TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
World War I resulted in unimaginable carnage. My guest, Adam Hochschild, explains why in his new book "To End All Wars." He also writes about the men and women who thought the war was madness: the war resistors, the men who refused the draft and the soldiers who refused to fight.
The book focuses on England. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says, quote, "Hochschild makes a reader feel anew the shock of modern technological warfare. He renders the pacifist tales no less compelling than those of the soldiers in the trenches. He also enlarges on the question: What does it take for a person to shake off the shackles of conventional wisdom and think for him or herself? What punishments does society mete out? What apologies does posterity sometimes offer to those courageous enough to see things differently?" - unquote.
Adam Hochschild's other books include "King Leopold's Ghost" and "Bury the Chains."
Adam Hochschild, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the human cost of World War I.
Mr. ADAM HOCHSCHILD (Author): Well, it was enormous, Terry, more than nine million military dead, probably between 10 and 12 million civilian dead, although we'll never know that number with any precision. And in addition, 21 million soldiers wounded, and many of them were permanently missing, you know, arms, legs, hands, genitals or else, you know, driven mad by shell shock.
So that, I think, is the first, most direct human cost. But there was also a human cost in a larger sense in that I think the war remade the world for the worse in every conceivable way. It ignited the Russian revolution. It laid the ground for Nazism, and made the Second World War almost certain. It's pretty hard to imagine the Second World War without the first.
GROSS: You write that World War I was astonishingly lethal for officers, for the ruling classes in all the countries involved in the war. Why was that?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, this is one of the many things that has long fascinated me about the war. You know, if you look at the wars that our country has been involved in in recent years - Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq - it's the poor who've done most of the dying. And usually, throughout history, you know, elites are very good at getting somebody else to do the dying for them.
But in the First World War, it was different. It was different because it was the tradition in most of the major countries for upper-class young men to have military careers, and then it became those young captains and lieutenants who led their men out of the trenches and into a hail of machine-gun fire.
And, of course, they were conveniently distinguished for enemy sharpshooters, because officers' uniforms were different from ordinary soldiers' uniforms. They carried pistols instead of rifles, and so forth.
And the toll was just colossal. For example, men who graduated from Oxford in 1913, 31 percent were killed.
GROSS: That's amazing. That's an amazing statistic.
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: And, you know, people who waged the war, the prime ministers and Cabinet ministers and so forth, the prime minister of England, Herbert Asquith, lost a son. The German chancellor lost a son. The chief to the British general staff on the western front lost two sons. His counterpart in the French army lost three sons. You know, the list could go on.
GROSS: You write that the war wasn't what soldiers or officers were expecting. They were expecting magnificent displays of gallantry, discipline and determination. What were they expecting World War I to be?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, you know, I think most of them were expecting it to be like the colonial wars, because this is what the armies of England, France and Germany had fought in recent decades, leading up to the war. Europe had been at peace for some 40 years or so, and the wars had taken place by European armies against very poorly armed Africans and Asians - you know, putting down rebellions on the frontier in British India, conquering new territories in Africa, putting down rebellions against the British and French and German colonial rule.
And, you know, these Africans and Asians were very poorly armed. It was the British, the French and the Germans who had the machine guns, the repeating rifles and so forth. And so war, in the minds of these Army officers at the beginning of 1914, was a matter where you went off to a distant, exotic place. You came home covered with glory. You got medals and promotions, and you were not likely to be killed.
And nobody was really prepared for the other side also having machine guns, repeating rifles, modern weaponry.
GROSS: World War I is famous, among other things, for its trench warfare, where there was literally a front line, and trenches of French and British on one side and Germans on the other. How did it become this type of trench warfare where nobody could move and territory wasn't gained?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, this took everybody by surprise. And there's a scholar who actually searched through a lot of British army reports and came up with some extraordinary quotes from generals writing to each other in the first year or two of the war, saying this war is not normal. And maybe soon we'll get to normal conditions, but this is definitely very, very abnormal.
And what they were referring to was that the armies were stuck in place because this system of trenches facing each other, really, for some three years, they barely moved more than a few miles in each direction. In 1915, for example, the Allies launched a number of major attacks. There were probably close to a million casualties on both sides.
During the course of the year, the allies gained exactly seven square miles of territory, and the trenches evolved because the defensive weapons of the war - barbed wire an entrenched machine-gun nest and a trench in the ground - were so much stronger than the offensive weapons of the war, because to gain territory, you've got to come out of your trench, move forward over open ground where you're exposed to enemy fire.
