In To End All Wars, Adam Hochschild pairs an account of British soldiers at war in France during World War I with a report of the efforts of pacifists and war resisters back home in England. The result is a book that is powerful in its detail and that engenders a gut-level understanding of the terrible disruptive impact of war in the field and at home.
The so-called “War to End All Wars” turns out to have been anything but, for in its ending lay the seeds of World War II. The death toll of that second total war was higher than the first but, as Hochschild clearly shows, it was only technologically and morally possible because of the first, whose scale of carnage—futile, needless carnage at that—had simply been unimaginable before.
What makes To End All Wars so moving, so convincing and so readable is that Hochschild, who also wrote King Leopold’s Ghost and Bury the Chains, grounds his narrative in the lives of a fascinating array of historical personalities, ranging from Rudyard Kipling, who glorified the war and lost a son to it, to Emmeline Pankhurst, a feminist and anti-war activist who changed sides and alienated her activist daughter. Among the most interesting and telling of these personalities was anti-war activist Charlotte Despard, who continued to love and support her brother, John French, an ambitious military officer “who was destined to lead the largest army Britain had ever put in the field.”
Near the end of his book, Hochschild notes that “the conflict is usually portrayed as an unmitigated catastrophe,” but recently some historians have begun to argue that the war was necessary. Readers of To End All Wars will surely beg to differ.