Howling Down Lord Lansdowne

Margaret MacMillan
Content Type
Journal Article
The National Interest
Issue Number
Publication Date
May 2011
Center for the National Interest
Our risk-averse culture regards the Great War with pity and horror. Adam Hochschild too adopts this war-is-hell view. But nationalism, patriotism and camaraderie motivated Europe's citizens to take up arms.
Political Geography
Russia, Europe
Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 480 pp., $28.00. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 IT IS hard today, as Europe fusses ineffectually over what to do about the murderous Colonel Qaddafi, or a host of other problems—from the Greek financial collapse to the challenges of immigration—to remember that only a hundred years ago the Continent was the undoubted center of the world. European countries dominated much of the globe either through direct or indirect empires; European capital financed the world's trade and development; European science and technology, Europe's military capabilities—all were more powerful than any others known. And Europeans mostly felt that the world was as it should be, that they had the skills, the advanced civilization and indeed the moral right to rule it for their own benefit and, so it was assumed, for that of the lesser peoples. The picture was more complicated than that of course, and the Europe of that golden last summer of peace was uneasy and uncertain about the future. Many European countries were deeply divided between rich and poor, old aristocracies and new middle classes, or between different languages and religions. The elites feared revolution; the oppressed classes, that it would never come. And there were nationalisms—both old and new—demanding their places in the sun, threatening the very existence of the long-lived multinational empires, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Intellectuals, so often the canaries in the mine, were questioning the very notions of reason and civilization that had sustained European self-confidence during the long nineteenth century (a time which had been largely peaceful for Europe—if not for much of the rest of the world). The war, when it came in August 1914, was not entirely unexpected. Indeed, in some quarters it was welcomed as a clearing of the air after a series of crises in the Balkans and elsewhere. It is easy in retrospect to point to the inevitability of the conflict, but formidable counterforces existed as well: a growing middle-class pacifist movement—or at least the hope that disarmament and nonviolent ways of settling differences could make war unnecessary; the powerful Second International, an association of working-class organizations, which said repeatedly that its millions of members would go on strike rather than to war; or the conviction of bankers that the costs to economies of modern fighting made it simply unsustainable beyond a short period. Most of the military plans assumed too that there would be decisive confrontations within months and then the usual business of making peace and readjusting borders. Few realized how great was the capacity of European economies and how many resources governments were going to be able to mobilize. And though many military thinkers were concerned about the growing power of defense—rapid-firing guns, trenches and barbed wire that made it increasingly difficult and costly to attack well-defended positions—with that human capacity for unreasoning optimism (which we have seen demonstrated so clearly in the lead-up to the recent financial crisis), they argued away their fears. Soldiers would simply have to be better trained and more highly motivated to triumph in the face of greater odds. The effects of the Great War are still with us. The graves still dot northern France and Belgium, their rows almost unimaginable in their multitude. People still die on the old battlefields when unexploded shells suddenly come to life. Yet, the Great War remains a puzzle to later generations. How could that self-confident and self-satisfied Europe with so much to gain from peace have gone over the precipice into an all-out war which gobbled up the lives of its men, destroyed much of its wealth and its inherited riches from the past, brought to an end so many old regimes and hastened Europe itself toward the irrelevancy of today? And once started, how could they—the statesmen, generals, politicians, bankers and ordinary citizens—not see that the war had to be ended? How could the British howl down former–Foreign Secretary Lord Lansdowne when he suggested, after three years of battle, that the government should investigate a negotiated peace? WE ARE nearly at the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of WWI, and American journalist Adam Hochschild's new book, To End All Wars,is a harbinger of what will undoubtedly be a major retrospective. His aim, he says, is to look at the people caught up in the conflict, particularly in Britain, at those who supported it and at those who opposed it. What were they loyal to? Family, friends, nation, ideals, principles? He has assembled a rich and varied cast of characters: on the pro-war side the writer Rudyard Kipling, whose heart was broken when his only son was killed; the general and first commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French, better at seducing other men's wives and spending money than directing the battlefield; or the statesman Alfred Milner along with the love of his life, Violet Cecil. Among the antiwar figures