Adam Hochschild?

In the past, when Andrew Motion has written about the First World War, my reaction has sometimes been negative.

It’s only fair, then, to record that his review of a new book in today’s Guardian seems very thoughtful.

The book is To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain by journalist Adam Hochschild.  The book deals with  opposition to the Great War,  from intellectuals like Bertrand Russell to forgotten mutineers and conscientious objectors, and its thesis seems to be that the War created a rift in British society. Motion points out, though, that the country remained remarkably united during  four long and difficult years, and dissidents remained a tiny minority:

But for complicated and interesting reasons the army held its shape, and the country kept its faith, right through to the bitter end of the war. The objectors were brave and sensible and far-sighted and (it’s reasonable to argue) right. But they can hardly be said to have divided Britain.

It sounds as though Mr. Hochschild is one of those writers who assumes that what seems obvious to him in hindsight must have been clear at the time, and therefore opposition to the War must have been large-scale and significant. But the historical record says it just ain’t so – in comparison with the Boer War, for example, which genuinely did divide the nation into two large hostile parties.

The question is – is this book worth reading? Does it extend our understanding of opposition to the War beyond Will Ellsworth-Jones’s very readable We Will Not Fight? If anybody has read this book, can they let me know?

3 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just finished an article by the author:
    http://www.theamericanscholar.org/i-tried-to-stop-the-bloody-thing/

    He doesn’t seem to be saying that the country was divided into large opposing camps, only that there was a principled anti-war movement that grew as the war progressed. (Title does seem a bit misleading!)

    For me, it was useful information about people I don’t know much about. And an interesting perspective on the alternatives to “total victory” and a reminder that we’re directly affected by all of it.

  2. Posted May 7, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this link. If the article is a taster for the book, he doesn’t seem to be saying much that isn’t available elsewhere, and he isn’t very accurate. The Man Who Stayed at Home is not, as he claims, a mockery of pacifists; rather, it pokes much fun at the women who handed out white feathers to anyone who behaved like a pacifist.
    Parts of the article try to work on the reader’s emotions in a dubious manner. Of Keir Hardie Mr Hochschild writes:

    Crushed and broken by the slaughter, he died of pneumonia later that year, at 59.

    Hardie’s pneumonia followed a series of strokes to which overwork may have been a contributing factor, but to imply that he was killed by the War is pretty sentimental stuff. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to read the book.

  3. Posted May 19, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Christopher Hitchens reviewed the book for the New York Times last week: it’s the usual self-congratulatory stuff, complete with the confident (and evidence-free) assertion that had the Americans not entered the war “universal exhaustion would almost certainly have compelled an earlier armistice, on less savage terms.”


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