War, Resistance, and the Birth of the Surveillance State

Reviewed:

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918. By Adam Hochschild (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).

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“Neither race had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won, and would go on winning.”

—Edmund Charles Blunden, “The Somme Still Flows,” 1929

*

If the Korean War was America’s Forgotten War, and World War II its Good War, then World War I was its Relief-Pitcher War. Never an official member of the Allies, the United States didn’t even enter the War until April 1917, and its military didn’t participate fully until the War’s final six months, by which time the combatant nations had bled each other white and there was little left to do but deflect Germany’s last, desperate major offensive and hold the line until an armistice was declared between the opponents’ exhausted armies. Consequently, most historical surveys of the War in the West focus on Britain or France, the Allied powers that were in it from beginning to end.

Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars is no different in this regard: though Hochschild is an American historian, his book concentrates mainly (though not exclusively) on wartime Great Britain. What is somewhat unusual about Hochschild’s book is its primary focus: not the conflict between nations, but rather the conflict within a nation, using Britain’s case as a synecdoche for the conflict between the majority, who were eager to enter the war; and the vocal but disorganized pacifist minority. Britain had probably the healthiest and most outspoken peace movement of any nation involved in the War: some 20,000 men refused military conscription as conscientious objectors (COs); 6,000 of these were imprisoned at some time during the War for their beliefs, an illustrious group that included no fewer than six future members of Parliament, a future cabinet minister, a well-known investigative journalist, a newspaper editor, and at least one member of the Peerage and future recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

As in his earlier books, Hochschild’s greatest strength lies in his vivid and detailed characterization: in the book’s prologue, set in the years beginning with Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee, continuing through the Second Boer War, and ending with the pre-War struggle for women’s suffrage, we are introduced to most of the dramatis personae; many of these were selected not just for their important historical roles, but also for their charged relationships with one another. We meet, for instance, Sir John French, who is to become the first Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in war-torn France, and his sister, the renowned Socialist, suffragette, and peace activist Charlotte Despard. We meet the Pankhurst family: mother Emmeline and eldest daughter Christabel, who began as activists for women’s right to vote, then became ardent War boosters and campaigners; the younger sisters Adela, willingly exiled to Australia by Emmeline for failing to subordinate her pacifist views to her support of women’s rights; and Sylvia, who campaigned against the war in open defiance of her mother, and who became the mistress of Keir Hardie, the Independent Labour Party MP from Glasgow and ardent workers’ advocate and pacifist. We also meet Emily Hobhouse, one-time relief worker in the inhumane British concentration camps set up during the Boer War, who would go on to be the only Briton to travel to Germany during the World War to make peace overtures and negotiate prisoner exchanges; and Emily’s second cousin Stephen Hobhouse, a wealthy young man from a rich and influential family, who, instigated by Emily’s arguments and the writings of Tolstoy, renounced his inheritance and became a Quaker relief worker in London’s slums before being imprisoned as a CO during the War. Other central characters include the mathematician, philosopher, and pacifist Bertrand Russell; the world-famous writers and pro-war propagandists Rudyard Kipling and John Buchan; the former High Commissioner for Southern Africa and Governor of the Cape Colony, Alfred Milner, who would eventually become Secretary of State for War, second only to Prime Minister David Lloyd George himself; and a host of other luminaries and common people, both within Britain and without, who worked tirelessly but fruitlessly to end the War.