are philosopher Bertrand Russell, the great Labour leader Keir Hardie and French's sister, Charlotte Despard, already a radical before 1914, who became a leading opponent of the war. (She continued to enjoy all the privileges of her class, of course, although she called her chauffeur Comrade Tom.) Not all radicals became antiwar by any means. The appalling Emmeline Pankhurst and her equally ghastly daughter Christabel were vocal suffragettes who, once war broke out, threw themselves into organizing the British to support the effort. Their Women's Social and Political Union, whose tactics in peacetime had included hunger strikes and arson, focused its energies on the German threat. When the other Pankhurst daughter, the pacifist-socialist Sylvia, demurred, they cut all ties with her. It is curious that, among the leading antiwar figures, Hochschild does not mention Norman Angell, the hugely influential journalist. It is clear where Hochschild's own sympathies lie; war, he argues, is hell and should be avoided whenever possible, not least because it has unintended consequences. Those who wanted the Great War—and he hints that there are parallels today—were driven by absurd ideas of glory. Echoing a common accusation, he sees the generals largely as callous and incompetent. The Battle of Loos is described as typical, “a blatant, needless massacre initiated by generals with a near-criminal disregard for the conditions their men faced.” Douglas Haig, the senior British commander, is portrayed as unimaginative and brutally indifferent to the suffering of those in his charge, clinging to the hope that his beloved cavalry would win battles long after it became clear that this was a new kind of war. Certainly, there were officers like French whose own deputy called him a “little fool,” but there were also many who agonized over the hideous casualties. And Haig himself was not averse to trying new methods and weapons. The problem was, however, deeper than the leadership. Technology and industry, the very things that had made Europe so powerful, now made battle long and bloody. As historians such as Hew Strachan have shown, the generals on all sides were desperately trying to find ways to break the deadlock with new weapons (like the tank) or new techniques (like storm troopers) or attacks on the weaker flanks of the enemy. In the first years of the war, though, the power of the defensive repeatedly proved too strong. The Gallipoli Campaign, during which the British and French launched a naval attack on the approaches to Constantinople and the crucial straits, was intended to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. It was a failure, in part because Turkish defenses proved surprisingly effective. Allied mistakes and a divided command did not help. German unrestricted submarine warfare was another attempt to end the war quickly by starving Britain of supplies. Here, the British navy eventually dealt with the challenge by using convoys and better antisubmarine measures. So the battlefields and massive frontal attacks remained, for all their obvious problems, the most likely way of defeating the enemy. In WWI's closing stages, when the advantage did swing back toward the offensive, lines that had lasted for nearly four years finally broke. It was not meant to have been an all-out war of attrition, but as the fighting dragged on and the losses mounted, it became harder, not easier, to talk of ending the conflict. How could governments tell their publics that, after all their sacrifices, the war was going to end with no gains and no clear victory? Hochschild writes with his usual verve and shows something of the terrible dilemmas posed by the war, but the book somehow lacks shape and focus. He cannot resist straying from his central theme, for example, to tell us in detail how poison gas worked, or how Lenin was taken in his famous sealed train across Germany toward the Russian Revolution. And while using biography to illustrate great themes and issues is a good and effective technique, his choice of characters sometimes seems more determined by the fact that he finds them interesting than that they are important or representative of larger groups. It would have been helpful to have more on the role of middle-class liberals, for example, and more analysis of the various bodies opposed to the war—on their roles, their influence and their impact. And was, as Hochschild asserts, opposition to the war really highest in Britain? Higher than in France, where much of the army mutinied in 1917? Or in Russia, where there was an uprising against the czarist regime itself? To be sure, twenty thousand British men refused to be conscripted, but that is a very small number indeed compared to those who claimed exemption on domestic or employment grounds, and miniscule in comparison to the millions who volunteered or went without complaint. IN A curious way, one of the most interesting questions about the war is not why the French army mutinied or Russia had its revolution but why it took so long for that to happen. In both countries, the soldiers abroad and the public at home had endured the bloody stalemate for three years as trench warfare seemed to make any kind of definitive victory impossible, and still the French army regrouped and survived. Russia may have pulled out of the war in 1917, but that was after much fighting, great defeats and increasingly severe privation at home. The British and German armies held together until the end. The Italians managed to reorganize