Monday, May 12, 2014

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            A recent trip to Europe means that for the next four or five weeks, these “Something Thoughtfuls” will probably be awash with reflections and comments drawn from things done and sights seen there – and as Anzac Day is still only a few weeks ago as I write; and as this is the year in which everybody is remembering the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War; I thought I would begin with two experiences related to war, a human condition which I have been spared.

            FIRST EXPERIENCE: Spending time in Paris, my wife and I proved to be the type of tourists who are most interested in chasing up art, classical music, churches and literary shrines. But one morning, having walked from our hotel in St-Germain-des-Pres to the suburb of Passy, and having enjoyed a long visit at the home of Honore de Balzac, we decided to continue our trek down to the Arc de Triomphe, accessed by a subterranean walkway under the (typically-French) hectic and uncontrolled roundabout that is the Place de l’Etoile.

            Of course we took the elevator to the roof. Of course we pointed our phone-cameras in all directions and took panoramic shots of Paris, especially that view straight down the Champs Elysees where the military forces parade whenever there is some big national day like the 14th of July. Of course we paused in the small military museum on the top floor, and I thought it right and just that there was a huge statue of a First World War poilu representing the Unknown Soldier. The historian in me knows that the French Army took most of the strain in defending the Western Front in 1914-18, with the British and (later) American forces in a supporting role. Look at some Anglophone books on that war, and you’d imagine that the whole thing was a slugging match between Tommy and Fritz.

            But it was when we returned to the open air at the foot of the arch, near where the eternal flame to the unknown warrior is tended, that my thoughts turned really melancholic. I looked at the inscribed lists on the inward side of the arch of all the victorious French battles from the Napoleonic era and later in the nineteenth century, and of their heroes and commanding officers. And I began to think of the vainglory of so many war memorials. How many of these battles solved any pressing problem? How many of them were fought for reasons that would now be regarded as shameful? And where, Mr Buonaparte, did all your world-conquering get you anyway? I kept hearing in my head Byron’s mighty, sarcastic Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, which reflects that all the man taught was the pointlessness of war-mongering (“….thanks for that lesson!”).

Please don’t misinterpret me on this one. As a bit of a Francophile, I don’t single out French war memorials for this sort of reflection. The same thoughts would bubble up in my mind were I standing in front of some memorials and monuments in London, Washington or Moscow. I remember a very sad visit I made, ten years ago, to the Victor Emmanuel Monument in Rome, Italy’s biggest national war memorial. Quite rightly, the museum inside the monument celebrated the Italian heroes of the Risorgimento and of the First World War. But there was a great big aching gap after the early 1920s, for there could not be a word or image in praise of Mussolini’s Fascist regime and its military adventuring. For Italians, this very absence from their national shrine probably rubs in the fact that there is something shameful in their history that is better forgotten. And maybe some of Napoleon’s ventures would be better forgotten too.

Yet, at the Arc de Triomphe, this wasn’t the thing that really troubled me.

We were about to end our visit when uniformed squads of soldiers and sailors began forming around us. We wondered if this was some special day of military remembrance that we didn’t know about, but when we asked a French photographer near us, he said it was simply the daily salute to the unknown warrior – like the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, as much a performance for tourists’ cameras as anything. Still, these were real young soldiers and sailors. And that is the operative word. Young. Their commanding officers were middle-aged men, but the squaddies were kids. The ranks of sailors were arranged in order of height, tallest to shortest, which meant that the women sailors were in the back row. It was almost comic to see one officer gently rebuking a short kid – who would probably have been 18 or 19 years old but who looked much younger – for holding her automatic rifle in the wrong position.

And that was the moment when my thoughts turned really wretched. In most of the wars that have ever been fought, the great majority of soldiers have been little more than kids – teenagers or men in their early twenties, with the hardened, grizzled veterans a distinct and small minority. “Old soldiers never die”? Quite right, because most soldiers who die in wars are youngsters.

As far as I know, France isn’t involved in a major military conflict at the moment, and these young men and women at the Arc de Triomphe were in no immediate danger of losing their lives. But the sight of this little kid carrying a big lethal weapon hit me hard.

