Military history

23. AN IMAGINARY CEMETERY

THERE WAS NO ANNOUNCEMENT beforehand, and only a handful of guests were present for the ceremony at St. James's Church, Paddington. Although the bride was well into middle age, her wide-set dark eyes still evoked the renowned beauty of her youth. After lunch with a few friends, the couple slipped away from London by train. On their two-week honeymoon in Provence, they motored and strolled past the ruins of Roman amphitheaters and aqueducts, weathered stone relics of an empire past, while in Britain newspapers belatedly discovered the secret wedding of one of the great empire builders of the present. It was February 1921, and more than two decades after they first met, Alfred Milner and Violet Cecil were finally married.

He was 66, she 49. A respectable interval had passed since Edward Cecil's death, and so at last Lord and Lady Milner could be officially received by all, from the King and Queen on down, as the couple everyone had long known they were. But just as it was the twilight of the age when the appearance of conventional marriage mattered greatly, so it was the twilight of the empire in which Milner and his new wife had the deepest belief. "The man of no illusions," as Churchill had once called him, was facing the death of his greatest illusion.

Details of the empire's gradual unraveling crossed his desk daily, for the month after the war ended he had become colonial secretary. In India, where less than a decade earlier King George V and Queen Mary had been majestically installed as Emperor and Empress, Mohandas Gandhi was preaching civil disobedience as a weapon against British rule; and, in 1919, a hotheaded general ordered soldiers to open fire on a protest meeting in Amritsar, killing 379 people by the official—most likely understated—count and wounding at least 1,200 others. The massacre became a catalyst for Indian nationalists; although achieving independence would take nearly thirty years more, after Amritsar it was never in doubt. Later that year, trouble erupted in Egypt, and Milner was dispatched to Cairo to negotiate with restive nationalists. ("The difficulty," he reported back to Lloyd George, "is to find a way of making Egypt's relation to Great Britain appear a more independent and dignified one than it ever really can be.") The prospect of independence for Ireland—something he had furiously fought in 1914—now loomed as well, and bloodily so. In London, the year after he and Violet married, Irish militants assassinated Sir Henry Wilson, the friend with whom he had gone to Russia in 1917, on the field marshal's own doorstep. Milner rushed to the house to comfort his widow.

Paradoxically, the very war Milner had helped to win proved the death knell for another of his illusions, the dream of a "League of British Nations" with an overarching common parliament and cabinet. When he had put this idea before a meeting of dominion prime ministers during the war, it met with an embarrassing lack of enthusiasm. In his imagination, Canada and Australia had always been two major building blocks in such a federation, but neither government showed the slightest interest. The horrendous bloodshed of the war proved unexpectedly crucial in forming Canadian and Australian national identities sharply distinct from that of Britain. In both countries, the bitterest and most sacred war memories were of the tens of thousands of their men sacrificed at places like Passchendaele and Gallipoli by inept British generals. After the war, the various dominions went their separate ways politically more than ever, as the British Empire became the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1931, and finally, in 1949, merely the Commonwealth of Nations.

Imperialist true believers like Milner, Kipling, and Buchan had celebrated the way more than a million men from British colonies had fought for the empire in the war. But that experience had only raised expectations: these men often fought next to white soldiers who were far better paid, and in Europe they saw a continent of independent nations, not colonies. No one was more affected than the Indian troops. "Here the ladies tend us, who have been wounded, as a mother tends her child," a Sikh wrote to his father in the Punjab from England. "... They put us in motor cars and take us through the city. When, at four o'clock, we go out from the hospital, the ladies of the city give us fruit." He was astonished that British nurses emptied the hospital bedpans of wounded Indians. Another Indian soldier, quartered in a French home, was equally startled to find that Frenchwomen "attend to our wants and tidy our beds, and eat at the same table as we do." Such encounters nurtured something British colonial authorities had long tried to block: the idea of human equality.

