World War I: The Glorious Version: The Battle of Le Quesnoy was New Zealand's last engagement of World War I. The battle's most famous image, depicting Second Lieutenant Leslie Averill stepping out on to the ramparts, revolver in hand, perpetuates the notion that war is a noble and manly enterprise. The censors were happy to let the image pass. What the New Zealand public were not permitted to see, however, were images of the utter slaughter that was the Western Front.
ON THE ELEVENTH HOUR, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, 2018 – this Sunday – we will celebrate the centenary of the Armistice. It is Armistice with a capital “A” because this was the historic ceasefire, negotiated by representatives of both the Allied and the Central Powers, which caused the guns to fall silent. With the coming into effect of the Armistice at 11:00 hours, 11 November 1918, the world-shattering conflict that would come to be known as World War I finally ground to its end.
The past fortnight has been notable for the amount of media attention devoted to a relatively insignificant incident which took place during the final phase of the decisive allied offensive that knocked Germany out of the war.
The taking of Le Quesnoy, by elements of the New Zealand Division, on 4 November 1918, was unquestionably a moment of great gallantry and humanity. By scaling the fortified town’s massive walls, the New Zealanders obviated the need for the artillery bombardment by which the capture of so many other German-occupied towns and villages had been effected. Small wonder that the citizens of Le Quesnoy still fete the rescuers of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Small wonder that the Germans laid down their arms and surrendered to them. When, just a week later, the war ended, thousands of human-beings were still breathing who, in the normal course of that terrible conflict, would have been dead. It is a wonderful story and well worth remembering.
But what happened at Le Quesnoy is about as far from typical of the fighting in World War I as it is possible to get. For a start, the New Zealand Division was advancing: moving forward through the French countryside in a fashion which had become tactically impossible just a few weeks after the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. For most of the war a vast defensive line, stretching all the way from the English Channel to the Swiss border, had been transformed into an obscene meat-grinder into which the flower of European manhood had been fed by commanders who had no idea how to wage industrialised warfare without shedding veritable lakes of human blood.
The most famous image of the Battle of Le Quesnoy: that of Second Lieutenant Leslie Averill stepping out on to the ramparts, revolver in hand, perpetuates the notion that war is a noble and manly enterprise. The censors were happy to let the image pass. What the New Zealand public were not permitted to see, however, were images of the utter slaughter that was Passchendaele. The bodies ripped to pieces by shrapnel; the grey-green corpses barely visible in the all-conquering mud. These obscenities, grimly typical of the rapacious imperialist conflict, are still considered unfit for general consumption.
World War I: The Reality
In 1917, Britain’s wartime leader, David Lloyd George, told the editor of The Manchester Guardian, C.P Scott: “If the people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”
The tragedy of the past four years is that, for the most part, the politicians and propagandists of 2014-2018 appear to share Lloyd George’s breath-taking cynicism. Whether it be Sir Peter Jackson’s larger than life heroes; or the fusillade of revisionist war histories unleashed by military writers determined to gun down the comic accuracy of the final Blackadder series; allowing the people to know the truth about World War I seems to be as impossible as ever.
Instead, New Zealanders are treated to the wicked conflation of the humanity and valour of the men who took Le Quesnoy with the purposes of the war itself. The conflict in which so many young New Zealanders perished was not conducted in the name of humanity, but in the name of the King-Emperor – whose representative, Lord Liverpool, announced this country’s participation from the steps of the General Assembly Library, without the slightest reference to the wishes of the people’s parliamentary representatives.
Moreover, as the butcher’s bill grew the supply of volunteers dried up and the gaping holes in New Zealand’s lines after Gallipoli, the Somme and Passchendaele were filled with conscripts. What could New Zealand have become if those 18,000 young men who died – had lived?
That is the truly obscene cost of World War I: its opportunity cost. The future that might have been.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 November 2018.