Title: To End All Wars
Rating: 5 Stars
I kind of have an obsession with World War I. It’s fascinating to me on many levels.
Why did it even start? Oh sure, I understand that the Archduke was assassinated, which caused Austria to threaten Serbia, which caused Russia to back Serbia, which caused Germany to back Austria, which France to back Russia, and so on. But still, when you read about it, you get the sense that no one actually expected it to happen. Everyone was expecting that some sane person would come along with a proposal or a plan that would allow parties to gracefully exit.
The events quickly moved out of anyone’s control. Once armies started mobilizing, it was done. Armies were on such strict timetables that once started, the machine quite literally could not be turned off.
Four empires were destroyed by the war. There was of course the German Empire and the Kaiser. They were the young ‘uns. The other three, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman, were all hundreds of years old. In four short years, hundreds of years of European history were rewritten.
This truly marked the beginning of the twentieth century. From WWI, governments muscled up to immense size to deal with the demands of total war. Mass industrialization scaled up to feed and arm millions. The quiet pastoral nineteenth century was gone forever.
To End All Wars focused on two responses to WWI. First of all, there is the militarization. For historians, this is pretty well known material, and it’s the stuff of nightmares. You have incompetent generals who, in the year 1914, after having seen how the new era of machine guns decimated infantry in the Boer War and other wars in Africa, somehow seemed to believe that horse cavalry attacks would somehow make the difference in this war and that infantry rushes by doomed men wearing red trousers would somehow fight their way through murdering cross fire just due to their elan. In hindsight, it is fucking insane and actually infuriating. US Grant was considered the butcher of the Civil War, but Douglas Haig makes him look like Buddha. Many hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives due to generals incapable of adjusting to a new reality.
Many horrible firsts were initiated during the war. Among many, there was the first flamethrower, the first use of poisonous gas, and the first tanks.
A couple of facts provide some context to the uselessness of this war. In 1915, after a brutal battle lasting many months and costing hundreds of thousands of casualties, the allied forces reclaimed a total of 8 out of 19,500 miles. Secondly, the very first and the very last English casualties of the war are buried within yards of each other.
On the other side are the pacifists. Some of these are truly heartbreaking. You have the socialist leaders, forswearing all war, claiming universal brotherhood, and then you watch their heart break as their union brothers, caught up in war fever, broke ranks, joined the army, and proceeded to murder each other for reasons that really aren’t clear today.
On a personal level, you have the story of John French and Charlotte Gespard. They were brother and sister. French was the head of the British Expeditionary Forces at the start of WWI. Gespard was a noted suffragette and an ardent pacifist during the war. Interestingly enough, this conflict did not affect their relationship. However, when French became head of the government in Ireland and ruthlessly suppressed the rebellion, Gespard, a strong support of Irish self rule, broke with her brother and never saw him again.
Many other stories are told. This is just a wonderful book that lays out the horrendous impact that WWI had on both the soldiers that fought it and the civilians that fought against it.