And this was something nobody had planned for, even though they could have looked at other recent wars in history. You know, there was trench warfare at the end of the American Civil War, for example, around Richmond in Virginia. But they chose not to do that because they wanted to imagine glorious cavalry charges and the like. And, of course, there were none of those glorious cavalry charges.
GROSS: What were some of the worst horrors of trench warfare?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, think about living underground for month after month after month. One problem, of course, is that the water table in most of Western Europe - at least where the fighting was - is fairly close to the surface of the ground. In parts of Belgium, the water table is only about two or three feet below ground.
So this meant that a lot of the time, the soldiers on each side were literally, you know, knee-deep in mud. You know, they rigged up pumps and so on to try to pump the water out of the trenches, but they were hopeless, especially when it rained.
There was an enormous profusion of rats. There was the, you know, dreaded trench foot, where, you know, if you go in wet socks and leggings, you know, week after week, your feet begin to wither and rot. And it was a matter of essentially living underground - not a very pleasant place to live.
GROSS: Now, you were describing how difficult it was to launch an offensive during trench warfare, because you'd have to march into machine-gun fire from the enemy. And journalist Philip Gibbs, you quote him in your book, and he was watching German soldiers advance. And he says he watched them advance toward our men, shoulder to shoulder, like a solid bar. It was sheer suicide.
They were tall men and did not falter as they came forward. They walked like men conscious of going to death. And he's describing them just marching into machine-gun fire. And there were so many instances like this during World War I, where you're just, like, marching into machine-gun fire. You're absolutely going to die.
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: And the really peculiar thing about that quote from Gibbs is that he wrote this describing a battle that was taking place after the war had been going for two years. And you would have thought that both sides would have learned at that point that if you go forward in a big phalanx while enemy machine guns, you know, have not been put out of action, you're just going to get mowed down.
But the generals did not seem to want to learn that lesson. They finally did by the last year of the war. But why did it take three years?
GROSS: World War I is considered the first modern war in the sense that you have modern technology. You have machine guns. You have tanks toward the end of the war. You have mustard gas, and you have barbed wire, which you say the Germans used most effectively. Who created barbed wire, and how did the Germans use it?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, barbed wire was actually invented by an Illinois farmer in the late 1800s, and it was used for cattle fencing. I believe the first time it was used in war - although not widely - was in the Boer War, which was of course some 15 years before the First World War.
But once the armies got dug into these trenches in France and Belgium, the immediately found that barbed wire strengthened those defenses incredibly, and the Germans really used it the most effectively. They would dig a very wide depression in the ground, maybe, you know, 30-feet wide, six feet deep, fill it with tangles of barbed wire.
And imagine yourself a British or French soldier trying to cross, you know, a ditch full of wire like that that goes on for miles to each side - almost impossible to do. The British and French, of course, erected their own barbed wire, and it was so effective because it was very difficult to destroy with artillery fire. You had to cut your way through it with wire clippers.
It wasn't really until the tank came along that they found something that could easily penetrate barbed wire.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Adam Hochschild. His new book is called "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918."
We'll talk more about World War I after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Hochschild. He's a journalist whose new book is called "To End All Wars." It's about World War I, but it's about the British during World War I and how England was divided between those who thought the war should be fought, that it was a just cause, and those who opposed the war.
More than 20,000 British men of military age refused the draft during the course of the war. That's really a lot of people. Did England have anything like the American conscientious objector status, where you could decline serving if you could prove that it violated your religious practices?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: They did. They actually had a fairly broad conscientious objector law, but many people were denied that status. And then even if you got the status, many people, as a matter of principle, refused to do the alternative service that was offered for conscientious objectors, which usually meant driving an ambulance at the front or working in a munitions factory or something like that.
And as a result of those refusals, more than 6,000 young men in Britain went to prison. It was the largest number of people ever imprisoned up to that point in time in a Western democracy. And they were a remarkable group of people. Happily, for my purposes as a writer, they wrote letters. They kept diaries. They wrote memoirs, and they had interesting relationships with people on the outside, friends and family members who often felt differently about the war and sometimes were taking part in the war.
GROSS: If you had to, you know, generalize, what were some of the reasons that the war resistors were willing to be in prison rather than even serving in alternate service?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: And keep in mind also that they were imprisoned under very harsh conditions: a bare-bones diet, the rule of silence, where you were not allowed to talk to anybody. Prisons were extremely cold because there was a shortage of coal for heating, and of course the prisons were last in line to get that.
