Armistice and Remembrance

I usually write a post on 11 November, the anniversary of the armistice that brought a temporary end to the Great War that engulfed Europe in 1914 and continued, in one form or another, until the end of the 20th century. But nothing I write could match this from Paul Keating. The core of the piece

The First World War was a war devoid of any virtue. It arose from the quagmire of European tribalism. A complex interplay of nation state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism.

The First World War not only destroyed European civilisation and the empires at its heart; its aftermath led to a second conflagration, the Second World War, which divided the continent until the end of the century.

But all of it is worth reading and remembering, along with Keating’s 1993 speech at the funeral of the unknown Australian soldier.

68 thoughts on “Armistice and Remembrance

  1. I agree with much of Keatings words here, particularly the selection you quoted.

    However, I was troubled by how he portrayed conscription in a couple of places

    “Modern weaponry, mass conscription and indefatigable valour produced a cauldron of destruction the likes of which the world had never seen.”

    “One thing is certain: young Australians, like the young Europeans I mentioned earlier, can no longer be dragooned en masse into military enterprises of the former imperial variety on the whim of so-called statesmen. They are fortunately too wise to the world to be cannon fodder of the kind their young forebears became: young innocents who had little or no choice.”

    The Australians who died in World War One would be insulted by this I believe, it insults their ability to make a decision (yes, many were very young, but probably not young enough to be innocent) and their courage – because Australia had two referendums on conscription for World War One and both were defeated.

    Every Australian man who died had volunteered to serve freely.

    One of the reasons I remember this is because in the town I grew up in we had a hill, ANZAC Hill, just above the High Street.

    On this Hill while I grew up was an arrangement of quartz stones made into a V shape. V for Victory, put together to replace a former arrangement when World War Two was won by the Allies.

    At university I had a subject where one assignment was to research the history of a building in the context of its society and find multiple primary archival sources.

    So I wanted to choose one from my town, where, as it happens Don Watson, Paul Keating’s speechwriter had lived (he had rented our house from my mum before I was born), and I chose the Welsh Congregational Church, near the local Penny School.

    I found in my research a photograph of ANZAC Hill from before World War Two, and the quartz rock had spelled out a different message then : VOTE NO

    Meaning to vote no in the referendum/s for conscription.

    Lest We Forget

  2. 1914:
    prevailing powers
    Ottoman empire
    Austro Hungarian empire
    British Empire.

    prevailing baddies

    is it a case of “the words change but the song remains the same”?

  3. many wars including World War 1 were products of mutual alarm and unpredictable tests of will. Schelling and others in the 1950s and after studied World War 1 to learn how to not blunder into wars when nuclear weapons now would be used.

    Wars are like bar fights. Both are about not backing down.

    when people discuss the futility of World War 1, they under rate the role of unintended consequences and the dark side of human rationality in situations of collective action.

    It is harder to get out of a war than into one. The problem is credible assurances that the peace is lasting rather than a chance for the other side to rebuild and come back and attack from a stronger position.

    A rather understudied issue is peace feelers in World War 1 such as by the German chancellor in 1916 and the Reichstag peace resolution on 19 July 1917. Pope Benedict XV also tried to mediate with his Peace Note of August 1917.

  4. Keating speeches 93 and 2013great but might he have gone further? The demise of the BNritish Empire, though still dabbling in various area Syria being current, resulted in the would be “American Century” to whose imperial ambitons Australia seems tied.

  5. These things are generally easier with hindsight. I’d be interested in any speeches from the time that counselled against Australian participation and the basis on which they argued.

    Lest we forget.

  6. TerjeP, I haven’t had time to look thoroughly, but for starters the National Archives of Australia has a fact sheet on the referendums on conscription with some substantial links, including to a collection of primary source materials against conscription and against the British.

    I think here you have to remember that white Australians at this time identified more strongly with their ethnic backgrounds as Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Scottish and so on, some of whom had grievances with the English.

    Rupert Murdoch’s recent speech, as well as attempting to redefine the common vernacular meaning of She’ll Be Right and Have A Go, went so far as to blame the Irish presence in Australia for “class war” in the earlier days of colonisation.

  7. Words are funny things.

    A turn of phrase that is lauded here today

    WWI…destroyed European civilisation

    Was excoriated just yesterday as being a fanciful prospect not worthy of serious discussion.

    I, also, did a double take over: “young Australians, like the young Europeans I mentioned earlier, can no longer be dragooned en masse into military enterprises of the former imperial variety on the whim of so-called statesmen” – given the current pointless wars our young are killing and dying in (whether ‘en masse’ or not).

  8. “…which divided the continent until the end of the century.”

    Also made me wonder about what Keating thinks of the tensions caused by the Euro-zone crisis, and these old wounds re opening, particularly in Greece from what I’ve read.

  9. This also made me remember that Keating would have been Treasurer (and deputy Prime Minister) in the first Gulf War, so I googled that to find out what his view was when he was in a powerful role, because I do not really recall.

    So far I have only found something in a complaint letter he wrote to Bob Hawke, published in The Australian.

    “The Dusevic story then goes on to misrepresent my position in relation to the first Gulf War. As you know, in 1991 I was in favour of the UN system returning to life after the long impasse of the Cold War and, in meetings with you, I said that if President Bush, two years after the (Berlin) Wall had come down, was prepared to reinvigorate the UN with a UN-mandated assault upon Saddam Hussein, I believed Australia should support it. And if you remember, I advised you to get in early before Mulroney and the British because the Americans were looking mainly for early moral support rather than material support. I went on to say this should allow us to put a couple of ships up the top of the gulf rather than commit ground forces and aircraft. And you were happy to agree. As I remember at the time, mighty happy, for I was both deputy prime minister and treasurer and effective leader of the Right in the parliamentary caucus. My agreement meant full political protection for you.”