and regroup even after the disastrous Isonzo and Caporetto campaigns when over half their fighters were lost. Yet, because of the power and appeal of the antiwar literature in the 1920s and 1930s, we have tended to think of the conflict as something that everyone hated, that the soldiers were somehow manipulated or terrorized into submission. There may be some truth in this—both sides used increasingly sophisticated propaganda. We ought, though, at least consider the possibility that many of those fighting and supporting the war on the home front thought they knew what they were doing. (And it is worth remembering that patriotic literature after the conflict far outsold antiwar memoirs and that war memorials, at least initially, were largely seen as tributes to dead heroes rather than sites of mourning for unnecessary losses.) In fact, there was never a serious antiwar movement in Britain. Those who opposed the fight from the start, or who grew to hate it, managed to be a cause of some concern to the authorities, but not much more than that. Nor is there much evidence, in spite of what some said at the time, that German money and German agents were fueling attempts to subvert the war effort. One of Hochschild's many villains is Basil Thomson of the Special Branch (an intelligence unit set up by the British government to protect the state against subversives), who, he says, painted an alarmist picture in part to aggrandize himself. In fact, Thomson, for all his faults, was much less alarmist than many in the government. He assured the war cabinet that Norman Angell's Union of Democratic Control had little appeal beyond the intellectuals (always an unimportant group in Britain) and was not revolutionary at all. That is not to say that those who opposed the war or who argued for a negotiated peace were not brave. Many of them lost their jobs or went to prison. Until a public campaign put a stop to some of the worst practices, conscientious objectors were singled out for particularly rough treatment. But by the end of the conflict, encouraged in part by the revolution in Russia, protests against the war had merged into a more general criticism of British society. MUCH RECENT work by historians such as Adrian Gregory in Britain, and Annette Becker and Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau in France, has tried to recover the thoughts and emotions, not just of articulate middle-class writers, but also of a wider range of Europeans. What they have discovered is that people supported the war for any number of reasons. Camaraderie was surely part of it; soldiers fight and die for their comrades. In Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, the young men feel out of place when they go home on leave; they long to be back with their friends where they not only share a knowledge and understanding but where they know that they will die for each other. The poet Siegfried Sassoon made his public protest against the British war effort, but he went back to the front all the same because he could not imagine staying away. Robert Graves, who wrote one of the most powerful of the antiwar works, Goodbye to All That, was also ambivalent about the experience of battle. For all those former soldiers who condemned the war, we should remember that there were also a great many who remembered it with at least some nostalgia. Veterans' associations sprang up in all countries, and their members marched annually in uniform. The habits of deference and obedience, which were to be largely shattered by the war (the numerous mistakes and evident mismanagement of the effort on both sides showed clearly that the upper classes did not know best), also played a part in keeping the armies fighting on. As Dick Diver says in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night: This land here cost twenty lives a foot that summer. . . . See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation. And then there was the patriotism and idealism. People on all sides of the war thought that they were fighting for something and not just against an enemy. The Germans saw themselves defending their civilization against a barbaric Russia, and the French and the British felt much the same about Prussian militarism. The hatred of the enemy sometimes reached absurd heights—the edited series Cambridge Medieval History dropping all German contributors; German music being banned in London; or the town of Berlin-Potsdam in my own country of Canada being renamed Kitchener-Waterloo. The British royal family, which was German, hastily changed its name to Windsor, provoking a rare joke from Kaiser Wilhelm II that he would now go to the theater to see The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Nevertheless, the emotions were real and sprang from the grass roots even though they were also encouraged from above. In its least attractive form, patriotism took on the logic of social Darwinism, that perversion of the theory of evolution which held that nations or peoples were like species; those that adapted best would win the fight for survival. Before 1914 and even during the fighting, learned professors argued that a brisk conflict was stimulating for the nation and that bloodletting was in fact healthy. The war helped to discredit such ideas although perhaps not completely. THERE WAS more to the patriotism shown during the war than such intellectual theories, however. Indeed, it all might not have happened without the growth of nationalism in the nineteenth century; it