by Adam Hochschild, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2011
...definitely worth the time for those who enjoy reading history.
The author takes a different angle in this very readable WWI history. Drawing portraits of those British who opposed the war – aristocrats, journalists, ordinary folks, suffragettes, Irish patriots and even a former prime minister- Adam Hochschild brings them to life. The story is told chronologically from Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee through the Boer War (a new slice of history for me) right up and through the carnage that was WWI.
This is as much a social history of the times as a military story. The backgrounds of the two major military players (Douglas Haig and John French) are told in detail including the story of French’s sister Charlotte Despard a leading pacifist and antiwar demonstrator. Since the causalities of the war were more likely to come from Britain’s ruling classes (including the son of Rudyard Kipling, brother of the future queen, etc.) the courage that it took to oppose this conflict was considerable. The author tells these stories in a fairly even handed unemotional way. He doesn’t shirk the telling of the trench warfare though. The military strategy (?) employed by every general in this war was to send men directly into the fire of machine guns where little or no progress is made in four years of fighting. The losses incurred on the battlefields are truly incredible, while this story is told with Britain at the center; the numbers of men killed or wounded throughout Europe were stunning. You really have to read these sections of the story in small bites to let some of this senselessness sink in.
The characters that Hochschild has chosen to focus on really give the story a view into every social stratum in Britain. Douglas Haig the commanding general throughout most of the war and a good friend of the King is a window in to the unimaginative world of what was the British military command. Charlotte Despard and Emily Hobhouse were aristocratic Brits who actively worked to oppose this war and in Hobhouse’s case was the only Brit who attempted to bring the two sides to the negotiating table during the war. The story of the Wheeler family set up and tried for treason gave a view of socialist/communist sentiment among the working classes. The Pankhurst family, prominent suffragettes divided by their sentiments on the war shows the women’s movement in the early 20th century and also the rise of communism among the British. Kier Hardie, a socialist MP, an early critic of Britain’s involvement in this conflict is profiled and speaks for many unionists in the country. The power of the empire and British nationalism overwhelm Hardie and most socialist hopes for international cooperation that would have avoided fighting among the working classes.
In addition to being a fairly good recounting of WWI, this book does a great job of describing Britain in its waning days as a colonial power. While not quite on the same level as Guns of August, Tuchman’s masterpiece history of the beginning of this conflict, it is definitely worth the time for those who enjoy reading history.
I read a copy of ths book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.