Great War demanded greatness of Kiwis
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.