Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Only Anger: Thoughts On Anzac Day 2016.

The First World War: A crime so colossal that it simply overpowered the imaginations of those who lived through it and after it.
IF YOU WERE ASKED”: What emotion is appropriate for Anzac Day? How would you answer?  Pride? Respect? Gratitude? My answer has always been, and continues to be, Anger. Bitter, searing, righteous anger at the waste of so many young lives, and at the lies told to justify a crime so colossal that it simply overpowered the imaginations of those who lived through it and after it.
For more than a hundred years those lies have transformed the terrible losses of the First World War into a perverse source of pride, respect and gratitude. Not only have they kept the truth about the war’s origins and objectives hidden, but they have also made it practically impossible to challenge the official version of events. This is no small achievement when the consequences of those events are still shaping our lives.
At the heart of the darkness that sent millions of young men to their deaths was Great Britain’s determination to destroy the thriving German economy and seize the strategic resources of the decrepit Ottoman Empire.
Unchecked, the German economy would have dominated the whole of Europe by the second or third decade of the twentieth century (much as it dominates Europe today). Even more worryingly, the German Empire’s increasingly close economic, diplomatic and military relationship with the Ottoman Empire would have ensured its privileged access to the strategic super-fuel of the twentieth century – oil. From the early years of the century, therefore, the reduction of Germany became the idée fixe of British foreign-policy.
Great Britain’s natural ally in this policy was France. Decisively defeated by the Germans in 1871, France was acutely aware that its influence in Europe was steadily being eroded by Germany’s dramatic economic growth. It’s only hope of remaining a major player in world affairs was, therefore, to strike its neighbour a crushing blow.
France’s key strategic problem, however, was that it could not deliver such a blow on its own – it needed allies. The first of these, the Russian Empire, was made available by the German Emperor, Wilhelm II’s, failure to renew his country’s crucial Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. The French were only too happy to fill the diplomatic vacuum created by the German Emperor’s strategic blunder.
This new Franco-Russian “understanding” suited British interests extremely well. Not only was Germany now faced with a war on two fronts, but, by drawing the Russians towards Europe, the French were relieving Russian pressure on the borders of the “jewel” in Britain’s imperial crown – India.
All that Britain required to unleash a devastating conflict upon its most dangerous economic rival was a plausible pretext. This it acquired by allowing the French and the Russians a free hand in the Balkans.
Europe’s flashpoint, the Balkans were the point of intersection of multiple imperial interests: Austro-Hungarian; Russian; Ottoman; and Serbian. Any move by the Austro-Hungarian Empire against its ultra-nationalist neighbour, Serbia, was bound to draw in the latter’s Russian protectors. A Russian thrust against Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary, would, likewise, draw Germany into the conflict. German involvement would activate the Franco-Russian alliance – immediately plunging Germany into a strategically perilous two-front war.
Britain knew that if Germany was to avoid being caught between the French hammer and the Russian anvil, it would have to deliver a knockout blow to the French before the full weight of Russia’s vast army could be brought to bear on its eastern front. The only effective means of delivering such a blow was to direct Germany’s army through neutral Belgium and come at Paris from the north-west.
In other words, to enter the war with “clean hands”, Britain had only to give France its head in the Balkans. It was pretty sure that the French, with Russian connivance, would find a way to set Austria-Hungary at Serbia’s throat – thereby initiating a general European war. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in the little Bosnian town of Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by Serbian terrorists proved to be an admirably serviceable trigger.
Once the Germans detected the preparations for a Russian mobilisation against not only their Austro-Hungarian ally, but also themselves, the die was cast. Germany mobilised pre-emptively, her armies smashed their way through neutral Belgium, and Britain was supplied with the morally unassailable excuse for doing what she had been planning to do for the best part of a decade – unleashing war on Germany.
It was in pursuit of these blunt imperial objectives that more than 12,000 young New Zealanders were sent to their deaths. Not for democracy: our allies, the Russians, were governed by an absolute monarch; and our enemies, the Germans, boasted a more inclusive franchise that Britain’s. And certainly not for freedom: imperialism and liberty do not mix. As for the “values” New Zealanders were supposedly defending on the slopes of Gallipoli. I’d like to think that these: extreme racism, unthinking obedience to those in authority; and the extension of British power across the globe; would be rejected out-of-hand by the vast majority of modern New Zealanders.
As I note in, No Left Turn:
A patriotic painting from the depths of the war says it all. Entitled “The Casualty List”, it depicts a grief-stricken mother, her head bowed before the framed photograph of her soldier son on the mantelpiece, a copy of The New Zealand Herald dangling limply from her hand. In the top left-hand corner of the painting we see the moment of his death – the young hero’s body reeling backwards as his comrades press on towards the foe. It is a sombre work, and skilfully rendered, but it does not tell the truth about the war. Captured instead is the sense of loss; the awful ache that clawed at the hearts of practically every New Zealand family in the aftermath of the carnage. That much – but no more – was all the nation was permitted to feel. Questions about what it had all been for were met with the palliative care of capitalised nouns: Justice, Honour, Liberty, Country, Democracy. The unbearable reality – that they had died to preserve the prosperity of those who stayed behind – had to be, and was, suppressed.
It is still being suppressed. And if none of the arguments advanced above are sufficient to rouse your indignation, then the ongoing and deliberate suppression of the truth about the origins and objectives of the First World War should make you very angry indeed.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 25 April 2016.


Wayne Mapp said...

Hmm,where to start.

Your thesis is that the hapless Germans were inveigled to invade Belgium by perfidious Albion. While I appreciate that there were no doubt many Machiavellians in the Foreign Office, this does seem rather a stretch even for them.

Surely the British would have preferred to achieve the objective of containing Germany, by Germany recognizing the deterrence effect of the Triple Entente, much in the same way that the power of the Royal Navy was intended to be so impressive that no nation would be foolish enough to challenge it.

In short it was not the British intention that Germany would invade Belgium, the guarantees to Belgium were designed to avoid that very outcome.

Now you could reasonably argue that Britain wanted to maintain its imperial dominance, but that is rather different to arguing that Britain actually sought a European war.

In fact the size of the British Army in 1914 was a clear indication that they did not want a land war in Europe. Instead Britain spent its defence money on the Royal Navy, dreadnoughts by the dozen, essentially to maintain its global empire. The Royal Navy was not intended to actually fight a war, but to deter any such war by a major power that would threaten the imperial project.

And lets not forget that New Zealand, as it is today, would not even exist but for the imperial project. And if New Zealand is a legacy of empire, is that ipso facto a bad thing?

Many of the nations founded as such are widely regarded as the most successful nations in the world, and not just for a tiny elite but for all the citizens of the nation, whether indigenous, settler or new migrant.

In a fundamental way that is understood in the ANZAC commemorations, even if not directly expressed as such. Certainly PM Savage said as much in 1939, with his words "where Britain stands, we stand". Even from the perspective of the twenty first century Savage, on behalf of the nation, made the right judgement.

Anon said...

Game of Thrones has nothing on you Mr Trotter.
I feel angry as you do , every Anzac Day at the suppression of reality and the cloying saccharine of the press and television. I would take issue with your assertion that it was all a cunning British plan though. French perfidy, Russian imperialism , Austro Hungarian paranoia, German arrogance and even American financial interests could be thrown into the mix.
I do also detect a little bit of buying into the myth with your statement that young NZers were sent off to war . In fact the vast majority went willingly and enthusiastically as did most other countries and all whipped along by our white feather toting womenfolk

greywarbler said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post Chris. Often I have to go and take some strengthening medicine before reading. This is one of those times.

I have been feeling more and more as NZ is being conned, that a fog of lavender-scented nostalgia is being puffed out of giant PR spray cans each 25th April. The little groups gathered to honour the dead with the focus of WW1, the solemn steps to carry the wreaths up to the monument of remembrance, a moment of respectful silence and down. Every year the same words. Then the weather changes and every year the leaves fall. Same rotation, and the world turns every 24 hours or so. Life for us goes on.

WW2 gets a mention, Vietnam war, but they haven't got the emotional pulling power of the dreadful happenings last century. And we weren't that supportive of the returned men. Boys liked to make loud unexpected bangs and watch the sensitive, damaged men drop in fear and run away. Their parents never explained or bothered to find out what caused them to be so involuntarily panic-stricken. It must have damaged all to some extent so that life back home seemed like another planet.

And the wars led to the raising of people who can spend $NZ26 million on more monuments to a distant war, despite monuments already ranging the country, rather than nurturing the children that carry forward the nation of New Zealand. Mindless government fumbles like those blinded, injured lines of soldiers in photos being led towards a haven of medical help, each one holding the shoulder of the one in front. It is time for someone to lead our politicians and wealthy in a different direction and towards a nursing station where they can get help for their disease of Affluenza and Friedman-Hayek Syndrome that is chronically infecting us all.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago I was in Singapore and decided to go to the races at Kranji to fill in an afternoon. There is a train right to the racecourse gate and I was early so decided to go for a walk to the Kranji War Cemetary.

It was staggering in its size and the many 1000's of headstones. I spent a good few hours walking about and some of the information was very moving on the headstones - the age of the fallen soldiers; many of them were 18 and 19 years old and on some of the headstones there were some touching comments from parents who travelled to Singapore to view the grave of their son after the war 'Mum knew you would be brave to the end' etc

I can't forget that photo of the hopelessly inept General Percival and his cowardly officers walking to the surrender table - not a thought for New Zealand and the consequences of letting Singapore fall and the bulk of NZ forces in North Africa.

