Monday, 4 August 2014

It was a hundred years ago today

The British Empire, including little old New Zealand, declared war on Germany on this day one hundred years ago. We were standing up for Belgium and the rights of smaller nations to be guaranteed their neutrality. We were also trying to maintain the balance of power on the European continent, and by extension, throughout the world.
War is declared on the steps of the parliament buildings in New Zealand. (image from te ara)
Most people thought it would be catastrophic, but not so many thought it would be four and a half years of catastrophic. By the end of the war four great Empires - Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Ottoman Turkey had fallen. Millions would die in battle, millions more by the spread of Spanish influenza. The three pernicious 'ísms' of the Twentieth Century had their seeds sown in this conflict - Communism, Fascism and Nationalism. The war itself was unleashed by an act of terrorism, yet another 'ism' we are still struggling with a century later.

New Zealand lost 18,000 dead and 40,000 wounded from a mobilised total of 100,000 men and a total population of just over a million. The Great War scarred us as a nation. One of my great uncles was killed in Flanders fighting for New Zealand while back at home his family was suffering abuse because of their German heritage. Those who refused to participate were treated cruelly and those who served and suffered what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder were left to fend for themselves in a world that couldn't - or wouldn't -understand them.  At the same time the New Zealand Division performed admirably on the battlefield and left a legacy of pride and honour for this country. We regard Gallipoli as the birthplace of the nation, and ANZAC Day has grown more and more important as the years have passed.
Standing some years ago at the New Zealand memorial at Le Quesnoy in Northern France, scene of one of the most dramatic actions undertaken by the NZ Division in the Great War. Also -  My first time in snow ever!
None of this needed to happen. Wiser heads in Vienna, St Petersburg and Berlin could have averted the crisis. If Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia within days of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand most of the world would have stood aside as it did when the US attacked Afghanistan in 2001, such was the initial sympathy for the Hapsburgs. There is no doubt in my mind that Serbia needed to be punished. But the delayed reaction of a month gave time for people to posture and set off the alliance system that had maintained the peace in Europe for so long. It was as if Berchtold, Bethman-Hollweg, Sazonov and Poincare were too tired of trying to keep the peace. It is hard to read the correspondence of this time without thinking that everybody was certain that war was coming - best to get it over and done with. God help us if our politicians ever come to that point again.
German premonition of the coming conflict. The Spirit of Spring wonders: ‘Will the god of war crush the young flowers this year with his iron foot’. Simplicissimus.
The men who died did not die for nothing. They fought in a war that was fought for the reasons wars are usually fought - the conflicting aims of governments. Some may have believed they were dying for higher ideals, but if they did the post-war world would prove highly disappointing. For better or worse, once war had broken out it had to be fought, and the men who did so showed immense courage. The generals, by and large, did their best in difficult circumstances. That so much was sacrificed for so many negative outcomes was a tragedy.

As you can probably tell, my reaction to the Great War is a bag of mixed emotions. It fills me with sorrow, yet also with pride; it was tragic, yet glorious; it was unnecessary, but not futile. There were no goodies or baddies - history is rarely that black and white (which makes me angry when people try to paint Germany as some sort of pantomime villain). Our understanding of the fighting in the war is finally starting to find some balance in the popular press, and this is a good thing, even if it has not sunk in with the broader public. But more than anything, the war is always with me. A day does not go by when I don't think about it in some way (is that healthy?).
Today above all days, I will remember them.