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The Great Human Cost of the Great War: Historian Adam Hochschild on Militarists, War Resisters, and the Lost Generation of World War I

What in the earlier days had been drafts of volunteers
were now droves of victims. 
—Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

It’s been almost a century since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo ignited an unexpectedly destructive war between the Great Powers in 1914.  It was referred to then as the “Great War,” and later described by President Woodrow Wilson as “the war to end all wars.”   Rather than ending war, the seeds of future conflicts were sown on the battlegrounds of this bloody conflagration that left millions of soldiers and civilians dead and empires in ruin.

At least 8.5 million soldiers died on all fronts and more than 21 million were wounded, according to conservative estimates.  According to some accounts, civilian deaths were even higher, estimated at 12 to 13 million when including those killed in combat as well as victims of the Armenian genocide and those who died of famine in Germany and Austria-Hungary and the areas they occupied. 

The British alone lost 722,000 soldiers killed, and the combat death toll was half again as many for Austria-Hungary, roughly double that number for France and Russia, and nearly triple that for Germany.  Despite the unceasing carnage and powerful voices decrying the war, by its conclusion in 1918, a majority of the citizens in each of the warring countries continued to support the war effort.

In his new book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Adam Hochschild presents a unique history of the First World War by focusing particularly on the moral drama in Britain.  He contrasts the lives of those who ardently welcomed and initiated the war as a noble crusade with those who saw the war as absolute madness and decried the brutalizing endeavor despite the high price of resistance. 

Hochschild shares stories of a war that divided friends, work mates and even prominent families such as the devoted pacifist woman whose brother was commander-in-chief on the Western Front, and the sisters who fought together for women’s suffrage before the war but split on the war and published newspapers that attacked each other.  And Hochschild recounts vividly the human cost of the Great War—the enormous toll of death and maiming injuries left by a new mechanized war of machine guns, poison gas, barbed wire and tanks; the gruesome conditions of life in filthy, damp, rat-infested trenches; and the wave after wave of young soldiers who obeyed orders, marched forward and were butchered by ferocious fire as remote generals planned one ridiculous campaign after another.

Critics have praised To End All Wars for its unique perspective, engaging storytelling and painstaking research.  Renowned poet and human rights activist Carolyn Forche’ wrote: “In prose as compelling as a masterful novel, Hochschild illuminates the lives of those who consigned millions to oblivion, and also introduces us to those who fiercely opposed the carnage—those who imagined, as we might, that the world could be otherwise… Hochschild’s accomplishment, as a writer and historian, is formidable and inspiring.”

Hochschild’s other books include Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son; The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey; The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin; Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels; King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award; and Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction and winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History.  He has also written for The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, Granta, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications.  He is a co-founder of Mother Jones magazine and has been a commentator on National Public Radio and consultant for the BBC.  He teaches narrative writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

Hochschild recently discussed To End All Wars and its resonance now by telephone from his home in Berkeley.

Robin Lindley:  Did To End All Wars grow out of your previous work on human rights history as in King Leopold’s War and Bury the Chains?

Adam Hochschild:  I do like to write about times and places where there were people struggling for what they believe in, and this was another instance of that.  At the same time, I had been fascinated with World War I for many years, as many people are, because of the destructiveness of the war and because of the contrast between that and the expectations of quick victory and quick glory with which both sides began.  And I had personal connections that I write about in the book.

Robin Lindley:  What were your personal connections?

Adam Hochschild:  An uncle of mine by marriage—he married my aunt—was a veteran of the war.  He was a Russian and fought in the Russian army on the ground and in the air as a fighter pilot.  He then fought on the losing side in the Russian civil war, and then he came to the United States and went to work as the chief test pilot for his schoolmate, Igor Sikorsky.  And much to the surprise of everyone in the family, he married my aunt.  I heard him talk about his First World War experiences and met friends of his who were also veterans. 