Troops from other British colonies also found the war experience eye-opening. A month after the fighting ended, several thousand British West Indian soldiers at a base in Taranto, Italy, mutinied when they were ordered to clean white soldiers' latrines and failed to get a pay increase the whites had received. One man was killed in the fighting, 60 were sent to prison, and one was executed by a firing squad. Two weeks after the mutiny, in a sergeants' mess, 60 West Indian soldiers took part in the first political meeting ever held in which blacks from different British islands discussed how to work together for their rights. "Nothing we can do," a worried government official noted in a confidential memorandum the following year, "will alter the fact that the black man has begun to think and feel himself as good as the white."

In Belize, capital of British Honduras, returning veterans led a wave of rioting against their status as second-class citizens in their own homeland. The authorities declared martial law. "The participation of West Indian negroes in the war," the colony's governor wrote in a dispatch marked "Secret" to Milner, "has given rise to a strong and dangerous ill-feeling ... against Europeans." His desk flooded with similar reports, Milner asked the Royal Navy for the loan of the armored cruiser HMS Devonshire "in connection with the preservation of order in Jamaica during the demobilisation of the British West India Regiment," and warned that a second warship might also be needed.

Milner retired from the cabinet in 1921. Three years later, he and his wife made a sea journey to South Africa, the scene of his imperial triumph and their falling in love. The trip was filled with nostalgic visits to Boer War battle sites, the government providing them a private train to Kimberley. While in South Africa, however, Milner was apparently bitten by a tsetse fly and infected with sleeping sickness. On his return to England, his health declined rapidly, and Violet asked that the church bells in the village next to their country home be silenced, so as not to disturb him. On May 12, 1925, he was elected to the honorary post of chancellor of Oxford University. He died the next day, at 71.

She survived him by 33 years, remaining a member of the Ladies Empire Club and continuing to befriend the powerful and influential of later generations, such as the CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow when he was a correspondent in London during the Second World War. After her brother, who had long edited the archconservative National Review, fell ill in 1929, it became, in the words of the bemused Kipling, a "she-edited magazine." Violet saw every issue into print and in editorials ferociously assailed such targets as the League of Nations, the possibility of Indian independence, and British military unpreparedness. "Never forget, Prime Minister," she said to Stanley Baldwin when he came to lunch one day, "our frontier is on the Rhine."

She and the Kiplings visited one another frequently, and Rudyard sometimes read his work aloud to her. Still grieving the loss of his son, he found solace in his work as a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission, writing inscriptions for monuments and visiting military cemeteries as far distant as Egypt and Jerusalem. He and his wife made a pilgrimage to Chalk Pit Wood near Loos at the time of day they estimated that John Kipling had been killed there. Fulminating against the fraying of the British Empire, he contributed to a fund for the general who had massacred the Indians at Amritsar. "I hate your generation," he once burst out to a much younger man, "because you are going to give it all away."

In this period of his life, however, Kipling wrote "The Gardener," a haunting story utterly bereft of his usual jingoism. In it, a heartbroken woman searches in France for the war grave of her "nephew," who is really her illegitimate son. At last a gentle cemetery gardener—who, unknown to her, is Christ resurrected—looks at her "with infinite compassion" and forgiveness.

"Come with me," he says, "and I will show you where your son lies."

But no one showed the Kiplings. Rudyard died in 1936 and his widow Carrie three years later, without finding out where John's body lay. British authorities continue to try to identify remains, and in 1992 thought they had finally found John's, erecting a headstone with his name. But several military historians argue convincingly that the identification is false and that John Kipling is still among the more than 400,000 British Empire dead from 1914–1918 whose resting place is not known.

One by one, other players left the stage. In John Buchan's postwar writing there were only one or two brief hints of doubt about the war; he revealed, for instance, that he could no longer bear to read Homer, because of the way the poet glorified battle. He never said more. Unlike his friend Kipling, however, at least a few of his ideas changed with the times: he placed great hope in the League of Nations as an alternative to war, and eventually accepted the concept of self-rule for India. Buchan died in 1940 while serving in the figurehead post of governor general of Canada, and a British destroyer carried his ashes home. Many of his novels remain in print today on both sides of the Atlantic, testimony to the lasting appeal of swashbuckling action, sinister conspiracies foiled by a bold hero, and an abiding, benevolent British Empire.

