split bitterly over the war. Many others such as Bertrand Russell, Keir Hardy, and several conscientious objectors (COs) are profiled and it gives a meaningful aspect to the book - matching the home front to the battlefront in some ways. And it's this focus that makes it such an interesting read.

It's important to note that even though this book follows a largely chronological timeline of the war, it is not a methodical recounting of every battle and front. It is confined primarily to British involvement and emphasizes the tragic waste of life by the information it presents. The immense public support for the war seems dismissed as camaraderie engendered by patriotism and the influence of government propaganda, which feels inadequate to explain such a wholesale willingness to serve. Also, very high "losses" and "casualty" figures are cited throughout the book giving the impression of a much higher than actual "death toll" (which is given at the end), and I felt that the book was not as objective or free of bias as it may have seemed – but that’s the author’s right and it’s certainly a valid and important viewpoint. (Plus, I like to read different perspectives.) Overall, this is a highly readable and fascinating look at WWI and I particularly appreciated the 'after the war follow-up' on so many of the people mentioned, as well as the discussion of how it lead to future wars. Highly recommended. (Note: I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

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