The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism by Anthony Read Jonathan Cape, HK$224 In the wake of the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, Siegfried Sassoon's poem Everyone Sang ('Everyone suddenly burst out singing/And I was filled with such delight/As prisoned birds must find in freedom') summed up the feelings of a world that had been mired in war for four years. Yet real peace was a long way off. A flu epidemic that was to kill more than 50 million people was already wreaking havoc around the globe and the stirrings of revolution were to add to the chaos. As Anthony Read makes clear in The World on Fire, the term Bolshevik quickly became a catch-all label for anyone, even the mildest brand of socialist, who sought to challenge the established order. From the establishment's point of view there was no shortage of potential culprits. Workers struck and rioted in the streets in Germany, British soldiers mutinied in their barracks, anarchists planted bombs in the US (prompting some astonishingly heavy-handed and undemocratic retribution in the Land of Free) and the Mahatma fomented his idiosyncratic form of unrest in India. Looming over all these events was the menace of the Russian bear, a sinister and unknown species that threatened the destruction of all that many held dear. Europe had suffered the main brunt of what, in a masterstroke of nomenclature, was at the time known as the Great War for Civilisation. Millions lay on the brink of starvation and one of the highlights of Read's intriguing history is his portrayal of the stupendous efforts of a single American to feed the hungry. A Quaker by upbringing and an engineer by training, Herbert Hoover (who was later to become the 31st US President) had supplied food to the needy throughout the war, and 1919 saw him mount a one-man rescue mission that would succour the starving and do much to restore prosperity to war-ravaged communities. Contemptuous of Old World inefficiency and infuriated by the continuing Allied blockade (even the German fishing fleet was prevented from putting to sea), Hoover bypassed the authorities to ship food, clothes and medicine to the worst-affected areas. It was a valorous and far-sighted move. Bolshevism's most ready converts were those below the bottom rung of the social ladder. Hoover's soup kitchens and de-lousing stations, manned by soldiers seconded from the US Army, restored a vestige of normal life and pushed aside the seeds of revolution. Worldwide Bolshevism may have been kept in check more by chance than any concerted plan on the part of the existing powers, but 1919 laid the foundations for the rest of the tumultuous 20th century. In Italy, Benito Mussolini swept to the head of the nationalist right. In Germany, a recently demobilised Adolf Hitler was already feeling his way in a new career in politics. Russia was starting to consolidate its position as a major power, which would lead to the cold war. The massacre of 379 unarmed civilians at Amritsar, callously ordered by Brigadier Reginald Dyer, marked the turn of Britain's fortunes in India and the beginning of the dissolution of the British Empire. The first world war's formal conclusion came with the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in a railway carriage in June 1919. It was to be put to similar use at Hitler's insistence following the defeat of France a mere 21 years later. Sassoon's poem ends with the lines: 'Everyone was a bird/And the song was wordless/The singing will never be done,' underscoring - amid the rejoicing - his fears for the future. Rarely can a poem have been so prophetic.