    These do not sound like the most just reasons for going to war to me, and soldiers and civilians lives were lost there too, and the next Gulf War was to follow.

  10. To describe it as a war ‘devoid of any virtue’ suggests a contrast with other wars that don’t fit that description. But there is no valid contrast. There are no good wars. Some of them are worse, but all of them are bad.

  11. @J-D

    Hard to claim that, say, the Union side in the American Civil War was “devoid of any virtue”.

    And while the Great War wasn’t unusual in the absence of any justification, the 20th century catastrophe it unleashed killed more people than any war before it, perhaps more than all the wars in previous history put together.

  12. Keating’s speech is interesting: thanks very much for posting it John. It’s still peddling that ‘incompetent generals’ myth. Why’s this myth so important?

    First, it’s not so important for Australians, because they will always have that ‘coming of age as a nation’ card to play. The ‘incompetent generals’ bit helps this world view, but isn’t necessary to it. What was welcome about Keating’s speech (inter alia) is that he doesn’t merely play it and the Gallipoli card: he also talks about the other theatres that Australians fought in.

    But why did it have such a long life in the UK (where I am)? I think it allowed us to forget two rather less palatable facts:
    1) the war was popular with the majority of the population: despite efforts of many well-meaning lefties and pacifists to draw attention to the those members of the public who opposed it. It was also, of course, popular in France and Germany, hence it destroyed the Second International. Despite all the rhetoric of the brotherhood of workers, and all the similar liberal and Christian rhetoric of the brotherhood of humanity, nationalism (AKA patriotism) was more popular than either of these universalist ideals.
    2) the war was in fact an imperialist war. It was fought on the German side as a bid for world power, and on the British side as a bid to defend the world power (the product of other imperialist wars) which Britain’s rulers had wielded for a century. Yes, if you look, as Gary Sheffield is keen to, at Belgium, you can see that for some people Allied victory was objectively liberating. But to take that particular message home, you have to _only_ look at Western Europe: everywhere else, particularly in the Middle East, it was a war for the aggrandisement of empire, and after it, the British Empire reached its greatest ever extent.

    So – we blamed the generals, and called them incompetent, because the alternative was to blame ourselves. Ruling groups could cope with this blame, partly because for a couple of decades the generals themselves knew what they’d done and didn’t really care for public relations, but mostly because after 1945 we were looking at 1919 through the lens of a pretty different cataclysm. Lefties and pacifists/internationalists could cope with this blame because it painted our adversaries as stupid and atavistic, and enabled us to gloss over the failures of our historic actors – the international proletariat and global public opinion – to mobilise in any meaningful way.

    As you might have realised by now, I think that it’s important to drive a wedge between the efforts to revise the military history of the First World War, and the efforts to harness this revision to a project which also seeks to whitewash it as a political event.

  13. @J-D 312

    There are no good wars. Some of them are worse, but all of them are bad.

    Obviously wars mean deaths, if that is the substance of your objection. But that’s trivial, living in the real world where words have limited effect and pacificsm is unrealistic, unavoidable deaths may be the price to be paid, and “devoid of virtue” is a one-sided view.

    What concerns me about war deaths today, is what Nigel Harris (at an East Timor demo outside Lib Party HQ in Melb in 1975) was booed for calling “petty nationalism” (elsewhere called “the narcissim of small differences”).

    Keating, adopting the helicopter view, doesn’t seem to realise that the world has changed: Sudan and South Sudan are not Cold War categories, and tribal (not ‘national”) differences are the source of most of the world’s current military conflicts and deaths. I wasn’t impressed with his 1993 and 2013 speeches: just a middle aged man with RDS* issues making the most of the bully pulpit.

    *Relevance Deprivation Syndrome

  14. Remembrance Day is much grimmer than even the spin Keating puts on it.
    As everyone knows, the guns of the Great War fell silent at 11:00 on the 11th in 1918. What many people do not know is that the ceasefire was actually signed at 5:20 on the morning of the 11th. In what I think is perhaps an unprecedented act of cruelty, they decided to delay it for roughly six hours, to get that pretty 11/11/11 thing.
    Over the next six hours, roughly 10,000 people were pointlessly maimed, including about 2500 killed. Several artillery units took the opportunity to fire off extra ammunition, so they didn’t have to carry it home. Other units actually kept launching attacks, totally pointlessly. At that stage, the Germans were done in any case, and from the German perspective ground held would be given up in the peace agreement anyway.
    The last dude to be killed, American Henry Gunther, was killed while charging directly at astonished Germans in an act of bravado. The Germans shot him; from wiki, I don’t think they even really wanted to, but he shot at them first. Both sides were perfectly aware of the ceasefire. It was 10:59.
    As grim as it gets. Surely there has never in history been so many killed in the name of pure sentimentality.

  15. Yes Keating is and was clever, if occasionally so confident that the “often wrong but never in doubt” tag could be applied to him. If it wasn’t for the rhetoric and the front he had learned to deploy outrageiously in politics he might count as one of Australia’s great autodidacts. As for some others it was the statement that WW1 was a war “devoid of any virtue” which pulled me up. Standard rhetoric but needing analysis and expounding in detail starting with the virtues that might be found. As he uses the emphatic “devoid of” rather than, for example, just “without” he seems to be saying, with perhaps characteristic rhetorical excess, that you could search far and wide from top to bottom of the WW1 morass and you would find nothing virtuous, nothing therefore, it would seem to follow, to honour or to remember without plain and unqualified shame and disgust.