It has been argued that this is the cutting point between New Zealand and Britain ie no longer did we have each others best interests at heart as countries.

Anonymous said...

I turned on the TV (forgetting it was ANZAC Day) and I saw the great man John Key. I thought of burning a Harcourts flag.
I wonder what the Diggers would make of a national broadcaster that welcomes New Zealander's becoming a minority in their own country.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"And lets not forget that New Zealand, as it is today, would not even exist but for the imperial project. And if New Zealand is a legacy of empire, is that ipso facto a bad thing? "

Don't know Wayne, that you should go talk to some Maori. Still – at least we're stable right?

unclemuzza said...

Hit the nail on the head, Chris.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Chris I think your analysis forgets that the Germans were also eager for war. According to Volker Ullrich "war could have been averted in July 1914 had the Reich leadership in Berlin urged on by military commanders, not decided to use the assassination as a pretext for a test of strength with the Triple Entente of France Britain and Russia."

"Military action against Serbia could lead to a world war" said Foreign Ministry Legation Secretary Kurt Riezler.

The German Chancellor told the Kaiser that "Russia must be made into the source of injustice".

You can't deny Germany agency in this it seems to me. Or Austria, which pushed Serbia to the limits and beyond after they had offered reparations. Still, I know this is a thing of yours :).

What I find interesting is the public patriotic excesses in Germany in the few weeks before the war began. Many of them felt that the war would cleanse Germany of its remnants of the feudal system, and its foreign components. Presumably Jews. What is equally interesting is that most of those celebrating were the urban middle class, particularly intellectuals. Peasants and workers were actually despondent.

But I agree – I think anger is probably the best emotion to feel on Anzac Day. My three grandfathers at the end of the war, had 10 limbs and five lungs between them.

Anonymous said...

Like it, but we cannot lump it, we are in military alliance's for the safety of our people and country.
I feel deep sorrow about our lost Anzacs, deep sorrow about all human losses from war but unless we stand with our military alliances we disappear into history.
Chris, to me you are neither right or wrong in your opinions, the fact that you can express them, freely and without ridicule or penalty is perhaps some small solace.

A very good topical piece of writing.

Anonymous said...

Also, while the Imperial German voting franchise was, at that time a little wider than the British, the German parliament could only advise the Kaiser, who still had executive power. Thus, Britain was a much truer democracy. And at that time, the Labour movement was gaining real power in the House of Commons. You'll note that the descendants of King George are still on the throne (of Britain and New Zealand, legally separate entities), where as the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman crowns are long gone.

I (think I ) understand the desire to reject the traditional jingoistic view of WW1 (though has that been common decades?) , and the inane 'it made us a nation' witterings on TV - but you seem to have replaced it with a near-conspiracy theory of sending soldiers off directly in exchange for money.
The Brits were pretty reluctant to join a continental land war, and were ill prepared to do so.
The highest death rates were among the junior officers, the sons of the upper and middle classes.

Society then was much more authoritarian, and class ridden. And everyone underestimate d the devastating effects (then) modern technology would have in intensitying and lengthening the suffering. I think most people were expecting something like the Franco Prussian War.

None of this makes it good or right - but I don't think you analysis is accurate. I feel you always have to blame 'The Capitalists' for everything.

Anon said...

Anon 13:44
Perhaps you are buying into some of the mythology talked about ie our Aussie mates, bonds of steel; cowardly Brits damn the lot of them.
In fact rather than blame the loss of Singapore on Percival and the useless British current scholarship has it that the Australians turned to a rabble and ran for the docks. General Wavell sent a letter to Churchill stating "There is no doubt, the fall of Singapore is due to the Australians"
It would seem that Chirchill never regained his confidence in them as soldiers.
Such elisions are part of our saccharine mythology

greywarbler said...

I think it was in The Press that I saw a para about there not being enough army personnel to fire the gun salute at all the ANZAC venues because so many of them were in overseas operations or something. I think they meant 'fighting in a war'. I think the growing numbers are there because of the uniforms, the bit of pageantry, the firing of the guns, the ritual.
There to advocate for peace? Never have had that impression.

Wayne Mapp said...

To add further to my comment, it is not difficult to see Germany as the aggressor especially in respect of Belguim and France, given that Germany did actually invade these countries. In contrast France and Britian were fighting a defensive war. In fact the western front war was entirely fought in these countries.

A question to think about is why did the war last four years. By November 1914 the German advance had been stopped. What real prospect did Germany then have to overcome France as had happened in 1870. In short Germany had failed to achieve its war aims and it must have to obvious to at least some of Germany's war leaders that they were incapable of ever doing so. Why not an armistice in November 1914, rather than four years later? And such an armistice would have arguably been on more favourable terms than 4 years later.

However, war, at least between great industrial powers in the twentieth century, has involved the utter defeat of the vanquished. Of course Germany did not accept that fact in the years after 1919, hence WW2.

Have we learnt the lesson that war between great powers is so terrible, so all encompassing that it can no longer be contemplated. It is not just the deterrent of the bomb but also the deterrent of total war. I am not so optimistic about that, maybe we need the added layer of the bomb to reinforce the lesson (well not for NZ but for the great powers, after all we are hardly going to start a war).

How then to explain the many small wars since 1990 involving western nations. Well these are more like the imperial/colonial wars of the nineteenth century. Professional soldiers skilled in their craft defending/advancing their countries causes.

None of these wars are existential, but that is not the only test to justify military force. Defeating ISIS can be justified in that we don't have to accept international terrorism, we are entitled to defeat the perpetrators of international terrorism. I have said before that if ISIS had simply taken over northern IRaq and Syria, imposed Islamic fundamentalism, but did not indulge in international terrorism and gross breaches of human rights they would have been left alone. In fact could have been accepted in the same way as Iraq Kurdistan. But that is not the choice that ISIS made.

So coming to ANZAC. In my view our soldiers of 100 years ago were not simply pawns. They were defending the world as they knew it. That at least for New Zealanders they were defending the ideals of liberalism, which were founding values of our country, even if they were imperfectly held.

More recently we have asked our fellow citizens to defend NZ against terrorism, there being no other reason to be in Afghanistan and Iraq. That fact we do so as part of a western coalition does not remove that cause. Though as I have also said if we were Chileans we would feel no such motivation.

So for these reasons we should thank our forbears and our current servicemen and women for their service. Not in anger but in appreciation.

Patricia said...

Men seem to like war. Why I do not know because it is their sons that are offered up as cannon fodder. Even John Key's son. Doesn't he even care? We are seeing it again today. World War 111 may not be in Europe - the new amphitheatre is the Middle East. And it is the same protagonists. My grandfather was a conscientious objector in the WW1 and was sent to jail because of his views - they were certainly not religious! He did not register the birth of his second child with the military authorities as was required so was called up as a man with one child. The family certainly suffered but it fascinating to read how they survived through the likes of other COs and religious organisations collecting money to help them. There was no welfare state in those days. He was also deprived of his rights as a citizen for 10 years. Why these grandiose politicians aren't just all put into a room and told they can't come out until they reach a solution I do not know. Surely diplomacy is the answer rather than killing people and destroying whole countries. But we are given the same PR year in year out just to keep us fired up so they can do it all again.

Alma said...

I couldn't agree more, Chris. Went to the WWI exhibition at the National War Memorial Museum in Welly a while ago; by the time I'd seen it all I was livid. The poor chap on the front desk listened kindly as I raged and spluttered on my way out. Quite possibly (although the competition is fierce) the most stupid, pointless, badly run war there has ever been. War is nothing more than a bloody and vile illustration of a complete failure of intelligence, compassion and common sense. Never attended a dawn service; never will. WWI was an utter disgrace, and we have learnt nothing from it.

Anonymous said...

Anzac Day in my home went like this. Pre-dawn my father would be up and medals clinking head the family out of the house to the cenotaph. The grim old Great War men with their overcoats and hats, RSA badges and usually three service ribbons for four year's total war would lead the parade. The WW2 echelons followed, Korea and Malaya men brought up the rear. Following the speeches prayer and last post the veterans stood down and family then parted. By afternoon the old man would be back home, usually with mates all the worse for starting a day with a breakfast of rum. Domestic strife was then on the cards; it was best for a kid to make himself scarce. Later, as an adult, I accompanied him a few times but I always felt I didn't belong. Because quite simply I didn't. There was a gap that was unbridgeable. It was their day, for memory of their mates, in the company of surviving mates. He told me once that for a long time the WW2 men were not really accepted by the WW1 blokes and seen as Johnny come lately. The closest I came to seeing things through his eyes was when he recognized a headstone on a Monte Cassino commemoration visit, said 'shit....Jim' then nothing for a long while, dropped his buttonhole poppy on the grave and stood to attention before sagging. He was for a moment back when they were both 21.
Anger is out of place, we should save that for country leaders that accommodate evil or our own that tolerate them. Human nature has not changed one whit, evil doesn't limit itself, it has to be limited by force.


Chris Trotter said...

To: Wayne Mapp.

