Great War de­manded great­ness of Ki­wis

Weekend Herald - - Viewpoints -

For the past four years just about ev­ery book I’ve bought and read for plea­sure has been about World War I. This is un­usual. Mil­i­tary his­tory nor­mally leaves me cold. I’m in­ter­ested in the cir­cum­stances and ten­sions that can cause war and the con­se­quences, of­ten so­cially cathar­tic, but the con­flict is just an abyss in the mid­dle.

That changed as the World War I cen­te­nary ap­proached in 2014. I felt a cer­tain affin­ity with peo­ple who were liv­ing at the ex­act same time in their cen­tury as we are in ours.

The cen­te­nary would run un­til Novem­ber of 2018 which seemed an im­pos­si­bly long way off. What was it like to en­dure a war that long?

The least I could do was read through it, make the ef­fort to get a grasp at last of what hap­pened at those places that were just fa­mil­iar names on stone. Gal­lipoli, Somme, Pass­chen­daele . . . I thought read­ing for the du­ra­tion would be an or­deal, but I was gripped.

Ob­vi­ously I was not alone. Ev­ery year of the cen­te­nary new books have

ap­peared re­call­ing the bat­tles of 100 years be­fore. The cen­te­nary must have been one last shot in the arm for the fast dis­ap­pear­ing pub­lish­ers of printed books and ded­i­cated book­shops.

I don’t have enough shelves for the num­ber I’ve bought. Now on the eve of the Armistice I’ve just seen a new one I want.

Many times in the read­ing I’ve won­dered why we have this fas­ci­na­tion with war, par­tic­u­larly this war. In news­pa­per fea­tures and tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries it’s al­ways pre­sented in the most dread­ful, dole­ful tones with heavy ref­er­ences to mis­takes that must not be re­peated.

The writ­ers seem to think a moral les­son is nec­es­sary to jus­tify re­vis­it­ing the war yet again. I don’t think this is hon­est.

The rea­son we re­visit the sub­ject so of­ten, I think, is that war is glo­ri­ous, truly bit­terly, trag­i­cally glo­ri­ous, much as we are sup­posed to deny this.

Es­pe­cially this war. The Great War was the sim­plest kind imag­in­able. Mas­sive armies, newly equipped with ma­chine guns, dug trenches in the ground a few hun­dred yards from each other and tried to shoot each other into sub­mis­sion.

For the sol­diers in the front line it must have been a raw, el­e­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ence of life and death.

Even for those who sur­vived, it must have been an ex­pe­ri­ence of their own death. No mat­ter how care­fully they kept their head down when they could, they knew the deaf­en­ing shelling over­head was bring­ing shrap­nel that could hit them at any time.

When they were or­dered to at­tack they climbed out of the trenches know­ing some of them, prob­a­bly quite a lot of them, were go­ing to die. How do you do that? How do you keep con­trol of your mind? The only way I can imag­ine they did it is by ac­cept­ing death, giv­ing up the very ex­pec­ta­tion of life be­yond the next few hours and ul­ti­mately the next few min­utes.

If you sur­vived, life be­came a bonus. Ev­ery at­tack you sur­vived was an­other bonus. You wouldn’t cel­e­brate these, even qui­etly to your­self, be­cause ev­ery time it hap­pened you would feel your odds of sur­viv­ing the next one must be short­en­ing. More than half of the New Zealan­ders in World War I were wounded or killed. The dead have their names on crosses on the lawn of the Auck­land War Me­mo­rial Mu­seum this week­end. Go and see them.

Go and see the ex­hi­bi­tions in Welling­ton while you still can. The over­sized An­zacs at Te Papa tell the story, the bat­tle­field dis­plays around Peter Jack­son’s mem­o­ra­bilia at the old Do­min­ion Mu­seum are even bet­ter. I’m look­ing for­ward to Jack­son’s movie when it opens to­mor­row.

I think ev­ery man who con­tem­plates the Great War to­day does so with a voice in his head ask­ing, “How would I han­dle this?”

Most of us would en­list, I think. A na­tional call-up would be pow­er­ful. Even af­ter an event like Gal­lipoli that left New Zealan­ders with no more il­lu­sions about the war, we would go when our turn came. We would not be brave, just duty-bound to some­thing larger than life, more im­por­tant than per­sonal sur­vival.

The names on the mu­seum lawn to­day did not die for noth­ing. They knew some­thing that those who sur­vived also knew.

It is the rea­son the sur­vivors never re­ally ceased to be sol­diers. No mat­ter how brief their ser­vice, and for most it was just a year or two of their lives, no mat­ter how long they lived and what else they did, they went to a sol­dier’s grave.

War had height­ened their life, de­manded the best of them, given them the hon­our of duty. The Great War de­manded great­ness of them and a cen­tury later they live in our undy­ing awe.

John Roughan

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