    How about the motivation of those who honoured Britain’s promise to defend Belgium’s neutrality. Stupid of them in retrospect. They should have found some clever lawyer to help them weasel out of it while pretending there was some honourable reason (cf. the pretence that the US withdrew from Vietnam with honour when it was a shameful case of the US Congress, not content with terminating US military action, pulling the rug from under their unfortunate Allies who were trying to go on fighting the invaders from the North). Some at least of those who honoured Britain’s commitments were moved by honour. And then there is the courage of the soldiers and sailors and humanity shown in that war completely unlike, e.g. the war on the Eastern Front in WW2.

    But I agree with John Quiggin that there are other wars in which one might find virtue of an exalted kind as in the fight to maintain the republic and, later, pragmatically, to enforce the abolition of slavery. At a lower lever there wasn’t a lot of virtue in Sherman’s march to the sea, and Union generals seem to have learned bad habits of mind which were taken out in unprecedented viciousness towards Native Americans.

    “There are no good wars….. all of them are bad” – presumably dating back to the dawn of history and beyond. Really?

    Would it only be a case of history being written by the victors if the average citizen or subject of the Roman Empire living in Britain circa 400 AD who had any knowledge of the history of the previous 500 years regarded the Roman invasions as a good thing in retrospect even if the suppression of the native Britons had been brutal? The first Iraq war perhaps could have been avoided if US policy and diplomacy in the Middle East wasn’t so shonky but can it be said that it was a bad war?

    When one gets on to allegations that the British Empire was created by imperial wars further distinctions are demanded. No doubt it suited everyone to call the Zulu War a war and likewise perhaps the conquest of the Sudan. More often it was just a matter of the very powerful exercising hegemony or local control through limited military action or the explicit or implicit threat of it (and bribes and opportunities to make money honestly too).

    The greed and consequent military actions of the East India Company entrepreneurs like Clive can seem now, with 250 years of hindsight to be arguably better in ultimate outcome than most alternative possible scenarios…… But then we should remind ourselves of the too little mentioned elephant in so many rooms, i.e. demography. We, of the First World, may look at the population explosion of the The Third World that the Industrial Revolution and modern medicine made possible as truly disastrous when looking back from 2100. At least then we will not be so ready to discuss the virtue in wars, or the lack of it, without recognising that WW1 was a response in part to the felt needs of First World nations (as we might now call them) whose populations were still growing at pre-Malthusian rates. (When Eurocrats sometimes fatuously argue for the necessity of the EU because it keeps the peace in Europe one should bear in mind that we live now in an entirely different world when Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, as well as Germany, have fertility rates way below what is needed even to maintain their existing populations.)

  16. @John Quiggin, I think this is sort of on topic because it is about wars, and governments, and alliances – and continuations from the carve up of the Ottoman Empire, but it is not specifically about World War 1, if that is the limit of the topic, if you think it is too off topic please move or delete it. I couldn’t find an open Sandpit to write it in.

    Looking into Australia’s involvement in the first Gulf War under the Labor government I found a security paper by Kim Beazley written in 2008 which takes the involvement back to a commitment made lightly but taken seriously by the US in the Iran-Iraq war earlier. I think this goes to Jim Rose’s point that wars (and alliances) are very hard to get out of, and also to know the consequences of.

    “Operation Sandglass: Old History, Contemporary Lessons”
    Kim Beazley

    “A paradox of Australia’s strategic history is that its alliance with the United States, convened in a Pacific context, has for the last twenty years seen direct military collaboration focussed on the Persian Gulf and its hinterland. That process began when I was Defence Minister from 1984 to 1990. It commenced with the little known Operation Sandglass during the so-called ‘Tanker War’ phase in the long struggle between Iran and Iraq.”

    “The alliance’s origins lie in Australia’s year of living fearfully in 1942, and the relationship underpinned Australia’s heaviest engagements in World War II….It developed a global dimension in the 1960s as joint facilities were constructed to enhance US strategic systems and electronic intelligence gathering.”

    “The struggles in the region that now interest us were foreshadowed in the closing years of the Cold War and it is the first and smallest of our commitments I want to deal with here. That was a decision by the Hawke Government to support an allied effort to protect shipping in the Gulf from attacks by belligerents—particularly Iran—in the Iran-Iraq war.”

    “Many nations contributed to the effort to counter them, but most did so defensively. The Americans went after the Iranians, concluding the threat in a spasm of violence over a few weeks in early 1988 in which half the Iranian navy was sunk.”

    “[involvement] was a sharp shock for critics of the White Paper from the right and left who thought approvingly or disapprovingly that the Government had emplaced geographic limits on Australia’s external involvement.
    Until a few years ago, I had largely forgotten all of this, until I was reminded of it at a discussion at the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue by Richard Armitage, then Deputy Secretary of State, but in the 1980s Assistant Secretary at the Department of Defense”

    “Armitage pointed out that as far as he was concerned, I was wrong. The United States had regarded our contribution to the Tanker War activity as an earnest of good faith that new Australian defence policies still contemplated an ability to respond positively to allies. I did then recollect a call from him sometime in October 1987 when he had opened:
    You remember that conversation we had last year when you said that even though your forces were structured to defend Australia, you would still work elsewhere if your ally needed you? … Well, this is the call.
    The conversation he was alluding to was a fierce argument before the White Paper was produced but after the publication of Paul Dibb’s Review of Australia’s Defence Capabilities.”

