Sunday 25 April 2010

The Blood of Its Sons (ANZAC Day 2010)

Blood for Butter: The sacrifice of so many young New Zealanders was made not for democracy or freedom - but for the future prosperity of the nation's farmers. Painting of the Battle for Chunuck Bair by Ion Brown.

WHEN WAR BROKE OUT in 1914, Britain was fortunate to have as her point man in New Zealand a prime minister who recognised in the British Empire not only the source of his country’s income and guarantor of its continued prosperity, but also the secular manifestation of a divinely sanctioned racial hegemony. Not content with his participation in the mysteries of Freemasonry and the Grand Orange Order, William Ferguson Massey also belonged to a bizarre sect known as the British Israelites.

The central belief of the British Israelites was that the original inhabitants of the British Isles were descended from one of the "lost tribes" of Israel. God, having originally singled out the Jews as the instruments for perfecting his earthly creation, apparently decided to re-tool the project by hiving-off a tithe of the chosen people and relocating them in the wet and misty isles of Albion. Careful Biblical exegesis had further convinced the British Israelites that the British monarchy was traceable not merely to Norman brigands and Anglo-Saxon war-chiefs, but to the ancient throne of David and Solomon. Clearly, the British race was destined to rule the earth from pole to pole. That it already controlled a quarter of its land surface, and all of its seas, was proof of God’s approbation. Equally clearly, it was the duty of every Briton – old and new – to further God’s plan by ensuring that their King-Emperor got his holy mitts on everything else.

Nobody seemed to mind that the King-Emperor, George V, was a German, or that his father, Edward VII (of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) had spent most of his reign inveigling the French and the Russians into an aggressive diplomatic and military alliance against his own despised nephew, Kaiser Wihlem II (his mother’s grand-son). One might have thought that a fanatical Protestant like Bill Massey would have recoiled in horror from the news that the heir to David and Solomon’s throne was plotting and scheming with the republican papists of France against the honest Lutherans of the House of Hohenzollern. And how pleased would his prime-ministerial predecessor, "King Dick" Seddon have been to discover that Britain had somehow become the ally of George V’s cousin "Nicky" – Tsar of all the Russias? Wasn’t it Nicholas II’s father, Tsar Alexander III, who had so frightened the parliament of New Zealand that it was persuaded to appropriate vast sums for the installation of gun emplacements at the heads of most of New Zealand’s major ports?

Such machinations were, of course, the common fare of the heavily armed imperial gourmands whose insatiable appetite for territory and markets and left very little of the earth’s surface unshaded by their respective flags. So long as the sea lanes between New Zealand’s ports and the London docks were kept open for the ever-growing fleet of ships bearing the dominion’s refrigerated cargoes to the British consumer, New Zealand politicians were content to leave the complex minuet of international diplomacy to men like Britain’s aristocratic foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey.

Which presumably explains why Belich, with uncharacteristic reticence, could write: "New Zealanders in 1914 did not investigate the causes of conflict, and we can follow their example." While the dereliction of that sentence’s second half cries out for correction, the first part is no more than the truth. It really didn’t matter to most middle-class New Zealanders how or why the languid gentlemen of Whitehall came to the conclusion that Britain must go to war with Germany. It was enough for them that the King-Emperor’s government had called upon his subjects for aid. Certainly all those loyal sons of the Empire who had been drilled to obedience as high school cadets, and who now devoted their weekends to manoeuvres with their province’s regiment of "mounted rifles", neither asked for nor expected a more detailed explanation.

The war propaganda of the time depicted Britain as a mighty lion summoning his pride, and Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand as "young lions" answering the imperial roar to range themselves proudly at their sire’s side. Few queried the war’s ostensible casus beli – Germany’s violation of "poor little Belgium’s" neutrality, and the Austro-Hungarian assault on "brave little Serbia". The mentality that had scrawled "God save the King!" above crude renditions of the Union Jack on the walls of the Waihi Miners’ Hall just two years earlier, was not attuned to the critical questioning of imperial policy.

For a brief period, however, a tiny chorus of protest did manage to make itself heard over the marching bands and cheering crowds. The Red Feast, a poem penned by the radical trade unionist, Ralph Chaplin, and re-printed in the working-class (and in those years unashamedly left-wing) newspaper Truth shortly after the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, makes it clear that the enthusiasm for martial sacrifice was not, quite, universal:

Tear up the earth with strife
And give unto a war that is not yours;
Serve unto death the men you served in life
So that their wide dominions may not yield.
Stand by the flag – the lie that still allures;
Lay down your lives for land you do not own.
And spill each other’s guts upon the field;
Your glory tithe of mangled flesh and bone.
But whether in the fray to fall or kill
You must not pause to question why or where.
You see the tiny crosses on that hill?
It took all those to make one millionaire.

Not that such open defiance of political conformity was permitted for very long. The proto-fascist impulses manifested in the ranks of Massey’s Cossacks barely ten months prior the outbreak of World War I, were swiftly augmented by all the powers of a state at war. Newspapers were seized or censored, street-corner orators (a good many of them future cabinet ministers and prime ministers) were arrested and imprisoned for sedition. And for those who refused to fight: the Christian pacifists and socialists who sought the protection of "conscientious objection"; Massey’s government reserved a suite of sadistic punishments, escalating in severity from internment in special concentration camps, to the extraordinary fate of this country’s most famous conscientious objector, Archibald Baxter – being bound to a cross in the middle of no-man’s land (Baxter’s inspiring memoir I Shall Not Cease is recommended reading for anyone who still refuses to believe that a great many New Zealanders embraced fascism long before it had a name.)