That empire slowly dissolved over the course of the century, starting with Ireland. As the bitter guerrilla warfare there grew more intense, the British cabinet came to understand that it could be ended only by some form of Irish independence, and that the mercurial John French was hardly the right person to carry on such talks. In April 1921 he was eased out of his job as viceroy, and others negotiated an agreement whereby Britain would retain naval bases and certain other privileges and the six predominantly Protestant counties of the north would remain part of the United Kingdom, while the rest of the island became the Irish Free State, in name part of the empire, but in effect a self-governing country.

Just as French's removal as commander in chief on the Western Front had been softened with a viscountcy, so now his dismissal was accompanied by an earldom. He slipped away to the south of France for a holiday with Winifred Bennett. Still believing that he was essentially a man of Ireland, where he already owned one country home, he extravagantly bought a second. But such purchases left him, as ever, short of cash, and French owed his sister money from a loan she had made while he was still speaking to her. For a few years, his mustache now turned white, he kept busy giving speeches to veterans' associations and unveiling war memorials. Cancer ended his days in 1925, not long after he sat up in his sickbed near a window to return the salutes of some veterans who had gathered outside. He would have been furious had he known that one of the pallbearers at his funeral would be Haig.

During her brother's final months, Charlotte Despard hoped for a reconciliation. Several times she wrote affectionately to "My dearest Jack," and once went to the hospital where he was being treated, but was not allowed to see him—whether on his orders or the doctor's we do not know. She remained on good terms with French's long-neglected wife, but neither Eleanora French nor her children could comprehend Despard's politics, nor why, when she arrived for visits, she called her chauffeur "Comrade Tom." To the end of her life, no cause was too radical for her. A friend once said, "I've only got to send a telegram to Mrs. Despard to say, 'Tomorrow noon I'm going to attack Battersea Town Hall,' and she'd be there, she won't ask me why."

Despite their differences, she shared one improbable faith with her brother: Despard, too, was convinced that at heart she was Irish. "I have to go to Ireland," she told a group of supporters who had gathered to celebrate her birthday. "It is the call of the blood." She settled there for good in 1921.

The following year, a fierce civil war broke out in the Irish Free State over whether in the independence negotiations its leaders had given away too much to Britain. The fratricidal fighting ended only after several thousand deaths, but many of the most radical nationalists continued to belong to an uncompromising underground faction of the Irish Republican Army, determined to unite Northern Ireland with the south and create a socialist revolution. Despard, of course, was among them. She bought a large Victorian mansion north of Dublin where IRA men on the run sometimes found shelter or stashed their arms. The police raided the building from time to time, but always took care to leave the venerable Despard alone. Black mantilla fluttering in the breeze, she still spoke at large political rallies in Ireland, England, and on the Continent. She died in 1939, at the age of 95.

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Few of the COs sent to British jails during the war had ever been behind bars before, and they were shocked by what they saw. Soon after the war's end, Stephen Hobhouse took a job coordinating a comprehensive study of the nation's prisons. When his health broke down, Fenner Brockway joined him and helped complete English Prisons Today. Published in 1922, the 735-page book was an acknowledged landmark in prison reform and, among other accomplishments, helped end the infamous rule of silence. Hobhouse, living frugally but guiltily on his inherited wealth, spent the rest of his life writing on mysticism and Quaker history, and died in 1961 at 79. After the Armistice, his cousin Emily, whose convictions had helped shape his own, worked on getting relief supplies to the hungry in Germany and Austria. She died in 1926.

As the government's wartime paranoia about radicals receded, John S. Clarke was able to emerge from underground. In 1929 he began serving several years as an Independent Labour Party member of Parliament, where he successfully argued against a bill that would have imposed strict regulations on circuses. When colleagues protested that the training of circus animals required cruelty, Clarke assured them that it did not—and invited them to join him in a lion-and-tiger cage so he could demonstrate. No one took him up on this. Late in life, while serving as a member of the Glasgow City Council, he would periodically perform again. Once he had been the country's youngest lion tamer; now he was the oldest.

