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WWI: A Moral Contest Between Pacifists And Soldiers

Adam Hochschild frames his pensive narrative history about the first World War with accounts of his own walks through what once was the Western Front. He describes it as "a thin band of territory, stretching through northern France and [a] corner of Belgium [that] has the greatest concentration of young men's graves in the world."

Amid the cemeteries and the monuments, the undetonated explosives and helmets, belt clips and other rusted metal — some half-million pounds of which continue to be unearthed from farmers' fields every year -- Hochschild stumbles upon something singular. A few miles outside of the Flemish town of Ypres, he spots a homemade, chest-high wooden cross, and next to it, blown over by the wind, a small potted fir tree with some silver balls attached. This ragged tribute stands in memory of the impromptu Christmas Truce of 1914, when thousands of British and German soldiers and officers put down their arms, traded cigarettes and canned food, and even staged soccer matches in no man's land. Hochschild says this is the one monument along the entire Western Front "celebrating anyone for doing something other than fighting or dying."

Hochschild's new book, To End All Wars, can be thought of, in metaphorical terms, as something like both a traditional war monument and that pacifist Christmas tree. His book traces the wellsprings of the fervent patriotism that seemed to instantly materialize in Great Britain in the summer of 1914, as well as the patchy but persistent British resistance to the war.

"By conflict's end," Hochschild says, "more than 20,000 British men of military age refused the draft. ... More than 6,000 served prison terms under harsh conditions: hard labor, a bare-bones diet, and a strict 'rule of silence.' " This is the kind of investigatory history Hochschild pulls off like no one else. As he demonstrated in his last book, Bury the Chains, about the 18th-century movement to end slavery in Great Britain, Hochschild is a master at chronicling how prevailing cultural opinion is formed and, less frequently, how it's challenged.

Adam Hochschild is the author of seven books, including <em>King Leopold's Ghost</em> and <em>Bury the Chains</em>. He teaches at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
/ Spark Media
Spark Media
Adam Hochschild is the author of seven books, including King Leopold's Ghost and Bury the Chains. He teaches at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Although Hochschild doesn't aim to write yet another comprehensive history of World War I, the military aspect of his narrative is undeniably gripping. Other historians have discussed the horrors that innovations like barbed wire, tanks and chlorine gas wrought on a British army that, in the early years of the war, still placed its highest confidence in horses and lances.

But, through eye-witness accounts and official correspondence, Hochschild makes a reader feel anew the shock of modern technological warfare. The much less familiar World War I story that Hochschild uncovers is that of the resisters. To his credit, Hochschild renders the pacifists' tales no less compelling than those of the soldiers in the trenches. It's an oddity of history — and a boon to Hochschild's narrative — that some of the most vocal critics of the war were closely related to its most ardent supporters. Suffragist and pacifist Charlotte Despard was the sister of Sir John French, commander in chief on the Western Front. The famous Pankhurst family of suffragists was so torn apart by vicious disagreements about the war that its matriarch, Emmeline, broke off all contact with her pacifist daughter, Sylvia.

The price others paid for resisting was, of course, even harsher. Hochschild writes that in 2006, the British government granted a blanket posthumous pardon to more than 300 executed World War I soldiers who had refused to fight.

In To End All Wars, Hochschild gives readers much more than an account of dissension in the trenches and on the British home front. He enlarges on the deeper question that has engrossed him throughout most of his writing: Namely, what does it take for a person to shake off the shackles of conventional wisdom and think for him or herself? What punishments does society mete out? What apologies does posterity sometimes offer to those courageous enough to see things differently?

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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