to end all wars
August 4, 2014 10:36 AM   Subscribe

First world war – a century on, time to hail the peacemakers
"On the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, we should remember those who tried to stop a catastrophe"
We will be asked to do a lot of commemorating over these next four and a half years, but whom and what should we commemorate, and in what spirit? Today most people would surely agree that the war of 1914-1918 was not fought for the lofty motives that each side claimed, and that we all would be better off if it had not been fought at all. Before he died, Harry Patch, the last surviving British veteran of the war, said it best: "It was not worth even one life." Yet all the traditional ways we remember wars make little space for this feeling.

...Of course we should remember the dead, especially those whose lives were tragically cut short in their youth. But there is a vast difference between honouring the memory of a family member and honouring the cause for which he died. The customary ways of looking back on war too easily allow us to confuse the two: military cemeteries with the gravestones in ranks like soldiers on parade, parades themselves, statues (which are almost invariably of generals), and war museums and their exhibits of tanks, planes, machine guns, artillery pieces and other technology for meting out death. Let us remember the dead, yes, in these years ahead, but let us also remember the men and women who recognised the war for the madness it was and did all they could to stop it...

Why is there no blue plaque outside Pentonville prison, where Morel served six months at hard labour, honouring the other war resisters locked up there as well? Every leading country in north America and Europe has spruced up its war museums for these anniversary years, but why are there so few museums about those who fought for peace?
*(letters of reaction to the Guardian on this piece)

WW1 Conscientious Objectors on Postcards
During the Great War, the conscientious objector (C.O.) was a perfect subject for ridicule and fun on picture postcards... Many of the 1,000 or so conscientious objectors who did go to prison did not suffer in silence. They were usually committed, articulate and clear-headed men and picture postcards were among the methods they used to get their message across to the public... In 1916, a Field Service Post Card almost certainly saved the lives of 16 conscientious objectors... It is not known whether the "Richmond Sixteen" card still exists, but below is an example of how a FSPC should have been filled in and an example of how Brocklesby is believed to have coded the card which saved their lives.
*Conscientious objectors in prison: the story of the Richmond Sixteen
*British suffragist Emily Hobhouse & the "Open Christmas Letter"
*on Edmund Dene Morel, "Britain's leading investigative journalist" - Campaign for peace turned former hero into public enemy No 1
*Guardian "From The Archive" - 19 March 1917: A question of principle: Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, logician, and essayist, dares to speak out against conscription as more British men are sent to fight in the Great War (1914–18)
*BBC - WW1: The conscientious objectors who refused to fight
*Mirror UK - The World War I conscientious objectors who were worked to death in labour camps, jailed and tortured
*Morning Star - "...the too-often forgotten story of the early conscientious objectors who helped shape today’s peace movement"

Pacifism and Conscientious Objection
(overview & stats from the British Library "during World War One in Britain, the US, Canada and New Zealand")

*What happened to conscientious objectors during World War One - "Here in Australia, the First World War conjures up the image of the ANZACs—young men volunteering and travelling across the globe to serve the nation. There is, however, another side to the story—what happened to those who didn’t volunteer. Annabelle Quince explores the brutality directed at conscientious objectors."

*Conscientious objection in the First World War - "As a nation, New Zealand took a full part in the First World War. More than 100,000 New Zealanders served overseas, and there was strong support for the war on the home front. But there were also people who opposed the war, for political, religious or moral reasons. Some of these people – conscientious objectors – paid a heavy price for their stance."

*Crisis of Conscience: Conscientious Objectors in Canada during the First World War (review) & Google Books link to the book
*Conscientious Objectors in the Context of Canadian Peace Movements (PDF)

*Conscientious Objection in America

*Remembrance Sunday: Quakers Say Conscientious Objectors Should Be Honoured Too & Quakers to stage 'White Feather Diaries', a series of national events to honour WWI's conscientious objectors (social media project at

Colossal - 888,246 Ceramic Poppies Surround the Tower of London to Commemorate WWI (on Mashable, more photos)

The American Scholar - ‘I Tried to Stop the Bloody Thing’:
"In World War I, nearly as many British men refused the draft—20,000—as were killed on the Somme's first day.
Why were those who fought for peace forgotten?"
(long essay/excerpt from Hochschild's book discussing Keir Hardie & Bertrand Russell, among others)

NPR: The Human Toll Of The War 'To End All Wars'
(author interview; Fresh Air audio ~38 min., written highlights, link to excerpt of book)

Counterfire - To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain (book review)
Adam Hochschild has written a readable and gripping account of the prelude to war, and the political and military decisions which accompanied it. He goes through the prosecution of the war itself, highlighting the almost unbelievable slaughter visited on the young men of Europe and of its empires. He also pays a great deal of attention to those who opposed the war and spells out the severe and sometimes deadly consequences for those who did so.