Of all the careers that were built on defending the British government against threats from antiwar radicals like Clarke, Brockway, and Hobhouse, and from imaginary conspirators like the Wheeldon family, none involved a more dramatic fall than that of Basil Thomson, who had become Sir Basil in 1919. Two years later, he and the home secretary had a falling-out and he left government service, but remained in the public eye, embarking on a successful lecture tour of the United States, and in rapid succession writingMy Experiences at Scotland Yard and other books in the same vein. In 1925, however, he suffered an embarrassing blow when arrested one night in Hyde Park for committing "an act in violation of public decency" with a woman who gave her name as Thelma de Lava. In court, Thomson indignantly protested that he was "writing a book dealing with vice conditions in the West End, and had gone to Hyde Park to gather data.... As I entered the park I was accosted by a young woman.... When she said she was hard up, I unbuttoned my coat for the purpose of getting out a few shillings and giving them to her." Thomson's lawyer tried a different tack, claiming that his client had gone to the park "to follow up certain information about an alleged Communist, who was to be found there." Although his punishment was only a fine of £5, according to one news account, "the crowds of spectators who jammed the court room throughout the trial whooped gleefully and had to be quelled." We do not know if the audience included any of those Thomson had so assiduously spied on during the war.

The person most identified in the public mind with that war was, of course, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. After the Armistice, he led his army, in somber triumph, into Germany, to occupy the west bank of the Rhine. Invited to London for a ceremony in which Lloyd George was honoring Marshal Foch of France, he was miffed to discover "that I was to be in the fifth carriage.... I felt that this was more of an insult than I could put up with." He refused to attend. Before long, though, honors began to flood in: an earldom, medals, a £100,000 gift from Parliament, and a successful public fund-raising campaign to buy him the ancestral seat of the Haig family, Bemersyde House, on Scotland's River Tweed.

Even though by the war's end his mind had opened up enough to embrace new advances in military technology, when he soon afterward retired from the army it seemed to close down again. "Some enthusiasts to-day ... prophesy that the aeroplane, the tank, and the motor-car will supersede the horse in future wars," he wrote a half-dozen years after the war ended. "I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever.... Aeroplanes and tanks ... are only accessories to the man and the horse."

Haig deployed his skills as a political infighter better than he had ever deployed his forces, to ensure that he would be remembered for winning the war and not for the disastrous offensives of 1916 and 1917. While he disingenuously claimed to be "very lazy on the question of the history of the war," he was anything but. The new battlefield, which he dominated with considerable success, was the preparation of the multivolume Official History of the war, as well as other histories and memoirs; his weapons were the texts of his self-serving diary, letters, dispatches, and other documents that he gave to trusted loyalists, including the Official History's main author. Knowing that his reputation would probably be under assault after his death, Haig even orchestrated a posthumous counterattack on his future critics by mobilizing two generals to write a long memorandum in his defense, which was deposited with the British Museum for release in 1940.

The unruly world of postwar Britain, filled with vocal labor unionists who staged a general strike in 1926, dismayed Haig, but on a visit to Italy he was impressed with the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini: "I found him most pleasant. There is no doubt that he has already done much good in this country. His view is, that everyone is a servant of the State and must honestly do his best to serve the State. If anyone fails he is punished. We want someone like that at home at the present time." Curiously, the field marshal who had formerly commanded millions now did not even use a secretary, and answered all letters by hand. Haig died suddenly of a heart attack in 1928 and was mourned at an elaborate state funeral in Westminster Abbey. Only that same year was the cavalry lance officially retired as a combat weapon of the British army.

Another funeral also took place in London in 1928. Its proces sion also marched in orderly ranks, but instead of guardsmen and army bagpipers, the marchers were almost all women. And instead of scarlet and khaki, they wore purple, white, and green; some displayed, as badges of honor, the arrow insignia of prison garb. When they followed the coffin to the cemetery there was some tension in the air, for one of the mourners stood, solitary and defiant, apart from the others.

In the casket was the body of Emmeline Pankhurst. More than a thousand followers gathered at the graveside, where they surrounded her daughter Christabel, whose eyes were red from weeping. The solitary mourner, of course, was Sylvia, estranged from her mother for the past 15 years. Also at the cemetery was someone whose arrival had deepened the estrangement, causing Mrs. Pankhurst, supporters said, a shock that hastened her death: a six-month-old baby boy to whom Sylvia had given birth out of wedlock. Emmeline had nothing but contempt for the baby's father, Silvio Corio, with whom Sylvia now lived. An Italian radical and convert to Islam, he already had two earlier illegitimate children.

