Heroism At ANZAC Cove: Hundreds of young New Zealanders and Australians died on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915. We can ask ourselves whether furthering Great Britain's imperial ambitions was worth the blood sacrifice - confident in the wisdom of hindsight that it was not. It is sobering, however, to reflect that, asked the same question, most the boys coming ashore that fateful morning would have answered with a resounding "Yes!"
“THEY DIDN’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT.” That was the awestruck assessment of the young man interviewed for Television New Zealand’s Q+A programme. He was one of a small crowd of Wellingtonians gathered around New Zealand’s handsomely refurbished National War Memorial to hear the playing of the Last Post and the ritual recitation of “For The Fallen”. Every one of the 1,560 days of New Zealand’s participation in the First World War, now a hundred years in the past, is being commemorated in this fashion. The great tragedy of that conflict: a tragedy which endures; is that, like the thousands of young men who rushed to join up in August 1914, far too many New Zealanders still decline to even think about why they went to war.
If pressed, most Kiwis will mutter something about defending freedom and democracy. But that is the answer to another question. Defending freedom and democracy was why New Zealand and the other Dominions of the British Empire went to war against Nazi Germany in 1939.
Except, truthfully, it’s a trick question. Because, if the international crisis of June-August 1914 had been handled differently, then there would have been no need to go to war against Adolf Hitler in September 1939. World War I and World War II constitute the bookends of a single conflict. And what New Zealanders were fighting for at the beginning of this calamitous thirty-year struggle was very different from what they were fighting for at its end.
To say that World War I was spawned by imperial rivalries is simply to state the obvious. The question New Zealanders needed to (but didn’t) ask themselves in 1914 was: “Why is the empire we belong to – the British Empire – so willing to invest its blood and treasure in a quarrel between the empires of Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and France?”
The answer is simple: because the British Empire was frightened.
It was frightened of Russia’s growing capacity to project its military power in the direction of Britain’s most important, and vulnerable, imperial possession: India. The Royal Navy could not defend the Indian sub-continent from a concerted, land-based, Russian advance. It was, therefore, in Britain’s economic, military and diplomatic interests to keep Russia focused on opportunities for expansion in Europe – not Asia.
The British Empire also feared Germany. Since reunification in 1871, German industrial expansion had been phenomenal. Britain’s pre-eminent economic position, along with her ability to defend it, faced a formidable challenger. Unchecked, Germany would soon become the economic arbiter of Europe (just as it is today!) and that economic power, strapped to her undisputed military prowess, would soon make Germany the most powerful nation on earth.
That was not a position the British Empire was willing to relinquish – not yet.
The diplomatic outcome of all this was the Triple Entente. By aligning herself with Russia and France, Britain was able to neutralise the threat posed by the former, while quietly encouraging the anti-German ambitions of the latter. The designated victims of all this geo-strategic manoeuvring were to be the two weakest members of the imperial club: the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. The prospect of dividing-up the territories of these decrepit dynasties (along with those of a defeated Germany) made Russia, France and Britain salivate like hungry dogs.
Not surprisingly, the Germans reacted to the machinations of the Triple Entente with considerable alarm. Faced with the prospect of the Russian “steamroller” lumbering towards them from the East, and the “revanchist” French rushing at them from the West, Germany’s generals applied themselves to devising a plan for fighting a successful two-front war. The one they finally settled on demanded the destruction of the French army before Russia’s could build up steam. It did not require a particularly brilliant strategic brain to realise that this would necessitate a massive flanking manoeuvre through neutral Belgium.
Long before August 1914, therefore, the British understood that Belgian neutrality could only be preserved by ensuring that the military obligations enshrined in the Triple Entente were never activated. In other words, by preventing the outbreak of a full-scale European war.
The British Empire thus found itself in the absurd position of wanting France to recover her lost provinces; Germany to be economically prostrated; Russia to be distracted from any southward push towards India: while, simultaneously, hoping that all these key strategic outcomes could be accomplished without anyone firing a single shot.
By August 1914, however, the British Government had reluctantly accepted that none of its objectives could possibly be secured without committing the peoples of the British Empire to a murderous global conflict. When, 1,560 days later, that conflict ended, Britain’s objectives were secured: Germany crushed; Russia imploding; the Middle-East theirs.
Freedom and Democracy? They could come later.
If we’d thought about it, I wonder, would we still have done it?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 25 April 2017.