I have long had a curiosity about World War I, the “war to end all wars,” that very seldom is mentioned in literature or movies any more. It is grossly overshadowed by the Second World War, which, admittedly resulted in more casualties, and yet was arguably less influential in how the world viewed itself.
I recently watched a documentary on the World Wars and the men who learned from the first one and went on to lead in the second one. And so I decided to read this book.
Hochschild does a thorough job, in his own way, of helping one understand the world of that era. He focuses specifically on Great Britain in that war, starting his history 30 years before, and including a lot of the political view of what was occurring. I was mainly interested in knowing what led to the war starting, how and why it ended, and why it was called “the war to end all wars.”
The details of life in the trenches–living in interminable mud, often up to the knees, dealing with dead bodies and rats, and the horror of gas–fascinated me. Also, statistics on artillery used–millions of shells expended in each battle, a quarter of which didn’t explode until years later when a hapless French farmer might be plowing his field–were facts that were unique to this war alone.
The author provides great detail and statistics on what went into the battles and what life was like in the trenches. But because he focuses specifically on Britain, much of what happened in the war was glossed over. Hochschild begins by stating that the war is too expansive to cover everything, hence his focus on Britain. And he feels that the events in South Africa and other British Empire colonies in the 1800s are directly tied to the Great War, and so I will accept them. But he also includes much reference to the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Peace Movement and labor activities throughout Europe. He focuses on perhaps a dozen specific persons in the history that were politically important, but I found relatively uninteresting. I found myself skipping over many pages because they talked about political men who had affairs, and women who were arrested for demonstrations against the war.
In my goal of understanding the war, why it started and why it ended, I found that Hochschild was successful in sharing what need to be shared. But I also felt he included huge sections of information I wasn’t interested in in the least, and as I mentioned earlier, I bypassed those sections. But if you are interested in the political realities and perceptions that led up to the war–most specifically in the United Kingdom–this book is for you. As for me, I felt about a quarter of it didn’t meet my needs.
I give it two and a half stars out of five.