Emmeline Pankhurst's life had been a wild journey between extremes, from socialist to rock-throwing suffragette to staunch prowar patriot to enthusiast for Russia's Women's Battalion of Death. But one strand of her character remained constant: her strict Victorian sense of sexual morality. When she read in the newspaper that Sylvia, who advocated "marriage without a legal union," had had a baby, she wept all day and kept saying, "I shall never be able to speak in public again." She never did.

Although loyal to her mother to the end, Christabel took another of the abrupt turns so common to this family. The strident voice that had once urged suffragettes to smash the windows of government offices and then harshly denounced Britain's enemies would be devoted with no less fervor for the remainder of her life to proclaiming the second coming of Christ. She eventually settled in that home of so many messianic movements, Southern California. After their mother's funeral, she and Sylvia never saw each other again, and she died in Santa Monica in 1958.

Adela Pankhurst, banished to Australia in 1914, never returned to England. Emmeline had cut off contact with her when she took a strong stance against the war, and urged the Australian prime minister to denounce her. Adela's politics, too, began to take a strangely twisting course. She was a founder of the Australian Communist Party, then veered rightward to start a branch of the Women's Guild of Empire, and eventually was interned as a Japanese sympathizer during the Second World War. She and her husband named their dogs Adolf and Benito, after the leaders of Japan's two European allies. Her final conversion, a year before her death, was to Roman Catholicism.

Of all the Pankhurst women, Sylvia best escaped—at least for a time—the family's attraction to rigid, all-encompassing belief systems. After the war she continued to edit the Workers' Dreadnought, which employed Britain's first black correspondent and also published Indian writers; hers was a rare voice against the tightening of racial discrimination in South Africa, the foundations of what would become apartheid. In a foresighted 1922 pamphlet she predicted that in the later part of the twentieth century the major nations of the world would be fighting over oil. On a postwar trip to Italy, she saw some of Mussolini's thugs in action and began speaking out against fascism, something few people in Britain yet took seriously.

In 1935, fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia, whose ruler, Emperor Haile Selassie, appealed in vain to the League of Nations for help. Sylvia now had the cause that would occupy her for the rest of her life. She and her lover Corio began publishing New Times and Ethiopia News, which reported on Italian atrocities in Ethiopia and denounced the rise of the Nazis. When his country was a victim of Mussolini, Haile Selassie was widely supported by many other progressives and intellectuals. Once restored to his throne by the Allies in the Second World War, however, he again became a ruler whose absolute power was underlined by his official titles: Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings, and Elect of God. None of this deterred Sylvia from once again becoming a quintessential Pankhurst true believer. "In those irresistible eyes," she wrote, "burns the quenchless fire of the hero who never fails his cause." At the age of 74, she moved to Ethiopia and continued to sing the Emperor's praises in print. He awarded her various medals, and she was one of the few people given the privilege of not having to bow and walk backward on leaving his presence. She died in Addis Ababa in 1960.

When Adela suffered a fatal heart attack in Australia the following year, the last of the Pankhurst sisters was gone. It was as if the mother and three daughters had been split apart by centrifugal force: each of the four ended her life on a different continent.

Among the millions of veterans released from the British army in the months after the Armistice was Albert Rochester. Returning to his job in Wiltshire as a signalman for the Great Western Railway, he resumed writing for labor newspapers. Now bitterly disillusioned with the war, he praised those who had gone to jail as COs. In print and on the lecture platform, he returned repeatedly to his most searing wartime memory, witnessing three British soldiers executed one freezing January dawn in 1917. In the early 1920s, he joined forces with a founder of the No-Conscription Fellowship, who had spent most of the war in prison, to press for an official inquiry into the executions. The War Office rebuffed them. Rochester's anger at the generals who had ordered these three working-class lives snuffed out was of a piece with his position as an untamed labor militant. In speeches he gave as he traveled the country by train and motorcycle, he offered to show anyone who doubted his story the location of the three unmarked graves. In 1926, he died suddenly at the age of 41, of septicemia following minor surgery.

