Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

To End All Wars. A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War — Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

To End All Wars. A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War
by Adam Hochschild
London, Basingstoke and Oxford: Pan Macmillan, 2011

To End All Wars is an unusual history of World War One because it combines the stories of those who fought with those who chose not to. The war cast doubt on the "reasonableness of humanity". Only one group, argues Hochschild, remained "reasonable throughout — the conscientious objectors. Their story is not victorious, he concludes, because war is still with us. Hothschild describes the war as a conflict not only of loyalties but also of dreams.

The first three parts of To End All Wars introduce the characters whom Hochschild follows throughout the war years. They include generals, trade unionists, feminists, agents provocateurs, a writer, lion tamer, a cabinet minister, a working-class journalist, three soldiers brought before a firing squad, and a young idealist. In the first few months, the voices against war were few. Indeed, military recruiters were warmly welcomed everywhere, notes Hochschild, because the war was associated with glory, purification, and liberation. The suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the few women to speak out against the war. Her views are discussed in Chapter 8 against the background of the losses in battle that began to be reported in newspapers like the Times.

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In Chapter 11, "In the Thick of It", Hochschild discusses the reactions to the German bombing of London in 1915. He discusses how Bertrand Russell, a prominent antiwar activist, heard "a shout of bestial triumph in the street". On leaping out of bed to investigate, Russell realized with disgust that people were shouting with joy because the German occupants of a zeppelin were burning to death. Chapter 11 also describes how Sylvia Pankhurst watched in horror as a German baker was badly beaten and a German woman was beaten unconscious.

The losses at Loos and the introduction of conscription brought the issue of conscientious objection to the fore. Chapter 13, "We Regret Nothing", is devoted to the principles of pacifism and the bravery of its practitioners. Describing Britain's antiwar movement, it emphasizes the courage of the conscientious objector: "When the guns were firing and the pressure from friends and family to support the war effort was overwhelming, it required rare courage to resist" — a conclusion drawn also by Felicity Goodall in We Will Not Go to War (see my review).

Chapter 14, "God, God, Where's the Rest of the Boys?" is particularly evocative. Devoted to the horrendous conditions under which conscientious objectors were imprisoned, it contains a number of firsthand accounts. One such addresses "Field Punishment Number One", whereby the prisoner was trussed to a prison fence, arms held open in crucifix position:

We were placed with our faces to the barbed wire of the inner fence . . . . I found myself drawn so closely to the fence that when I wished to turn my head I had to do so cautiously to avoid my face being torn by the barbs. To make matters less comfortable, it came on to rain and the cold wind blew straight across the top of the hill.

"White Feather" Scene from Downton Abbey

Conscientious objectors went on hunger strikes and were force-fed like the suffragettes. It was the rule of silence, however, that was generally considered the most trying feature of imprisonment.

The war unleashed witch hunts for traitors. The general public fury directed at conscientious objectors, particularly after the introduction of conscription, was enormous. British conscientious objectors were able to take some courage from the 500 American war resisters who, with the introduction of conscription (the draft) by the Selective Service Act in 1917, also refused any sort of alternative service and went to prison. One well-known resister was the labor leader Eugene V. Debs, who had been imprisoned for giving a series of antiwar speeches. Refusing to repent on the grounds that he was "standing like a man", he was still in his cell in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1920.

At the end of the war, conscientious objectors noted that the general public had learned little from the war; their jubilation on the signing of the Armistice was frighteningly similar to the cheering at the outbreak of war just four years earlier. Hochschild also emphasizes that some soldiers returning from the front praised the conscientious objectors for their wisdom and steadfastness. The story of Albert Rochester is moviningly told. He shared a cell with three soldiers subsequently executed for abandoning their posts and later dug graves for them (presumably temporary) and later gave speeches across Britain about what he had witnessed. [Text here revised from original.]

Sylvia Pankhurst Under Arrest

The final chapter of To End All Wars, "An Imaginary Cemetery", is not in honor of those who were confident that they would win their struggle through fighting but of the pacifists who knew in advance that they would lose — conscientious objectors like Bertrand Russell, who later declared, "I felt that for the honor of human nature those who were not swept off their feet should show that they stood firm." As Hochschild concludes in the final paragraph, "their battle could not be won in 1914–1918, but it remained, and still remains, to be fought again — and again."

To End All Wars is a remarkable account of a group who stood firm, resisted public opinion, and paid a high price for their principles. Hochschild's study is particularly effective because it integrates the story of the conscientious objector into the wider context of the war. It also tells the story of the individual. The product of many years of research, To End All Wars is copiously annotated and contains an extensive bibliography. At the same time, it is highly readable. Above all, it is both compassionate and sympathetic.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam


  1. I read this when it first came out, and heard Mr. Hochschild speak about it at the SF Public Library. The book does an outstanding job looking at the complex relationship between Sir John French and his sister Charlotte Despard. Ms. Despard was a passionate suffragette, socialist, social reformer, labor activist, advocate for the poor, and a dedicated peace activist. She was a friend of Marx' daughter and served as a delegate to the Second International in 1896. During the Battle of Loos in 1915 she addressed an anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square and after Britain introduced conscription in early 1916 she traveled the country speaking publicly against it.

    Here's the link to a great article on these two in History Today from 2011:

  2. Albert Rochester did NOT witness the execution of three conscientious objectors. He referred to three men of the Durham Light Infantry, L/Cpl John McDonald (quitting his post), L/Cpl Peter Goggins (quitting his post) and Sgt Joseph Stones ( shamefully casting away his arms in sight of the enemy).

    It is most likely that their status as non commissioned officers meant that they became part of the 10% of death penalties actually carried out in the British army in the First World War. With promotion comes responsibility.The three were NOT buried in unmarked graves, they lie in the St Pol Communal Cemetery extension under normal CWGC headstones..

    1. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. We checked the original text of Mr Hochschild and revised the passage covering Albert Rochester's experience.

  3. Was conscientious objection (whether by that name or another), or indeed protest of any similar kind against a war, ever seen before the First World War? Or does the book explore this at all? I am wondering if this is a phenomenon that originated with this war.

    Personally, I can understand objection to the Great War as a particular war – geopolitically unnecessary, wasteful of soldiers’ lives in excess of any possible gain, etc. – but pacifism as a universal principle makes little sense to me.

  4. Henry, conscientious objection has been practiced by certain faiths for a few centuries at least, most notably Quakers but also Mennonites, Amish, and similar groups. Swarthmore College has an interesting website with resources on CO: It notes CO's long history, even when the US was a British colony: "During the years before the Revolutionary War, Quakers and Mennonites did not join in when their neighbors fought the Indians and worked on their forts. Their steadfast adherence to their stance against taking up arms eventually won them exemption from militia duty, and communities were generally content to let them stand aside, in part because they were also hard working and good neighbors who fulfilled all other civic duties."

  5. I bet there were no 'conscientious objectors' in Belgium as the Germans rolled through. It is a sad note as true then as now, that Freedom isn't free...