    “I had not understood at the time of his call how much of a test he considered it. In his mind it was evidently a little more than normal banter.”

    ” Australia’s main regional ally, New Zealand, fell out with the United States over nuclear ship visits, which required a substantial adjustment of activity to sustain that relationship on a bilateral basis. As Australia sought to provide an Australian-sourced intelligence flow to the New Zealanders, I found more than a few Americans were suspicious of us and what we were up to.”

    “Recognising this, I had drawn the Joint Facilities into the centre of ministerial discussions. The Australian Government was actively seeking to place more of their activities on the public record.”

    “If anything, till 1987, the tilt was the other way. The Australian Government found the Iraqi use of chemical weapons highly offensive. ”

    “the British were independently raising the issue with Australia. Their involvement was studiously, but not publicly, independent of the Americans. They were less prepared to directly engage the Iranians—more defensive in MCM and escorting activities. ”

    “As well as Australia’s direct interest in the Gulf, the United States was now sufficiently engaged to have a high level of expectation of allies. If a formal approach was made, a refusal could damage the relationship with both the United States and the United Kingdom.”

    ” There was a sense that a line had been crossed and shock that it had been drawn. Richard Armitage’s view, expressed later, that it had been a test appeared to be shared by a number on both sides of the argument. The logic of the White Paper was understood but that it might involve an ‘out of region’ deployment so soon was not anticipated.”

    “Despite the fact that the Tanker War occurred during the Cold War, it has a modern ring to it. Iran and Iraq continue to have the capacity to destabilise American regional policy. Access to the region’s principal export exercises a geostrategic pull on powers with various levels of dependency on it.”

    “It is the subsequent commitments that have caused some to call into question the basic assumption that underpinned this decision—that was helping an ally outside Australia’s area of direct strategic interests was appropriate but not a force structure determinant. In the last five years, without substantially thinking through changes in doctrine and structure, the Howard Government acted in a haphazard way on the assumption that this was not so. One massive purchase followed another, dictating the forward programme.”

    “In planning for Australia’s defence, the further out you look in time at developments in the Asia/Pacific region, the closer in you come as you plan Australia’s defences. Looking back twenty years, the fundamental lesson of Operation Sandglass is—that does not stop you helping allies and pursuing global interests, at least to your ally’s satisfaction.”

    at least to your ally’s satisfaction…

  17. @kevin1

    I suspect that, could we ask them, the several thousand dead victims of US drones might argue that “tribal differences” could not possibly have been possible between them and their killers (given they were on opposite sides of the planet and had never met).

    Pacifism is only unrealistic if you’re into killing people because they belong to a class determined by the killer.

    Self defence against an actual attack is, and has always been, the only justification for killing.

  18. @Lt. Fred
    Lt Fred, I think that you are imposing your expectations on technology onto 1918. Getting a message out to everyone was not a straightforward thing, and I suspect that both sides were keen that the message ought to have a chance to get out: otherwise the side with the better communication system would stop fighting before the other lot did – only to probably start again, despite any Armistice, in self-defence.
    As for the people who kept on fighting, remember Junger’s ‘Storm of Steel’. Not everyone hated the war: we need to remember this, rather than talking merely about the damage that it caused. This didn’t apply to many ANZACs because they weren’t in the line at the time, but Freyberg and his unit had a great time charging on horseback into a German-held village at 10.45 and shooting it up.

  19. @Nathan
    Gee thanks Nathan, a revelation (not). I gave Sudan/South Sudan as a well known illustration of how low level ethnic conflict continues, derived from pursuit of the outdated objective of homogeneous nation states.

    But since you’ve missed the point I’ll repeat it with more national examples eg. Fiji (Indians are outsiders), Timor (east-west conflict), Sri Lanka (Tamils should accept second class status), Malaysia (racism against non-bumiputra people), Sing and Japan (who resettle ZERO asylum seekers and refugeees). Are these “imagined communities”, as Benedict Anderson framed them, a progressive approach in the modern world?

    Cut to the chase: do you support these attempts at racial purity, cultural preservation, or however these attempts at racial dominance are presented? How do you frame Syria, Iran, Iraq where many people are fleeing?

    Will you pass on to Keating that the world is different since 1918, since he ignores this reality and says the domesitic future means “young Australians, like the young Europeans I mentioned earlier, can no longer be dragooned en masse into military enterprises of the former imperial variety on the whim of so-called statesmen. They are fortunately too wise to the world.”

  20. @John Quiggin
    Hi John. The killing fields of the 20th century were obviously high numbers and vicious but possibly no worse than other times in history. Genghis Khan possibly 40 million when the population was thought to be around 250 million for example. An Lushan revolt was thought to be 13 million deaths in the 8th century. The fall of Rome was possibly several millions.

    I am a believer since 1945 we live a safer life generally than at any time in recorded history.

  21. @Megan
    Yes you’re quite right, imperialism continues apace, but get some perspective: the majority of recent refugee movements is from Sri Lanka and Iran – this is driven by domestic factors.

    Much of the murderous enmities and refugee movement in the middle east and asia are driven by regional or national religious majoritarianism (Shia/Sunni/Amadiya/Christian/Buddhist) in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Indonesia, Thailand. not foreign intervention.

