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. @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virtuous objective which is consistent with anti-racism and internationalism rather than its polar opposite (as the “outdated” ideology of socialist internationalism persuaded many people.)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).

  2. @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…””

  3. @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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. @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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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)

  11. @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.

  12. @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.

  13. @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.

  14. @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).

  15. 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.

  16. 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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