The reasons that they refused were a mixture of religious and political. A majority of people who - in Britain who applied for conscientious objector status did so citing religious convictions, most of them being Quakers. And a majority also cited political convictions, most of them being international socialists who felt like they didn't want to make war on their fellow socialists.
And I think all of them, you know, felt this war was pointless. It was not being fought for any great moral purpose. Britain and France could not claim that they were fighting for democracy, when they were colonial empires and when their principal ally was Tsarist Russia, which was the last absolute monarchy in Europe.
So I think these were some of the things that led these - this very brave group of people to refuse service and to go to prison.
GROSS: But Germany had declared war on France. So, you know, what do you do after that?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think this is one of the things that makes it morally complicated. Germany declared war on France and Belgium and invaded both of those countries, and I think you can understand why, you know, French and Belgian young men wanted to defend their countries, which, indeed, the overwhelming majority did want to do.
But many people in England felt this should not be our fight. They thought this is going to be a very destructive war. We were not attacked. In fact, Germany went out of its way not to attack England at the beginning of the war. They didn't want British participation in the war. They thought Britain was not going to come in. They were alarmed and disappointed when it did.
And, you know, it's true that German troops marched across neutral Belgium in their attack on France, but a few months later, British troops marched across a neutral country, China, in their attack on a German colony on China.
So - and then of course all of the winning countries rather cynically divided up the territory of the losers when the war's end came. So nobody really came out of this with very clean hands, even though, as you say, Germany really did start the war.
GROSS: You write about some of the families that were divided over the war. One of the famous families was the Pankhurst family, a family of family suffragists. And why don't you describe the split in the Pankhurst family.
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: The Pankhursts were the leaders of the most militant wing of the British women's suffrage movement, fighting before the war for the right to vote for women in England.
Emmeline Pankhurst, the mother, and two of her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, went to jail many, many times. On the eve of the war, the mother, Emmeline, had been jailed for literally throwing a rock through the window of 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's residence. And she and her followers cut telephone and telegraph wires, put bombs in mailboxes, destroyed buildings, threw rocks through the windows of London clubs, and so forth.
However, the moment the war began, she - and she was actually a fugitive from justice at that point, hiding out in France, because she didn't want to serve her prison sentence for throwing this rock - she called a halt to all of her political activities, and she and her older daughter Christabel put themselves at the service of the British government for the duration of the war.
The government was delighted to have them. It sent them on speaking tours of the British Isles, of the United States. It even sent Emmeline to Russia at one point to try to rally Russian women to war effort.
Meanwhile, her other daughter Sylvia, who had always been a bit more radical in her politics, came out strongly against the war, published the leading anti-war periodical of that period, repeatedly spoke against the war, supported conscientious objectors and resistors, published some of the most important pieces of anti-war testimony from people in the army in her publication, which was shut down a couple of times by the government during the war.
GROSS: And Christabel, one of the daughters, says we can't discuss votes for women now. We have to mobilize women for the economy in order to free men for the front. So was the whole women's suffrage movement basically put on hold during the war?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, certainly that part of it which Emmeline Pankhurst had been leading was. The women's suffrage movement, like many progressive movements of the day, was quite divided over the war, because there were a strong minority of suffragettes who supported Sylvia Pankhurst's position, who, you know, who thought the war was madness and did not want to support it.
The majority of women's suffrage activists, you know, like the majority of most other people in England, did go along with the war effort.
GROSS: So let's look at another family divided by the war. There's Charlotte Despard, who's a suffragist, pacifist, communist. She co-founds the women's peace crusade. But her brother is Field Marshal Sir John French, commander-in-chief on the western front. What happened to their relationship when he's helping lead the war, and she's opposing it?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: An extraordinary relationship, and they were both such colorful people who were sort of archetypes of what they stood for. Sir John French, the brother, had been all his life in the army. You know, he had the moustache, the military bearing. Some people say he was the model in the Gilbert and Sullivan song for the model of a very modern major general. And he'd been a cavalry officer, and so forth.
His sister had been an ardent proponent of every progressive cause before the war: independence for India, women's right to vote, went to jail four different times in the women's suffrage battle, strongly opposed the war, wrote the bestselling anti-war pamphlet, traveled up and down England speaking against the war, visiting conscientious objectors' families to try to keep their spirits up.
