Great War stories touched a nerve
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.
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.