Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
To End All Wars – How the First World War Divided Britain
Adam Hochschild, Macmillan 2011
There were four houses at my prep school, all named after famed British military leaders. I was glad to be in Nelson – indisputably one of our most inspirational leaders. The others were Drake and Raleigh - good merchant adventurers if you are feeling kind, legalised pirates if you are not. The fourth was Haig. As I grew into adulthood I became increasingly uncomfortable about the founding head’s choice of this role model. Hochschild’s book underlines in capitals Douglas Haig’s many deficiencies. That Hochschild is an American rather than British academic, probably gives him freer rein to sketch Haig’s feet of clay. Even in 1919, Haig was still espousing the merits of the cavalry, judging that in future wars tanks and aircraft would be merely their adjunct. As well as Haig, Hochschild does not spare ink in stressing the incompetence of Sir John French.
A less welcome result of the author’s nationality is the occasional American solecism such as “writing a friend”; or what sounds odd to a European ear: by the end of the war “the Germans had left territory twice the size of Massachusetts in northern France in smoking ruins.” There is also a sprinkling of facts that would hardly enlighten the average British reader “Many of the country’s top generals had graduated from Sandhurst…”
But Hochschild successfully achieves his aim – of providing a narrative of the interaction of the war and European society. It is thus a very useful counterweight to the plethora of more militaristic accounts of WW1. The book’s prologue is the widespread political and social instability in 1914, across not just the UK but most other European countries. He chronicles the widespread excitement at the prospect of war (particularly in Germany), which created that irresistible momentum.
Hochschild is irredeemably entranced by the Pankhurst family, but he notes that the declaration of war caused, to the Government’s great relief, the WSPU (the suffragettes) to call a halt to their protests. British politicians welcomed the war’s broader socially unifying impact
To End All Wars has lots of telling asides: well after Russia has mobilised, with their ill trained army clogging up the transport arteries, the Tsarina is still ordering weekly special trains for fresh flowers for the Imperial Palace from the Crimea 1000 miles away. When the Ottoman Empire came onto the pitch in support of Germany, they called it a jihad. The aristocrat whose last pre-war entry in his game book read “105 partridges”; the next (16 November 1914) read “One Pomeranian”. And did you realise that Germany and Britain were actually trading scarce war materials with each other through the war?
A continuous thread in the volume is the British government’s quest for relentlessly upbeat propaganda (soon under the able novelist John Buchan), and its aggression in stilling the voice of dissent. That the government largely succeeded in manipulating public opinion is shown by more asides such as the head of Eton having to resign after giving a sermon “outlining some possible compromises that might end hostilities”. In this book CO stands for Conscientious Objector rather than Commanding Officer; by the end, and after the demise of many COs in front of firing squads, the reader has a better understanding of their brand of heroism.
Most readers will surely share Hochschild’s dismay at Haig’s fate. After marking the success of a battle by whether British casualties were high enough, showing no rapport with his troops, and displaying his own brand of cowardice in refusing to visit his wounded, Haig was then promoted by George V to Field Marshal to mark 1917’s arrival. There are extended portrayals of some of the other leading players – from Kipling, Cecil, and the colourful Alfred Milner to the less well known such as John S Clarke, lion tamer and socialist editor.
The British government waged a continual battle to suppress the rise of trade unionism and industrial unrest: that 5.8m working days were lost in 1918 shows how tight a struggle it was. Hochschild concludes the gloomy saga by emphasising the shared Anglo-French concern about the spread of Bolshevism. After Germany had lost the war – from its rear rather than its front - he gives credit to those who tried fruitlessly to persuade Lloyd George to diminish the harshness of the Versailles settlement.
All in all a very thought-provoking volume, which provides a valuable antidote to the swell of probably more stridently patriotic books, due to flood the market to mark the 2014 anniversary.
General Sir John Hackett is a terrific observer of the soldiering. In The Profession of Arms (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1983) – not as far as I know a source used by Hochschild – he sums up the two British Army leaders thus:
“The British also made costly errors, not so much of abstract thought as of practical applications. The C-in-C in 1914, Field Marshal French, was a cavalryman like many other senior commanders in the First World War, including Douglas Haig, who was first a corps commander and then the Field Marshal’s successor as C-in-C. Both French and Haig had shown marked abilities as administrators, trainers, and commanders of troops, with distinguished records in the South African war. Neither had the intellectual capacity to evaluate the importance of new techniques, or the imagination to break the bonds of his own experience.”
Eager to enlist, thoughts of striking banished...