Interestingly, the brother and sister remained fond of each other, quite close to each other, saw each other a number of times during the war. They stopped speaking only when, in 1918, the British government sent him to Ireland as viceroy to suppress the nationalist revolt breaking out against British rule. She went to Ireland to work for the IRA. At that point, they stopped speaking, but not until then.
GROSS: Adam Hochschild will be back in the second half of the show. His latest book is called "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Adam Hochschild. His latest book, "To End All Wars," is about World War I. Focused on England, it describes why this first example of modern technological warfare resulted in such carnage, taking the lives of more than nine million soldiers and 10 to 12 million civilians. The book also focuses on the war resisters who thought the war was madness.
After the Battle of the Somme, which I believe was like the biggest, most devastating battle of the war with enormous casualties, a movie was made called "Battle of the Somme" and you describe this as one of the earliest and most influential propaganda films of all time. Have you seen the film?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: I have seen the film. And the government took a remarkable gamble, which was this: the Battle of the Somme as I think many of your listeners will know happened in the middle of 1916. It went on for three or four months. It resulted in more than 125,000 British dead, some 20,000 of whom were killed on the first day. And the ultimate gain that the battle achieved was about 10 miles at the widest point, a few miles at other points and almost nothing at various other points on the line. So a huge amount of bloodshed for nothing.
But how do you present this to the British public? Well, early on while the battle was still raging, the government decided we're going to send film crews there, record everything, film everything and put together a film which they did, which came out only a month or two into the battle. So while the later stages of the battle were still going on, this film was being shown in Britain and it was estimated it was actually seen by more than half the population of the British Isles.
Now it's sanitized some things when it showed wounded soldiers for example, it was the walking wounded usually and the lightly wounded. But it did show some dead bodies. It did show soldiers at the front doing all kinds of other things, firing artillery pieces, cooking their meals, receiving mail, being prayed with by a chaplain. And the government took a gamble that showing a certain amount of the nitty-gritty of the real war would make people more closely identify with the soldiers rather than repulse them, and they were right.
And I think this to me shows one of the terrible things that happen in all wars, which is that as the suffering mounts, as the death toll mounts, as the horrors that soldiers have to endure the mounts, there is a powerful, powerful need among people at home, among their families, to feel that they are suffering and dying for something worthwhile. And therefore, in a way, showing graphic images of the suffering does not necessarily turn people against a war. In fact, usually it doesn't.
GROSS: And you refer to this in the book, you can imagine all these families going to see this movie looking for their loved ones in the battle.
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Right. Because there were hundreds and hundreds of soldiers' faces shown on screen. Sometimes they would indentify units by name and people must have flocked to theaters, you know, hoping they would see someone they loved and see him, you know, not on a stretcher or a dead body but, you know, walking around and looking well.
GROSS: Now this was made in 1916, which is very early in the history. It's like the very beginning of the history of filmmaking. Would you describe a little bit what the film looks like and what the quality of the filmmaking is?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: It's better than I would have expected actually from that period. It's a silent movie, of course. It's black and white. It flickers a bit, you know, the way early films like the early Charlie Chaplin films do and so forth. But it's pretty clear, and you can, you know, make out very well what you're seeing.
And then there are these titles that come on the screen periodically just to tell you what's coming up, and sort of to tell you how to feel about it. Sometimes they're martial, like a title, one title says: Terrific Bombardment of German Trenches. Sometimes they're sentimental. One title says: The Manchesters' pet dog fell with his master charging Dantzig Alley. The Manchesters were a regiment. And it shows you, you know, a dead body of a soldier and a dog, but the title has sort of framed it for you, so you should see this as something poignant.
Then there's one title before, you see some wounded soldiers showing wounded awaiting attention, showing how quickly the wounded are attended to. Well, that was very much a sanitizing thing because one of the awful things about the Battle of the Somme was that of the 120,000 men who climbed out of the trench on the first day thousands upon thousands of them were wounded. And many of them were stuck in shell holes in the middle of no man's land and medics couldn't get to them because of the heavy shellfire and machine gun fire. And they died alone out after, you know, being out there two, three, four days. People back in the trenches could hear them moaning. And then when they were, you know, found often days or weeks later their fellow soldiers would find that these guys had wrapped themselves up in their ponchos and sometimes taking out their Bibles, you know, to die alone. So the film sanitized all that.