We left the Arc de Triomphe and made our way down the Champs Elysees, battered by the dense crowds and eventually reaching the Place de la Concorde, an even more manic and disorderly roundabout than the Place de l’Etoile. But all the time I was thinking that wars are fought by children holding weapons, while old men give them orders.

SECOND EXPERIENCE: Some weeks later, in late April, we were in Amsterdam visiting one of our sons, a generous host, who is currently sojourning there. He had formed the plan of driving us and his young family down to Messines, to join in a dawn service for Anzac Day. So off we went, taking five or so hours to make the motorway trip, watching the flat Dutch landscape turning into the gently rolling Flemish landscape and getting caught up in the horrible traffic jams that afflict the ring road around the port of Antwerp. After a night’s sleep in Flanders, and after some misadventures in the pre-dawn darkness, we found our way to the Anzac ceremony held at the Buttes British Cemetery near Polygon Wood. Appropriately for the occasion, there was a gentle drizzle. We heard a choir of Australian schoolkids sing Advance Australia Fair and a lone New Zealand singer lead God Defend New Zealand, and the bugles were blown and the chaplain declaimed and we were told that we would remember them at the going down of the sun.

No, I am not being a cynic. Despite having some military brothers, I’m not a part of military culture and have always had very mixed feelings about the celebration of Anzac Day. Why should we make such a foolish and failed campaign our remembrance day anyway? Why pretend that it was somehow the start of New Zealand nationhood when in fact, at the time, it was something that bound us more closely to an imperial Britain? And yet, among the long lines of gravestones, I was a little overwhelmed at the thought of all the dead here, and found myself, after the ceremony was over, wandering up and down the lines, under the drizzle, photographing the graves of New Zealand soldiers “known unto God” – in other words, poor, anonymous fellows who lost both their life and their identity. (I thought one of my Reid great-uncles, who died at Passchendaele in 1917, might be among the anonymous ones; but my sister has subsequently informed me that he has a marked grave some distance from the cemetery we were visiting.)

After the dawn ceremony it was a provided breakfast (croissants and coffee) and after that we went to another, specifically New Zealand, ceremony at the New Zealand monument that stands on the ridge overlooking the battlefield. I found it impossible to connect the well-wooded, rolling, peaceful farmland not too far below us (the Messines Ridge is just a gentle rise, not a tall eminence) with all those familiar black-and-white photographs of the same area as a sea of artillery-blasted mud with soldiers working among the broken bits of a few denuded trees.

But what is the point of this rambling anecdote?

Well, after our second breakfast this morning – this time provided by the burgomaster and councillors of Messines, who have a strong remembrance of the New Zealand Division which finally drove the imperial German forces out of their town in 1917 – and after we had photographed the statue of the New Zealand soldier which now stands in Messines, my son and I were latched onto by two Walloon (French-speaking) Belgian radio journalists, who, having chatted with me in French, wanted to interview us for a programme about how New Zealanders now remember the First World War.

To get us to an appropriate spot for the interview, they took us to the rebuilt old church of Messines. Everything old in this part of Flanders was rebuilt in the 1920s and 1930s, having been reduced to rubble in the Great War. That is one reason why so many Flemish villages look so neat and tidy. As we walked to the church, one of the interviewers told us wryly that its shell-blasted crypt was where a certain Corporal Hitler had been treated successfully for wounds early in 1915. We agreed that it was a pity some doctors were so good at their jobs. Only when we reached the church did we understand why they thought it was an appropriate venue for an interview with two Kiwis. Worked into the pavement in front of the church, there is a large mosaic map of New Zealand, another reminder of the New Zealand Division’s role here in 1917.

So to the questions; and this is where Muggins said something foolish.

So what was New Zealand’s role in the First World War? they asked

I said it was huge – 100,000 men under arms out of a total population of one million in 1914-18 meant perhaps a greater per capita contribution to the war than in most other combatant countries.

And how was that war remembered by New Zealanders? they asked.

