Book Review: To End All Wars

'To End All Wars' by Adam Hochschild
‘To End All Wars’ by Adam Hochschild

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars. London: Pan Books, 2011.

By the time we reach the centenary of Armistice Day in 2018, I get the feeling that we might be suffering from a certain degree of World War 1 fatigue. The sheer number of  documentaries, dramatisations, books, ceremonies and art installations will likely make it difficult for any one thing to stand out. I think that To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild has a good chance of leaving a lasting impression.

The story of the first world war is familiar to most of us, but To End All Wars tells the narrative from an unfamiliar perspective; it is about those people who spoke out against the war. Opposition is not discussed in the traditional narratives of the war, the general perception appears to be that it wasn’t criticised until years afterwards. Admittedly critics of the war were few, tested as they were by the “mass patriotic hysteria” (Hochschild, 2011) but they most certainly did exist. On the 2nd of August 1914, there was a huge anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square, with calls for a general strike if war was declared. Prominent campaigners like Keir Hardie, Charlotte Despard and Sylvia Pankhurst continued to oppose the war, with Pankhurst proposing a Women’s Peace Expeditionary Force, where 1000 women would march into no-man’s land between the two armies.

Publicly criticising the war required a great deal of bravery. Those that did were almost instantly ostracised, derided or accused of treachery, labeled as German spies trying to undermine the war effort. Many paid a heavy price for their defiance. For example, the Wheeldon family, socialists who hid soldiers escaping conscription, were convicted in 1917 of the completely false charge of attempting to murder Lloyd George and another member of the war cabinet, victims of a government attempt to disgrace the anti-war movement. 3 family members were sentenced to 5-10 years hard labour after a sham trial that didn’t even last a week.

To End All Wars is arranged chronologically, making the tragic progress of the war appear even more inevitable as the reader can do absolutely nothing to prevent the horrors that we know full well are coming. The style of writing is dramatic, and the book often reads more like a novel than non-fiction. Charlotte Despard, the famous suffragette and anti-war campaigner, was actually the sister of John French, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army until 1915. Hochschild hides this connection though, revealing it like a plot twist at the end of a chapter. The first chapter is spent introducing the key players in the book, developing them like characters. Whilst the approach felt a bit unusual at first, it makes for an engaging and accessible read.

Admittedly, Hochschild does spend a lot of time describing the events of the war, and whilst this is generally useful context, it does sometimes feel like filler, padding out the relatively rare examples of opposition to the war. However on balance this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, that provokes thought about the nature of war and opposition to it, as well as providing a rare new insight into the First World War.