In today’s New York Times, Christopher Hitchens reviews To End All Wars, a new book about World War I by Adam Hochschild. He calls it “a book to make one feel deeply and painfully, and also to think hard.” I’ll be reading it for sure.
The book, and Hitchens, dwell on the horrible loss of life—a sacrifice to no good end. (Remember that at the battle of the Somme, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day alone, and total casualties, killed and wounded, were around 1,100,000.) Indeed, Hitchens claims that the entry of America in the late stages of the conflicts forced a peace that was so harsh for Germany that it gave rise to Naziism.
Ruthless as they were in the killing of others, the generals were also shockingly profligate and callous when it came to their “own.” In some especially revolting passages, we find Gen. Sir Douglas Haig and his arrogant subordinate Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson actually complaining when British casualties were too low, and exulting — presumably because enemy losses were deemed comparable — when they moved into the tens of thousands. What this meant in cold terms was the destruction of whole regiments, often comprising (as in the cases of Newfoundland and Ulster) entire communities back home who had volunteered as a body and stayed together in arms. They vanished, in clouds of poison gas, hails of steel splinters and great lakes of sucking mud. Or lay in lines, reminding all observers of mown-down corn, along the barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements against which they had been thrown. Like me, Hochschild has visited the mass graves and their markers, which still lie along the fields of northern France and Belgium, and been overwhelmed by what Wilfred Owen starkly and simply called “the pity of War.” (Owen was to die pointlessly as the guns were falling silent: his mother received the telegram as the church bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice — or better in retrospect to say “fragile cease-fire.”)
While I’m on the Great War, as they called it, I’d highly recommend a trilogy of novels about that conflict and its psychological effects on British soldiers: The Regeneration Trilogy, by Pat Barker. This series, a combination of fact and fiction, is, I think, one of the best English-language novels of the last fifty years. The last volume, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995.