It is particularly relevant given the 100 year anniversary of the start of the war next year, and the attempts by government and the establishment to present a certain view of the conflict. The agenda seems to be this: encourage local activity which stresses commemorating the dead, and where people find out local history and family links to the war, but avoid dealing with any criticism about how the war was conducted. In particular, the Ministry of Defence is apparently worried that the generals who decided the often disastrous strategies, especially Douglas Haig, will come in for too much criticism. This fear should be well founded, for the generals of the First World War deserve bitter criticism...
Britain entering first world war was 'biggest error in modern history'
"Historian Niall Ferguson says Britain could have lived with German victory and should have stayed out of war" (previously)

Western Morning News - Is act of remembrance losing its original 'never again' sentiment?
Green Left - Lest we forget why Anzac Day glorifies war
Simon Jenkins - Germany, I apologise for this sickening avalanche of first world war worship

No Glory - How to stop the commemoration of World War One becoming a justification for future wars
"The more the dead and injured of the First World War are forgotten in a rush of chauvinistic nostalgia, the more likely it is that dead will pile up in future conflicts. This is not just a battle to remember the past correctly. It’s about political priorities in the present. It’s about keeping the peace in the future."

Guardian UK - Echoes of 1914: are today's conflicts a case of history repeating itself?
The Atlantic - Just How Likely Is Another World War? Assessing the similarities and differences between 1914 and 2014

previously: Debs Quixote & the pacifists who went to war; violence and pacifism in a world of war
posted by flex (27 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Fantastic post.
posted by saturday_morning at 10:46 AM on August 4, 2014

Fantastic, indeed. Thanks for this, flex -- so many urgent issues raised here.
posted by scody at 10:56 AM on August 4, 2014

Mega post and perfect antidote to today's sickening spectacle of politicians and TV propaganda.
posted by colie at 10:59 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hochschild's book is absolutely wonderful.

I remember, even as a kid, being puzzled by the red poppies and struggling with the meaning of "lest we forget." The kindergarten version was that these people died for your freedom, and we so we remember them.

The futility of it all is never addressed, the avoidability, the sheer stupidity has no place in the poems and bugle songs. And worse, the subtext of "Lest we forget" is that "it could happen again, and you could be next"

Now, as the last WWI Veterans have passed away, I feel like there should be not just mourning, but anger. The lesson to kids shouldn't be that these people died fighting for democracy, it should be that they died uselessly and awfully in the cogs of war.
posted by cacofonie at 11:03 AM on August 4, 2014 [13 favorites]

The futility of it all is never addressed

Is it? I get the point of the post and the links, but it doesn't seem to jive with the way the war was always presented to me, in school and in the general culture.

WWI was always presented as a pointless mistake where men died to gain a few feet of muddy ground only to lose it the next day. Its most enduring symbol, trench warfare, has become a symbol for pointless, meaningless struggle.

I'm not trying to be provocative, I just really have never seen WWI presented in the glorious light WWII is (here in the US). Historical WWI movies are always very sad and somber and showing someone going off to fight as a tragedy, whereas WWII movies often seem to depict those who fought as heroes doing something regrettable but necessary.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:17 AM on August 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

Wonderful post. After learning so much about the cause and course of the first world war, I'm disgusted that we still celebrate it (in Canada) as a noble sacrifice.

In my city, they plan to 'augment' the cenotaph (a stylized grave marker in the center of town honouring war dead) with a series of panels titled "Honour", "Valour", "Freedom", etc [YT] with stirring photos below each. It's trite and pandering, but patriotism extinguishes nuance.
posted by Popular Ethics at 11:27 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

They could add another panel for "Conscription"
posted by squinty at 11:30 AM on August 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

Sangermaine: I agree the futility of the actual combat is very well presented. Trench foot. Machine guns. Thousands dead in a single day.

However, the enterprise as a whole is still very much presented as "regrettable but necessary." I don't think the idea that the whole conflict was essentially futile is emphasized, perhaps even out of respect for the veterans.
posted by cacofonie at 11:31 AM on August 4, 2014

I guess I got more of a "pointless but inevitable" vibe from the presentation I've seen in the US.

You have to put the inevitable part in there, or else the people who didn't do anything to stop it will feel bad.
posted by ckape at 11:46 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hochsild's book To End all Wars is fabulous. The true heroes of any war are those who refuse to fight it. As a former Marine who loves a good World War II book I believe that now more than ever before. His book helped me get to where I am on that.
posted by zzazazz at 12:08 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I guess I got more of a "pointless but inevitable" vibe from the presentation I've seen in the US.

Yes, this is how we were taught it growing up in Houston in the 90s. A bunch of interlocking alliances dragged Europe into a war for no good reason. It wasn't presented as necessary, just regrettable.