In recent decades, argument over the army's death sentences revived, and became a curious proxy battle for how the entire conflict should be remembered. Were the First World War's 346 known British military executions—minus a few dozen for murder, rape, or other noncombat-related crimes—merely measures essential to maintaining military discipline in an age that took capital punishment for granted? Or were they the work of bullheaded generals who refused to acknowledge that trench warfare could drive men mad? And was the whole war itself a matter of such madness that soldiers executed for cowardice, desertion, or casting away arms were tragic victims, if not heroes, for refusing their parts in it?

In 1990, a citizens' group called Shot at Dawn began demanding posthumous pardons for the executed; among its members were relatives of Lance Sergeant Joseph Stones and Lance Corporal Peter Goggins, both of whom Rochester had seen shot. The war's executions became the subject of a half-dozen books, several TV documentaries, at least two plays, a children's book, a memorial in sculpture, and a song, "Deserter," by a Bristol rock band. Local newspapers in England and Ireland took up the cases of executed soldiers from their communities, and bishops, city councils, labor unions, and the Irish government added their voices to the demand for pardons. Each year, Shot at Dawn members joined the November remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph, the London war memorial, wearing white badges to symbolize the white handkerchiefs or envelopes pinned over the hearts of condemned men to provide targets for firing squads. Finally, in 2006, the British government granted a blanket pardon to more than 300 executed First World War soldiers, including the three men Rochester had watched die.

The pardon may have ended the public argument over the executions, but a larger dispute over how to judge the war goes on. Was its horrendous death toll heart-rending but necessary to prevent the German conquest of all of Europe? Or was it senseless, a spasm of brutal carnage that in every conceivable way remade the world for the worse? Nowhere has the argument been more heated than in Britain, which, because it had not been attacked in 1914, had a clearer choice than France or Belgium about whether to join the fighting.

Within a decade after its end, the war had already come to be seen by many as a needless tragedy that, at least where Britain was concerned, should have been avoided. In films, novels, and onstage the conflict today is usually portrayed as an unmitigated catastrophe, where both sides wasted men's lives and cynically coveted territory and colonies in the manner of empires immemorial. In 1998, the Daily Express, which was unsurpassed in its drum-beating chauvinism during the war years, published a call to remove the equestrian statue of Haig from its prominent place on Whitehall in London.

In recent decades, however, a number of British military historians have, surprisingly but unconvincingly, come to Haig's defense. The field marshal's admirers have even formed the Douglas Haig Fellowship, which presents a lecture in his honor each year, and in Britain theirs has become the new academic orthodoxy. In an onslaught of books and articles they have argued that, whatever his flaws, Haig did more than anyone else to contain the German assault of early 1918, turn the tables, and win the war. More important, these historians insist, the war had to be won: Germany had violated Belgian neutrality and, without resistance, an aggressive, militaristic Germany and its allies would have overrun Europe.

To this, it is easy to respond: the Second World War, which grew so inevitably out of the First, did result in Germany's overrunning almost all of Europe—and the Nazis carried out an immeasurably more murderous agenda than Kaiser Wilhelm II ever would have. The war that prevented a German conquest of Europe in 1914 virtually guaranteed the one that would begin in 1939.

Although this argument over the war's worth has often been one between the political right and left, one powerful contemporary voice arguing that Britain should have stayed out comes from the Scottish-born conservative historian Niall Ferguson, who has called the war's toll "the worst thing the people of my country have ever had to endure." He points out that one of the Kaiser's principal war aims was to establish a pan-European customs union, a "United States of Europe," which Germany, by its size, would dominate. How different is that, he asks provocatively, from today's European Union? Germany was indeed the aggressor in 1914, but would a German conquest of France then—something that had already happened once, in 1870–71—have been so disastrous? Whatever brutalities or shifts in the balance of power this would have caused, Ferguson argues, seem paltry compared to the war's death toll and catastrophic aftereffects, above all the rise of Nazism.