Britain was not especially eager to go to War in the five weeks in 1914 between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the outbreak of actual hostilities; most saw it as just a minor Balkan incident, the result of Austria-Hungary’s poor management of its empire. Besides, Germany, whatever the state of its defensive alliances and its warlike intentions, was—as the upper class was well aware—Great Britain’s biggest trading partner, and the Kaiser was a blood relative of the King. And certainly, as Socialist leaders continually reminded the working class, they had no quarrel with their German fellow-workers: the leaders of both countries’ Socialist parties had just held an emergency meeting in Brussels days before the outbreak of war, during which there were many assurances that workers would not fight workers at the behest of their Capitalist overlords. However, when Germany violated  Belgium’s neutrality—indeed, pillaged the country—on the way to invading France, it forced Britain’s hand. Many Britons believed that it was essential to their nation’s honor to fulfill a treaty obligation and defend Belgium; others simply felt that Germany must be prevented from committing any further atrocities. In any case, the Left’s pacifist principles were largely forgotten. In France and Germany, too, few workers resisted the call-up; many were afraid that opposition to the War would result in government repression of Socialist unions and newspapers, and imprisonment of party leaders. Even the German Peace Society, nonsensically fearing a Russian invasion, endorsed the War. Hochschild quotes historian Barbara Tuchman: “The working class went to war willingly, even eagerly, like the middle class, like the upper class, like the species.”

Field Marshal Sir John French was put in charge of the 75,000-strong British Expeditionary Force, and almost immediately began to squander the public’s enthusiastic support of the War. Overconfident from his prior victories against under-armed and undisciplined Africans and Boer militiamen, ignorant of the French language, absurdly concerned with his troops’ appearance and polish, dedicated beyond reason to the precept that the cavalry charge was the sine qua non of all combat tactics, almost unbelievably inept (his own deputy chief of staff wrote that he had “absolutely no brains”)—the BEF’s commander was utterly unprepared for the hell of mechanized trench warfare, in which the enemy dug in and fought back with machine guns and howitzers, rather than spears and breech-loading muskets. Before he was finally relieved and replaced in December 1915 by General Sir Douglas Haig—a marginally less doltish tactician—he had wasted hundreds of thousands of young lives trying to achieve the elusive and now-obsolete offensive “breakthrough,” directing his troops in waves of frontal charges over the tops of their trenches and into No Man’s Land, where they were met with German barbed-wire and a withering hail of machine gun fire, where they died by the hundreds, the thousands—in vain, for no gain of territory. (It later came to light that in some cases, German soldiers took pity on retreating British troops and held fire, so horribly had they been mauled.) This was to become the leitmotif of the entirety of the War, in which a weekly death count of 5,000 troops—not including major battle casualties—was considered “normal wastage” and hardly remarked upon; in which special “battle police” were deployed behind the front lines during major offensives to prevent retreats, surrenders, and desertions; in which staff officers celebrated casualties among their own troops, reasoning that they were inflicting a like number of casualties on the enemy and thus attrition—the new measure of success, now that gaining territory was out of the question—was being achieved. By the War’s end, one million British servicemen were dead, including not only working-class men, but a disproportionate number of the upper classes, among them the sons of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and Rudyard Kipling and the grandson of the Duke of Westminster.

This unprecedentedly bloody, futile stalemate led to widespread cynicism and bathypelagic morale, both among the troops and at home. The British government had two official responses to this: propaganda and police repression. The former worked somewhat better than the latter. In the first months of the war, a call went out to most of the country’s best-known writers, including Thomas Hardy, James Barrie, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, and Rudyard Kipling. They were induced to sign an open letter exhorting all English-speaking people to join the war effort (Bertrand Russell was one of the few not to sign; in return, he was dismissed from his position at Cambridge, banned from lecturing, forbidden to travel outside the country, put under surveillance, and eventually jailed). Their further mission: to produce pro-war propaganda, which they did, in spades. At the same time, censorship, both officially imposed and voluntary, became commonplace. The press regularly sugar-coated its war reports so as not to disturb the populace. War correspondents were “embedded” at the front, as commissioned officers; as long as they played by the rules, they lived comfortably in officers’ quarters. The troops, consequently, hated the reporters for writing sanitized pap for domestic consumption. Lord Northcliffe, the owner of The Times, was in General Haig’s pocket, and frequently visited the front as a VIP. Waldorf Astor, MP and owner of The Observer, was a close friend of Prime Minister David Lloyd George and, along with Alfred Milner, helped to secretly found and finance the British Workers’ League, a thuggish proto-Fascist association of trade unionists that combined ultra-nationalism with support for social welfare programs, meant to undermine support for and intimidate workers’ organizations and political parties that favored pacifism and internationalism, especially the Independent Labour Party.