My father was of military age at the time of the First World War and tried very hard to get into the U.S. Army.  He was bitterly disappointed when he was turned down because he had bad eyesight, although he did succeed in getting into uniform in World War II.

So the war was always a presence in our family.  My mother had several cousins she was very fond of who were killed in the First World War.  It was always a history people talked about in our household.

Robin Lindley:  The “Great War” still has a terrible presence.  Many readers may be surprised that farmers are still digging up corpses from the war and live shells almost a century old continue to injure and kill people on the Western Front.

Adam Hochschild:  That’s right.  The numbers are so enormous.  Just on the Western Front in France and Belgium, which was by no means the only front in this World War, where the fighting was concentrated in this narrow strip of territory for four and a half years, more than 700 million artillery and mortar shells were fired.  They estimate that about 15 percent of them were duds that didn’t go off, and they’re still going off today when a farmer’s plow hits them or when someone digs down, so people are still being killed today.  And they’re still finding corpses because, with the intensity of these artillery barrages, roughly half of the soldiers killed on this front were officially listed as missing because there wasn’t a recognizable body to be found.  When an artillery shell lands it blows a geyser of dirt in the air that comes down over anybody nearby, so they’re still finding these bodies. 

Robin Lindley:  So you have casualties from the First World War almost a century later.  In your book, you contrast the stories of militarists and war resisters, particularly in Britain.  Can you talk about your plan for your unique history of the war?

Adam Hochschild:  I was really interested in two things.  One was the people who made the war:  the generals, the prime ministers, the war ministers and so on who planned and directed the fighting.  Why did they think that the next battle would be the victorious one?  Why did they think at the beginning victory would be quick and easy?  Why did they think that cavalry would play a major role in the age of the machine gun and barbed wire?  So I was interested in how they thought and where they came from.

The other type of person I was interested in were the war resisters who, for whatever reason, felt that this war was madness and that it was not worth fighting and not worth the risk of millions of lives, and they spoke out loudly and clearly. 

That struggle between those who thought the war was a noble and necessary crusade and those who felt it was absolute madness took place in all the warring countries, but it was by far the most intense in Britain because Britain, unlike France and Belgium for example, had not been attacked at the beginning of the war and many people felt: why should we fight?  It seemed a battle between countries on the mainland of Europe.  Partly because of that feeling there was stronger opposition to the war than in almost any other country that fought-- because Britain had not been attacked.  More than twenty thousand men of military age refused to go into the British Army.  Many of them as a matter of principle also refused the alternative service offered to conscientious objectors such as driving an ambulance at the front or working in a war factory.  And so, more than six thousand of them went to prison.

I wanted to focus this story on Britain to dramatize this conflict between the pacifists and resisters on the one hand, and the generals and so forth on the other.  I wanted this to be not just another history of the war because there are many of those and some are quite good, but rather a history of this war within the war.

Robin Lindley:  The war resisters in Britain were a tiny minority and you capture the immense social pressure to serve and the war fever that swept Britain.  The war was extremely costly, but even by the end, a large majority of Britons still supported the war.

Adam Hochschild:  That was the case in all of the countries involved except Russia where the losses were so enormous and nearly a million Russian soldiers just turned around and walked home.  That was about the only country where antiwar sentiment overcame other feelings. 

Everywhere else, including Britain, France and Germany, there was a feeling that we’ve fought so hard for so long, now if we compromise for peace it will dishonor all of those men who died.  That’s why there was no compromise. 

Robin Lindley:  You point out the great courage of those who refused to go to war in Britain despite the social pressure and penalties these resisters faced.  Your stories of them are poignant, such as the moving love story of Keir Hardie and Sylvia Pankhurst, which may be new to your book.

Adam Hochschild:  It’s not new to the book.  There have been biographies of both of them that quote their letters.  But much of the material in the book such as that has been used by scholars and specialist historians, but not people who are writing for a wide audience or not people who are writing for people in this country.  Most of the things written about Hardie and the Pankhursts were written in England and not here. 