Your recitation of the official version of the outbreak of World War I does credit to your teachers, Wayne, but says little for your own ability to discern the hard realities embedded in hard and dangerous events.

Confronted with a two-front war engineered by Russia (which was pretty much running Serbian politics between 1912-14) France (which was pretty much bank-rolling the Russian economy in 1914) and Britain (whose secret military negotiations with the French government left the latter in no doubt that, in the event of a war against Germany, Britain would have France's back) Germany was fighting for her survival. A knockout blow against France was the only feasible military strategy available to the German High Command. The General Staffs on all sides knew that a knockout blow could only be delivered through Belgium. Interestingly, the Kaiser asked the government of Belgium to grant German troops safe passage across its territory - the Belgian king refused. (This was, of course, the same Belgium which had for the previous 30 years been committing unspeakable atrocities upon the indigenous population of the "Belgian" Congo.)

In the face of France's hysterical lust for vengeance, what possible reason had Germany to sue for peace? The Carthaginian provisions of the Treaty of Versailles revealed the true motives of the French and the British in going to war. The German economy was reduced to ruins and the Middle east was parcelled up between the victors. (And, if you still believe we were fighting for progressive values, just take a look at the provisions of the Treaty of Sevres, imposed upon the Ottoman Empire, or what was left of it, by the Allies in 1920.)

The mendacity of Britain and France made a second war with Germany inevitable. While there is no question that Hitler had to be stopped, it is worth reminding ourselves that without Versailles he would have remained an inconsequential painter of postcards.

As for your assertion that we went to war in 1914 in defence of liberal values: the facts simply don't bear this out. We went to fight for the King-Emperor and the greater glory and strength of the British Empire.

Perhaps, Wayne, you could explain, for the benefit of the young Kiwis of today, what liberal values were on display when the NZ conscientious objector, Archibald Baxter, was subjected to the torture of "Field Punishment No. 1"?

Kieran Kelly said...

In response to Wayne Mapp, the truth is that Britain's decision to go to war was taken on August 2nd. 4 cabinet minister resigned on that day and a junior minister the day after. You might do credit to your teachers, as Chris Trotter says, but you teachers do not do credit to the truth.

If you want to know the inglorious details of British decision-making from the assassination to August the 2nd it is documented in The Darkest Days Douglas Newton, Verso, 2014.

You might also want to grapple with the fact that 25% of the Empire's effort was in the Middle East and by war's end it cannot be denied that the purpose of that effort was top take control of all Middle Eastern oil. They betrayed their Arab allies by signing the Sykes-Picot agreement, then betrayed the French by unilaterally altering the boundaries. Then, before the ink was dry on the Armistice they signed with Turkey, they invaded Mosul vilayet to grab the last known oil. Is that perfidious enough for you?

I'm not sure whether links are allowed in this comments section, but I posted a piece on this and more here: https://ongenocide.com/2016/04/24/the-shame-of-anzac-day/

Wayne Mapp said...


My "teachers" really amounts to my reading. and also my view of the world.

On specific points you have raised, was it really reasonable for Germany to ask Belgium for "safe passage"so they could invade France? Belgium's conduct in the Congo hardly required them to accept that particular demand as a gesture of African responsibility.

I accept that an armistice in November 1914 was not likely. The invasion and the death of so many would not have made it acceptable. But what if Germany had simply unilaterally withdrawn, would the allies have invaded Germany? But as you say you can't ignore the Eastern front. Maybe Britain and France would still thought they were impelled to continue the war in support of Russia.

I agree with you on the Treaty of Versailles and its ultimate outcome. As I do on what New Zealanders fought for. Yes, they fought for Empire, but back then they saw themselves as beneficiaries and stakeholders in the Imperial Project.

New Zealand (or at least the settlers) really did think they were constructing a society based on liberalism. You only have to look at pioneering social legislation of that time, or to use Belich's formulation, they saw themselves as "better Britons".

I appreciate that the people of Africa and India would have had a different view. Unlike New Zealand and Australia they did not enthusiastically support the cause of empire. They were subjects of empire rather than citizens of empire (to use a Roman analogy).

And no, I have no excuse for the treatment of Baxter, not that things had improved much as one would have thought in WW2. I grew up in Reporoa, and at that time there were still the remains of the Conscientious Camp, really it was an internment camp.

In fact I have been surprised, as a member of the WW1 Commemoration Panel, that as a society we have been so unreflective in our commemorations. Even 100 years later we seem impelled to say, "They went to war, they fought for freedom. We won, therefore the sacrifice, though terrible, was justifiable." Maybe the loss was so great the only way to rationalise it is to justify it.

I was hoping for more of a debate like this, not just on a personal blogsite, but with books, insightful seminars, artwork etc. Instead much of the commissioned art and books have been much like that commissioned in the 1920's, not even like the wonderful sculpture of loss as in the Chapel at Pukeahu.

Obviously I have a particular perspective, as we all do, but in my view there simply has not been enough nuance in our commemorations.

greywarbler said...

The more I read and hear about politicians, the more the word 'mendacious' applies to their actions.

We can't believe anybody completely, use reliable sources of information to confirm statements and ensure correct decision making, and with politicians, should check their actions match their rhetoric. Politicians have advanced ability to confabulate and use propaganda. They rely on people's trust and imperfect memories which allow them to proceed in ways that are unconscionable compared to their apparent values and beliefs.

And then when all the bad people reject our good people's reasonable suggestions and war is declared, the country might try saying WTF and
refusing to go along with these carpetbaggers (a word that is becoming more applicable every day). Look behind the urgent demand for selfless sacrifice and keep in mind the quote of Samuel Johnson which is more likely to be right than not - "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Blackadder in his WW1 persona was realistic and his ironic approach is worth watching again.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WHSkbM9zAU Firing squad laughs all the way.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDQ1ljlnSjU More laughs
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fssPqRWx9U0 Goodbyee

Anonymous said...

37 days on Lightbox

Guerilla Surgeon said...

There was an explanation for France's "lust for vengeance" – the war was pretty much all fought on French soil and a shitload of France was destroyed.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Even in 1914, it was difficult to find a war without oil.

Sea Lord Admiral Jackie Fisher with instructions to figure out how to implement the change from coal to oil said: “You have got to find the oil; to show how it can be stored cheaply: how it can be purchased regularly & cheaply in peace, and with absolute certainty during war.”

One could argue that the German decision to build battleships in order to challenge the British was one reason for the Brits being paranoid about oil. A battle fleet was not necessary to fight France and/or Russia. Britain had plenty of domestic coal, but as far as I know no domestic oil. And given that the British relied almost exclusively on their fleet for defending Britain, it's not unlikely that they would be paranoid about oil. In times of war, when the fleet would have to stay at sea for long periods of time trying to blockade Germany, it would be impossible to refuel at sea if they were using coal. So basically to fight any war at all, Britain had to have a secure source of fuel for the Navy.

None of the Continental Powers had this problem. Trains and horses did not run on oil, and motor vehicles were relatively rare.

Anonymous said...

Certainly, the horrors of the First World War cannot be justified in any way. What I really struggle with though is Chris' determination to treat Imperial Germany as some sort of victim. I mean, no-one was forcing Willy to engage in his massive naval spend-up (a spend-up that so antagonised Britain). No-one was forcing him to give a blank cheque to Austria-Hungary. And no-one had forced him to dump Bismarck twenty-odd years earlier (Bismarck's golden rule being that there were five Great Powers, and that Germany needed to be on the side of the three against the two. Willy broke that rule).

Unknown said...

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Rudyard Kipling

Nick J said...

One hundred years on and we are still arguing who started it? I think a more pertinent question is why did the peace fail and we have to do another round of the same battle but with that time reasons more intelligible to recent generations. I object to war but if asked to fight Hitler I would....and having done that I would have voted for the likes of Atlee as opposed to the status quo.

And that is where I have sympathy with Wayne Mapps view, he sums up the opinions of the time well. Yes, they fought for Empire, but back then they saw themselves as beneficiaries and stakeholders in the Imperial Project.

New Zealand (or at least the settlers) really did think they were constructing a society based on liberalism. You only have to look at pioneering social legislation of that time, or to use Belich's formulation, they saw themselves as "better Britons".

We today may reject these views but they were the zeitgeist then.

greywarbler said...

GS at 15.03
You mention France's lust for vengenance because it had been wrecked - when was that? I'm losing track of the ongoing wars - was that pre 1900s as in Wayne's reference; "What real prospect did Germany then have to overcome France as had happened in 1870"?

Then Chris mentions that Germany was surrounded by countries in the Triple Entente. "Germany was fighting for her survival. A knockout blow against France was the only feasible military strategy available to the German High Command." Then I think Wayne said that Entente should have been enough to keep Germany quiet.

Then I thought the obvious, wouldn't that provoke a great unease in Germany and a feeling of being trapped and ripe to be over-run? Any analyst would have pointed that out I think.

Then GS says that Germany began building battleships that would be particularly effective against Britain, if Germany fuelled with oil and the British continued with coal. So then Britain felt unease about Germany.

This simple-minded citizen ends up saying "A pox on them all". And Wayne is far too laid back about the latest various world flare ups in the Middle East and elsewhere.
None of these wars are existential, but that is not the only test to justify military force. Defeating ISIS can be justified in that we don't have to accept international terrorism, we are entitled to defeat the perpetrators of international terrorism.