Maybe it's taught differently in European nations since people there suffered so much more?
posted by Sangermaine at 12:10 PM on August 4, 2014

It would be hard to go through all of these to see whether this was covered, but the assassination of the pacifist Jean Jaurès in the days before the war commenced is significant.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:10 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you were French, I don't think stopping the Kaiser taking over your country would have seemed essentially futile. The war might well have seemed tragically badly fought, and all wars are needless if everyone were reasonable. It's obvious that the war was unnecessary, globally speaking. But defending yourself against a belligerent invader is not completely insane.
posted by Segundus at 12:14 PM on August 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Canada at the onset of WW1 had a lot of recent immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire most, of which were ethnic Ukrainians. They were not conscientious objectors, as a matter of fact no one even asked them to fight. They were from an country that the British empire was at war with. Canada was extremely racist at that point and locked them up.
The British government urged Canada not to act indiscriminately against subject nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who were in fact friendly to the British Empire.[3] However, Ottawa took a hard line. These enemy-born citizens were treated as social pariahs, and many lost their employment. Under the 1914 War Measures Act, "aliens of enemy nationality" were compelled to register with authorities. About 70,000 Ukrainians from Austria-Hungary fell under this description. 8,579 males and some women and children were interned by the Canadian Government, including 5,954 Austro-Hungarians, most of whom were probably ethnic Ukrainians.
- Ukrainian Canadian internment (wikipedia)
posted by dougzilla at 12:48 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Russell was amazing. Not only was he the most important philosopher of the century, but he stood up against the madnesses of WWI and the Cold War.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:38 PM on August 4, 2014

Every man remembered
posted by unliteral at 2:44 PM on August 4, 2014

the enterprise as a whole is still very much presented as "regrettable but necessary."

The politicians and their mouthpieces in the mainstream media - still able to commandeer bright minds from the private school system and top universities - now present WW1 in this faux-solemn way:

'Debates may rage about whether this war was justified or not; but the brave men that volunteered and died truly believed in the importance of what they were doing.'

And on British TV that's the end of discussion about what WW1 meant.
posted by colie at 2:58 PM on August 4, 2014

Thanks for this, from a Vietnam War CO who hopes he would have been a WWI CO if he'd had the chance, though they were a hell of a lot gutsier. Let us remember and learn.
posted by languagehat at 3:20 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with Sangermaine, that this seems to be a striking (and interesting) difference in US vs EU history education. In the US, WWI is pretty much always presented as pointless, foolish, and futile, and used as an example of how complex alliances can lead to terrible unintended consequences, or (if you're in a more conservative district), how Europe always messes up war and peace stuff. Admittedly, the lesson always concludes with "...and then America came in and fixed everything," and sometimes a bit about how noble America couldn't prevent perfidious France from imposing too-harsh surrender terms.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:55 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

A fascinating look at Tommy Atkins' hidden tactics to avoid combat on the western front in World War I, or why ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ could have been a lot funnier (and more subversive)…
posted by gorbweaver at 4:24 PM on August 4, 2014

'Debates may rage about whether this war was justified or not; but the brave men that volunteered and died truly believed in the importance of what they were doing.'

First of all, that's just sad and it's not like people are blaming the troops for this. It doesn't help when they say "though this was stupid and pointless, the people that killed and died thought it was useful." More like every other war in recent history -- "they fought and died to protect their fellow soldiers in the horrible conditions they were all surrounded by."

I haven't consumed these links yet but the Wikipedia article on the July Crisis is freakin' amazing and disenheartening as all fuck to read.

The fact that it's on Wikipedia and influenced by various people says a lot, but it's interesting to see the Kaiser portrayed as a hawk and then a dove and then a chicken and then a hawk and so forth depending on the context.
posted by aydeejones at 4:43 PM on August 4, 2014

Even as a 16 year old boy I shed tears reading "All Quiet on the Western Front" sympathizing with the German soldier portrayed.

I'm pretty sure there's a re-enactment of the Christmas "truces" in there that were particularly moving. It reminded me a lot of "The Sirens of Titan." Both books were sad.
posted by aydeejones at 4:45 PM on August 4, 2014

And finally, what I get out of World War I was that it terminated the notion of overt empires and introduced a more informal covert empire model, using puppet dictators and the same sort of colonialist tactics (see Iraq, three warring factions on top of some resources drawn together on a map and ruled by a Saudi Prince until he got whacked). US/America won WWI, everyone else pretty much got a big fat raspberry.
posted by aydeejones at 4:47 PM on August 4, 2014

Harry Patch, one of the last British WWI Veterans to pass away:

"We've had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it's a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn't speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?"
posted by cacofonie at 7:15 PM on August 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I guess I got more of a "pointless but inevitable" vibe from the presentation I've seen in the US.

This is generally how the war is seen here in Canada too, at least in terms of the overall global impact. But we're also taught that Canadian nationalism was more or less invented as a result of Canada's role at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

From the wiki: "The battle was the first occasion when all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participated in a battle together and thus became a Canadian nationalistic symbol of achievement and sacrifice."
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 8:56 PM on August 4, 2014

"though this was stupid and pointless, the people that killed and died thought it was useful."

The media's line is actually worse than that - and it's identical for modern wars like Iraq.

Of course everybody really knows it was 'stupid and pointless' (or at least of no value to ordinary people) but the media has to present 'balance' (much like with climate change), and so after a while it will have built a situation in which it can say 'debate goes on' regarding the pointlessness.

Additionally, plenty of troops and their families are very well aware of when a war is utterly pointless and stupid, but that can't be reported either, and the fetishisation of the armed forces continues until it reaches the hysterical absurdity of the modern US.
posted by colie at 2:23 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

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