To this we can add that the war of 1914–1918 left a wider legacy as well. For example, the unprecedented, massive government propaganda operations on both sides, filled with false claims of glorious battlefield victories and wild exaggerations of the other side's atrocities, engendered a deep postwar cynicism—a cynicism that years later made many people first dismiss as propaganda the early reports of Nazi death camps. More important yet, the war smashed many barriers in the realm of what most Europeans considered morally permissible. In the frenzy for military advantage, international agreements and the long-standing distinction between soldiers and civilians went up in smoke: chemical warfare by both sides, German torpedoing of neutral ships, the British attempt to blockade Germany into starvation—the list could go on. And these barriers, once broken, were gone forever. The barbed-wire-ringed camps in Germany for laborers conscripted from France, Belgium, and Russia would be duplicated in far larger and crueler dimensions by the Nazis and the Soviets. The Turkish genocide of the Armenians would be repeated, on a vaster scale, against Europe's Jews. The poison gas attacks foreshadowed the gruesome toll in birth defects from the American spraying of defoliants across South Vietnam. The indiscriminate German bombings of British and French cities would be replicated by both sides, with an immensely greater death toll, in the Second World War, reaching a climax in the atomic leveling of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The unexpected aristocratic dissenter of 1917, Lord Lansdowne, was entirely right to see that the war had irrevocably unleashed "the prostitution of science for purposes of pure destruction."

Would we have devised such means of inflicting pain, terror, and death without the First World War? Probably yes, for human beings have been inventing new ways to kill each other for thousands of years. But the scale of the conflict and the way the belligerents mobilized their economies for total war accelerated such developments greatly, and left a bloodied Germany determined to seek revenge. The most toxic legacy of the conflict and its misbegotten peace settlement lies in the hardly imaginable horrors that followed. If we were allowed to magically roll back history to the start of the twentieth century and undo one—and only one—event, is there any doubt that it would be the war that broke out in 1914?

On a warm, sunny day in Ypres, the land seems at peace. Just outside of town, a farmer on his tractor says, yes, a visitor can certainly step inside one of the seven half-buried British bunkers on his property, their rounded concrete roofs bearing the ribbed imprint of corrugated iron. They now house a flock of bleating baby goats, who rush out, frightened by the sound of approaching footsteps. A few miles away, a German trench has been carefully reconstructed, with wattle holding the sides firm, duckboards on the bottom, a rim of sandbags along the parapet. The nearby small villages like Passchendaele, whose very names were once synonymous with mass death, are now filled with old men chatting in sidewalk cafés, leafy town squares with bandstands, schoolchildren heading home with leather bookbags, shops selling Belgian chocolates. The air smells of fresh-cut grass. Every road is so well paved, every street so clean, every red-roofed home with its window boxes of bright flowers so well kept, that it is difficult to imagine this same countryside engulfed in blood and flame, this same blue sky filled with deadly shards of metal and the screams of the wounded, this same breeze carrying the pervasive stink of rotting bodies.

In the reconstructed German trench, metal grates block off the entrances to two shafts. These lead to parts of what was an underground battlefield: the hundreds of miles of tunnels that the British and Germans constructed, sometimes digging down through decaying corpses, to plant mines under each other's trenches and to post underground sentries with stethoscopes to listen for tunneling by the other side. Sometimes miners accidentally hacked through the wall of an enemy tunnel, and then they fought in the claustrophobic passageways, with pistols, knives, picks, and shovels. In one tunnel, under Mount Sorrel near Ypres, researchers today have found in the support timbers scars from bullets fired during an underground fight that appears in the records of the 2nd Canadian Tunneling Company. In another, beneath Vimy Ridge in France, they found 8,000 pounds of explosives in rubberized bags that failed to go off in 1917. A huge, previously unexploded British mine beneath a Belgian ridge was ignited by a lightning strike in 1955. Tunnels are so common around Ypres that periodically a heavy tractor or harvester crossing a field or farmyard will suddenly drop five or ten feet when, somewhere below ground, a rotting support timber gives way at last.