GROSS: Even though the film sanitized the Battle of the Somme are there things that you learned from being able to see an actual document of the battle?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Yes. Very much so I think. And I tried to watch as much documentary footage of the war as I could find, to look at lots of photographs because, you know, they're all kinds of ways in which when you're writing about something you really want to immerse yourself in that place in time as much as you can.
I also went to some of these battlefields because I always love to see the places where the history that I'm writing about took place, and you learned something there too. One thing that struck me for instance, I went to a place called High Wood because one of the people that I quote in the book is an infantry officer who gives a dramatic description at one point of a very small cavalry detachment when they were having trouble taking the German position. A small cavalry detachment charged up the hill, disappeared over the brow of the hill and then were never seen again.
So I thought could I find this hill? Well, I went looking for it. I found it. What you realize when you're there is that it's not something which I walking around or you walking around today would describe as a hill. It's, you can barely see the slope in the ground and then that makes me realize that all these descriptions you read from the war of capturing hilltops and ridges and crests and so on are written from the point of view of somebody who's lying on the ground trying to stay underneath all those bullets. Just it's a useful reminder when you go to the place.
GROSS: There were anti-war rallies that were starting to draw big crowds by 1917. Did something happen to change popular opinion after a couple of years of war?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think the anti-war movement did seem to be gaining power in 1917 which was, of course, a third full year of the war. And the war had been, you know, occupied half of 1914 as well. Anti-war sentiment was gaining ground because people saw enormous, enormous battles that seemed to be fought for nothing. In 1917, just as the Battle of the Somme had been the big thing in 1916, there was another enormous battle, Passchendaele which was very similar. You know, months and months of fighting for a tiny bit of ground gained. And also there was a defection in late 1917 from a key figure in the British establishment, Lord Lansdowne, the former foreign minister. He'd actually presided over the making of the informal agreement with France before the war which had led British troops to be engaged there. And he wrote a letter to the editor of - which the London Times actually refused to publish and so it had to appear in another paper - saying it's time to think about a negotiated peace. And the fact that someone high in the establishment was saying this was a new thing.
So the anti-war movement definitely gained power during that year. Then what happened was in early 1918, the Germans launched an enormous offensive which actually by using new tactics instead of this business of advancing in phalanx they advanced in sort of small detachments of storm troopers. By using these new tactics they actually broke through the trenches for the first time, gained an enormous amount of ground. And this sense of urgency that the decisive battle of the war was at hand actually put a damper on the anti-war movement. And even people who had deserted the army...
GROSS: Because they thought they were maybe close to winning or?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, because...
GROSS: Or close to losing?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Close to one or the other. But their - if you read the government intelligence reports on the dissidents of that period you find as soon as the German offensive starts a kind of upsurge of intelligence agents saying now the workers are not protesting anymore. You know, there was a case in Scotland of a deserter who turned himself in so that he could fight against the new German offensive. Tragically, exactly the same thing happened in Germany. There had been a rash of strikes in munitions factories at the beginning of 1918 and, you know, that could have been the beginnings of an anti-war movement in Germany. There too once this enormous new offensive began and it seemed like the decisive battle of the war was at hand most of that evaporated.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Hochschild and we're talking about his book To End All Wars, which is about World War I.
Let's take a short break here then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Hochschild. He's a journalist whose new book is called To End All Wars. It's about World War I, but it's about the British during World War I and how England was divided between those who thought the war should be fought, that it was a just cause and those who opposed the war.
You know, in describing resistance to the war and people who refused to enlist and paid the consequences, you also write about men at the front who were in the army and then they wanted out; they couldn't do it anymore. And some of them were executed. Would you describe what happened to soldiers who felt they could no longer participate in the war?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, one of the fascinating controversies of recent years has been this: during the First World War, there were more than 300 British soldiers who were executed for desertion, laying down arms in the face of the enemy, running away in the face of an enemy attack and so on. Which is actually several times the number of German soldiers who were executed for similar offenses during the war. The Germans became far more draconian in World War II, of course. And there's been a long battle in England in recent decades about getting posthumous pardons for these men. And, you know, with anti-war people saying well, anybody would deserted or laid down arms in the face of the enemy was making the right decision for the time. Plus, it's obvious a lot of these men were shell-shocked and really didn't know what they were doing.
