Wednesday 26 April 2017

Why They Went To War - Anzac Day 2017

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.


Anonymous said...

Rather overlooks the Kaiser's ambitions (massive naval build-up, desire for Empire, sacking the old-school Bismarck who stood in his way). Had Willy abided by the Bismarckian rule that Germany must be on the side of the Three against the Two, he would have never antagonised Britain the way he did (or given the blank-cheque to Austria-Hungary against Serbia).

peteswriteplace said...

In a couple of words, Kiwis were patriots. They may not have under understood the real politics, and still don't.

Polly said...

The real threat of a nuclear war in todays age makes it most unlikely that our young men and woman will be called up for a non-nuclear war.
The atom bomb has changed military and government thinking.
Their is a distinct attitude by major Nations that 'boots on the ground' is to be avoided and that fighter aircraft and/or drones are the answer.

The brinkmanship being played out in the North Korean testing of missiles versus American concerns is the most frightening time since the Kennedy, Krushev and Cuba crisis.
Both America and North Korea have unstable leaders.

Andrew Nichols said...

In a couple of words, Kiwis were patriots. They may not have under understood the real politics, and still don't.
"Patriotism - The last refuge of the scoundrel" - Oscar Wilde

Nick J said...

Stand at the Massey Memorial. The white marble bright, the reflected Romanesque with imperial connotations. King and Country....we were not so much Kiwis as one step removed Britons, children of Empire. To place a 1914 Kiwi in the light of today's multi ethnic post British imperial NZ just misses the mark on so many counts.

To be fair Chris you captured this well a while ago talking about the intimate relationship between the first echelons who landed on Gallipoli and Masseys Cossacks. Freedom and democracy total subsidiaries to class conflict then and now. Couldn't allow Fred Farmer to go alone then however, conscription snared Joe Worker months after the initial slaughter. Today's ruling and middles classes would again no doubt happily sacrifice the children of the poor on imperial missions as demonstrated by the US forces class composition.

Would we do it again? You can bet our conservative parliamentary right would happily deliver random dole Johnny of Otara to the front line in defense of "democracy". And average young law graduate of Remuera might get posted to a vital logistics function in Timaru for the duration to ensure our "freedom". We have not gone far in advance, nothing much changes.

BlisteringAttack said...

If you go the the war memorial in Westport, for instance, there is a staggering number of names that never returned.

There was massive peer pressure in small town & rural NZ to support the empire's objectives.

To be a 'shirker' was something no-one could live down for the remainder of a lifetime.

Bill said...

They went to war because it offered a break from the dull monotony of their lives, a lark, an adventure, comradeship, and had no idea of what they were letting themselves in for. One has only to look at the age of those listed on country war memorials.

As to the causes of the conflict, as well as the melange cited by Chris, the hand of the banks and the manufacturers of armaments should not be overlooked. See the "The Bush Crime Family" by Roger Stone, which gives a fine insight into the involvement of banks both in the US and Britain. US banks funded Germany in WWI and WWII and made fortunes until stopped by the Trading with the Enemy Act.

Victor said...


Precisely which bits of Austria-Hungary was Britain salivating over?


I think you'll find that the Anglo-German naval race was well over by 1914, with Britain having decisively won the contest.

Chris rightly points to British sensitivity over Russian encroachments onto its established and hoped-for Asian spheres of influence. But a logical response to this was to seek detente with Germany and stand firm against Russia, as Britain had done for much of the nineteenth century.

With the naval rivalry put to bed, there were already some signs of a reversion to this more traditional stance, which would, of course, have been popular with the ruling Liberal Party and much of the rest of the British public, which tended to loath the Tsarist regime.

Personally, though, I don't think that it's either possible or fruitful to work out which of the European powers was most to blame for the outbreak of World War One, though, on the whole, I think that both Britain and Germany were marginally less to blame than the others.

