Politics and personalities, war and suffrage
This is brilliant reporting of the British side of the Great European War of 1914 to 1918, “World War I” as we now know it. The focus is not on the big strategic decisions, the battle tactics and weaponry, though all of that is recognized and discussed. Rather, what is unusual and fresh in this story is its attention to the individuals, their personal lives, their ties of family and social class, their loves and prejudices, whose combined actions, often from opposing motivations, created and shaped four years of destruction that utterly changed our world, with consequences far beyond their imaginings.
Among the most notable figures are Charlotte Despard, a leading anti-war activist and socialist, and the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force for the first years of the war, General John French, whose relationship may come to you (as it did to me) as a complete surprise; the pro-war propagandist Rudyard Kipling, who became obsessed with discovering what had happened to his son, lost on the battlefield, and outspoken anti-war intellectuals including Bertrand Russell; the Pankhursts, mother and daughters, united as militant women’s suffragists but utterly divided on the war; Scottish socialist, labor leader and internationalist Keir Hardie and his long and intimate relationship with the most rebellious of the Pankhurst daughters, Sylvia, and on and on.
One of the surprising consequences of the war and the agitation for and against it was the victory of the women’s suffrage movement. One of the main themes of Hochschild’s book is how these two phenomena, agitation for and against the war and the mobilization of women for the vote, clashed and interconnected, changing the calculations of the British War Office — from their deeply held, patronizing antagonism toward women activists to the conviction that they needed to include women for any national consensus.
In his scrupulously factual accounts of their lives and actions, Adam Hochschild brings us the kind of intensity that we expect in fiction, where the author tries to enter the lives and emotions of invented characters.