Well, I zero in on one case because there was an extraordinary witness. There was a soldier named Albert Rochester who had been a labor union activist and a journalist for his union newspaper before the war. He was a railway signalman and he wrote for the railway union's newspaper. He enlisted at the beginning of the war. Even though he was in the army he had not lost his politics. And at one point he wrote a letter to the editor of the London Daily Mail complaining that every British officer at the front in France had a personal servant. And he said, you know, the officers should have to groom their own horses and make their own tea. And if we eliminated all these personal servants we'd have 60,000 more men for the war effort and get this terrible war over with more quickly.
For writing that letter he was court-martialed and sent to a military prison. In that prison he found himself sharing a cell one night with three men who had been sentenced to death for laying down arms in the face of the enemy and running away. He was very moved by their stories. He found that they were working-class men like himself, miners - two minors and a steel worker - and then they were taken off after one night together to another cell and they were hoping for pardons. But the next day Rochester himself found himself detailed for his work as a military prisoner to go and carry three heavy posts up a hill and dig three holes in the ground.
And he realized these were the posts that these three guys were going to be tied to when they were shot by a firing squad, and he had to be the witness to that and help to clean up everything afterwards. He was deeply seared by this experience, wrote a beautifully moving, horrible account of it that was published after the war, made common cause with a war resistor who had spent the war and prison to try to get a government investigation of the case opened, failed in doing that, and unfortunately died at a quite young age in the 1920s. But it was extraordinary to find somebody like that as an eyewitness to such an event.
GROSS: Yeah, that really is extraordinary. In 1990, a citizen's group was founded called Shot at Dawn, and they demanded a posthumous pardon for those resisters who were executed during World War I. And the British government gave a blanket pardon to more than 300 executed World War I soldiers. This was in 2006. Was that a widely publicized event in England? Was that a big deal in England in 2006?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: It was quite a big deal, because there had been a controversy over it for some years. There were four or five books written about these executed soldiers, a couple of plays. The Army got a retired Army officer to co-author a book with someone else about these cases saying, well, you know, given the standards of the time when capital punishment was routine, you know, these cases were fairly judged and there should be no pardons. And then finally, the men were pardoned, which I think it was, in a way, a sort of symbolic gesture of the government exceeding to the public mood in England, which I think now is one that considers this war a needless tragedy that should not have been fought.
GROSS: And another way that we're literally still dealing with the consequences of World War I - and this is just a very tangible thing -there are still lines left over from that war that continue to kill people.
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: That's right. On the western front - which was not far from being the only front in the war, but it was the one that was the most intensively fought over in such a small space - there were more than 700 million artillery and mortar rounds fired in four-and-a-half years. And it's estimated that about 15 percent of them were duds, you know, they didn't go off when they hit. Instead, they buried themselves deep in the ground. And they are going off all the time today.
You know, somebody builds a fire in a forest on a camping trip or something, and it burns down and then sets off a buried artillery shell publish(ph), you know, that is sitting underneath there. When certain kinds of construction projects are done - in the early 1990s, there were 36 people killed in one year in France when they did the excavation for the new high-speed rail line that goes from Paris to the Channel Tunnel.
And there have been more than 600 French bomb disposal experts - you know, who are specialists in finding and defusing these bombs - killed since 1945. Sometimes they find World War II bombs that didn't go off, sometimes even from the Franco-Prussian war - because this was fought over the same territory, too. But the vast majority of this unexploded ordinance is from the First World War. You see tractors with armor plate underneath the seats. You see yellow warning signs telling you to keep away from certain patches of forest.
GROSS: Did you visit the Somme, the area of the most horrendous battle of World War I?
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: I certainly did, and tried to find were some of the old trenches were, found what you - any visitor to that part of France, or the front as it goes through Belgium finds, is that it's marked by cemeteries. Everywhere you go, you know, you go to an area like the Somme or Passchendaele in Belgium or Verdun in France where there were some of the greatest fighting. You stand on the hilltop, and you'll see four, five, six cemeteries in all directions. And these are enormous places with five, 10,000 graves in them.
Most of them, really, very well-maintained, flowers, people leaving little knickknacks sometimes, photographs of family members, as if they're coming to see a, you know, a great uncle who died long ago and they want to leave a picture of your family today. I will read through comments in the visitor's book. Some of them are the sort of sentimental things you would most expect to find at a place like this, you know, thanks for your sacrifice and so forth. But at one of these beautiful little cemeteries, I saw someone who'd written in the visitor's book: never again. And that's certainly my feeling, as well.
GROSS: Well Adam Hochschild, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, it's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Adam Hochschild's latest book is called "To End All Wars." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, our rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a new album by singer-songwriter Sam Phillips.
This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.