Robin Lindley:  What drew you to the story of Hardie and Sylvia Pankhurst?

Adam Hochschild:  They were extraordinary people.  I admired Hardie particularly.  He came out of absolute dirt-floor poverty.  He was born out of wedlock in Scotland and grew up in extreme poverty, never went to school, and was taught to read by other members of his family.  He learned more about reading by picking up scraps of newspapers in the street and looking at books in the windows of bookstores.  By the time he was 21, he had spent more than half of his life at that point working underground as a miner in Scotland.  Then he became head of the Scottish Mine Workers Union, and then the leading figure in the Independent Labour Party, a left-wing party that was a precursor of today’s Labour Party.

Early on he felt that the most disastrous thing that would set back the labor movement back more than anything else was war [in Europe] and he said so repeatedly.  In early 1914, before the war began, he made an antiwar speaking tour of England and Scotland. He was a noble and compassionate man.  I find him very admirable.

Before the war began, he fell in love with Sylvia Pankhurst, a very inappropriate relationship on both sides.  For his part, because he was married with three children and he was twice her age.  For her part, because she and her mother and her sister were all involved in the most militant wing of the British women’s suffrage movement, which officially took the position that they would not cooperate with male politicians of any type.  So for personal and political reasons this relationship had to be kept completely secret, but it was quite passionate on the part of both to them. 

They seem to have wanted their love letters and love poetry to survive and you can find it in archives today.  I found it very moving to read about because it was not just a love affair, but a love affair between two people who were drawn together in part by their deeply shared feelings about social justice.

Robin Lindley:  Sylvia’s war experience was so troubled with the death of Hardie and the estrangement from her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel because of her antiwar views.

Adam Hochschild:  That’s right.  They ceased being lovers before the war, but they remained close friends.  When the war began, Hardie was absolutely crushed and heartbroken because he expected that his antiwar feelings would be shared by people in the labor movement, and by and large they were not, and he was disappointed.  Then he had a stroke and died when still in his fifties in late 1915 as much because of grief over the war as anything else.

Robin Lindley:  And Sylvia continued to protest the war while her mother and sister were ardent supporters of the war.

Adam Hochschild:  Yes, this is one of the ways I tried to dramatize the split in England over the war by showing that split in families, with the most dramatic in the Pankhurst family.  Prior to the war, the mother Emmeline and two of her daughters, Sylvia and Christabel, had all been militants in the most extreme wing of the British women’s suffrage movement.  They threw rocks through windows, put bombs in mailboxes, and set fire to or blew up buildings at night. They didn’t want to hurt anyone, but they caused a huge amount of damage and got people outraged.  The moment the war began, Emmeline and Christabel ceased all their activity and put themselves at the service of the British government, which was delighted to have them and sent them on speaking tours at home and abroad.

Sylvia had always felt more than the others that the struggle for women’s rights was part of broader struggle for the rights of the dispossessed.  She like Keir Hardie felt the war was a disaster.  She published the most widely read anti-war periodical in Britain during the war.  Her sister was also publishing a pro-war periodical and the two sisters would attack each other in their newspapers.

Robin Lindley:  What were the consequences for Sylvia during the war?

Adam Hochschild:  A couple of times they shut down her newspaper and wouldn’t let it be distributed.  She saw herself shunned and cursed.  If any of the [war resisters] spoke at public rallies soldiers hissed and booed and sometimes forcefully broke up the rallies and beat people up and threw rotten eggs and tomatoes and so on.  Sylvia had been to jail numerous times before the war for women’s suffrage activities.  She was not jailed during the war, but some people were jailed for bravely speaking out against the war such as Bertrand Russell, the great philosopher, and Edwin Dene Morel, the very distinguished investigative journalist.

Robin Lindley:  Bertrand Russell opposed the war and saw it as madness from the outset.