And so New Zealand’s human lambs were placed under British command, packed into troopships and dispatched for the slaughterhouse of France – at least they would have been had the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, not devised a "cunning plan" to outflank the Central Powers, knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war, unleash the armies of Bulgaria and Greece upon the Austro-Hungarians and open up a secure line of supply to the Tsar’s ill-equipped armies.

The Dardanelles Campaign – to which the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was diverted without so much as a by-your-leave in 1915 – was not undertaken in the name of freedom and democracy (Tsar Nicholas II had little time for either concept) but to strengthen the sword-arm of one of the most brutal autocracies on the face of the planet. The King-Emperor’s cousin, for whom so many young Australians and New Zealanders were about to be sacrificed, had made his name a by-word for tyranny less than ten years prior to the Gallipoli landing. In 1905 thousands of workers and peasants had gathered outside the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg, na├»vely believing that their "Little Father" would redress their grievances. Nicholas’s troops had cut them to pieces. When the Red Feds dubbed Massey’s strike-breakers "Cossacks" they were alluding to the vicious Tsarist cavalrymen responsible for "Bloody Sunday".

Nearly a century has passed since the heroism on the heights of Chunuk Bair, but every 25th April thousands of young New Zealanders travel to the memorials erected along the Gallipoli Peninsula to recall the blood sacrifice of the dreadful, and ultimately futile, Dardanelles campaign. When questioned, they speak of the high ideals and noble causes for which those who were killed and maimed in the Great War sacrificed themselves. They do not know, because they have not been told, that the ANZAC’s died for an imperial economy which, even in 1915, had ceased to be internationally competitive. They do not know, because they have not been told, that Britain’s decision to go to war with Germany was not taken in defence of "poor little Belgium", but in the hope that, between them, France and Russia would destroy the British Empire’s principal economic rival. They do not know, because they have not been told, that the ANZACs slaughtered tens of thousands of young Turks so that the British and their French allies could carve up the territories of the Ottoman Empire between them – an act of diplomatic depravity which continues to generate death and despair across the Middle East to this very day. They do not know, because they have not been told, that in the very same year that Colonel Malone’s men were dying on Chunuk Bair, their Prime Minister was concluding an agreement with the British Government whereby it would "commandeer" every ton of butter and cheese that New Zealand could produce. They do not know, because they have not been told, that the Bill Massey’s government did not dispatch 19.4 percent of its male population to the killing fields of Gallipoli and Flanders to "make the world safe for democracy", but to keep safe and, if possible, expand New Zealand’s "protein industry".

Belich puts it like this:

"During the Crimean War of the 1850s, the leader of the Italian state of Piedmont-Sardinia, Count Cavour, decided to help out Britain and France in their struggle against Russia. He sent several thousand troops, and a few bewildered Piedmontese and Russian peasants killed each other outside Sebastapol. Cavour had nothing against Russia. He wished to create a moral debt in the official minds of Britain and France, which would make them sympathetic to his desire to liberate and unify Italy. He succeeded, and French troops helped free Italy from the Austrians a few years later. Massey, Ward and Allen might not have known much about Count Cavour, but I think they were playing his game. The objective of the New Zealand war effort was to entrench and augment the special relationship with Britain that we have called recolonisation. The method was to create a moral debt in British minds to New Zealand in particular by exceeding the unquestioning loyalty and eager sacrifice even of the other dominions."

Thus did New Zealand’s political and economic elites elect to repay Britannia’s imperial mortgage: in the butter and cheese of its dairy factories, and the blood of its sons.

The above posting is excerpted from No Left Turn: The Distortion of New Zealand’s History by Greed, Bigotry and Right-wing Politics, by Chris Trotter, published by Random House, 2007.


mike said...

Chris, Thanks for a recap of the geopolitical-economical backdrop.

We must also remember that conscripting soldiers for WWI and sending them off to war was, as in every war, an effective way to deplete the working class of its strongest and youngest men and "get rid of a few reds".

If one reads NZ working class literature from the WWI era - such as "The Watersider" - the editorial line is often to the effect of: "We're willing to follow the capitalists and businessmen into the ranks, but they don't seem to want to set the example!"

As the Irish singer Andy Irvine puts it in one of his songs 'Gladiators of the Working Class': "Let those who own this Empire go and fight for it themselves."

solatnz said...

Interesting piece, Chris. Have you by chance come across the address JK Archer (who in his lifetime both president of the Labour Party and president of the Baptist Union) gave to the Baptist Assembly entitled "Covetousness"? I think you might find it interesting.

Victor said...


Your comment reminds me of an old boy I met in rural North Wales some years ago.

Before World War One, he had been an activist in the Agricultural Workers Union and took it for granted that his name would be at the top of the local draft list when conscription was introduced.

Needless to say, he was right.

Anonymous said...

Corker, Chris; inspires me to dust off this cheery wee ditty that I penned last year (before I forget it)

Deliver us, Lord
from the maudlin devices
of the milk-sap scion
of Essential Services

Whose privileged persistence
and very existence
rests square on the gore
and rivers of blood

from the brown and the poor
who are fed to each war
by the suppurating whores
to mammon and greed
that deign to lead.


Bearhunter said...

Whenever I think of WW1 all I can think of is Ezra Pound's line:
There died a myriad/And of the best, among them,/For an old bitch gone in the teeth,/For a botched civilisation.