The Shame of Anzac Day

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In Aotearoa (New Zealand) and in Australia we observe Anzac day, commemorating the first landings at Gallipoli in 1915 on April 25. The Dardanelles campaign that followed this landing was 8 months of futile slaughter that ended in complete withdrawal. In the century since the sense of loss and the rightful condemnation of the vicious military folly were always muted and buried under tales of honour and national pride, but now we are forgetting altogether. In our fatuous nationalistic self-love we are telling our children that the war was a noble endeavour. History is being rewritten in the most offensive and disgusting manner and we need to finally confront the fact that Anzac Day should be a day of shame, not of pride.

After the Armistice in 1918 people began in many ways to commemorate the war. The event and monuments are solemn. Tombs or tomb-like memorials and plaques listing the fallen became commonplace. Events were also solemn. The Anzac Day service that we observe here in Aotearoa is based on funeral rites. Much of the memorialisation implicitly or explicitly promised to struggle against further war and bloodshed. For many this had been the war to end war, and that was the only meaning and consolation they could find in the futility of the carnage that had occurred. At the same time nationalism and the need to find positive meaning to soften grief shifted people from mourning the loss of lives to honouring the sacrifice of lives. But sacrifice implies that something was gained. Increasingly our commemoration of events that should fill us with deep shame has become an occasion for mistaken pride. We have forgotten the ugly truths of the Great War. Even though wars are happening now in which we have moral, if not material entanglement, we are as foolish as the people of 1914 who thought the War was a romantic adventure and would be “over by Christmas”.

We need to remember the forgotten truths, some of which were buried right from the start. To begin with, there is the fact that large numbers of British people actually opposed the war. On August the 2nd 1914 there was a massive antiwar rally in Trafalgar Square, London. The Manchester Guardian reported that it was “far larger, for example, than the most important of the suffragist rallies”. On that very day the British government decided to go to war. 4 cabinet ministers and one junior minister resigned and the government seemed in danger of falling, but on the 4th of August Germany invaded Belgium and Britain officially declared war. They now had the pretext of protecting Belgian neutrality, though they later violated Greek neutrality in the same manner. In truth, for Britain and for us, this was a war for Empire.

Less than 4 hours after Britain declared war Lord Liverpool, the Governor General of New Zealand, stood on Parliament steps in Wellington are read a proclamation from the Emperor King George. We were ordered to war. Many New Zealanders were wildly enthusiastic but the voices of those opposed to war were never heard. There was no debate and, as a country, we had no voice in this matter.

Young men who had no idea what they would face clamoured to volunteer. 2 years later conscription was introduced and about one third of the men sent overseas from Aotearoa were conscripts. Whether conscript or volunteer, though, the lives of military personnel during wartime are a form of regulated slavery. When ordered to die, they must die. New Zealanders died in numbers that can be hard for us to grasp. It was not lawful to act in the interests of self-preservation regardless of what you thought of the futile slaughter and stalemate that lasted for years on the Western Front. 23 New Zealanders were killed by firing squad for desertion.

April 25 is Anzac day. For both Australia and Aotearoa the formation of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was an occasion of national maturation, but we have always been too polite to admit that our national spirit developed in a very ignoble disdain for the weakness of ordinary Britons. For ordinary soldiers the Anzac spirit came from embarking thinking of themselves as somewhat inferior Britons, but on arrival discovering not only a commonality of culture between the two countries, but also a new sense of self for each. Far from being inferior, the Anzac troops soon developed the belief that they were superior to British soldiers and developed a degree of contempt for them and their murderous officers. British soldiers were physically and mentally weak for the simple reason that the British working class was the most malnourished in Europe. 50% of British military aged men were not even considered fit for military service. The Anzacs thought that they lacked strength, endurance, morale and initiative. That contempt for the less fortunate is how they overcame their sense of colonial inferiority.

As a result of the relative individual weakness of the British troops, British commanders used Canadian and Anzac troops as shock troops throughout the war. Because of this personnel from Aotearoa were over 50% more likely to be killed in the war than their British counterparts.

After three years of often horrific fighting – including the Battle of the Somme which left 2111 New Zealanders dead and 5848 wounded – New Zealand’s military effort culminated in the Third Battle of the Ypres, better known to us as Passchendaele. On the 12th of October 1917 New Zealand forces were ordered to advance in muddy conditions into machine gun fire. On that day alone 800 Kiwis died. Over all, the 3rd Ypres cost New Zealand 1796 lives. In a letter home Private Leonard Hart wrote:

Dozens got hung up in the wire and shot down before their surviving comrades’ eyes. It was now broad daylight and what was left of us realised that the day was lost. We accordingly lay down in shell holes or any cover we could get and waited. Any man who showed his head was immediately shot. They were marvellous shots those Huns. We had lost nearly eighty per cent of our strength and gained about 300 yards of ground in the attempt. This 300 yards was useless to us for the Germans still held and dominated the ridge.”

He also wrote about seeing British wounded who were abandoned by their commanders:

“These chaps, wounded in the defence of their country, had been callously left to die the most awful of deaths in the half frozen mud while tens of thousands of able bodied men were camped within five miles of them behind the lines.”

After Passchendaele the New Zealand Division, worn down by horrible misuse and deprivation, was as broken and lacklustre as their British comrades.