Adam Hochschild:  Yes.  He’s someone I’ve always admired.  I remember reading a biography of him when I was 16 or 17 and being struck by the bravery it must have taken to oppose this war as he did from the start.  It ended a number of his friendships, it lost him his teaching position at Cambridge, it lost him his passport, and eventually he was sent to jail for six months. 

Robin Lindley:  The renowned journalist Edwin Morel who exposed King Leopold’s crimes in the Congo was also jailed for his anti-war views.

Adam Hochschild:  He was jailed because the government wanted to shut him up.  You can find in the archives that government officials conveyed this to each other on paper. They found an obscure law that he violated that had to do with sending anti-war literature out of the country.  They sent him to prison for six months at hard labor and it shattered his health, and I think that was a major reason he died half a dozen years after the war.

Robin Lindley:  And then you have the story of the decorated officer and noted poet Siegfried Sassoon who came back from the front in 1917 and spoke out against the war.

Adam Hochschild:  Right, and Sylvia Pankhurst’s newspaper was the first one to publish his ringing anti-war statement which, coming from a decorated combat veteran, was quite different than coming from a pacifist.  There was hope that this would be the beginning of a stronger wave of anti-war expression, but the government was very clever and, instead of putting him on trial which would have given him the chance to be a martyr, they instead said, “Lieutenant Sassoon, you’re obviously suffering from mental illness,” and they packed him off to a mental hospital for a couple of months, and he was perfectly sane. 

Then he decided he wanted to go back to the front.  He later wrote that “my place was with my men.” That was striking to me and it was such testimony because somebody who thought the war was nonsense and not being fought for worthwhile aims—and [Sassoon] never changed the feeling for his whole life---nonetheless felt so strongly the tie of solidarity with his fellow soldiers that he wanted to be back at the front and fighting.  This is why wars happen and why they continue even when people in the rational part of their minds think they should be stopped.

Robin Lindley:  And it’s remarkable how many possible ways there were to avoid war even after the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Adam Hochschild:  It wasn’t inevitable.  A curious chain of events that set this war in motion.  There was a lot of tension in Europe but, in early June 1914, everyone was getting along with each other quite well.  There was a huge amount of trade across borders.  No country publically claimed a piece of another country’s territory.  And people were focused on other things.  In England, everybody was worried about Ireland, which seemed to be erupting into civil war 

Then this chain of events begins with the assassination of the Archduke.  If that hadn’t happened, there might well have been a war or wars in Europe, but not necessarily drawing in everybody in the way it happened. 

Robin Lindley:  You had those entangling alliances and about six weeks of tragic decisions before the onset of war.  Your book illustrates the great human cost of this industrialized war with the first major use of poison gas, tanks, flamethrowers and particularly machineguns and barbed wire, yet the generals go into the war as though it’s a campaign during the Napoleonic wars and they don’t anticipate the horror of the machine-age destruction they will face.

Adam Hochschild:  I think habit is a very powerful factor here.  For several thousand years, the horse had been a major and often a decisive element in warfare, and coming up through the cavalry was how many of the leading officers on both sides made their careers.  Cavalry regiments tended to be more prestigious than infantry regiments.  Both successive commanders-in-chief of the British forces on the Western Front had been cavalry generals, as were other high British generals. 

So everybody expected that cavalry would be decisive.  When the Germans invaded France and Belgium in 1914, they did so with eight divisions of cavalry, forty thousand horses, and you’d think they would stop and think, “Cavalry charges against barbed wire and machineguns?  What will happen to those horses and the men on them?”  But they didn’t think about this because they imagined the warfare that they had known, which meant colonial wars.  British, French and Germans all fought in colonial wars and they had machineguns against poorly armed Africans and Asians.

They could have looked at other wars.  Primitive machineguns were used in the American Civil War and they were in use in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, but they preferred not to look at those wars.

Robin Lindley:  Some readers may be amazed by the massive slaughter of British troops in battles such as Loos, the Somme and Passchendaele.  As you describe, the Germans were so sickened by mowing down wave after wave of British soldiers at Loos that they eventually ceased firing their machineguns.