Beneath these placid farms lies a layer of soil densely sprinkled with rusted metal: cartridge clips, belt buckles, helmets, canteens, tobacco tins, bells used to sound the alarm for a gas attack, barbed wire, the screw-in metal stakes to which the wire was fastened, shell fragments and shells, rifles with their stocks rotted away, plus the occasional artillery piece, swallowed whole by mud. Plows unearth it all; some half-million pounds of First World War scrap is still collected from French and Belgian fields each year. And everywhere along the old Western Front the soil continues to yield up bones: the remains of 250 British and Australian soldiers were found beneath a French field in 2009.

The thin band of territory stretching through northern France and this corner of Belgium has the greatest concentration of young men's graves in the world. Mile after mile of orderly thickets of white tombstones or crosses climb low hills and spread through gentle valleys, dotted here and there with the spires, columns, and rotundas of larger shrines. From the New Zealand Monument in Messines, Belgium, to the South African National Memorial at the Somme battlefield in France to the less grand cemeteries holding the bones of Senegalese troops or Chinese laborers, the land is dotted with reminders of how far men traveled to die. Even those lucky enough to be in a marked grave were sometimes buried twice over, after cemeteries from the first year or two of the war were blown up by shells in later battles. Today there are more than 2,000 British cemeteries alone in France and Belgium, cared for by almost 500 gardeners.

An entire week of travel along the old Western Front, however, reveals only a single memorial celebrating anyone for doing something other than fighting or dying. A few miles outside of Ypres, across a one-lane country road from a brick barn, is a chest-high cross of sturdy wooden beams, stained dark. Next to it is a small fir tree in a pot, blown over by the summer wind; three silver balls are still attached to it, for it is a Christmas tree, and this homemade cross, not erected or maintained by any country's official graves agency, stands in memory of the soldiers from both sides who took part in the Christmas Truce of 1914. One of the soccer games in no man's land that day is said to have taken place near this spot. Stuck into the ground around the cross are more than a dozen smaller wooden crosses, a foot or so long, which you can buy in Ypres shops that cater to battlefield visitors. "In Remembrance" is stamped on each in English, and you can write a soldier's name beneath it. But on one of the little crosses, in the space for the name, someone has written "All of You," and, above that, "Imagine."

And so, if we could imagine another cemetery, of all those who understood the war's madness enough not to take part, whether just on that Christmas Day or for longer, whose graves might it contain? It would certainly be an international cemetery, for in it would be Eugene V. Debs, whose opposition to the war won him a prison term in the United States, along with other ex-prisoners like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht from Germany and E. D. Morel from England. There would be many soldiers too, from the French troops who mutinied in 1917 and the million or more Russians who, that same year, simply left the front and made the long walk home to their villages, to the German sailors who in the war's final days put out the fires in their ships' boilers and refused orders to go to sea.

Like Sylvia Pankhurst, few in this imaginary cemetery would be saints or paragons of good judgment, but when it came to the war, even someone as indiscriminate in her enthusiasms as Charlotte Despard made a better choice than her brother and those who dutifully marched off to be slaughtered under his command. Emily Hobhouse might have been wildly impractical in thinking that she could single-handedly start peace negotiations in Berlin, but no one else so much as tried. Keir Hardie would be in this cemetery with them, as would his friend Jean Jaurès, though he was murdered just before the war began, and Bertrand Russell, who foresaw with such clarity the shattered world the war would leave. Stephen Hobhouse and the more than 6,000 other British conscientious objectors who went to prison would be here too, with a special place of honor reserved for those taken to France in handcuffs who did not abandon their principles even when threatened with death.

This would be a cemetery not of those who were confi dent they would win their struggle, but of those who often knew in advance that they were going to lose yet felt the fight was worth it anyway, because of the example it set for those who might someday win. "I knew that it was my business to protest, however futile protest might be," wrote Russell decades later. "I felt that for the honour of human nature those who were not swept off their feet should show that they stood firm." And stand firm and honor the best of human nature they did. Their battle could not be won in 1914–1918, but it remained, and still remains, to be fought again—and again. For even a century's worth of bloodshed after the war that was supposed to end all wars, we are painfully far from the day when most people on earth will have the wisdom to feel, as did Alice Wheeldon in her prison cell, "The world is my country."

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