    On the muslim side there are extreme hostilities in some areas derived from differences in doctrinal interpretation and authority, based on family lineages. In the West, many of us would see these approaches and thinking as medieval and harsh. They certainly do not reflect the West, except arguably as a reaction against western mores.

  22. @kevin1

    I was going to reply simply: “You’re joking, right?”

    But upon careful re-reading I see you actually believe what you have said:

    unavoidable deaths may be the price to be paid

    How, precisely, is the daylight remote-controlled (from Nevada) murder of a 67 year old grandmother in a field picking okra – “unavoidable”?

    And, assuming you have an answer for that question, what has been worth purchasing at that “price”?

  23. @Chris Williams – Chris, everything you say can still be true without its being a “myth” that “incompetent generals” were a large problem, both for the Allies and for the Central Powers.

  24. @Megan
    I did say “Yes you’re quite right, imperialism continues apace, but get some perspective”.

    It seems agreeing with you causes offence. Do you reject the issues I raised in good faith? Are you carrying too much hate baggage? If I don’t get a credible answer, in future I’ll just ignore your snarky comments as personally based.

  25. @Lt. Fred
    This is not quite right; Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, then First Sea Lord and representing Britain at Compiegne, disobeyed Lloyd-George’s direct order to ensure that the armistice went into effect at 3pm so that the PM could announce it in the House. It would take several hours to get news of the armistice to the troops in the front lines, so some delay would be inevitable, but Wemyss said he saw no reason for the killing to continue and proposed 11am instead. He did advance the argument that 11am on the 11th of November would be very memorable, but I doubt he decided to disobey the PM for that reason alone.

  26. the pretence that the US withdrew from Vietnam with honour when it was a shameful case of the US Congress, not content with terminating US military action, pulling the rug from under their unfortunate Allies who were trying to go on fighting the invaders from the North

    I’ve decided not to answer this at length because this is not a thread about the Vietnam War, but for the record, this is (ahistorical) rubbish in almost every conceivable respect.

  27. @Chris Williams
    I’m planning a post on the fact that the war was generally popular, certainly at the start.

    I don’t see any claim that the generals were incompetent in Keating’s speech. He says, correctly, that, in the circumstances of the time, the only way to win a war was the way it was actually won, by bloody attrition.

  28. @Chris Williams – ” but in fact, those generals were not incompetent”

    Well, says you. Robin Prior & Trevor Wilson, for instance, have made a good case to the contrary.

    JQ: “the only way to win a war was the way it was actually won, by bloody attrition”

    Perhaps so, given the limitations of the battlefield at the time, but at the Somme for instance, the Brits lost 2 soldiers for every German casualty. That is not the way to win by attrition.

    It was a hideous war that shouldn’t have been fought, but there is no reason to give Haig & co. a pass, as too many historians seem inclined to do these days.

  29. @Alexei McDonald

    I really know nothing about this topic except for the family history that people have done and it seems my grandfather who spent almost all of WW1 in the trenches and right at the end, when he knew that the war was over, he refused to obey an order to continue fighting. He was court-marshalled and sent home in disgrace.

    So it would seem that some of the soldiers did know what was going on.

    The years of hell, and the court-marshal, probably did not contribute to his mental health and he was ‘useless’ – the family diagnosis – for the rest of his life.

  30. P.Z. Myers, at his Pharyngula blog:

    “Today is the day when nations around the world pause to celebrate their most colossal failures, the events that killed the greatest numbers of their citizens, that broke and crippled their men after they’d been intentionally trained to dehumanize other human beings. We love to take our young people, especially our young men and boys, and grind them up in bloody battles, and then once a year we remind ourselves of what we do, and we congratulate people for it. Dulce et decorum est pro fucking patria mori and all that [italics added].

  31. @Anderson

    The competent thing to do, in one sense, was to stay on the defensive at all times. But that would mean admitting that you couldn’t win, which would be politically fatal for a general or a government. So, the conditions of the war selected for the most bloody-minded of both.

  32. @John Quiggin – Agreed, particularly since the Germans were occupying a good chunk of France + all of Belgium. But even attrition can be done intelligently. I recommend Prior & Wilson (your compatriots, I believe) for a good look at how Haig practiced unintelligent attrition.

  33. @Julie Thomas

    My grandfather was a WW2 veteran, and was shell-shocked for a time, while he was successful in his career, i lived with him for a year when i was 18 and most nights he would yell out in his sleep, as if his dreams so often took him back to war.

    There was a moving article in the age the other day on the mental health effects of war on soldiers, from the perspective of a grandchild

    “Sometimes you can’t write the history that needs to be told. In 1986, the draft first edition of my book Anzac Memories reported that my grandfather, Hector Thomson, contracted malarial encephalitis while serving with the Light Horse in Palestine during the Great War, and that after the war he was ”in and out of mental hospital”.
    I only knew about Hector’s mental illness fourth-hand, from my mother. My father, David Thomson, never talked about it. He was appalled by my reference to the mental hospital and demanded I remove it from the book.”

    Read more:

  34. @John Quiggin
    If you take it that a war in which some combatants had a justification was not a war ‘devoid of any virtue’, then it follows that the First World War was not a war ‘devoid of any virtue’, since some of the combatants in that war did have a justification: at the very least the Belgians and the Serbians did.