I said in some way, remembrance of it was unavoidable. There are war memorials with names of the dead in every city and substantial town in New Zealand, and usually the list of New Zealanders dead in the First World War is longer than the list of New Zealanders dead in the Second World War, because more New Zealanders fought in the First World War.

And did New Zealanders remember New Zealand’s role in Belgium? they asked.

I said that, despite having a remembrance day dated from the Gallipoli campaign, most New Zealanders understood that far more of their soldiers had died on the Western Front, in France and Belgium, and especially at Passchendaele and Messines, than had died in Turkey.

And did young people know this? they asked – which made me say some rude things about how little young people know about anything anyway.

But finally to Muggins’ gaffe.

How did I, as a New Zealander, regard the First World War and its significance? they asked.

And confidently I went off into one of my favourite dithyrambs. We all understand the purpose of the Second World War, I said, because a very real evil was being fought against. But, I said, I find it much harder to understand the real purpose of the First World War. Yes, Germany had a militaristic culture. Yes, it was aggressive. But then all combatant powers – British, French, German, Austrian, Turkish, Russian, Italian – had their own nationalist agendas in the war and from this distance it is hard to see any of them as particularly creditable. Despite the support for democracy that was defined as the Allied cause late in the war (Wilson’s 14 points and all that), from this distance, I said, the First World War looks like little more than the clash of rival empires and the flexing of military muscles. It had no clear cause or purpose.

The two Walloons listened patiently to all this, before the interviewer politely intervened.

But there was a real cause to fight for in 1914, he said. We had no hand in starting the war, but our country was invaded and civilians were shot by the invaders and that is why we were grateful to your people for coming to help us.

And as he, with the utmost politeness, said more in the same vein, I pulled my horns in and knew I’d stumbled into a basic and obvious fact about historical interpretation. It all depends on where you are standing. Okay for me or you, far away on the other side of the world, to see the First World War as a pointless hecatomb. But for some people it was about real and vivid issues – such as why strangers whom you had never provoked were lobbing artillery shells into your fields and houses and shooting your people because the strangers had some master plan for reaching Paris in a hurry.

So here endeth my second lesson on war for the day – for non-combatants like me, removed in time, place and history, it is easy to see many wars in the abstract. But they are fought in the concrete.

Amen and a compassionate prayer for the dead – whatever they thought they were fighting about.


  1. Hello Dr Reid,

    You state that there was a purpose to the Second World War, as 'a very real evil was being fought against.' In reality, though, we went to war in 1939 for much the same reasons as 1914 - ostensibly to protect the sovereignty of a threatened country. In 1914 it was Belgium, in 1939 it was Poland. Incidentally, Poland remained under tyranny and oppression for fifty years... we failed to liberate them.

    The notion that the Second World War was a noble battle between good and evil in current historiography is perplexing. Nazi atrocities were not revealed until after the war's end; and many of the 'good guys' had their own nasty skeletons in the closet. It was, after all, a segregated U.S. Army that liberated Western Europe.

    I don't intend this comment as any sort of personal attack, but I do take issue with the way the Second World War is often presented as being somehow nobler than its predecessor. I mean, the Ottomans were committing genocide during that conflict, too, weren't they?

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      I would be much happier if you identified yourself so that your comments could be more clearly sourced - however, might I say that you have said nothing of which I was not aware? Yes, Stalin's regime was as genocidal as Hitler's and yes the Soviet Union (at least after its alliance with Hitler ran out in 1941) was an ally against Hitler. But you must beware of using one atrocity to justify another (look up on the blog's index my earlier posting "Your Atrocities or Mine?"). That the Ottoman Turks slaughtered Armenians does not make Nazi genocide any more justifiable. That the American Army was racially segregated until 1948 is really an irrelevance in this discussion - American society was moving towards greater racial tolerance and achieved it. Nazism, of course, went in exactly the opposite direction. Only in children's storybooks are worthwhile causes totally without blemish - but even having said all this, and even taking into account somer flaws in the Allied cause, it is hard to argue that the defeat of Hitler and his regime was anything other than of benefit to the world. The motives, causes (and outcome) of the First World War are far murkier.