I don't agree that they are not existential as they are wiping out the standards and conditions of a trusting society which are being replaced with draconian security measures and a notion of conducting perpetual war. This has led to a rigid mindset about safety and control of citizens to the extent of our freedoms being a virtual prize of war against terrorism.

I haven't read Carl von Clauswewitz 1780-1831 but his years as a professional soldier who thought and wrote about it may offer wisdoms today. Wikipedia summarise his time and work thoroughly it seems.
Clausewitz sees all wars as the sum of decisions, actions, and reactions in an uncertain and dangerous context, and also as a socio-political phenomenon. He also stressed the complex nature of war, which encompasses both the socio-political and the operational and stresses the primacy of state policy.

Nick R said...

It takes a very determined effort, and a great big dollop of Anglophobia, to turn Germany into the victim here. Germany wanted a war and it started one. Why not, it all worked out very well for them in 1870. If Franz Ferdinand hadn't been shot, Germany would have found another excuse. Russia was Germany's enabler, just as keen for a fight.

No, it had nothing to do with 21st century liberal values. It wasn't a 21st century war. People fought for the empire, not for democracy or freedom. Fighting for the empire was popular cause in NZ in 1914. Hell, it was still a popular cause in 1939. That's pretty hard to stomach in 2016, but just imagine what people will think about our values in 2116 or 2216.

Someone is whitewashing the past here alright, but I don't think it is the Government or the RSA.

J Bloggs said...

Greywarbler - regarding Johnson's quote on patriotism, I much prefer Ambrose Bierce's reply:

"In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first."

Victor said...


I would agree with you that the UK's role in 1914 was not that of a paragon of peaceful good intentions. But I have some difficulty seeing it as uniquely mendacious.

True, a handful of senior British diplomats egged on France and Russia at crucial points in the July crisis. But, obviously, that explains neither the crisis itself nor why it was threatening to engulf the whole of Europe in flames.

I must also side with those posters who question the free pass you're giving Germany. GS, in particular, has made some trenchant points with which I cannot but concur.

Moreover, Belgian guilt over the Congo is clearly no more relevant to the moral calculus of Europe in 1914 than German guilt over South West Africa.

Finally, I question the notion that Britain was resolutely focused on the destruction of the German economy, let alone that it had been so for a great many years.

If possession of a powerful, rival economy and a formidable navy was enough to kindle Albion's unquenchable enmity, why on earth wasn't it fomenting war against the United States?

And why, by the way, was the City of London, that temple of British capitalism, so unnerved by the approach of hostilities?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Greyw. I was referring to the animosity that created the Treaty of Versailles. Almost all the 19 1418 war was fought on French soil. The Germans occupied much of France's industrial zone in the north. And one way or another, it ended up looking like those pictures you see in the books. Towns often flattened. Land crated and full of metal and unexploded ordnance.
Unfortunately the vengeance resulted in the Treaty and its follow-up occupation of the Ruhr, both of which provided Hitler with ammunition for his political ambitions.

Anonymous said...

God knows there is enough to criticize in Allied tactics and strategy in WW1.
But it seems, as many of these comments attest, that you have a rather skewed view of things.
Some might say standard Leftie cultural self hatred.
Nothing wrong and everything right with cultural self criticism, and plenty of scope for it here.
But- (to paraphrase) 'Germany was surrounded, it's all our fault, we are wicked?'
As bad or in fact worse than jingoism.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The causes of World War I are endlessly debated by historians. But some of the best generalisations I have found from H.H. Herwig. He says, "World War one was the result is decisions taken by the leaders of the five major nations........... in each of those nations the decision to go to war was made primarily by a small coterie of senior civilian and military leaders." These leaders – tended to be moved by the perception that their various countries were becoming weaker vis a vis the others.
He maintains that four or five men in Germany gave Austria the "blank check", accepting the risk that if Russia intervened this might lead to a general war. This has been characterised as a panicked reaction. Germany wasn't obligated to help Austria, and a resolute "no" would have ended the matter.
Similarly, if Russia had not backed the Serbs, if there was a war it would have just been yet another Balkan war. The Russians accepted the fact that backing Serbia could bring Germany into the war. The Russian constitution pretty much allowed Tsar Nicholas to make that decision by himself. The Russians were intercepting and decoding foreign diplomatic cables, and had penetrated the Austro-Hungarian general staff. So they pretty much knew what would happen.
Again, the French decision was made by a small group of men around Poincare who didn't consult with the military, or anyone else.
Neither did the British. And the Italians are really neither here nor there.
Apparently all European leaders realised that a war could not be contained. They just expected to win, and re-establish their preeminence in Europe.
And to be honest, I think there's probably enough blame to go around – for everyone to have a piece here.

Nick J said...

Victor, If possession of a powerful, rival economy and a formidable navy was enough to kindle Albion's unquenchable enmity, why on earth wasn't it fomenting war against the United States?.....nice comment.

I an sure that you are aware that both the Royal and the US navies between the wars considered scenarios and planned for a war against each other to be fought for control of the Atlantic.

Its nice to consider that the war aim of both Britain or the US if this conflict came to pass would be to conquer and occupy the others territory, take over their overseas territories, control their economies and finance, and to impose debt to pay for the whole venture. The USA had achieved the above by 1944 against the British Empire without firing a shot. War offers peculiar results.

Woodbrook said...

I think that it is badly off target to place prime blame on the British. I recommend reading the following: The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War, by Margaret MacMillan: July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean McMeekin; Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, by Max Hastings.

Woodbrook said...

I forgot to include: Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers (2012)as recommended reading.

Kat said...

Yes, but, John Key has told Wayne Mapp that history is irrelevant!!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I was concentrating on reading about my father's war since he died, but now that I've read a bit more – what surprises me is the reluctance with which the British cabinet approved even the Belgian guarantee. Asquith and Grey had to threaten to resign several times to get their way. I think cabinet must have had a British equivalent of "never get involved in a land war in Asia."
But also I think relations with Germany had started to improve since 1911, when the Germans decided they couldn't fight a land war and build a fleet to match the British at the same time. Plus of course they were somewhat preoccupied with the Irish question.
But in several articles I read, German diplomacy was described as "crude". They simply didn't believe that Britain would actually declare war. Which is partly the Brits' fault for being so equivocal, but also apparently the Kaiser's brother had a chat with King George, who said that Britain would remain neutral. The Kaiser forgot that the British King didn't have the same powers under the British constitution that he had under the German.
Whatever the nationality of the historians that I've read over the last few days, no one seems to blame the British. I don't know where Chris is getting his information from, but it sounds a little bit like tinfoil material to me.:)

greywarbler said...

On the matter of decisions with far reaching consequences in war being taken by a small group of individuals this about WW2. It is interesting and perhaps instructive to see some of the reports behind the adventure.
Adventure being how it is regarded apparently, by those who are not facing death, dismemberment or disillusion face to face with other maddened enemies.

Reports from CIA and a book written round USA actions and thinking in WW2.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Guerrilla Surgeon.

Germany never came close to parity with the Royal Navy. The construction of a German High Seas fleet was , however, seized upon by the Admiralty as a means of extracting even more funds for naval construction out of Parliament.

Your narrative is old and tired, GS.

Read Christopher Clark's "The Sleepwalkers".

aberfoyle said...

Humanity else where outside our dominion,revel so much in wars inhumanity.Don!t see us standing at the now new wars,as their inhumanity rages.Should we revel in greed its control of our power.Seen a four year old child at the Wellington senataph,dressed in world war uniform.Enough.

aberfoyle said...

U boats,Chris,did monster the British sea control.However history.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The Germans didn't have to achieve parity with the Royal Navy. They just had to have enough to threaten them in the North Sea. That's why Britain made an alliance with Japan. Neither did the British have to make a rational decision on the German fleet. Unlikely in fact given their paranoia. Not a great deal in Clark's book negates what I said, particularly in my larger post above. He claims it was uncertainty that started the war – exactly. Uncertainty and paranoia about relative weakness.

Victor said...

Nick J

I am indeed aware of the contingency plans of the Admiralty and the US Navy Department between the wars. I think it was in 1929 that the former told HMG that the only potential naval threat to Britain came from the US.

But there's a huge difference between a contingency plan (which is what general staffs are employed to come up with)or even a broad strategic bias and a deep seated, concerted, focused plot to destroy a rival, economically as well as militarily.


At your own much-appreciated suggestion, I read "The Sleepwalkers" a couple of years back. It certainly suggests a marked degree of British Foreign Office culpability in the unfolding of the July crisis of 1914. But I just didn't find evidence therein of a sustained British plot to bring ruin on Germany.

France, of course, did have such a plot and didn't do much to disguise the fact. But it had, by the bellicose standards of the day, a perfectly reasonable excuse, namely the return of provinces wrenched from it by force in 1870-71.


I'm sure you're right about the small numbers involved in foreign policy decision-making during the months and weeks leading up to the outbreak of WWl. That's why it's a bit fatuous to attribute blame to generalised entities such as "Britain", "France", "Russia", "Germany" or "Austria-Hungary".

In Britain's case, the numbers involved in any war plot were very small indeed. They may indeed have extended beyond the Foreign Office and diplomatic corps to a handful of "Liberal Imperialist ministers, including Grey, Haldane and Churchill.

