WWI: The Battle That Split Europe, And Families In 1914, thousands of soldiers eagerly boarded trains across Europe to fight in World War I; they thought it would be a quick and easy battle. Five years later, more than 8 million troops were dead and countless families were split apart. Author Adam Hochschild explores those divisions in his book To End All Wars.
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WWI: The Battle That Split Europe, And Families

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WWI: The Battle That Split Europe, And Families

WWI: The Battle That Split Europe, And Families

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

When soldiers across Europe boarded trains to join the fighting in 1914 at the start of the First World War, they were optimistic that the fight would last just a few weeks, maybe months at most.

Mr. ADAM HOCHSCHILD (Author, "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion"): Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany told his troops you will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.

RAZ: That's the voice of Adam Hochschild. Almost no one believed the war would last five years and leave 16 million people dead. Hochschild's written a new history of the war. It's told through the stories of divided families where you had war resisters and war heroes all from the same household. The book's called "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion." And I asked Hochschild what made the war seem so glorious at the beginning.

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: I think people didn't have a sense about what war would mean because for almost all of the European nations fighting, their previous experience of warfare in the previous couple of decades had been mostly of colonial wars against very poorly armed foes in Africa and Asia.

For example, all of the major European countries had had machine guns for years, but they had always thought of these as weapons to be used against unruly or rebellious natives in Africa or Asia, and it had never occurred to them that the machine gun might be used in war in Europe by the other side against them.

So both sides sent huge numbers of cavalrymen into battle. And you can imagine how useless cavalry is in the age of the machine gun.

RAZ: Adam Hochschild, you set your book in the primary narrative in Britain. Why did you choose Britain to tell the story of the First World War?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, when people write military history, it's almost always written about as a struggle between two sides: in the First World War, the Allies versus the Central Power. I was more interested in writing about this war as the struggle between people who considered it a noble and necessary crusade and people who considered it absolute madness and who refused to fight.

And there were war resisters in all of the principal warring countries. For various reasons, there were more of them in England than anywhere else. And they were an extraordinary group of people. They kept diaries, they wrote letters, they published clandestine prison newspapers, and they had interesting relationships with friends and family members who were at the front fighting.

RAZ: And of course, of those differences, they have often split families. You write about a brother and a sister, John French, and a sister, Charlotte Despard. Can you tell me about them?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: This was a spectacularly divided family: a brother who was commander in chief of the British forces in France and Belgium for the first year and a half of the war; his sister, an ardent anti-war activist. And moreover, brother and sister remained quite close to each other until after the war. He became viceroy of Ireland charged with suppressing the IRA struggle for independence against the British. She went to Ireland to work for the IRA and they stopped speaking at that point.

So that was one relationship I tried to follow, and then I looked for other divided families and I found several.

RAZ: How were anti-war activists in Britain during the First World War treated? I mean, were they in prison? Were they - I mean, presumably, they were seen as traitors by the majority of people in the country.

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: They were. And they were very much scorned by the public. And they, to me, were an extraordinary group of people. One of them, for example, Fenner Brockway, had been a newspaper editor before the war. During the war, in jail, he continued to publish the newspaper clandestinely for his fellow resisters on toilet paper.

RAZ: I'm speaking with the author Adam Hochschild. His new book about World War I is called "To End All Wars."

The vast majority of the British public were enthusiastic backers of the war. And you write about a group of English writers who would write, sort of triumphantly, about the war, including Rudyard Kipling. How did he and his group see the war?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, the great majority of British writers, like the great majority of everybody else, thought this was a noble, unnecessary crusade. And there was actually a meeting called by the government propaganda authorities at the beginning of the war in which they enlisted most of the country's leading writers to write propaganda, write novels that would back the war effort, and a great many of them did.

Kipling had always been a big backer of the British Empire and of all things military. And he had a personal tragedy, though, during the war. He had long encouraged his son John, who was a teenager when the war began, in a military career. John Kipling had inherited his father's bad eyesight. You know, when we see pictures of Rudyard Kipling, he's always got those thick glasses like Coke bottle bottoms.

And so John kept failing the army entrance exam. Kipling pulled strings with a field marshal who was a friend of his and John very proudly went off to France. And in the battle of Loos in the fall of 1915, he went into action and was never seen again. And his father was, of course, devastated but didn't turn against the war as a result...

RAZ: And then...

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: ...But very poignantly was just so heartbroken by this he even arranged with the Royal Flying Corps to drop leaflets over the German lines with descriptions of John Kipling and asking people to get in touch if they had seen his body or knew anything about him. But his body was never found.

RAZ: This was a war in which a disproportionate amount of upper-class Britons died. I mean, these are Oxford-educated - I can't remember the statistic, which was a staggering number of graduates from Oxford from the year the war began, almost a third or something like that, right, died.

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: That's right. It was very much the thing for, you know, an upper-class boy from a famous private school or universities like Oxford or Cambridge to go into the army and go into the infantry. Of men who graduated from Oxford in 1913, 31 percent were killed. Of boys who graduated from Eaton, the leading private school in Britain, there were more than 30 Eaton graduates killed in a single day...

RAZ: Wow.

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: ...the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

RAZ: Is the First World War still present?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: I think it very much is. Because the First World War, in so many ways, shaped the 20th century and really remade our world for the worse. It introduced industrialized warfare and casualties on a massive scale that the world had not seen before.

In France, for example, of all men who were between the ages of 20 and 32 at the start of the war, one half were dead when it was over. And many of the remainder were horribly wounded, you know, missing hands, arms, legs, genitals. It was a wounded nation that was left.

RAZ: That's the author Adam Hochschild. His new book about World War I is called "To End All Wars."

Adam Hochschild, thank you so much.

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: It was a pleasure.

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