As the rate of voluntary enlistment proved too meager to replenish the troops being butchered en masse across the Channel, conscription became the law of the land. The government shrewdly instituted a fairly broad and flexible draft exemption for COs, and the men of Ireland were also exempt from  conscription—all to avoid as much as possible the creation of martyrs for the peace activists or the Irish independence movement. Only those COs who refused alternate service in a Non-Combatant Corps, were denied an exemption, or dodged the draft, faced prison time. But those COs who were sentenced to prison had a hard time of it: many emerged at the end of their terms broken in body and mind; many, still imprisoned at the War’s end, died in the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, owing largely to their poor health and the crowded, unsanitary conditions to be found in the prisons. And there were the 50 or so COs who—early in the War, before CO tribunals and the Non-Combatant Corps were instituted—were sent to the front against their will, and, if they disobeyed orders and failed to fight, faced the possibility of execution, to join those hundreds of soldiers who had enlisted more or less willingly but were later executed for desertion or other expressions of “cowardice” or insubordination.

As is fairly commonplace during wartime, spy hysteria was rampant, and Scotland Yard assigned an entire special section, with hundreds of agents, to root out and combat espionage. However, since there were no known cases of spying for foreign powers in the U.K. outside of John Buchan’s propaganda fiction, these police agents needed to find another way to justify their existence. So naturally, they preyed upon native “subversives and agitators”—mostly trade unionists, peace activists, and rogue presses and journalists who refused to comply with censorship guidelines. Police, being a hierarchical breed, tended to impose conspiracies, subversive organizations, and ringleaders where none in fact existed, thus causing much unnecessary hardship among those who merely wanted peace and workers’ rights but stood accused of much more serious crimes.

As it happened, one of the more outrageous conspiracies of the war occurred not among the pacifists and socialists, but between the Ministry of Munitions and the German optics firm of Carl Zeiss. The British government was running dangerously low on binoculars, telescopic sights, rangefinders, and other precision optical equipment, and English optics factories were not able to keep up with demand. So the British government, through neutral Switzerland, reached an agreement: in exchange for tens of thousands of military optical instruments, Britain would provide Germany with rubber, which could not get through the naval blockade, and which Germany could not fabricate synthetically in useful quantities. Records detailing the amounts of rubber transacted and the duration of the arrangement have been lost, but the trade stands as a testament to the exigencies of war, and profit.

It’s the priceless anecdotes like this one that make To End All Wars such a fascinating read. Most histories of the Great War worth their salt give the reader a good sense of the vast scale of suffering and  the tragic waste the War brought about. But few histories capture the little incongruities, ironies, and absurdities, the quirks of personality and the odd coincidences, that make war comprehensible on a human scale: the shock on the faces of the German and Austro-Hungarian foreign ministers, signatories of the Central Powers’ armistice with Russia, when they meet their Soviet counterparts—a pair of Jewish intellectuals, a rough-hewn worker, a soldier in fatigues, a sailor, a drunken peasant, and a woman who had done hard time for assassinating the Tsar’s war minister. Most accounts of the War present some version of the “Christmas Truce” of 1914; Hochschild’s recounts the reaction to it on the home front, as well as the less well-known story of what happened on Christmas 1915, when the men observed a cease-fire as best they could, in spite of strict orders from the top that a repeat of the previous year’s “Truce” was forbidden. The brief passages that show the anguish of two anti-war patriots, Bertrand Russell and Keir Hardie, as they struggle with a familiar dilemma—“how do you oppose a war without seeming to undermine the husbands, fathers, and brothers of your fellow citizens whose lives are in danger,” and without condemning a system of government that you feel is flawed but basically good?  By showing us how the Great War affected civilian life, and how conscientious civilians tried, fruitlessly, to put a stop to the killing, Hochschild allows the reader to better see the parallels to the state of affairs today, as the same dynamic unfolds all around us, again.

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