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Emmeline Pankhurst, who went from pacifist to ardent hawk, is seen being arrested in 1908 during a suffragette march in Manchester

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When I teach the First World War to my students, I often ask them one of those impossible, unanswerable questions to jump-start the debate: Is it more convincing to see the war as the last gasp of the old order, or the first breath of the new? Of course, it's both - but after reading Adam Hochschild's absorbing new book, I am more persuaded than ever that the Great War fits better at the close of the 19th century than the dawn of the 20th.

To End All Wars is about the clash of world views that occurred as traditionalism and modernism jostled for primacy in wartime Britain. The conflict pitted the bulk of the British population - who supported the war, cheered the suspension of civil liberties and eagerly consumed all manner of alarmist propaganda - against a small group of pacifists and socialists who opposed the war, pleaded for tolerance, and remained passionate defenders of social justice. This simplistic calculus - pro-war = traditionalism = bad; anti-war = modernism = good - has already derailed many a book, but Hochschild is too good a writer to fall into that trap.

His narrative takes the main actors from the turbulent years of social and political unrest before 1914 to the even more turbulent years after 1918, and reveals them as bundles of contradictions who defy easy categorization. British commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig, childishly devout and completely unable to engage in conversation (there is a lovely anecdote about a briefing by Haig that consisted only of grunts and the occasional random word; fortunately, his subordinates were fluent in Haig-speak), had an almost criminal disregard for the lives of his soldiers, but he was one of the few people with any influence to argue that harsh peace terms would destabilize Europe.

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Emmeline Pankhurst, the radical suffragette, cheered when her allies bombed the house of Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George in 1913, but a year later the war had made her such a hawk that she was almost a puppet of his government and had turned against her own daughter Sylvia, who continued to espouse pacifism.

In short, this is the story of a world turned upside down. Joan Littlewood's iconic play Oh! What a Lovely War (1963) cast the war as a Pierrot show, in which jaunty contemporary songs contrasted jarringly with the tragic clowns. Richard Attenborough's 1969 screen adaptation turned it into a carnival where the amusements of the ruling elites were paid for with the lives of their subjects.

Hochschild continues that tradition, giving us a true theatre of the absurd. How else to explain enemies trading during wartime, such as the British government striking a deal with Berlin to exchange binoculars and other optical devices (only Germany had the technical capacity to manufacture high-quality optical lenses in quantity) for rubber from the British Empire (which the German army desperately needed to keep the machines of war rolling)?

This is a contradiction to us, but would have seemed less so at the time. We see war as the last resort, the ultimate catastrophe, but a century ago, war was a policy option, worse than some alternatives but certainly better than others. As Hochschild points out, for the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1914, war could mean salvation and the birth of a new, greater empire; peace would lead only to continued squabbling and the slow dissolution of a fractious empire. It may seem bizarre in the 21st century, but not so long ago there was little reason why a war should interrupt trade or why it couldn't be a legitimate means of national renewal.

As he showed with the award-winning King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998), Hochschild is a consummate storyteller. His analysis of the First World War is fairly conventional, and in terms of understanding the impact of the war on modern Britain he offers little that historians from George Dangerfield to A.J.P. Taylor have not already said. But somehow it doesn't really matter because To End All Wars is such a captivating read, thanks in large part to Hochschild's keen eye for the telling vignette.

One such story concerns Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who was beginning his epic journey to the South Pole when the war broke out. He offered to return to England and put his men and ship at the service of King and Empire, but the British government urged him to carry on. In 1916, Shackleton emerged from the polar wastes after a harrowing 18-month journey that saw his ship crushed by pack ice. His first question upon arriving at a Norwegian whaling station was, "When was the war over?" The startled response: "The War is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad."

Shackleton had set out in the golden summer of 1914 (which Hochschild beautifully sketches in tones reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night), when the grumbles of a few Balkan troublemakers could hardly dim the sunlight that suffused the Western world. By the time he returned to "civilization," the lights had gone out and the old world was fighting for its very survival. Shackleton had emerged from hell, only to return to a society that was still there.

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Jonathan F. Vance teaches military and cultural history at the University of Western Ontario. His Maple Leaf Empire: Canadians in Britain through Two World Wars is forthcoming.

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