But it's barely conceivable that Asquith himself was involved. How would he have had time, between dealing with a massive strike wave, militant suffragettes and a burgeoning Orange revolt/army mutiny in Ulster? And all of that, of course, was in addition to writing constant love letters to Venetia Stanley and getting equally constantly sozzled.

Although I don't think that Britain entered the war simply because Belgium's neutrality had been violated, I doubt whether the Liberal cabinet would have agreed to involvement if that violation had not taken place. That, though, is a separate issue to any British culpability in setting the continental powers at each others' throats.

BTW, I've suddenly realised that, although I had quite a few rellies (may they all rest in peace) who were World War Two veterans, there was hardly anyone in my family who wore uniform during the 1914-18 War.

I think this was because most of the males were either too old or too young, although my Polish-born maternal grandfather narrowly avoided being deported from Britain to fight for Tsar Nicholas.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I wish my relatives had been able to stay out of it Victor. Three grandfathers, a number of great uncles – not sure how many, because by the time got around to asking about them my dad had lost his mind – but I did have seven. Amazingly no one died. But as I said my grandfathers were missing limbs and lungs by the time they got back. Thank goodness their testicles were safe :). Some of my great uncles also fought in World War II and at least one only fought in World War II, because he was younger than my father. But again I've no idea what they did. My father survived World War II intact, both physically and mentally I think – though that's difficult to assess because he didn't talk much about it. But he survived at least one Russian convoy, and a number of kamikaze attacks, with an abiding hatred particularly of the Japanese. To the point where, with a stopover at Narita he refused to leave the airport. Not too sure about the logic of that, as there were plenty of Japanese people inside the airport :). And one day he exploded at the dinner table because the Japanese football team were on TV. But he'd begun to lose his mind by then. But it just goes to show that even if they appear to have survived without trauma, it's still there somewhere. One thing though, before the war he never travelled more than 50 miles from his village. It did get him free world travel, and broadened his horizons just a tad.

Robert M said...

Not really, the only relevant lesson to be drawn from Gallipoli is that the central reason it was a pointless disaster is that you can not move effective naval surface forces through the Darndanelles and the other narrow straights in the vicinity,either way. Its nothing but a trap, then and now, and, if Churchill was right about just about everything that matters between 1938 and 1952 he was wrong about a hell of a lot of crucial things before 1930.
The useful function of Gallipoli for much of the military and politicians in New Zealand and Australia is that it is the one military campaign in which the ordinary soldier seems to have been the people with a clue, misled according to the myth by fanactical ruthless professional officers and misguided idiot aristocratic officers. In that it supports the egalitarian lie in Australia and the misguided egalitarian tragedy and reality in NZ. Learning anything from Gallipoli in 1914 that when it matters, you cant get your battlefleet through the straights in any direction. The Russians certainly remember. The first thing Putins Navy did during the invasion of Crimea was to blow up a couple of his old worn out cruisers as block ships to block the Ukraine Navy escaping into the Black Sea and in particular the old Ukaranian 'Foxtrot' submarine, escaping to lie on the bottom of the Dardnelles. That all you need to know, about, almost anything.
Any serious army is led by ruthless intelligent professional officers. In more relevant Crete, North African and Italian campaigns the NZ Division gradually became effective as it developed an effective line of command and good intelligence from their own officers, ultra and high level reconnaisance ( the Nazi army had better intelligencce through reconaissance from high level jet Ardo recconaissance planes, which gave Guderain and Rommel a better picture of every allied position in North Italy and Normanby. Another feature of the Italian campaign is that the Maori officers and Maori Battalion emerged as the most effective unit of the NZ Division. Focus on the Gallipoli campaign avoids this difficult reality.. In equal engagement with good German Army units it often took 2 days for the Germans to get the advantage, on a cursory examination, they alway did, but it was always difficult for the Germans to counter, which was not the case with the whiter Kiwi units.
However World War One in many ways is so far in the past that in most ways it is no more relevant than the English Civil Wars and possibly even less relevant than the Napoleonic war, where Britain was up against mass ideological frenzy, leadership was an elite activity with high quality officers in control, savage discipline is automatic and were the dialect in the English newspapers was basically modern.
The real point about the NZ army is that didn't land at Iwo Jima or Okinawa and they had little of no involvement in North France 1n 1940 or 1944 or in Prussia in 1944 or the Eastern Front in either World War, so they no nothing about facing either the Nazi, Kaisers or Russian Army in full cry let alone the Asian variety in 1945 and they never really fought real SS units and they dont have a clue about it would really take to even fucking stand up and fight and actually fire a bullet with the accuracy to hit them. The majority of even those in frontline units of the British or US Army couldn't. The one point my father made about the US Army in WW2 and Vietnam is they have a long tail, only one in ten are actual combat troops the rest are support and logistics and of the combat units only one third at most are capable of engaging the enemy. A third to half will never fire a bullet bullet,let alone with any accuracy, except possibly to randomly, execute, captured good looking, SS officers

Robert M said...

Yet more evidence that the military genuis of Wayne Mapp ranks right up there with Air Marshall Fergusson and Private Heather Roy. Mapp suggests that the German General Staff and High Seas Fleet should have called the first twenty century engagement by the end of 1914 have recognised they were defeated by 1914 have been comprehensively outthought and facing overwhelming economic statistics and demostrations of military power that suggested they had no chance. Given that that the German Army had only just, just been stopped in their move and that the high seas fleet had yet had no chance to demonstrate their power, than for the Derflinger to flow a few test shells at Scarborough and that Dogger Bank was not altogether all that unpromising,there was no way a totally militarised nation led by the Kaiser was going to call it off then. The fact is that Germany had in 1914 had a vastly strongly economy and larger population than France and the modern British Army was an untested proposition, and this was going to be the last time the British Army was really up to it, British Public School Boys would never be up for modern percentage army action once they encountered the reality, so the only thing really finished in 1918 was any idea of the Brtish Army was Britain defence.
The main war in WW1 and WW2 was the Eastern Front so the main German aim and concentration in both was to defeat the Russian general staff, only just achieved in WW1 and way beyond their capability in WW2 were the core of the German Army were smashed in two days of the Battle of Moscow, between 5-7 December losing about a million Army and SS troops where the real Russian Army, back from giving the Japanese hiding proved very superior. The German aims in both wars was to eliminate Poland and fight a genocidal war that was always Ludenddorf and Hindenburg aim,and it shouldn't surprise anyone they accepted Hitler. The only real objection to the 'Bohemain Corporal' was that he had no class and was a crude near prole and he should stay out of military matters. The ideological disagreeement didnt exist. Guderain, Rommel certainly advocated a negotiated peace in 1944 relentlessly and if that wasn't possible a much more defensive approach. Logistically they didnt favour invading Russia but they equally unanticipated the real Russian capability.
But in terms of WW1 the Germans had good reason to beleive they would prevail until the US entered the war in 1917 and the defeat of Germany in 1918 represented such a fast turnaround, that the stab in the back theory could be universally accepted in German today, just as it is today in Putins Russia, the a vastly superior Russian Army, AirForce and Navy was betrayed by the agricultural peasant Gorbachev an outsider who knew nothing about real Russian capabilities.
Mapp fails to understand that Navies and Armies and their officer classes exist for their own purposes, not necessarily their countries. Most major 20C Military Powers existed largely as military states and economies regardless of whether theyf were democracies. Churchills view that nuclear deterrence, ended the possiblity of war, probably largely reflected senility, as nuclear deterence, is not really a coherent, flexible or viable theory as the assertion, moderation in war is imbecilty, only sound good to a certain type of naval officer . But Churchills idea if never really accepted in Russian or the US for long did allow Britain to massively disarm and abandon conscription and its military industries and more than any state become a non military society and therefore made social and economic state but none of the other major military states, made this possibly terminal change.Not even in Germany. In Germany only Hitler and Hitlerism was defeated. The SS was largely restored to command of most German police departments by 1948, their officers up to Lt Colonel were accepted into the German Army in 1955 and the SS Legal Code of 1944 was still the law of Germany in 1960 shore only really of its anti jewish measures.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

" Churchill was right about just about everything that matters between 1938 and 1952 "
Oh? Then why did he try seriously to kill various relations, and relations of friends of mine in Italy? Man was a ruthless idiot. Made steering speeches when they were needed, but strategically a fool.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"the Nazi army had better intelligencce through reconaissance from high level jet Ardo recconaissance planes, which gave Guderain and Rommel a better picture of every allied position in North Italy and Normanby"

Better than what? Better than they had maybe. But even if it had been perfect, the Germans had reached the stage where they couldn't do anything effective based on intelligence.
It was certainly not better than Allied intelligence, which had both PR and ultra. The Germans had nothing like ultra.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Mapp suggests that the German General Staff and High Seas Fleet should have called the first twenty century engagement by the end of 1914 have recognised they were defeated by 1914 have been comprehensively outthought and facing overwhelming economic statistics and demostrations of military power that suggested they had no chance. "

Sorry, makes absolutely no sense.

"modern British Army was an untested proposition".

