There is little new to tell about World War One. John Keegan, Hew Strachan and others have written comprehensive, well-researched histories of the conflict that resulted in 20 million casualties and set in motion the turbulent waves of nationalism that dominated the 20th Century. Barbara Tuchman wrote vividly about the diplomatic failures that resulted in the headlong rush to war. For firsthand accounts of the trenches, nothing compares to the memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden.
But in this finely written account Adam Hochschild achieves something new by contrasting key proponents of the British war machine with the pacifists who attempted to stop it. From the suffragette and worker movements came a few brave souls opposed to the purblind patriotism that swept the nation and encouraged millions of young men to march to their deaths. The object lesson of Keir Hardie, Bertrand Russell, the Pankhursts, and the 6000 conscientious objectors who refused to fight might be: individuals must stand firm in their convictions to change the world. But the parallel truth is more frightening: when a nation confronts a perceived threat to its existence, voices opposing it are muffled, propaganda overwhelms truth, and civil liberties go by the board–even in great democracies.
We like to think we would have confronted the politicians and generals whose arguments for persevering in a senseless war grew weaker and weaker with each disastrous campaign, but the more likely truth is that we too would have condemned the opponents as treasonous cowards and marched with the rest toward the great debacle.