    I endorse the view expressed by TH White, that there is at least one fairly good reason for fighting a war, and that is because the other side started it. I am aware that people disagree about who should be blamed for starting the First World War, but somebody must have started it, and whoever you blame for starting it, how can you blame the other side for fighting back? And why should the justification of defence be limited to self-defence? if you are justified in fighting back when you are attacked (as Belgium and Serbia were), is there no possible justification for my coming to your aid?

    If a war ‘devoid of any virtue’ means one in which nobody had justification for fighting then there’s no such thing, unless you decide, like an advocate of total pacifism, that defence is morally indistinguishable from attack.

  35. From my reading of European history, from Roman times on there has has almost always been one or more great powers seeking to create, expand or maintain an empire. There might have been a few lulls in the dark ages. In Roman times and later until the middle ages, Barbarian, Mongol and other hordes also at times constituted great powers.

    A kind of peace only settled over Europe at the end of WW2 with advent of the nuclear age. Only MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) has kept the great powers from direct conflict since then. Now, Russia, China, the US and a few others vying for great power status are carrying conflict and competition into other arenas. Proxy wars, cyber wars, resource wars and resource depletion will induce a “last one standing wins” style of attrition conflict. Couple with catastrophic climate change, resource depletion and species extinction, the almost certain outcome is a descent into barbarism and new dark age.

  36. I definitely do not want a re-run of the “origins” debate here but I can’t forbear from mentioning a recent (prowar revisionist) piece which, rather bizarrely, linked to a book blaming Serbia for the war. The idea was that, since Serbia wasn’t an empire, proof of Serbian guilt would refute the standard left line blaming imperialism. I will run a post on this, with open comments, when I’m in a more tolerant mood than on Armistice Day

  37. @Alexei McDonald

    All that proves (though I thank you for providing some extra context there, I really ought to have read up better before opening my mouth), but despite that, all that proves is that Lloyd George was even worse than the negotiators in the railway carriage.

    It remains the fact that ceasefires usually take effect at the soonest convenience, as the information reaches the front line. Communications were not so ineffective in 1918 that SIX HOURS needed to be set aside to tell artillery to stop shooting and order commanders not to advance. It’s insanity for an army to continue to fight a war it knows will end at a certain time, whatever they do. Insanity, or perhaps inertia.

  38. @kevin1

    Don’t be so precious. You’ve happily ‘snarked’ away at me whenever you’ve felt like it in the past.

    You made two main points with which I take issue. The first is (as I re-phrased it) is that the remote killing an unarmed old lady with a drone is an unfortunate price for something but is worth it. The second was that most conflicts you mentioned are “driven by domestic factors.”

    I argue that (in Sudan for example) most are directly caused by/funded by/orchestrated by US M.I.C. imperialism in one way or another.

  39. I think what I find so abhorrent about WW1 is that once it had reached a point of stalemate and the scale of the killing was obvious to all involved that there was so little appetite to find another solution. Both sides’ high commands were aware of the carnage yet, and this is often the case, ramped up the rhetoric and the recruitment. Defenses of the conduct of WW1 by people like Gerard Henderson continue to mine this rich vein of willful ignorance.
    On a side note, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is one of the most extraordinary films made about this war. It is an incredible technical achievement and yet is examines in microscopic detail the horror of the conflict and the murderous disregard the generals had for their own troops.

  40. Shorter Neil Hanrahan appears to be
    ‘All wars are virtuous no matter how crappily they are run and how shonky the premise for starting them if honour is a motivating factor’.

    As in ‘Some at least of those who honoured Britain’s commitments were moved by honour.’

    This term honour is often bandied about by warmongers who intend to set up an Us and Them binary, i.e. those who support the war are honourable, those who don’t are dishonourable. It’s a standard conservative tactic that has proven outstandingly successful … in creating death and mayhem on a biblical scale. Of course the honouring continues once the dead (or bits of them) have been swept into mass graves to be forgotten as individuals to all except those who actually knew them and to have cold stone monuments raised in their memory as though this is fair compensation for the price paid in defending our ‘honour’.

  41. Megan and Kevin, please stop the personal exchanges. If you want to comment on the general issues do so, but don’t respond further to each other.

  42. @kevin1
    First off, that was unnecessarily snarky on my part, sorry. However you’re second post is not coherent with the first. In the first post, you criticise Keating for stating that the world has changed, and point out that “tribal” issues remain a key driver of conflict. This misses the point, very clearly made in the speech, that Keatings statement is about Europe (and by extension Australia) and obviously not the world as a whole. In your second bite at the cherry, Keating is now apparently has the opposite problem and is unaware that things have changed. I now have almost no idea what you’re objection is.

  43. The alleged incompetence of the British general staff was not a retrospective intervention. A dispatch to PM Andrew Fisher from Gallipoli

    What I want to say to you now very seriously is that the continuous and ghastly bungling over the Dardanelles enterprise was to be expected from such a general staff as the British Army possesses … the conceit and self complacency of the red feather men are equalled only by their incapacity.

  44. @John Quiggin
    John, I think he does make the ‘incompetent general’ argument. Because it was frontal attacks, made in a highly complex way and using immense amounts of artillery, which won the war on the Western Front for the allies.

  45. @Nathan
    I interpreted Keating as working up to a more general conclusion: “Commemorating these events should make us even more wary of grand ambitions and grand alliances of the kind that fractured Europe” (emphasis added). Perhaps diplomatic niceties of the occasion require hints (US adventurism?).

