World War One

Kiwis at the Somme

… the price for this success was some 8,000 casualties – roughly the number suffered by the New Zealanders during eight months  at Gallipoli. Historian, Damien Fenton

Success but at a cost

By Roger Childs

Gallipoli-2015As we move into 2015, the government, local authorities and the RSA are gearing up for the biggest and most expensive Anzac Day ever. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, but what‘s the big deal? It wasn’t the first time New Zealanders had fought overseas or alongside Australians. The Gallipoli campaign was a disastrous defeat with horrendous casualties on both sides and New Zealand played a very small part. Do the French commemorate Waterloo or the Germans Stalingrad?

New Zealand suffered far more casualties on the western front in northern France and Belgium. At least here the Kiwis were at times part of successful campaigns. One of these was at the Somme in 1916.

The following article is based on a talk given by Colonel Nick Gillard at the Linton Army Camp Engineers Museum in November 2014.

The New Zealand Division moves to France

Major General Russell

After the Gallipoli disaster, New Zealand forces went back to Egypt and then on to the Western Front in Northeast France. In March 1916 the New Zealand Division was formed under the command of Major General Andrew Hamilton Russell.

Russell was an ‘old school’ officer who had been born in Napier, but was educated at Harrow and did his military training at Sandhurst. He had spent 5 years in British India and then raised the Hawke’s Bay Mounted Rifles for the 1899-1902 South African War (Boer War).

He had fought in Gallipoli near Chunuk Bair and was in charge of the New Zealand withdrawal from the peninsula. Ironically, this was the most successful part of that ill-fated campaign. There were no casualties and Russell was promoted to major general.

What was he like?

  • taciturn, dour and ruthless
  • highly ambitious: determined to lead the best trained division on the Western Front
  • respected but not loved.

Preparing for action on the Somme

The 15,000 strong New Zealand Division travelled on a 56 hour train journey from Marseilles to Armentières in Flanders, and arrived in May. For the next two months there was deployment and training in Etaples at what was called the “nursery school”.

Heavy casualties were expected in the Somme offensive and there were 20 general hospitals in Etaples which could serve 20,000 wounded soldiers!

The New Zealanders waited their turn in Armentières which was a relatively quiet part of the front.

WW1 damageThe Battle of the Somme was to be fought in three set piece phases from July to November 1916. The cost would be horrific: 1,500,000 casualties on both sides.

The British Empire forces under General Haig were to attack at the point where British and French forces were linked on the Western Front: the Somme. The offensive against the Germans was designed to relieve the pressure on the French who were being attacked at the city of Verdun, in Lorraine, to the south.

Disastrous opening campaign

WW! deathsThere was 7 day artillery bombardment before the 1 July infantry attacks. However, this ineffective as the German hunkered deep down in their tranches while on the surface the shelling just tangled the barbed wire.

In ten days the 24 British and French Divisions suffered huge casualties for little gain. There were 60,000 killed or wounded on the first day.

There was now a stalemate while the allies prepared for further advances. The New Zealand Division would have its Western Front debut in the Battles of Flers and Courcelette during September and October1916.

The Division attacked from Longueval in support of British Divisions which advanced either side towards High Wood and Delville Wood.

There were three set piece engagements:

  • 15 September
  • 25 September
  • 1 October

The basic strategy was to fight, hold and consolidate.

Four British Mk 1 tanks supported the New Zealanders, but the slow moving armour – average speed 3.7 miles per hour – was of little use. Two were knocked out by German shells.

The New Zealanders quickly captured Crest Trench and then Switch Trench. There was plenty of hand to hand fighting with the Germans in the latter. A counter attack was expected, especially as on the Division’s left flank the British 47th division hadn’t come out of High Wood.

Nevertheless, the offensive continued and the 3rd Brigade pushed on past the Flers Trench. The British took the town of Flers and the Canadians captured the village of Courcelette.

Sergeant Donald Forester Brown VC

Sergeant Donald Brown

Moving on north-east of Flers, the New Zealand Division took part in the Battle of Transloy Ridges. Here they were involved in some of the fiercest fighting so far and casualties were high.

