AN EARLY AUTUMN BITE IS IN THE AIR as a late, gold-tinged afternoon falls over the rolling countryside of northern France. Where the land dips between gentle rises, it is already in shadow. Dotting the fields are machine-packed rolls of the year's final hay crop. Up a low hill, a grove of trees screens the evidence of another kind of harvest reaped on this spot nearly a century ago. Each gravestone in the small cemetery has a name, rank, and serial number; 162 have crosses and one has a Star of David. When known, a man's age is engraved on the stone as well: 19, 22, 23, 26, 34, 21, 20. Ten of the graves simply say, "A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God." Almost all the dead are from Britain's Devonshire Regiment, the date on their gravestones July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Most were casualties of a single German machine gun several hundred yards from this spot, and were buried here in a section of the frontline trench they had climbed out of that morning. Some 21,000 British soldiers were killed or fatally wounded that summer day, the day of greatest bloodshed in the history of their country, before or since.
From a nearby hilltop, you can see a half dozen of the 400 cemeteries where British soldiers are buried in the Somme battlefield region, a rough crescent of territory less than 20 miles long, but graves are not the only mark the war has made on the land. More than 700 million artillery and mortar rounds were fired on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918, and many failed to explode. Every year these leftover shells kill people. Dotted through the region are patches of uncleared forest or scrub surrounded by yellow danger signs in French and English warning visitors away. More than 630 bomb-disposal specialists have been killed in France since 1946. Like those shells, the First World War itself has remained in our lives, below the surface, because we live in a world so much formed by it.
The war's destructiveness still seems beyond belief. In addition to the dead, another 36,000 British troops were wounded on the first day of the Somme offensive. But worse was yet in store. "No, we do not pardon," Adolf Hitler fulminated soon after the war ended, "we demand--vengeance!" Germany's defeat, and the vindictive, misbegotten peace settlement that followed, irrevocably nurtured the seeds of Nazism, of an even more destructive war 20 years later, and of the Holocaust as well. The war of 1914-1918 was, as Simon Schama has put it, the "original sin" of the 20th century. Even the victors were losers: how could France, for example, be considered victorious when half of all Frenchmen aged 20 to 32 at the war's outbreak were dead when it was over?
Inaugurating industrialized slaughter on a scale previously unknown, the First World War remade the world for the worse in every conceivable way. It has few remembered moments of triumph or glory: no Waterloo, no Pickett's Charge, no D-day landing. Those who took part are not celebrated as the greatest generation. Today we usually look on it as an object lesson in multiple follies, such as the illusion that winning a major war can be quick and easy--or the illusion that wars do not have enormous unintended consequences. But oddly, despite the flood of histories, novels, and films that will only increase as the centenary of 1914 approaches (at least one major TV series is already in the works), we pay little attention to the people at the time who knew this war was an unmitigated catastrophe--and acted on their convictions. Ignoring those who argued for peace while the battles raged seems all the more strange today, when we have a vast and rising military budget and two ongoing wars that have created far more problems than they have solved.
WHAT KINGS, EMPERORS, AND PRIME MINISTERS did not foresee, many others did. From 1914 on, tens of thousands of people in all the belligerent countries believed the war was not worth the horrendous cost in blood, and some anticipated with tragic clarity at least part of the nightmare that would engulf Europe as a result. Moreover, they spoke out at a time when to do so took great courage. In Germany, antiwar radicals like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were sent to prison--as was the American socialist Eugene V. Debs after he left a sickbed to give a series of speeches when the United States entered the conflict. The judge told him he might get a lesser sentence if he repented. "Repent?" asked Debs. "Repent? Repent for standing like a man?" More than 500 American draft resisters went to prison.
Or consider a scene that unfolded a few weeks before that notorious first day on the Somme, not far away. In the spring of 1916, Britain had begun conscription, and some 50 men who were among the first to refuse it were forcibly inducted into the army and transported, some in handcuffs, across the English Channel to France. Family members and fellow pacifists were horrified. When questioned about the men, Lord Derby, director of military recruiting, declared that "if they disobey orders, of course they will be shot, and quite right too!"
There was no news of where the men were. Then one day in early June a clue reached England: an official Field Service Post Card, designed to save army censors the time it took to read mail. These cards had half-a-dozen printed messages that a soldier could either underline or cross out, and this particular one was signed by a 27-year-old schoolteacher named Bert Brocklesby, one of the resisters. All the messages were crossed out, except two. One was, "I am being sent down to the base." The other was, "I have received no letter from you for a long time." But Brocklesby had lightly crossed out many individual letters, so that the message read, "I am being sent ... to.... b.... ou.... long."
Supporters of the men immediately dispatched two clergymen to Boulogne.
But would they be in time? While the ministers were still crossing the Channel, a smuggled letter arrived from France, reaching the mother of a Quaker named Stuart Beavis. "We have been warned today that we are now within the war zone," he wrote to her stoically, "and the military authorities have absolute power, and disobedience may be followed by very severe penalties, and very possibly the death penalty.... Do not be downhearted if the worst comes to the worst; many have died cheerfully for a worse cause." To a peace group, he sent a brief message on behalf of himself and his comrades, ending, "We regret nothing." For a time, there was no more news of the men's fate.
IT WAS IN BRITAIN that significant numbers of war resisters first acted on their beliefs and paid the price. They did not even come close to stopping the bloodshed, but their strength of conviction remains one of the glories of a dark time. By the conflict's end, more than 20,000 British men of military age would refuse the draft. Many, on principle, also refused the noncombatant alternative service offered to conscientious objectors, and more than 6,000 served prison terms under harsh conditions: hard labor, a bare-bones diet, and a...