The British Army had fought a war around the turn-of-the-century. The Germans and French had fought colonial wars similar to that. So if the British Army was an untested proposition, so was everyone else's. In fact you could argue that the Boers were better armed and organised than any of the colonial tribes people faced by the Germans or the French. I suppose you could make a case that without mass conscription the British were in an inferior position, but I wouldn't like to try to do it. The performances of the various armies seems to show that mass conscripts were no better than the early volunteers in the British Army, possibly worse.

"The main war in WW1 and WW2 was the Eastern Front "

True in World War II. Bollocks as regards to World War I.

"But in terms of WW1 the Germans had good reason to beleive they would prevail until the US entered the war in 1917 "

No, the German high command was in a panic. The best they could hope for was a draw. There were nervous breakdowns in the high command :).

Still, Leicester's won the championship, just sorry my dad wasn't here to see it, so I'll let you off the rest. :)

greywarbler said...

Interesting comments. Highly personal, but they sound like a good informed overview.

There is comment about the elites with class being dominant in forces leadership. I became interested in Dowding and read an interview where he expressed sadness at his treatment post Battle for Britain. He felt he had been passed over despite his success with this essential defensive battle. He would know the extremely detailed planning and continual watchfulness and care with which he had directed it.

And he was replaced with a man he considered unreliable, adopting more swashbuckling, 'big wing' ideas and with falsified reports regaling success with his measures when they were the opposite, which he had arranged to be informed of. In actuality the time needed for the planes in the mass flight to get in the air would have allowed a good number to have been decimated by the enemy before they could all take off. And so on.

Thinking about the mention of Asquith, was he known as Asquiffy?, and the fact he liked his tipple I wondered about Dowding. He may have been given the heave-ho, not just because he was past retiring age, but if he was as abstemious as he looked, a quite austere man apparently, he may have not been socially acceptable. Add to that the fact that he insisted on sticking to his own winning formula of handling planes and men, and the fact that he was careful of his resources, he wanted planes and pilots back safely to fight another day, not heroes. He saw himself apparently as a mother hen guarding pilots he is said to have called 'his chicks'.

Perhaps he trod on too many superior toes, disagreed with too many elite persons, and so got what to him was a wooden spoon, the order of Baron,
a barren distinction, on top of sending him off to the USA as a sort of salesman/goodwill ambassador which was a come-down for this brilliant officer.

Interesting that he and Conan Doyle, both men for detailed planning and logical thinking, took an interest in spiritualism and fairies.

Victor said...


"I wish my relatives had been able to stay out of it Victor".

That I can certainly understand. Although I didn't have many rellies who were conscripted in WW1, my mother's immediate family experienced some at least of the horrors of modern warfare as refugees in Belgium in 1914.

My mum was only a couple of weeks old when it all started and, for the remainder of her life, displayed symptoms similar to those ascribed to "Shell Shock".

Come to think of it, unlike my grandfather, one of my great uncles didn't manage to avoid being sent back to Russia. However, by the time he got there, revolution had broken out and the front was disintegrating.

My uncle seems to have been in the Red Army in an involuntary capacity during the opening months of the Civil War but managed to get to Finland and, eventually, back to Belgium. His English wasn't much better than my Yiddish. So I may not have got the story straight.

Obviously, my continental family had a much worse time in WW2. Almost all of my father's extended family in Poland were murdered, as were many of my mother's family. A French cousin (a particular friend of my mother) died (apparently of starvation) in Belsen just two days before the Brits arrived.

In contrast, as my father would have been the first to acknowledge, he personally had a "pretty good war". The first three years were spent on RAF garrison duty in various parts of the UK ("Scotland was a bit bleak in winter" was his only complaint)and the last two years in of all places, the Bahamas.

What, you may ask, was a large RAF detachment doing in this delightful spot? The ostensible reason was to help protect the Atlantic convoys. But I suspect that it also had something to do with the identity of the colony's governor, HRH the Duke of Windsor, who might otherwise have been snatched in an Otto Skorsezny-style raid by his Nazi pals.

BTW my father used his leave periods in the Bahamas to air-hitch to New York and Chicago and was in the latter on VE Day. As you can imagine, there weren't many blokes in the uniforms of America's allies hanging around in that great mid-western metropolis. So, for my dad, the beer was all free.

And then he went back to Britain and learned something of his family's fate. I'm glad he had some good times first.

greywarbler said...

GS at 18.25
Churchill could not have been responsible for making all the tactical decisions from the British side in WW2 surely. He must have had a mass of plotters and planners with info being fed through to them and leading to decisions from that along with assumptions and presumptions. Then that would have been up for discussion with leaders from each sector. Some of it was bound to be wrong. How can you hang it all on Churchill?

Ian said...

I too get a bit angry about ANZAC day or rather some the comments and sentiments that get glibly trotted out by politicians, dignitaries, journalists and face-bookers. Namely that Kiwi soldiers died at Gallipoli or in WW I generally so we could have democracy, freedom or protect New Zealand's "values" or "way of life". Such ideas are demonstrably wrong. If any or all the battles that Kiwi soldiers fought had had the opposite result there would have been no consequences for New Zealand's democracy, freedom, "values" or "way of life". Kiwis won some battles and lost others but either way it made no difference to New Zealand.

While New Zealand soldiers didn't make a difference to New Zealand they did help make a difference to the future of other people, especially in Samoa, Palestine, Israel, Syria and to a tiny extent France and Belgium.

The last time New Zealand soldiers fought in a war that made a difference to this country was during the wars we prefer to forget, the New Zealand Wars. The wars when New Zealanders fought each other the future of this country.

Since the Boer War, New Zealand governments have been keen on getting involved with someone else's wars. For the first 50 years it was Britain's wars as New Zealand saw itself as part of the British Empire, and subservient to the wishes of London. After WWII, New Zealand switched to getting involved in America's wars. Perhaps we should begin to come to terms with why we have this obsession with other people's wars. That way we might learn more about ourselves than we do by our normal ANZAC day activities.

I disagree with some of assertions in the blog post and the comments:

1) I've always thought that the Treaty of Versailles idea that the Germans were totally responsible for World War I was ridiculous. But as others have noted, the idea that the British started WW I in Europe to take down Germany doesn't make sense given their lack of preparation for a land war. I agree that both the British and French saw potential in dismembering the Ottoman Empire well before the war (the "poor man of Europe" obsession). But the British just took advantage of the situation rather than starting the war for that purpose. On the other hand I think they did have a plan to take over as many of the German overseas territories as possible if war started. The British probably had similar plans for French or American colonies if it came to war with those countries.

2) I disagree that the Eastern Front was unimportant in World War 1. Actually (like WW II) more people died on the Eastern Front than the Western Front. This obsession with the Western Front is an Anglo-French view of the war. Austro-Hungarians who started the war, were focused on the Eastern Front, as were the Russians. Also the original German plan was for a quick war in the West so that they could concentrate on defeating Russia in the East, which suggests to me that the East was more important to the Germans too.

3) The Royal Navy used a mix of coal and oil (sometime both in the same ship) throughout the war -- check the descriptions of various British warships on Wikipedia. Oil was easier on the crews and produced less smoke, a convenience but not a necessity.

4) The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was not designed as an alliance against Germany. The mutual competitor to Japan and Britain in 1902 was Russia. Though Japan joined WW I on the British side and attacked the Germans in China. Post WW I the Americans viewed the alliance as a threat to them and pushed via the Canadian PM for it to be ended.

Guerilla Surgeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Victor said...


I'm sickened by the "other people's wars" shtich which gets recurrently and oh-so- glibly trotted out in New Zealand.

The war against Hitler was everyone's war. Google "Generalplan Ost" if you have any doubts about this.

World War One was another matter. But there weren't all that many Pakeha Kiwis in 1914 who didn't think of themselves as Brits.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

1. Yes, the 1902 Treaty was aimed at Russia, but by 1907 the focus was firmly on Germany. At least according to Prof Ian Nish.
2. Yes the British still had some coal-fired ships left. But they transitioned from coal to oil much faster than anyone else except perhaps the US.
3. The British realised it was a strategic risk, and that's why they obsessed over a supply of oil, which is more to the point them whether they used it in all their ships or not.
4. Keeping your ships at sea for long periods of time is almost impossible using coal. They need to regularly return to port to coal ship. Oil powered ships could stay at sea longer than pretty much anything at the time but sail, because they could refuel at sea.

5. As far as the World War I Eastern front goes – my bad I wasn't clear – what I meant was that the Russians and by inference the Eastern front in World War II were more instrumental in defeating Germany than they were in World War I.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Churchill could not have been responsible for making all the tactical decisions from the British side in WW2 surely. "
Churchill often overrode his military advisors, and the generals in the field. Though some of them did tell him to go fuck himself, presumably more politely than that. He was obsessed by the so-called soft underbelly of Europe, which a brief glance at a map would have told him was not nearly as soft as he thought. From what I can gather the only reason that his generals and the American generals went along with it was they simply needed something to do with all the troops in North Africa, and weren't ready to invade France yet.
I've just finished reading several books about the North African and Italian campaigns. After at least one major meeting, the American generals were livid that Roosevelt had given into Churchill on several important points, and regarded themselves as having been "screwed" by Churchill.
Beevor gives other examples of Churchill's interference after the invasion of France, but by then Britain was in a much weaker position, and the Americans tended to ignore him.
Anyway, I don't "blame it all" on Churchill. But I do blame him for the Dardanelles, and for the decision to invade Italy.