Adam Hochschild:  That was one of the early great slaughters in 1915 and fought with spectacular ineptness on the British side.  At one point, they had some ten thousand men advancing in waves and columns with officers at times leading them on horseback against German barbed wire and machineguns.  The Germans fired and at least 80 percent of the British soldiers were killed or wounded in this particular attack.  Many accounts describe how the German machine gunners stopped firing.  They couldn’t continue the slaughter.  That stopping of firing seldom if ever happened again during the war. 

Loos was a horrendous battle and, like many of these battles on the Western Front, huge numbers of lives were expended and maybe a mile or two of territory here or there was gained.  This is the battle where Rudyard Kipling’s son John disappeared and his body was never found. 

Robin Lindley:  Was Douglas Haig or Sir John French in command at Loos?

Adam Hochschild:  They both were involved.  French was still the commander-in-chief and Haig was the general under him who was in charge of this particular section of the front.  Of course, when things went wrong, they blamed each other, but French eventually lost his job as a result. 

Robin Lindley:  Didn’t Haig still maintain that cavalry was the future of warfare even after the war?

Adam Hochschild:  He did.  He kept his cavalry divisions in reserve throughout the war and they were always going to charge through the gap, but of course the gap never appeared.  By the end of the war, they reduced the five cavalry divisions to three, but they were still there.  Then, in the late 1920s just before he died, [Haig] argued forcefully for retaining the cavalry for future wars, saying, for example, that if we ever fight in Poland or Afghanistan we’ll need a lot of cavalry there.  And only in 1928, the year of Haig’s death, was the cavalry lance retired officially from the arsenal of British weapons of war.

Robin Lindley:  That’s incredible following the experience of the war.  It’s amazing that Haig was able to retain his position as commander-in-chief in the west after the losses at Loos and until the end of the war.  Didn’t he avoid visiting  military hospitals and the front?

Adam Hochschild:  He did.  His son said it made him physically ill to do so. 

Robin Lindley:  Haig didn’t seem to care about the human cost and terrible conditions of his men, let alone these periodic slaughters.

Adam Hochschild:  There’s certainly no evidence that it moved him humanly.  That’s in contrast to other generals.  You think about Gen. Eisenhower in World War II.  He really took it to heart when there was a large number of dead bodies after a battle, or when he knew he was giving orders that would result in large numbers of deaths.  He knew this and was deeply troubled by it. With Haig, you don’t get that feeling at all.  

And French mixed with the troops, had a good common touch and was very popular with the troops, even though he made just as many ridiculous decisions as Haig did in sending people into impossible battles.

Robin Lindley:  Do you see parallels with the First World War and our wars now?

Adam Hochschild:  Once a country gets locked into a war, it is very hard to disengage.  Look at the war in Afghanistan now.  It’s been going on for ten years.  There are large numbers of people being killed.  Granted, the Taliban no longer is in power, but the country is a mess.  There is no quick or easy victory in sight and we’re allied with a deeply, deeply corrupt regime there.  It’s a horrible tangle, but there’s such momentum to these things.  Were we to pull out, the administration would be accused of cowardice, running away and so forth.   Wars are easy to get into but hard to get out of.

Robin Lindley:  With the Iraq War, President Bush proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” within a few weeks of the invasion, and that comment seems to echo the rhetoric at the outset of World War I.

Adam Hochschild:  Very much so.  When German troops invaded France and Belgium in August 1914, the Kaiser told them, “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” And the German plan for victory called for Paris to be captured on the forty-second day of the offensive.  Of course, things didn’t happen that way.  The mission is seldom accomplished right at the start whether it’s Kaiser Wilhelm or George Bush or anybody else.

Also, the Iraq War, like the First World War, had colossal unforeseen consequences.  The Iraq War has generated a new generation of Jihadists from a country, which was not generating them to begin with because Iraq didn’t have a connection with the September 11 attacks. 

