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

Friday, August 6, 2021

It's 1920 and H.G. Wells Looks Back at the "War to End All War"

In 1920 H.G. Wells published his monumental and best-selling Outline of History.  C.P. Snow wrote of Wells that he could "throw out a phrase that crystallized a whole argument," and that he "never heard anyone remotely in the same class." Among these phrases were "the War that will end War," coined when he worked with the Ministry of Propaganda under Northcliffe during the First World War.  In his Outline, Wells spends many pages reflecting on the recent war.  Here are some striking quotes I found in rereading his section on the Great War.

Once Given Free for Joining the Book-of-the-Month Club

1.  The Great War of 1914-18 was the culmination of the military energy of the western populations, and they fought and fought well because they believed they were fighting “the war to end war.” 

2.  These tremendous experiences of the war constitute a crowning epoch. In the past six years there must have been a destruction of fixed ideas, prejudices, and mental limitations unparalleled in all history. Never before can there have been so great and so universal an awakening from assumed and accepted things. Never before have men stood so barely face to face with the community of their interests and their common destiny. 

3.  War is a horrible thing, and constantly more horrible and dreadful, so that unless it is ended it will certainly end human society. . . War is war; its only law is the law that the maximum destruction of the forces of the enemy is necessary. To that law in warfare all considerations of humanity and justice are subordinate.

4.  The professional military mind is by necessity an inferior and unimaginative mind; no man of high intellectual quality would willingly imprison his gifts in such a calling.“ 

5.  More lives were wasted by the British generals alone on the opening day of what is known as the Somme offensive of July, 1916 than in the whole French Revolution from start to finish.“

6.  Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. Against the unifying effort of Christendom and against the unifying influence of the mechanical revolution, catastrophe won — at least to the extent of achieving the Great War. 

7.  The terrible experiences of the Great War have made very many men who once took political things lightly take them now very gravely. To a certain small number of men and women the attainment of a world peace has become the supreme work in life, has become a religious self-devotion. To a much greater number it has become at least a ruling motive.

8.  Just as the history of Europe in the nineteenth century was largely the undoing of the Treaty of Vienna, and as the Great War was the necessary outcome of the Treaty of Frankfort and the Treaty of Berlin, so the general history of the twentieth century henceforth will be largely the amendment or reversal of the more ungenerous and unscientific arrangements of the Treaty of 1919, and a struggle to establish those necessary impartial world controls of which the League of Nations is the first insufficient and unsatisfactory sketch.

9.  The close of 1919 and the opening months of 1920 saw a very curious change come over American feeling after the pro-French and pro-British enthusiasms of the war period. The peace negotiations reminded the Americans, in a confused and very irritating way, of their profound differences in international outlook from any European power that the war had for a time helped them to forget. They felt they had been “rushed” into many things without due consideration. They experienced a violent revulsion towards that policy of isolation that had broken down in 1917. 

10.  We do not begin to realize yet how much of the pre-war world is done with for good and all, and how much that is new is beginning. Few of us have attempted to measure yet the change in our own minds.


  1. These are fascinating and though-provoking quotes. I wonder whether maybe the first sentence of #6 isn't applicable to us today...