Ian said...

Hi Victor,

I'm sorry you feel sickened, but that's your right.

When I said other people's wars I mean wars where country A attacks country B and NZ isn't either A or B. So I stand by my statement with respect to the Boer War, WW I, WW II, Korean War, Malayan War, Vietnam War, US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There are an equal number of wars that happened over the same period where NZ didn't get involved (Russian-Japanese wars, Israel's wars, India's wars, Iran-Iraq war etc).

"Generalplan Ost" does nothing to make WW II everyone's war. Not even a war for everyone in Europe and Asia. Look at Switzerland, Ireland, Sweden etc. The USA didn't join the war when Germany attacked Poland in 1939 and still didn't when Germany attacked the USSR 2 years later. It took Hitler's crazy declaration of war on the US plus Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour to bring them in (OK, I understand they supported the British for years before joining them, but from the US point of view they joined WW II on 7 Dec 1941).

You raise an interesting point about white Kiwis considering themselves to be British in 1914. If NZ was an extension of Britain in 1914 (and 1939?), at what point did NZ start acting like an independent country? Has it started yet? Or did NZ trade London for Washington in the 1960s? There are plenty of Kiwis today who identify the enemies of NZ by looking at America's enemies, rather than looking at realistic threats to NZ. Of course such thinking can be self fulfilling.

Your point sounds like another way of saying the same thing I said: decision making via identification with a larger overseas power.

Ian said...

Hi Guerilla Surgeon,

I guess we are getting a bit off the topic of ANZAC day but...

I'm not familiar with the work of Prof Ian Nish. Why were the Japanese focused on war with Germany from 1907 onwards? How did they expect to fight such a war?

In terms of capital ships both the British and Germans kept them in harbour most of the time on opposite sides of the North Sea. The British capital ships spent a bit more time at sea than the Germans but on the whole it was cruisers that spent far more time at sea. I haven't come across any references to British oil fueled warships refueling at sea in WW I, feel free to educate me on the subject. But Maximilian von Spee's coal fired cruisers captured colliers and refueled from them in ad hoc locations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

I accept your point about the Eastern Front. Though Lenin's separate peace with Germany was viewed as a stab in the back by the French, British and Americans and they held a grudge against the USSR about that for many years post WW I.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The Japanese were not focused on Germany, they were focused on Russia. The British were focused on Germany. Just different reasons for wanting the same treaty.

"But Maximilian von Spee's coal fired cruisers captured colliers and refueled from them in ad hoc locations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans."

True, but I don't think you could run either the Home Fleet or the Grand Fleet on this sort of basis.

My point was not that the British necessarily kept their fleets at sea for a long period of time, but they thought they might need to, and were therefore paranoid about finding a secure source of fuel. There are lots of letters between Churchill and Fisher that suggest this.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Dammit, I've completely lost the plot with refuelling at sea. That was obviously only one of the reasons for changing over to oil. Plus I think the ability to get rid of all the coaling stations they were forced to have all over the world. Sorry, finding it hard to keep track of what the hell we're discussing here. As you said we've got way off topic.
I can only find one reference to refuelling at sea during World War I. But it did happen. Interesting that. It was all over the place for World War II.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Okay, the ability to refuel at sea might be irrelevant. The only references I can find are to refuelling destroyers on Atlantic convoys. Efforts were made in the U.S. Navy to refuel at sea using coal, but proved to be too difficult. The U.S. Navy made its FIRST transfer of oil at sea during World War I. I can't find anything much else – but I'll try the academic databases when I'm a bit more awake. I may well have just jumped to a conclusion.

Victor said...


Exactly why and when New Zealand or any other country became involved in World War Two is not really relevant to a discussion of the moral necessity of Hitler's defeat.

But even if you regard New Zealanders (as you appear to do) as a separate species to the rest of humanity, it's barely likely that NZ would have been able to retain its democratic institutions and relatively humane social values in a world dominated by National Socialism.

It's similarly barely conceivable that, in the event of a Nazi victory, such institutions and values would have long survived in Switzerland, Sweden or Ireland. Global hegemons have a tendency to demand and enforce institutional and ideological conformity on the small fry.

Nor, by the way, would neutrality necessarily have prevented New Zealand's occupation by Japanese forces, once they had finished off Australia. Neutrality didn't, after all, prevent the invasions of French Indo-China or the Dutch East Indies.

Moreover, Britain's survival as an independent power was of fundamental economic importance to New Zealand. This country's then exemplary welfare legislation and its post war prosperity were both based on the funds generated through Commonwealth Preference. Without it, they just wouldn't have happened.

Finally, as a small and then more-or-less independent country, New Zealand had an interest in preserving a rules-based international order. For this and other reasons, Savage had made a point of being the only Commonwealth prime minister NOT to congratulate Chamberlain over the Munich settlement.

Yes, of course, New Zealand's subsequent involvement in World War Two was lauded in the then conventional terms of loyalty to the old country. But a more wholly independent New Zealand may well have chosen the same course and would, to my mind, have been right to do so.

There is, I grant you, an argument to be made for New Zealand having taken a more independent view of how and where its armed forces were to be deployed. But that's surely a separate issue.

Meanwhile, sickened I remain.

Ian said...

Hi Victor,

I was unaware that you, I or Chris were discussing the moral necessity of defeating Hitler, none of us ever mentioned it. Likewise neither you, I or Chris has proved that a world dominated by National Socialism was likely or even a reasonable possibility. The Wikipedia page you directed me to certainly doesn't mention that idea. Your original claim was that "Generalplan Ost" made WW II everyone's war. My point about when countries joined (or stayed out entirely) shows that a number of governments during WW II did not agree with you. It can't be everyone's war if not everyone was involved, or if they felt little compulsion to be involved. I stand by my statements.

Again on the subject of Japan, you need to make an argument that a Japanese invasion of New Zealand was actually a reasonable possibility.

Actually the Netherlands (government in exile I presume) declared war on Japan a month before the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies (so technically neutrality wasn't an issue) but that is rather beside the point as the Japanese attack on the Dutch East Indies was a corner stone of their war plan. They wanted to control a supply of oil to get around the US oil boycott of Japan (Japan imported 80% of its oil from America in 1941). They didn't need to invade NZ (or America) to achieve that, and they had no plans or capability to do so.

There is a bit of a history of hysteria over the idea that one country will rampage across the globe and arrive in NZ. In the late 1800s there were Russia scares in NZ, which might have surprised the Russians. With respect to WW II there were scares about either Japan or Germany invading depending on what argument a person was trying to make. In the 1950s to 1980s scares about communism sweeping the world and arriving in NZ with a Soviet (or PLA) invasion. (There is a related type of scare that started in 2001)

On the subject of global hegemony: firstly is extremely difficult to achieve, only America has come close in all recorded history (regional or partial hegemony is much more achievable). You need to make a reasoned argument that Hitler (who never managed to project power further than the north coast of Africa) could achieve this goal. Secondly (and considerably less importantly as it probably doesn't apply to Hitler) the institutions they may enforce or prefer in their area of hegemony can be quite different to those in the home country. America being an example. It prefers democracy at home, but seems to have a preference for biddable dictatorships over non-compliant democracies abroad.

On the economic argument for New Zealand's involvement in WW I (or WW II?). You are probably right, and it matches the point we have both made about NZ identifying with Britain in 1914. The annual pilgrimages to London by cabinet ministers in the 1970s and 1980s to defend the quotas NZ was allowed to sell to the Common Market (mostly UK) shows that this attitude continued for generations.

I'm confused by your final point. I would have thought that where and how NZ uses its armed forces is very closely related to which wars NZ chooses to join and which to stay out of.

Victor, make a reasoned argument and I may agree with you (in fact have already done so). Rash claims without evidence and claiming that we were discussing some that hadn't actually been mentioned will be less successful.

Get well soon.

Victor said...


Firstly, you are correct on the issue of the Dutch declaration of war on Japan. Memory is fallible and I stand corrected. This does not, however, alter the fact that the Japanese (and their German allies) were serial violators of neutrality when their interests and capabilities allowed for this. Therefore, any New Zealand desire to remain neutral may have had little impact on the course of events.

Secondly, I’m not sure exactly what you and I are debating at the tail end of this thread if it is not the moral necessity of defeating Hitler, a debate initiated by your glib reduction of World War Two to your list of wars in which New Zealand had no ultimate interest.

I don’t know why you’re mentioning Chris in this context. He has not , thus far, chosen to be part of this particular discussion, although he has also, thus far, permitted the debate to fan out in this direction.

From what he’s written in the past, I get the impression that he shares my view of the necessity of confronting the Third Reich and its allies, whilst acknowledging (as do I) that World War Two was, in part at least , the consequence of the punitive peace that followed World War One. Where Chris and I continue to differ is over the degree of British culpability in causing that terrible and pointless conflict. He is of course free to correct me if I have misrepresented his views.

Thirdly, I didn’t direct you to a Wikipedia page on ‘Generalplan Ost’. I merely told you to Google the term, as the plan summarises some at least of the horror that a Nazi victory would have imposed on a very substantial percentage of our species. Actually, I don’t think the slaughter that a Nazi victory would have brought about would have been limited to Europe’s eastern approaches. But the plan is symptomatic of probable outcomes, as, of course, was the Shoah and the destruction of the Roma. When it came to homicide, these guys thought big.

