Sunday 11 November 2018

What We “Don’t Know And Can’t Know” – The Truth About World War I.

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.


Kat said...

For the past fifty years I have been asking the military and other war experts to explain what makes them think human beings going "over the top" or walking or running or jumping or falling or swimming into machine gun fire and other assorted meat shredding weaponry is a good idea. Not one word of any sense received as yet. And they still carry on.

BlisteringAttack said...

The NZ news media over 2014-18 has been staggeringly useless (or following instructions?) about the brutality of NZ involvement in WW1.

It also doesn't help with an uneducated Hollywood puppeteer supplying our history at the taxpayers expense.

Lindsey said...

Kitchener refused to prepare for trench warfare, despite it being used in the Boer wars and the New Zealand war. "Gentlemen' he said "do not make war hiding in rabbit holes." Hundreds of thousands died because of that stiff necked foolishness.

KJT said...

11 November 2018 at 7:03 pm

Note the returning soldiers from WW2, came back to “make a land fit for heroes”.
Not spivs, war profiteers and ripoff merchants. Those people were despised during the wars.

Organizing the welfare State, workers rights, pensions, free health care and education and the concept of a fair go.

Peter Jackson’s, and our Governments since 1984, repudiating these principles, are really a kick in the guts for those troops.

Nick J said...

My daughter, a well educated teacher asked me today why did Europe go to warin 1914? We pondered for a while and concluded that whilst we both knew the history, neither of us had an adequate reason.

Tom Hunter said...

Frankly, after forty years of the Blackadder view of WWI, I rather appreciate some of the revisonist history coming out now.

Case in point - The Long Shadow, Part 1. Well worth watching all three parts, at least if you enjoy hearing and debating some new arguments.

Wayne Mapp said...


Your comment can't literally be about what you have stated. Anyone with military experience can tell you why military tactics no longer involve going "over the top." That sort of thing ended with WW1.

I presume what you mean is the futility of war in general. At leat with WW2 it is widely held that defeating Germany and Japan by war was better than being subjugated by them. In short, from the point of view of the allies, the war was not futile.

Nick J said...

Thanks for the link Tom, interesting indeed.

sumsuch said...

52, mediophiliac, and trying to understand the experience of soldiers in war, the best I've come upon is the doco, 'The True Story of Eugene B. Sledge'. C'est impossible. Damn 'Gloire'.

Strange though how order still obtains amid slaughter. It's stored out in the participants' later lives. The half-life of radiation.

No more.

sumsuch said...

KJT, succinct.

We who remember -- but aren't cool anymore.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Wayne. Anyone with military experience should know that "going over the top" was relatively common in World War II as well, where for long periods of time, punctuated by relatively short periods of movement, soldiers were in trenches similar if not identical to those in World War I. And there have been times in later wars where troops have also gone "over the top". One of my great uncles saw Chinese troops going "over the top" in the Korean War.

Geoff Fischer said...

Wayne Mapp wrote: "At leat with WW2 it is widely held that defeating Germany and Japan by war was better than being subjugated by them. In short, from the point of view of the allies, the war was not futile."
From the point of view of the allied powers it may not have been futile, even though it failed in one principal object, namely to preserve the power and sway of the British empire.
But from a rational point of view, from an informed New Zealand people's point of view, it was worse that futile.
It has become the basis and justification for the pernicious doctrine that the people of New Zealand cannot defend themselves, and that the New Zealand state must forever submit to the tyranny of foreign powers, and perpetrate whatever evil is required of it by the Britain, the United States and other Anglo-Saxon powers.
In short, the New Zealand government's involvement in the Second World War as a supposed "ally" of Great Britain (in reality, as a client state) was no less reprehensible than its bloody sacrifice of 18,000 young New Zealand lives in the First World War.

Wayne Mapp said...

Geoff Fischer,

On your reasoning New Zealand should have simply not participated in WW2 against either Germany or Japan. From a utilitarian view that would have been possible. The US would have defeated Japan in any event. However, we presumably would now only have a limited relationship with Australia. They would have seen us as deserting them at a time of mortal peril, and that would not be forgotten.

