• The Armistice Centenary

    The centenary of the Armistice that ended the First World War has rightly been celebrated around the world. The Armistice brought an end to the horrors of a war that had been so terrible that it was described in retrospect, in a triumph of optimism over experience, as “the war to end all wars.”

    The slaughter on the Western Front and the privations suffered by the combatants in other battlefields like Gallipoli were unparallelled. It was not just the casualties, the injuries and the sickness, but the nature of the warfare, and the conditions in which the soldiers fought and died, in the mud and cold of the trenches, pinned down by the relentless shelling, that caused so much public revulsion.

    There was also a public anger at the apparent lack of concern that was shown by commanding officers in sending their men to the front and to their inevitable deaths. The lives of those men seemed to matter little – they were moved and deployed as though they were pawns in a board game. The soldiers in the First World War became known – in a phrase that had first been used by the Russians about the British army in the Crimean War – as “lions led by donkeys”.

    In Flora Thompson’s Larkrise to Candleford, a wonderful memoir of growing up in poverty in rural Oxfordshire, she describes how her brothers learned to work hard and never complain, accepting their lot. When her favourite young brother, Edwin, was killed just outside Ypres in 2016, she says that, when he faced the odds, “he did not flinch”.

    The repercussions of all that pain and suffering affected millions of people around the world; little wonder that the centenary of the Armistice was acknowledged by the leaders of the countries that had been involved and the opportunity was taken to salute the sacrifices that so many ordinary people had made. All the more surprising then that one of today’s self-proclaimed American “heroes” could not brave a shower of rain in order to pay his respects to the fallen; the sacrifices they had made were hardly “fake news”.

    The attention paid to the centenary, not least through the remembrance ceremonies worldwide, but also through television programmes about the First World War and Peter Jackson’s wonderful revival of actual footage from the conflict in his recently released film “They Shall Not Grow Old” will surely have taught a new generation about the dramas and tragedies of our history. The lessons will have been reinforced by the memorial to New Zealand recently created in the French town of Le Quesnoy to acknowledge the rescuing of the town from German occupation by New Zealand troops.

    And nowhere is the attention paid to this shared history more justified than in New Zealand. Incredible as it may seem for our small country at the ends of the earth, half the globe away from the battlefields, no country made a proportionately greater sacrifice than we did.

    Nearly 10% of our tiny population (of just under one million at the time) volunteered to fight in the War. They represented 42% of all men of military age. Of that number, 60% were killed or hospitalised – 18500 died and 41000 were wounded.

    It is important for our young people, in the nature of things inclined to dismiss their forbears’ achievements as of little consequence, to understand what earlier generations sacrificed for them, our country and the world. And they should also understand that “no man (or country – not even New Zealand ) is an island unto itself”.

    In that great and all-consuming conflict of 100 years ago, we proudly took our place as a world citizen and played our part in bringing to an end that horrific and barbaric struggle. New Zealand’s standing in the world ever since – and the role we have continued to play, with an influence that belies our small size – have owed much to those brave young men from the farms and factories who went in search of an adventure but found instead a hell.

    Bryan Gould

    13 November 2018