Indeed, the conditions faced by all frontline troops of all nations in the War were enough to break any normal human being. On arrival at the front they were confronted with overwhelming noise and disorientation in time and space. They had to contend with stench, filth, mud, vermin and cold. They were constantly fatigued from hard labour at or behind the front line. They suffered chronic sleep deprivation exacerbated by the reversal of day/night patterns of activity in the front trenches. They were malnourished and extremely prone to physical disease, but were often treated punitively, cruelly or callously on falling ill. They were starved of any, even basic, strategic information and and were frequently blind and helpless as death and danger stalked them or exploded all around them. Their lives were thrown away by others as if they had no value. In these circumstances the front line soldier inevitably came to see some actions of military superiors and politicians (and by association the “home”) as either gratuitously idiotic or insane, or even as intentionally murderous. This was not entirely irrational as many of the commanding officers of Britain and Europe were known to loathe the men they sent into battle. However, along with hatred of those in the rear echelons, frontline soldiers often developed a hatred for women and older men. Some even imagined that women were rejoicing in the slaughter of their own sons.

Deaths in the Great War were often lingering, agonising and horrific. That is the norm for the violence of death in war, yet the technology and the conditions of the fields of battle made this even more so in World War One. Only a lucky few died clean deaths, and many who died slowly would have died unattended, alone with their grief, fear, pain and loneliness. Others might have been dragged away by brave stretcher bearers, only to end up living with horrifying incurable mutilations. These men with lost limbs, crushed joints or incinerated flesh would live in chronic pain, often as beggars.

The sense of helplessness common to soldiers seems to have been a major factor in causing acute psychiatric casualties. Men would break down completely in various ways and there was considerable risk that such people would be tried in a court martial and even shot. Others were sent for treatment and for the first time, but not the last, military psychiatrists struggled with the fact that their job was not to make people better, but to make them effective again and send them back into the situation that was destroying them. We now know that those acute psychiatric cases were the tip of the iceberg. Post-traumatic stress disorder generally develops over many years or even decades. The war created an epidemic of family violence and alcoholism that wreaked havoc on the homefront, but did so behind closed doors.

Some of the men brutalised in the War became violent official or unofficial paramilitary squadrists. The notorious “Black and Tans” sent by Britain to Ireland were largely veterans of the Great War.

Similarly the Fascist and Nazi militias that became active throughout Europe were originally veterans. The violence of fascism was born in the trenches. Like the Spanish Flu that killed up to 50 million people, no mutation of ideology could have been so virulent and so deadly had it not been cultivated in the brutality of the Great War. This is what led to another 60 million dead in the bombed cities, on the battlefields, and in the gas chambers of World War II. As Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer tells us: “The killing, mutilation and gas poisoning of millions of soldiers on both sides had broken taboos and decisively blunted moral sensitivities. Auschwitz cannot be explained without reference to World War I.”

The violence that sprang from the Great War did not end when the next war ended in the nuclear incinerations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The British Empire had devoted fully 25% of its troops to fighting in the Middle East, and in doing so it directly set in motion events that are still causing death and destruction through war as I speak to you now. Men and women are fighting and dying right now, be they volunteers or conscripts. Bombs are dropping on civilians whose homelands may not have known real peace for 2, 3 or even as much as 5 decades.

The British effort in the Middle East was a war for oil. While France pleaded for help and saw one half of her young men die in battle (one half of all French men between the ages of 20 and 32 were killed in the war), but Britain ignored the desperation of her closest ally and invaded first Turkey and then Iraq. They treated their allies very badly. They betrayed their Arab allies by signing the Sykes/Picot agreement that carved up all of the Arab Middle East for Britain and France. They then betrayed the French by redrawing the boundaries of that agreement to put further distance between French territories and the oilfields that were the British goal. Then two days after an armistice that was supposed to end hostilities between Turkey and Britain, a British force invaded Mosul vilayet in what is now northern Iraq. After nearly two weeks of fighting they secured the area and now they had established control over every known source of petroleum in the Middle East. They created the countries of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen and more. In a year or so the British were dropping poison gas on rebellious Iraqi villages.

That is the empire that New Zealand soldiers died for. That is the future that their sacrifice brought us: burning cities, mass graves and wars that now seem destined to simply continue in perpetuity, as if the very idea of peace is lost to us. If we want to honour their memory, we cannot lie to ourselves about the crime perpetrated on them – on all of us. This country sent 10% of its population overseas. We lost less than countries like France, Serbia or Austria (where many civilians starved to death) but look at an atlas. Those countries had little choice. What madness made us do this to our young men? In economic terms alone we crippled ourselves, wasting years of development, not for a worthwhile cause, not even for empty gains, but to help make a world that was much much worse for our efforts and our loss. It is a hard pill to swallow, but it is worse than if they had died for nothing. That is the truth, and if we want to honour their memories we have to work to end the suffering that still follows in the wake of their deaths. Those people who are dying right now in the Middle East are most often dying from arms made by our allies in the US while US and UK based oil companies reap record profits on a new tide of blood. We were craven and wilfully blind to the immorality of the British Empire, but we still provide intelligence, diplomatic and military support to their equally immoral successors. Is that too political? Well war is political and if you don’t talk about politics you cannot talk sensibly about war.

When the Great War was first commemorated it was in the spirit that we must never let this happen again. Antiwar sentiment was the norm, not least in the RSA. In 1922 if you bought one of the first red poppies sold here, you were donating to an organisation that was committed to peace. Now, I fear, we have forgotten the lessons of two world wars and Anzac Day is increasingly nationalistic and militaristic. This is not a day for pride. Pride is the greatest offence against the memories of the fallen.

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