Douglas Haig – that’s him done up to his bemedalled best – has become the most controversial general of the Great War. His career, including command of the British Army in France during much of the First World War, earned him a state funeral upon his death in 1928. But history has a way of re-evaluating reputations and Haig has now become a subject of much scholarship and critical analysis.
On his orders 60,000 British troops became casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. That is a sentence difficult to write let alone begin to comprehend. With the British and French facing the Germans across a no man’s land of barbed wire and muddy trenches, the war became a contest in mass murder. To some critics, Haig, a self-assured, duplicitous Scotsman – his family name still marks the bottles of a brand of Scotch whiskey – was the Murderer-in-Chief, or at the time simply “Butcher Haig.”
Haig replaced his one-time boss, Field Marshall John French, as commander of British forces in France early in the war. French was inept and out of his depth in thinking a new type of war featuring the machine gun could be won with heroic cavalry charges. Haig and French playing starring roles in a marvelous new book – To End All Wars – that is both a history of the defining event of the 20th Century and a chilling reminder that those who opposed the war may really have history on their side.
The book by Adam Hochschild is gripping history that captures the many absurdities of the war that did not end all wars, while focusing on those dissenters, like Bertrand Russell, who, at considerable risk to position and reputation, stood against the madness. Hochschild, as reviewer Jonathan F. Vance notes, also has a telling eye for the story within the story.
“One such story concerns Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton,” Vance wrote in the Globe and Mail, “who was beginning his epic journey to the South Pole when the war broke out. He offered to return to England and put his men and ship at the service of King and Empire, but the British government urged him to carry on. In 1916, Shackleton emerged from the polar wastes after a harrowing 18-month journey that saw his ship crushed by pack ice. His first question upon arriving at a Norwegian whaling station was, ‘When was the war over?’ The startled response: ‘The War is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.'”
The madness is fully captured in the story of the British Field Marshall Jack French and his sister Charlotte Despard. She was one of the great suffrage leaders of Britain and also one of the foremost opponents of the war that her brother was prosecuting across the English Channel. Charlotte led public protests in England against the war, while her brother led a whole generation to slaughter.
Above all Hochschild’s superb new book reminds us – again – that there is no such thing as a neat, tidy, quick war. Once begun, World War I spun wildly out of control beyond the worst nightmares 0f any of those, including the German Kaiser, the Russian Czar and the leaders of the British Empire, who thought the war, sparked by a political assassination in the Balkans in the summer of 1914, could be over by Christmas. It was over by Christmas, but the year was 1918 and millions were dead, the map of Europe and the Middle East remade and the world charged forever.
To End All Wars certainly isn’t light, summer beach reading, but rather is a reminder that, when it comes to war, we seem to keep making monumental miscalculations and tragic mistakes over and over again. It is likely the best book on the Great War you will ever read.