Austria-Hungary, meanwhile, had a legitimate grievance against Serbia over the murder of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie and had no desire to extend the war beyond the Balkans.

One of the problems, however, was that, during the July crisis, no-one, apart from the Kaiser, seemed to take Austria-Hungary's grievance seriously,perhaps because it was assumed that this time-encrusted but well-governed and culturally advanced multi-national empire was an anachronism in an age that had deified nationalism.

I find this enormously piquant when I recall a long conversation I had in London in the late 1970s with a group of emigre friends, including a Croatian, two Czechs and two Hungarians.

The starting point for all of them was their sense of loss over the Dual Monarchy's disappearance and over their region's subsequent domination by Hitler, Stalin and Stalin's heirs.

They seemed to me to have a point.

greywarbler said...

Blistering Attack
I think it was on the West coast that this story happened. Certain women were set on getting the young men off to war, while of course they stayed home and knitted balaclavas or something. This was the time of the white feather handed out to men and teenage boys who hadn't rushed off to join up to fight for Home (ie Britain).

A young fellow, I think one year below the lowest age for joining up encountered one of these harpies in the street, who asked him why he hadn't joined, implying he was a shirker and a coward. He went off and joined up at only 16 I think. His mother was very upset at the pressure put on him to join until he chose, or it became compulsory.

There was in a number of war poems, a bitterness at women's keenness to push men into fighting. Complacent females who cared little for the danger and soul-destroying brutalisation of war were very loud. There were not too many Florence Nightingales putting themselves out in the battleground and back home when Ettie Rout acted to save men from the destruction of sexual disease especially syphilis, she was shunned by polite society. The army and government eventually saw the need to protect the men with information and condoms but were too cowardly themselves to face the bastions of moral decency in the society.

Those who weren't forced to fight, could maintain their pretence and belief of pure heroism that lifted a man from his body and carried him over the mind-chilling, maddening, alien landscape or killing grounds where he found himself. Now a diary was read out at this year's Anzac service, a sentimental gesture where he talked about being scared. After a century we can just about cope with the burden of unwanted knowledge of World War 1 but not WW2, Vietnam and Agent Orange, Afghanistan, the Middle East and IEDs, depleted uranium, wicked behaviour by the wizards of the west to detainees in a part of Cuba they had sequestered, extreme rendition, assisting the overthrow of democracy in Chile, etc etc.

Here's a bit about depleted uranium. It seems to be by someone who knows about it and the Middle East but who can't manage to put a date by his name. I guess it is current, but the lack of date placement shakes my faith a little. Is time not important these days? Jim Croce is dead but his song lives on poignantly and speaks for the fighting personnel away from home. 'If I Could put Time in a Bottle'.
Depleted uranium:

Nick J said...

Grey, You have my thanks for raising the issue of depleted uranium usage in Iraq. For mentioning this on several blogs I have been roundly rubbished by those who dont believe it, the "prove it prove it" brigade. There is now a significant body of clinical evidence of the long term effects. In my humble estimation this possibly an issue which dwarfs the use of land mines and chemicals.

greywarbler said...

Nick J
I am surprised at this blank wall attitude to depleted uranium. It isn't new but I like so many, over so many nasty happenings, have chosen not to think about it. But it has registered in my mind though at the back.

I have a mouse or rat in my house at the moment. I am keeping it fed it seems and it doesn't go away despite regular poisoned grain and blocks put down. Like depleted uranium problems that are dead rats to be swallowed as the political saying goes, the ugly matter will remain until dealt to. This rat will hang around partly hidden but definitely present, until it gets full attention.

Victor said...

I'm really not sure about the Anglo-German economic rivalry thesis as an explanation for the UK's participation in World War One.

Both Britain and Germany were potential minnows as compared to the United States, which emerged from the war as the economic arbiter of the universe and was already, by 1914, the probable successor to Britain as economic hegemon.