The First World War had enormous unintended consequences.  Several empires went up in smoke.  The map of Europe was redrawn.  Colonies were re-shuffled in Africa.  And it permanently darkened everybody’s point of view about humanity and what was possible in the world.

Robin Lindley:  And Hitler and Nazism grew out of World War I.

Adam Hochschild:  Absolutely.  It’s hard to imagine the Second World War without the First. The First World War led to the Second not just because of the Versailles Treaty and the humiliation of Germany, which is what historians traditionally talk about, but by something else.  The First World War ended in a peculiar way.  The German public had been fed an enormous diet of triumphal propaganda up to the last minute.  Indeed, in mid-1918, several months before the war ended, it looked as if the Germans had made an enormous breakthrough and were about to capture Paris.  Then, when the Germans asked for and got an armistice—which [was] almost an unconditional surrender—their troops were almost entirely on enemy territory.  They still held a big slice of Belgium, a big slice of France, and an enormous chunk of Russia.  Their troops were still on enemy territory. 

I think it’s the only major war in history that has ended under those circumstances.  The German people were initially told this is an armistice, not a surrender.  German troops came home in good order and were greeted with triumphal archways and cheering crowds and they marched in their fine uniforms.  Then the German public discovered slowly that they were still blockaded and no food was allowed to be imported and the near starvation that pervaded the last couple of years of the war continued. And very humiliating terms were imposed on them: high reparations they had to pay, their territory was shrunk, and so on.  That all laid the fertile ground for Hitler to say we were on the verge of victory but were robbed of it, stabbed in the back by communists and Jews.

Robin Lindley:  Do we learn from our wars?  You’re a co-founder of Mother Jones, and I wondered how you feel about the coverage of wars now by the mainstream media?

Adam Hochschild:  Some of the mainstream media coverage has been fairly good.  What disturbs me is not that we do not know the truth about what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.  That information is out there for anyone who really wants to find it.  I would emphasize different things if I was controlling news broadcasts or whatever, but a lot of the scandalous side of what’s happening from the Abu Ghraib photographs on has gotten attention.

What deeply disturbs me is that the American people are not more aroused by this and have not demanded a stop to these wars earlier than now.  It also disturbs me that when people talk about the deficit, which is indeed a big problem, the military is largely exempt from that.  It’s considered a radical thing to talk about shaving the military budget by five percent.  When the Pentagon talks about making cuts, they’re not talking about cuts [in programs], but cutting planned increases in military expenditures. 

Robin Lindley:  It seems that the mainstream media shirks from showing the reality of war—the cost of war for the military and civilians.

Adam Hochschild:  If you’re interested, you can find photographs, but it’s true.  It’s a long way from being what the television coverage shows.  Americans want to look at photographs of Americans, not terrified Afghan civilians.

Robin Lindley:  You close the book with the quote of pacifist activist Alice Wheeldon, ‘The world is my country.”  The hopes for peace are yet to be realized.

Adam Hochschild:  I think they are.  None of these struggles are quick and easy.  There are people fighting today in the same spirit and for the same thing that the resisters against the First World War fought for.  I just hope we’re more successful.

Robin Lindley:  Who are historians or writers you admire?

Adam Hochschild:  Among historians I admire, I’d put Barbara Tuchman at the top of my list.  I love her work and the way she writes, and she has shown something that is quite important.  If you can write history for a wide audience you can still be scrupulously accurate, show your sources, and all that. 

Robin Lindley:  How do you see your role as a historian?

Adam Hochschild:  For what I try to do as a historian, I think about three things when I sit down to write a book.  First, I like to find a subject where I feel there is something that matters, where there is a moral or ethical issue at stake that mattered to the people I’m writing about.  Then I try to tell a story that is carefully researched and I try like hell to be accurate, which is harder than one would think because you get conflicting sources telling you conflicting things.  And the third thing is I try to write in a way that it’s as accessible to as wide an audience as possible.