was most certainly sustained by it. In the decades before WWI, the spread of literacy and education, the growth of the popular press and urbanization all contributed to the veneration of the nation. Commemorations of great victories such as the Battle of Trafalgar, when the British trounced the French and Spanish navies during the Napoleonic Wars, and national remembrance days became increasingly popular. The victory of Prussia and its allies over France in the war of 1870–1871 was seen in the new Germany as evidence of the superiority of their nation. That was echoed in the academic curricula and, as the kaiser said to a committee on school reform in 1890, “I seek soldiers . . . we should educate young Germans, not young Greeks and Romans.” In Britain, the mass press and a host of alarmist novels like Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands fanned popular fears of German territorial ambitions. In most European countries, young men were encouraged or even obliged to join cadet corps and were eventually conscripted to do military service. Even the growing interest in sports and the outdoors had military overtones; young people were expected to be strong and healthy so that they could better serve their nations. In Britain, which did not have conscription, the Christian Boys' Brigade, the Boy Scouts and the Volunteers, for those older men who wished to be part-time soldiers, were all highly popular. At Oxford, a third of all male undergraduates were members of the Officers' Training Corps of the British Army. Patriotism took on many of the attributes of religion, with talk of sacrifice and rebirth, while organized religion often became part of the cult of the nation. When the war broke out, all sides said “God is with us” (or Gott mit uns or Dieu est de notre côté) without the embarrassment that such claims might create today. “The Supreme Sacrifice,” the most popular poster in wartime Britain, showed a soldier embraced by Christ. Those whose faith had made them marginal in prewar societies—the Jews in France or Catholics in Britain—suddenly found themselves part of a crusade. Most armies had chaplains for minority religions and provided public demonstrations of ecumenism, as clergymen of different faiths conducted services. The memoirs and letters of many soldiers express strong spiritual feelings, fear of death to be sure, but also a longing to be worthy of their nation, of their comrades and of their families. French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who as a stretcher-bearer at the front could not expect to survive (though in the end, he did), wrote: “The war stripped away the surface banalities and conventions. A window opened up on the secret mechanisms and deep layers of human destiny.” The demands of the French soldiers who mutinied after the wasteful and futile Nivelle Offensive in 1917—which the French hoped would be the battle that ended the war but that instead resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties and little territorial gain—make heart-breaking reading. They expect to die; they do not object to that, but rather to their lives being wasted in useless attacks. IT IS always difficult, perhaps impossible, to recapture the emotions and thoughts of people in the past—yet of course we try. We should be careful though not to assume that we in the present have superior insight, that we see clearly in ways that people at the time could not. At the very least, we ought to try to understand why people felt the way they did even if we cannot agree with them. We generally regard the First World War with horror and pity, but we should remember that the feelings of those who lived through it were more complex, moved as they so often were by a sense of the nation and of duty. The acceptance of death is something hard to understand today. Perhaps it is because we do not encounter it as much in ordinary life as people of that time did. It was not unusual for families, even well-to-do ones, to lose children to disease. We in the West also do not believe in the nation as we once did. Certainly our elites do not see themselves as honor bound to take the lead in sacrificing themselves. It is often remarked how few children of congressmen or graduates of elite colleges in the United States feel called upon to join the armed forces and fight in such conflicts as the ones in Iraq or Afghanistan. In the First World War, the upper classes took disproportionately heavy losses because their men were expected to lead in battle. We live now, and this is perhaps particularly true in the West, in a different world, with different values. We may still feel a strong attachment to our nation or to a cause, but the majority of us are less and less inclined to make the sorts of sacrifices, including life itself, that were past generations. This is not necessarily cause for concern; as we have seen so often, too much patriotism can be a dangerous thing. It does pose challenges for us, though, when we face others, whether motivated by religion or their own patriotism, who are prepared to make such sacrifices. If history teaches us anything it is that what we think is the normal state of affairs can change. It may be that the challenges now facing us from the likes of climate change bring a new sort of social compact and a renewed willingness to contribute to a common endeavor. Or will future historians look at us, much as we look at the generation of the Great War, and wonder why we too persisted in a destructive course of action?