To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain

Jon Lawrence is intrigued by a human history of the First World War that details the impact of the conflict on the micro level

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Reviewed by: Jon Lawrence
Author: Adam Hochschild
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Price (RRP): £20

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In To End All Wars Adam Hochschild offers us a history of the First World War on a human scale. He is careful to sketch the big picture of the war, giving due attention to the eastern as well as the western front, but it is the day-to-day details about individual lives that makes this account stand out.

Perhaps inevitably Hochschild’s cast of characters is skewed towards the rich and/or famous: key military figures such as Douglas Haig and John French, wartime ministers such as Lord Milner and David Lloyd George, writers such as Rudyard Kipling and John Buchan, and a broad range of radical dissenters including Keir Hardie, Bertrand Russell, Charlotte Despard and the Pankhursts.

But what makes this such a good read is that, throughout, the focus is on private as much as public lives, and especially on how war sowed deep, often irreconcilable divisions within families.

Siblings John French and Charlotte Despard had always been divided by politics and social outlook, but before the war they had managed to maintain cordial, even affectionate relations. By 1919 they were not speaking.

The Pankhurst family had also been divided before the war – with younger sisters Sylvia and Adela already estranged from Christabel and their mother Emmeline after arguments over suffragette tactics. But again, these divisions became unbridgeable with the war.

Sylvia and Adela stayed true to their socialist internationalism and opposed the war; Christabel and Emmeline became pro-war ultra-patriots. In both cases, therefore, the war accentuated divisions, it did not create them.

It is also arguable that the final breach between French and Despard was caused more by Ireland than by the First World War.

As the conscription crisis mounted in late spring 1918, French became Viceroy of Ireland and pledged to reassert British authority. Despard, by contrast, became an active supporter of the republicans waging war against the British state, and hence against her brother as its highest representative in Ireland (the IRA came close to assassinating him in 1919).

One also has to acknowledge that neither French and Despard, nor the Pankhursts were exactly typical cases. It seems doubtful whether many families were as deeply and permanently divided by the war.

In some ways Hochschild recognises this with his sympathetic treatment of the Wheeldon family from Derby, who worked tirelessly to help young men evade conscription, and his fascinating account of the railwayman soldier Albert Rochester, who was imprisoned for criticising the army’s wasteful provision of man-servants to its officer class.

Hochschild shows how Rochester’s trade union connections not only secured his release from detention, but also landed him a secure posting away from vengeful officers. But while in custody Rochester witnessed the execution of three young NCOs for alleged cowardice, an act of state barbarism that he never forgot.

After his release he ceaselessly strove to publicise the killings through the same labour networks that had brought his own salvation.

It would take almost a century for Britain officially to recognise the injustice of wartime executions, but popular attitudes shifted more quickly, thanks in part to the dogged determination of men and women like Rochester and the Wheeldons to defy the militarist spirit which justified such barbarism. As Hochschild notes, by 1924 Britain had a prime minister (Ramsay MacDonald) who had been vilified for his anti-war stance, and dozens of MPs who had campaigned vigorously against the war.

Hochschild’s heroes, for there is no doubt where his heart lies, certainly did their bit to debunk HG Wells’s 1914 vision of a war to end war (though as Wells had been quick to acknowledge, the war did even more). 

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Jon Lawrence is a senior lecturer in modern British political history at the University of Cambridge