As far as I’m concerned this made the conflict “everyone’s war” in the sense that we are all human and none of us should, from an ethical perspective, be able to countenance such levels of slaughter and destruction without being moved to resistance in some form or other. If you do not share this l perspective, so much the worse for you. If there are many who do not share it, so much the worse for humanity.

Éamon de Valera famously (or infamously) prized his country’s neutrality so highly that, on news of Hitler’s death, he set off for the German legation in Dublin to offer his condolences. You may find this an edifying example. I don’t.

This doesn’t mean that I subscribe to the current discourse concerning “humanitarian intervention” or “responsibility to protect”. Most wars destroy more people than they protect. But World War Two is surely the exception that proves the rule. And there are other exceptions that I can think of, such as the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia, which brought down the Khmer Rouge regime.

...more to come

Victor said...

....continuing previous post

Fourthly, the Japanese had, in 1941-42, already occupied parts of the Southwest Pacific that were considerably closer to New Zealand than they were to Japan’s home islands. They had also, time and again, defied the limits of what their enemies had thought possible. So the fact that they had neither immediate plans for nor an immediate tactical interest in invading New Zealand, does not mean that they would not have done so once the tide of war had turned more decisively in favour of the Axis.

Fifthly, there have, I agree, always been folk with over-excitable notions of this or that country making a bid for global mastery. But the evidence from Mein Kampf, from Hitler’s Table Talk and from Alfred Speer’s (admittedly self-serving) memoirs is that Hitler was indeed focused on achieving global dominance for Germany, through control of the Eurasian heartland. He almost succeeded in the latter, whilst his Japanese allies established dominance in East Asia. Sometimes, when the boy cries “wolf”, there is, indeed, a wolf in the sheep pen!

Sixthly, if you don’t think that a world dominated by National Socialism was a possibility, how comes it took the combined armed forces, demographic weight and industrial infrastructures of the Soviet Union, the United States and the British Empire so long to defeat the Nazis? Was it all some kind of smoke and mirrors operation designed to convince the populations of the allied nations that they were in various degrees of jeopardy when, in fact, they weren’t? I don’t think so, somehow or other.

Seventhly, you make an interesting point about American hegemony, albeit one with which I can’t wholly agree. During the Cold War the US was not yet global hegemon, as it had to share hegemony with the Soviet Union. During those decades, Washington certainly showed a pragmatic preference for dictatorships in many of its client states, while, of course, the Soviet Union favoured dictatorship as a matter (inter alia) of Leninist principle. But my impression is that, in the post Cold War world, the US has an ideological preference for the formal machinery of democracy among its clients, even though this support wavers when a suitable electoral outcome doesn’t eventuate.

More to the point, perhaps, is Washington’s insistence on absolute conformity with its favoured economic models, conventions and institutions. What would you expect of neo-liberals? The Nazis , in contrast, were probably more interested in power than in profit.

Finally, Ian, I’m amazed that an obviously deeply nationalistic New Zealander such as yourself failed to recognise my reference to the recurrent discourse in this country concerning how the flower of New Zealand’s manhood was in North Africa when it was needed back home or in the Pacific to protect its homeland from the Japanese thrust southwards following the fall of Singapore.

It’s barely credible, whether you agree with it or not, that this discourse has failed to register with you. And, of course, it’s ultimately an argument not about New Zealand’s involvement in the conflict but about whether it should have pursued a military strategy more focused on its own defence, as did Australia, when it brought back its forces from the Western Desert and sent them to the Kokoda Trail.

Alas, as I’m about to move house, I suspect this is my last contribution to the current thread or to Bowally Road for some time. It’s been an interesting experience arguing with someone whose sense of twentieth century realities is so different to my own.

Ian said...

Hi Victor,

We have both said that neutrality won't stop a country that wants to attack you (likewise a declaration of war won't protect you in that situation either). On the other hand if a country doesn't want to attack you but you declare war on them you are more at risk of attack than if you had remained neutral. New Zealand does have the advantage that it is damn hard to attack. So is less at risk of attack if it declares war on a country that doesn't want to attack New Zealand.

I'm glad you have clarified your reasoning for every country to declare war on one country. Namely situations where mass homicide is under way or imminent. Do you have a threshold for such mass homicide in mind that would trigger such universal declarations of war? 100,000 people? 1,000,000? I see you mention the Cambodian genocide so your threshold is much less than 10,000,000.

I think the reaction of many countries (and in particular the US) to Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia was appalling. While I hesitate to endorse a universal war against the Khmer Rouge, I would have endorsed a universal effort to end genocide and support of the front line troops (Vietnamese in this case) in their fight to end genocide. Similarly appalling was the lack of reaction to the genocide in Rwanda.

But the Holocaust, Armenian genocide, Rwandan genocide and Cambodian genocide are all simple cases that are easy to agree on. What about Stalin who during his time in charge of the USSR killed far more people than Hitler, he also left behind a government which carried on killing (albeit at a lesser rate) for several decades more? But Stalin and the USSR did more than anyone to destroy Hitler. And then there Mao Zedong and his successors who out did Stalin, by some counts by several tens of millions of dead people.

Before we forget Cambodia, remember that America (with a little Kiwi help) killed more civilians in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos than the Khmer Rouge. Does that mean that there should have been universal war against the USSR, PRC and USA? May be from a purely ethical point of view there should have been. From a realpolitik point of view I don't see New Zealand joining such a war.

Which brings me to the point that NZ picks and chooses its wars not entirely from an ethical stand point, though it is happy to put on an ethical uniform occasionally (or perhaps just once). How much was NZ's decision to declare war on Germany in 1939 purely motivated to protect Roma, Jews, Slavs, homosexuals etc? And how much was it motivated by a desire to follow the UK?

New Zealand's smallness and remoteness means (with some tiny exceptions) that New Zealand can't really go to war unless it is joining someone else's war. For instance even if New Zealand wanted to start an ethical war to end the genocide in Rwanda, it was an impossible task for New Zealand alone. Despite the fact that such a declaration of war couldn't be mistaken for anything other than an ethical one, it didn't happen. Was NZ only ethical for only a short time in the middle of the 20th century?

I understand that it is very tempting to paint a mental picture of WW II as the war of Good versus Evil, and the Nazis certainly make that easy. But trying to generalise from that, that the WW II Allies are goodies who fight wars for ethically good reasons falls apart very quickly after 1945. Similarly the idea that countries that remained neutral in WW II are bad, is also dubious when comparing post 1945 behaviour. Such a view of WW II quickly (and suspiciously) makes it an exception to the general rule of why countries fight wars. I think the Good versus Evil aspect existed and was part of a series of factors which leaders weighed up in the various capitals around the world (unless they were one of the countries directly attacked), just like any other war.


Ian said...

[part 2]

The problem with classifying wars by how many people that they protect is the general urge to exaggerate their protective nature (see Tony Blair on the reason to invade Iraq). He and G W Bush would claim they protected 700 million people in Europe and North America from Saddam Hussein, well worth cost of 300,000+ Iraqi lives. I disagree with Bush and Blair (and I'm sure you do too).

Japan managed a spectacular expansion for 7 months between Dec 1941 and June 1942. But they overreached themselves and couldn't defend such a big territory and long front line so were pushed back and back for the next 3 years. Similarly the Germans reached their maximum expansion at the end of 1942 after several spectacular campaigns, and were pushed back for the next 3 years. Countries that managed to create large and long lived empires have generally done so much more slowly and carefully (Spain is a possible exception). Pushing back Germany and Japan was hard work but I see no evidence that they could have gone much further than they did or even held onto the territory they had captured. The Germans made a blunder at Stalingrad but even if they had bypassed city they would have still been pushed back by the Soviet's winter counter attack. Comparison of the economies of the Allies versus the Axis is a better indicator of their superiority than the 3 years it took to defeat the Axis.

Your view of American hegemony is not much different than mine (I was a bit flip). America has always preferred democracy in its area of influence (as long as the voters vote the "correct" way) see Japan and Western Europe. I think it was better telecommunications and the internet which has reduced America's use of (or support for) coups rather than the end of the Cold War. You are correct about capitalist institutions and the dismantling of socialist ones in America's hegemony. I'm not an expert on Nazi economic policy but I gather it was capitalist with strong central control and subservient to the needs of the state.

I'll admit I completely overlooked your references to the NZ strategy of keeping its division in North Africa and Italy after fall of Singapore. I hope you don't take that personally, as no slight was meant. While I am familiar with the general outline of the argument from year ago, I'm not familiar with the details of the recent debate, in particular the alternate role for the 2nd NZ Division and how that would have fitted in with other allies. I've generally thought of what actually happened as evidence that the NZ government was still focused on being a good British ally while the Australians started to look towards the US as a more useful ally.

Victor said...

Very briefly, Ian, as I am out of time.

My argument is not just based on the numbers slaughtered or likely to be slaughtered (although they are highly relevant) but upon the conjunction of mass slaughter with a consistent, conscious assault on such international norms as exist, so that we end up with "No law except the sword, unsheathed and uncontrolled" and with the circle of death and destruction growing ever wider.

Such, to my mind, were the circumstances of the early 1940s. I'm not sure that they're all that common, though Bush 'n Blair were heading somewhat in that direction.