I also can't imagine that the New Zealand population in 1941 would have consented to such an outcome. I say 1941, because that would have been the next election after 1938.

Although you describe New Zealand as a "client state", that was a freely held position. In 1939 the New Zealand population thought of themselves as closely tied to the UK, both in terms of family and economics. Not as servile slaves, but because they wanted to do so. Michael Joseph Savage's words on the declaration of war in 1939 make that blindingly clear.

To bring this to a modern perspective, if Australia was attacked today, do you think it likely that New Zealand would not come to their aid? The public pressure to do so would be overwhelming. Does that make us a client sate of Australia, or does it make us an ally?

aberfoyle said...

Churchil,his shame the Turks first one around,and dammed never forgoton,anothor go second time around,both fuck ups,then you got Montgomery,another serious old school boy,and a other serious fuck up military soldier.

America,both times could have waded in with arms and foot soldiers arms and such,both times the soldiers the last minuet in the first,the second,they seen what caused the war,the winners disenfranchise the losers.So again america sit on the fence lend their manifacture to the desperate churchill and he and his war cabinet sell britain pound to the dollar to the yanks.

Believe,britain is still paying off the intrest of that capitalist usury.

Geoff Fischer said...

Kia ora Wayne
New Zealand's many wars do come down to its relationships with certain other states, most particularly the US, UK and Commonwealth of Australia.
We are asked to take it as an article of faith that these states have a benign stance towards us Yet in the 1860s we were subjected to invasion from Britain and Australia, and in 1908 the US planned an invasion which never executed. All three states display a cavalier disregard for New Zealand interests in matters of trade, immigration and so on.
China, on the other hand, has never invaded our lands or, so far as we know, made preparations to do so, and has been a good trading partner to New Zealand.
So the suggestion that we should contemplate conflict with, say, China, in order to win favour with Australia, the UK or US seems a very strange fancy indeed.
Savage's declaration "Where Britain goes we go; where she stands we stand" was, to put it mildly, misguided. That colonial servility has cost New Zealand dearly, and will cost all the more the longer it is perpetuated.
You write "In 1939 the New Zealand population thought of themselves as closely tied to the UK, both in terms of family and economics." That may have been true of the British population in New Zealand (which I assume is what you mean by the term "New Zealand population") and arguably of a section of Ngati Porou, but it was not the case for Tainui, Tuhoe, most of Ngapuhi and other iwi and many non-British European communities which is why you needed to intern so many New Zealanders for the duration of the war. In short, you get a very different narrative on the Second World War from the non-British population.
I don't know how the "population of New Zealand" will respond to any future invitations to make war on behalf of Australia, the UK or US, or any other power, but I can say with absolute certainty that Michael Joseph Savage's policy of "where (fill the blank) goes we go" will only lead them to disaster.

greywarbler said...

The Lend-Lease program from USA to UK and many other countries is well summarised by Wikipedia.

Congress had not authorized the gift of supplies delivered after the cutoff date, so the U.S. charged for them, usually at a 90% discount. Large quantities of undelivered goods were in Britain or in transit when Lend-Lease terminated on 2 September 1945.* Britain wished to retain some of this equipment in the immediate post war period.

In 1946, the post-war Anglo-American loan further indebted Britain to the U.S. Lend-Lease items retained were sold to Britain at 10% of nominal value, giving an initial loan value of £1.075 billion for the Lend-Lease portion of the post-war loans.

Payment was to be stretched out over 50 annual payments, starting in 1951 and with five years of deferred payments, at 2% interest.[70] The final payment of $83.3 million (£42.5 million), due on 31 December 2006 (repayment having been deferred in the allowed five years and during a sixth year not allowed), was made on 29 December 2006 (the last working day of the year). After this final payment Britain's Economic Secretary to the Treasury formally thanked the U.S. for its wartime support.[71]

*The exact date of the war's end is also not universally agreed upon. It was generally accepted at the time that the war ended with the armistice of 14 August 1945 (V-J Day), rather than the formal surrender of Japan, which was on 2 September 1945 that officially ended the war in Asia.
Wikipedia WW2