Great War sto­ries touched a nerve

Bay of Plenty Times - - Nation - Scott Yeo­man

In all the let­ters and di­ary en­tries I read over the past few weeks, one para­graph stood out. It was writ­ten by a Kiwi sol­dier who left for war at the age of 28, just two years older than I am now. “The in­evitable day.

“I awoke with a numb pain and sick­ness at heart.

“Packed up in the morn­ing and then the wrench of part­ing.”

It was Jim Keam’s last day at home in Tau­ranga.

He was leav­ing be­hind his fam­ily and fi­ancee and was head­ing to a place where the odds of sur­vival were grim.

He knew that.

In his writ­ing, you can feel the nerves, the fear and tor­ment, and the knot which sits in your stom­ach when you face some­thing that ter­ri­fies you.

This was dread in its most cruel form.

To read first-hand ac­counts of World War I in the words of men like Jim Keam breaks your heart and in­vokes waves of dis­may and dis­be­lief.

Wher­ever pos­si­ble, I let the sol­diers speak for them­selves for that rea­son.

What a waste the Great War was, more than one per­son said to me as I was re­search­ing and writ­ing th­ese Ar­mistice Day fea­tures.

"I en­cour­age you to read fur­ther and to search for your fam­ily con­nec­tion or a lo­cal link; for no other rea­son than to learn from our past mis­takes and re­mem­ber those who served and sac­ri­ficed their lives. "

What a waste, in­deed.

A waste of life.

Of love.

Of youth.

Jim didn’t make it home; he died in Bel­gium less than 12 months af­ter leav­ing.

You can read his story on page 11 of to­day’s pa­per.

It sits along­side sto­ries of other lo­cal men who also left be­hind ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one to serve their coun­try.

Their fam­ily mem­bers, for whom the heartache is still real, shared trea­sured let­ters, pho­tos and per­sonal anec­dotes with me.

For that, I am very grate­ful and hon­oured.

I am also thank­ful for all of the help I re­ceived from Tau­ranga City and Ro­torua Lakes coun­cils, their li­brary teams and in par­tic­u­lar, Tau­ranga Cul­tural Her­itage Co­or­di­na­tor Fiona Kean.

There are so many tragic sto­ries as­so­ci­ated with World War I and to­day, we have cov­ered but a few of them.

I en­cour­age you to read fur­ther and to search for your fam­ily con­nec­tion or a lo­cal link; for no other rea­son than to learn from our past mis­takes and re­mem­ber those who served and sac­ri­ficed their lives.

As for that para­graph in Jim Keam’s di­ary, I do not know why it stayed with me.

It wasn’t the only sad line I read, or the most chill­ing.

But it was vivid and in some small way, re­lat­able.

Of course, I do not know what he was feel­ing like that day.

I hope I never will.

But we have all ex­pe­ri­enced dread and fear and long­ing.

One hun­dred years on from the end of that hor­rific war, those most ba­sic of hu­man emo­tions still tor­ture us.

The sto­ries of Jim Keam, and all of the oth­ers who fought on for­eign fields, pro­vide some per­spec­tive.

TUES­DAY dawned on a world at peace. Af­ter more than four years of war, such as the world has never be­fore ex­pe­ri­enced, and into which has been crowded more fright­ful­ness than the mind of man can pos­si­bly con­ceive, the gods of war are leashed, and a be­numbed and stag­ger­ing world takes pause from its orgy of slaugh­ter.

For well-nigh half a cen­tury Europe has been over­shad­owed with the fear of a Great War, and to­day the ar­ro­gant na­tion which spread that fear is beaten to its knees in ab­ject sur­ren­der to the forces of right ar­rayed against those of might.

For­saken by her al­lies, be­set by wide­spread revo­lu­tion, bereft of all her colonies, the whole empire in process of dis­in­te­gra­tion, her ruler a fugi­tive, her peo­ple stand to-day and await their condign pun­ish­ment.

Self-de­prived of the re­spect of all civilised peo­ples, self-de­prived of the right to a part in the coun­cils of na­tions, self-de­prived of the right to any voice in ne­go­ti­a­tions that shall give to the world a sta­ble peace.

Ger­many stands where, fore­or­dained, all na­tions from the be­gin­ning of the world till the end of time shall stand that seek to live and thrive with­out moral prin­ci­ple.

Her hands steeped in ev­ery crime that bru­tal might and fren­zied ar­ro­gance could con­ceive, the soul of the na­tion black­ened and seared by rap­ine and mur­der, bes­tial­ity and fright­ful­ness, Ger­many stands, im­pov­er­ished and de­spised, her peo­ple fit to hold a place upon the earth only by rea­son of the com­mon her­itage of man — made “in the im­age of God”.

What the terms of the ar­mistice are we can fairly judge from the sum­mary tele­graphed to­day.

That to the Ger­man rulers they are stag­ger­ing be­yond be­lief is eas­ily con­ceiv­able.

That the fi­nal terms to be en­forced will leave no shadow of doubt as to their mean­ing can well be imag­ined — the com­plete sur­ren­der of Ger­many to the will of her vic­tors.

And with the ac­cep­tance of th­ese con­di­tions has gone the last shred of Ger­man hope of world do­min­ion.

Now she stands stricken and for­saken to re­ceive the judg­ment that she mer­its.

What a fa­mous writer said of Napoleon may, with tragic truth and ac­cu­racy be said of the Kaiser: — “Here was an ex­per­i­ment, un­der the most favourable con­di­tions, of the pow­ers of in­tel­lect with­out con­science . . . And what was the re­sult . . . of th­ese im­mense armies, burned cities, squan­dered trea­sures, im­mo­lated mil­lions of men, of this de­mor­alised Europe?

“It came to no re­sult. All passed away, like the smoke of his ar­tillery, and left no trace . . . The at­tempt was, in prin­ci­ple, sui­ci­dal . . . It was the na­ture of things, the eter­nal law of man and of the world, which baulked and ru­ined him; and the re­sult, in a mil­lion ex­per­i­ments, will be the same. Ev­ery ex­per­i­ment, by mul­ti­tudes or by in­di­vid­u­als, that has a sen­sual and selfish aim, will fail . . . Only that good prof­its, which we can taste with all doors open, and which serves all men.”

Gone is the Kaiser with all his vaunt­ing am­bi­tions and lust of power, and his exit few will mourn.

For the Ger­man peo­ple there dawns an era which shall be free from the op­pres­sion of a mil­i­tary cast that has sought to mould the mind of the peo­ple to the be­lief that all na­tions must bend to the Ger­man will, and though that dawn­ing will be dimmed and marred by the knowl­edge that for their un­think­able crimes such repa­ra­tion is re­quired as will tax their ut­ter­most re­sources for many years to come, they must, as a peo­ple, re­joice, with us, that the Govern­ment which brought about this cat­a­clysm has been ut­terly de­stroyed. The task has been long, shot through with the bit­ter an­guish of countless mourn­ers in thou­sands of grief-stricken homes and all the ap­palling hor­rors of un­prece­dented war, but it has been crowned with vic­tory, de­ci­sive and com­plete. The de­tails of the ar­mistice are but de­tails, vast and im­por­tant as they may be.

The one out­stand­ing fact that con­fronts us at the mo­ment is that right has pre­vailed, and never again shall mil­i­tary despo­tism plunge the world into such a holo­caust as the last four years have wit­nessed.


Bay of Plenty Times edi­tor at the end of World War I, W.H. Gif­ford, with his wife.

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