    His comment that youth today are too wise to be dragooned into imperial enterprises (because they are global citizens? unprejudiced? worldly wise?) is a bit too hopeful IMO. Not novel to say that identity politics has largely replaced “official” politics, and open borders and financial means make foreign soldiering very accessible to passionate young men. They won’t be fighting for the EC, but for what the fragmentation they call “nationalism” leading to a growth in the number of nationstates (and pressures for more).

    I suspect nationalism is seen more widely now as a self-evidently virtuous objective which is consistent with anti-racism and internationalism rather than its polar opposite (as the “outdated” ideology of socialist internationalism persuaded many people.) This will fuel conflict for ends seen as high minded, and is where I’m claiming Keating is misreading the future. I don’t know if this clarifies my previous comments. (I’ll go and listen to the warrior on telly now and see if something else comes out).

  46. @Chris Williams

    Yet, a line of trenches was dug, from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps – a front which denied commanders the opportunity of that classic military manoeuvre – the turning flank and encirclement. This denied, the line was fortified by major cannon and howitzers, while the generals fell back on the only policy left to them – the policy of exhaustion.

    How does adopting “the only course open to them” constitute incompetence? And he explicitly points to the immense amounts of artillery with the correspondingly horrific casualties.

    I hope you aren’t claiming that the Allied offensives of 1918 succeeded because of the brilliance of the generals involved. As Rawlinson recognised at the time, they only worked because four years of attrition had killed so many on each side that the numerical inferiority of the Germans became critical “”Had the Boche [Germans] not shown marked signs of deterioration during the past month, I should never have contemplated attacking the Hindenburg line. Had it been defended by the Germans of two years ago, it would certainly have been impregnable…””

  47. @patrickb getting out of wars is hard because the peace must be more than just a time to rearm.

    german peace terms varied with whether it was in retreat or not.

  48. Of course the generals were incompetent. They could only be selected from the landed gentry. With a relatively small pool of talent like that, how could you hope to have good generals? Of course you might get one or two by luck, but only if you were lucky.

  49. it all read so well until the last line “and above all, loyalty to Australia”.

    Sad that nationalism has to be the parting message, when it was nationalism that caused the wars (or was it capitalism posing as nationalism?).

    But I suppose nothing less could be expected from a speech by a former prime minister at the war memorial.

  50. I think it is very sad that so much of the soldier’s poetry has been ignored and not taught to the current generation. There is some chilling poetry coming out of recent conflicts, and here’s a brief survey that I wrote some years ago.

    The words of the soldier poets utter confound the posturing of politicians.

  51. @Lt. Fred
    You over-estimate the speed of communication under battle conditions in the First World War. Sure, it took twenty minutes to get the news of the armistice to Paris and London, but the front-line soldiers, the ones who had to know when to stop firing if the armistice was to stand any chance of holding, well, they were more difficult to reach. This was especially true for the Germans who were still under very heavy bombardment at this time. So the party assembled at Compiegnes had to set a time for the armistice that would allow for the news to reach the vast majority of the front-line troops while still being as soon as humanly possible. In fact, even with those six hours, some units didn’t receive the news of the armistice until after the hour had passed–and away from the Western Front, it was sometimes long after.
    So, while you could probably make an argument, after after much critical study of the available data, that maybe five hours, or 4 and a half hours would have been enough to get the news out to a large enough part of the front to have a workable cease-fire, these ideas of twenty minutes or half an hour’s notice are pie in the sky; and the people in the train at Compiegnes knew that. Wemyss didn’t disobey that order from L-G just because he wanted to have a nice round figure in the history books–he disobeyed it because he wanted the killing to stop and he felt that six hours would be enough time to get it into place, having some idea of the realities of the situation.

  52. War, when it breaks out, is always a failure of human social organisation. There are always, in theory at least, alternatives to war that will better approach the legitimate needs of humans than violent conflict, typically fought over matters other than that which most people imagine lie at the heart of the problem, and which even when they are, turn out to be moot.

    In those circumstances where a war breaks out in which an adequately informed observer with the skills to allocate responsibility on a fair and ethical basis can persuasively argue that one of the parties is fighting “a just war” it follows that there is no good alternative for that party. That doesn’t make it something other than a tragedy, because inevitably, whoever winds up most worse off, all parties –the comparatively innocent and the comparatively guilty and many who really had almost nothing to do with the conflict– will suffer.

    Considerations of this kind ought to make people with authority reflect on whether or not there is an alternative to war, but it seems that this tends to be the exception rather than the rule — a sure sign that those who rule are delusional or depraved and/or the representatives of interests at odds with those of the mass of the populace.

    The Imperialist War of 1914-18 was indeed a conflict without adequate warrant on either side. No grand principles were at stake — and whatever issues there were certainly could not have warranted the carnage that followed, especially if one includes the rise of Stalinism, the N@zi/f@scist takeovers in Spain/Germany/Italy, the occupation of Manchuria, the Holocaust and the co-extensive conflagration between 1939-45 in the causal chain.

    The first duty of us all is to work collaboratively for respectful and inclusive social arrangements embracing all of humanity. It’s as simple as that.

  53. Broadly, violence is what people resort to when they disagree and there is no mechanism for arbitration. It’s not a sin, it’s a tactic. We now have (partly because of World war I) some sketchy forms of international arbitration. But we did not then. What we did have was deep and persistent disagreement over what were essentially zero-sum issues. Someone was going to lose, badly.