Moreover, even though the Germans could outproduce and outsell the Brits in terms of industrial goods, they didn't control a global financial network to compare with that of the City of London. Nor , in consequence, could they command the kind of rentier wealth that Britain enjoyed from, for example, owning Argentina's railways.

Niall Ferguson has argued that, by 1914, Germany was reaching the limits of its potential as Europe's dominant extractive and manufacturing economy but didn't have the capacity to rival Britain (or the US) as a financial power.

Even if we leave aside Ferguson's neo-liberal insistence on financial capitalism as representing a higher order than industrial capitalism, the fact remains that Tsarist Russia, with its huge resources, was industrialising apace, largely, if not wholly, with the help of French capital. In time, it seemed bound to put Germany in the shade, at least in terms of straight-forward productive capacity.

Moreover, although Britain's foreign affairs establishment was concerned over Germany's growing influence in the Middle East, it was also wary of the expansion of French economic power in that region.

Finally, the City was far from enthusiastic about Britain's entry into the war. Lord Rothschild tried desperately to get a back channel of negotiations started through the banks, only to be denounced by the "yellow press" as a traitor with a tell-tale German name.

greywarbler said...

Thanks Victor and all those commenting on matters re WW1. Now I am older and have some time to think and ponder, I find that I draw closer to those times in my understanding, with the advantage of years of revelations and reflection of others to access and absorb.

Victor said...


I often find that I read history very differently now to when I was younger.

That's both because I'm older and have seen a bit more and because comparatively recent events can cast a new light on more distant ones.

Although I differ from Chris on quite a few issues connected with the outbreak of World War One, I'm always grateful to him for recommending Christopher Clark's book "The Sleepwalkers", which casts a masterly eye on these events.

Amongst other things, Clark points to the murderous traditions of Serbian nationalism, a perception that gels with what we saw during the Balkan wars of the 1990s and helps me understand the Austrian viewpoint of 1914 rather better.

Earlier this year, I read Adam Toze's "The Deluge", which deals in detail with the rise of the United States to economic hegemony from 1916 onwards. Here again, more recent events help explain more distant events and vice versa.

jh said...

Any thoughts on this Chris:
s NZ's 'special bond' with Australia a thing of the past?

Kathryn Ryan
What is driving this?
Bernard Salt
There has been a fundamental shift in the Australian demography particularly the last 10 years or so preliminary results from the 2016 census released one month ago show something quite unique. The western half of the country (Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territories) had quite a strong Anglo base (we draw our migrants from Anglo countries). The eastern side of the nation (particularly Victoria and New South Wales) are more likely to be Indian and Chinese . So the ethnic base (the source from which we are drawing migrants) has shifted in the last decade or so. I will say also the flow of Kiwis has reversed (the earthquake and a renewed energy with New Zealand). So there seems to be an ethnic basis to t(not a parting of the ways) but a slowing of the bond which had been there literally since resettlement.

What is driving the politics?

Well I do think the demographics are important : our shift in focus towards Asia (with the Chinese and the Indians). I don’t think it is so much a rejection of NZ as a pivot towards Asia. There was a shift away from the UK when Britain joined the EU. In some ways you could argue the same is happening here a shift towards Asia: Asian migration, Asian students, Asian implantation [ ?] in fact. Our attention has been taken by South East Asia and as a consequence the politics may flow from that shift in thinking.

The idea of New Zealanders being special is disappearing apace (and was only based on a handshake between Whitlam and Kirk in the 1970s) and was always a matter of goodwill.

“politics pushing in that direction”

Our attention has been taken by South East Asia Who or what is "Our"?
"New Zealand's Future lies with Asia(n)s. Norman Kirk. Gough Whitlam (same). Being high minded has costs, but not for those at the top?
My paradigm is one where there is (through most of the world) a narrowing of oppurtunity: think of a farmer and his sons. You can only divide the farm so many times. I see migration as a territorial issue involving reciprocal opportunities extending down to the people (almost) at the bottom - not just the Fullbright scholar at the top).