    The key issue for states and societies from about 1850 was how to accommodate the industrial working class in social structures that had been built for some millenia on landowning. This was not just an internal question – one answer was to avoid having such a class, but that meant less wealth and the risk of predation by the industrial powers (it was an avenue taken, in some degree, by places like the Ottoman Empire and China). Another possible response was to build industry but keep workers out of power by a mix of paternal policy, militarism, land-grabbing and emigration (policies followed, in varying mix, by Japan, Russia, the US, Germany and Italy). in other words, predation was part of the answer.

    So Europe pre 1914 was not a happy place – it was riven with irreconcilable tensions, strongest in Germany, Austria and Russia, but there everywhere. Contra Fran above, grand principles were at stake. That it exploded is not remarkable (it had done so before, at similar junctures). That it took a few decades to work through the issues is also not remarkable – most previous such issues had also taken decades to resolve (and involved proportionately great loss of life). It’s not the war that is remarkable, it’s the changes that came out of it.

  54. British PM David Lloyd George:

    I listened last night, at a dinner given to Philip Gibbs on his return from the front, to the most impressive and moving description from him of what the war really means, that I have heard. Even an audience of hardened politicians and journalists were strongly affected. If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds. The thing is horrible and beyond human nature to bear and I feel I can’t go on with this bloody business.
    In a private conversation, as quoted by C. P. Scott in his diary (27 December 1917)

  55. @Anderson

    Your earlier objection to the way attrition was pursued included a reference to the Somme. Indeed, but that was the low watermark was it not? And it was while the Germans still had much better artillery and were well dug in and on the defensive. By the time tanks were introduced and Monash (and the Canadians I think) were actually involved in planning battles the picture of relative British incompetence changed. From memory the Somme was necessary to shore up the French, not for the last time, who had had a pasting at Verdun.

  56. @Fran Barlow

    “The Imperialist War of 1914-18 was indeed a conflict without adequate warrant on either side.” Set aside your tendentious description of WW1 I still search for what you mean by implying that France and the UK should not have gone to war once Germany and Austria had started it. Since Belgium’s neutrality had been guaranteed by treaty and Germany invated, could the UK have honourably stood aside? When Austria invaded declared war on Serbia and Germany backed it and took pre-emptive measures against Russia what should the UK and France have done given that they had an Alliance with Russia (a defensive alliance)? Maybe I have missed some critical fact.

  57. @Peter T

    Points well taken but you omit the huge factor of demographics. Germany’s population was still increasing at rates inconceivable before the Industrial Revolution ended the pre-Malthusian age. Between 1870 and 1892 the German population rose from 40 million to 50 million and then added another 18 million by 30 June 1914. Every year at the outset of WW1 the annual increase was 850,000 while the French population had largely stagnated for well over a century and the British started limiting their families about 1870 or a little later. Consider, more than incidentally, the implications for the numbers of Germans available to fight in WW2!

    Interesting that Germany had become such a militaristic nation comparatively late in its history, as seems to have been true of Japan and, according to Freeman Dyson’s interesting review in the NYRB of a book by Malcolm Gladwell it took the most devastating acts of terrorism on civilian populations, namely bombing cities with little discrimination about what was aimed at, to turn those two nations into amongst the most pacific of all, pretty well overnight. And now Germany can only look forward to a shrinking population and the idea of war within old Europe is just a self-serving fantasy to keep Eurocrats in jobs.

  58. @patrickb

    Yours is not a proper representation of the point I was making which used the word “honour”. My use of it was to give a short answer to the idea that WW1 was “devoid of all virtue”. While we wouldn’t accept that “honour” as in (mostly Muslim) “honour killings” was evidence for any virtue the honouring of honourable promises (e.g. to defend the weak) and bravery under fire, especially when saving another’s life are, surely, good answers to the over the top rhetoric about WW1 being totally devoid of virtue.

    Still, it is interesting to consider now the importance of the old-fashioned, unsubtle honour-shame cultures (even in the West represented by systematic differences in attitudes between Northerners and Southerners in the US). Are the Israelis, for example, who know their Arab opponents so well, building settlements so that they Arabs will, eventually, be able to claim the virtually 100 per cent success in negotiation which is widely regarded as a necessity for those of the shame-honour culture. (The Chinese I am told by one, Chinese, who referred to “face” in connection with the Middle Eastern problem, tend to be a little more subtle and flexible).

  59. not the congress of vienna, no, but there is blame to lay for world war one at the annexation of alsace & lorraine to the german reich after the franco-prussian war of 1870; there could be no reconciliation to that in france and war sometime after it was inevitable, in my opinion. -a.v.

  60. dangerfield says preparations were well underway, during 1914, for the commemoration, in 1915, of the centennial of british non-involvement in wars in europe, i.e. the centennial of the battle of waterloo. we know nationalism conditioned the mass mentalities behind world war one, but it was a long time since napoleon introduced nationalism to parts of europe that had never heard of it before him. no one i know of blames the napoleonic wars. personally i blame the battle of gravelotte in the franco-prussian war: a chance to counter attack & bloody the army of the crown prince of bavaria was conspicuously missed. had the french struck such a low at that time in the campaign, the pressure for settled peace coming from britain, russia and the united states would have been enormous; there woould have been no annexations, no reparations, no revanche in the minds & hearts of french patriots for two generationsm no Schlieffen plan, a, b or c. in the inquiry after the war, the generals said they say the enemy expose his flank, but that they were under orders to retreat. that missed opportunity, says michael howard, shows the decline in french arms from the time of napoleon the great. to my mind it was a singular missed opportunity to secure a negotiated peace between the germans & the french and avert world war one. -a.v.

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