German machine gun fire was intense and the advance of the Otago Batallion was stalled. However, Sergeant Forester charged the machine-gun nest and single-handedly killed all five of its crew. Historian, Damien Fenton.

He was killed soon after, but for his bravery he won the first Victoria Cross given to a New Zealander on the Western Front. His action enabled the New Zealand soldiers to move forward and successfully complete their objectives.

Success comes at a cost

… the price for this success was some 8,000 casualties – roughly the number suffered… at Gallipoli. Damien Fenton

The New Zealand Division had done well in its first action in France. Major General Russell and his men received high praise from the Allied High Command.

They were withdrawn from the front on 4 October, having taking part in three set piece battles spread over 23 days.

The Division had

~ captured 10 miles of enemy trenches

~ advanced 2 miles

~ taken over 1000 prisoners.

The grave of the unknown New Zealand soldier

But the cost was high, equivalent to eight months casualties at Gallipoli. However in contrast with the Turkish campaign, the New Zealanders had advanced and consolidated, and the strategic objectives set had been achieved.
Many of the New Zealanders who were killed on the Somme are buried at a Memorial in Caterpillar Valley near Logueval. It was from here that in 2004 the body of an unknown soldier was exhumed and buried with full military honours at the Wellington War Memorial.


Share The Blame for World War I?

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies. Treaty of Versailles Article 321: The War Guilt Clause

Let’s be beastly to the Germans

 By Roger Childs

WW1 damageHistorians cannot agree on who was to blame for starting the war. The “winners” – Britain, France, Italy, the USA and their allies and empires – blamed the defeated Germany (and its allies). The war guilt clause in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles reflected this. Consequently Germany was made to pay heavily in the Treaty especially to compensate the country that suffered the most damage: France. (See the photo above.)  British Prime Minister David Lloyd George expressed the view that we must have from Germany the uttermost farthing, and shall search their pockets for it. Emotions were running high at the time and there was a strong desire for revenge, especially amongst the French.

How did the major powers line up at the start of the war?

In 1914 Europe was split into what are sometimes referred to as two armed camps:

  • The Central Powers: Germany and Austria-Hungary (later joined by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire)
  • The Triple Entente: France, Russia and Britain

(Italy was also officially allied to the Central Powers in the Triple Alliance, but was not regarded as a reliable partner. In fact in 1915 she joined the war on the side of the Triple Entente.)

Europe at peaceHowever in June 1914 there was no inevitability of war occurring. All the powers had ambassadors in every other capital and the political leaders generally got on well with one another.

There had been some rivalries over colonies, spheres of influence and strengthening military capacity, and all were well prepared for war if it did occur. However in June there was no desire for, or likelihood of, conflict breaking out. Daily life across Europe went on as normal.

In the previous 10 years the major powers had met together in what is sometimes called the Concert of Europe, to successfully deal with crises in

  • Morocco
  • The Balkans.

Share the blame?

So when war did occur and the guns of August boomed out, it was not just because of the actions of one country. The reality was that all the European powers needed to take the blame, to a greater or lesser extent, for starting the catastrophic world war that would last more than four years.

  • Austria-Hungary fired the first shots.
  • Russia was the first to start mobilising.
  • Germany threatened its neighbours.
  • France supported the mobilisation of its ally Russia.
  • Britain was obsessed with protecting Belgium.

And nobody made any serious diplomatic initiatives to stop the unfolding crisis.

Let’s look at each of powers in turn and analyze their role in the outbreak of war.

Germany: potential enemies on either side

Kaiser Wilhelm II
Kaiser Wilhelm II

The German Empire held a central position in Europe and until the 1890s this was a position of strength. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had worked hard to keep France isolated and had formed alliances with Austria-Hungary and Italy and also had a friendship agreement with Russia.

However after coming to power as the emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II (pictured alongside), dismissed Bismarck and did not renew the agreement with Russia. France seized the opportunity to form an alliance with the Russians and Germany now faced potential enemies on its western and eastern frontiers.

As mentioned above, Italy was not a reliable friend of Germany, so the latter’s one dependable ally, was Austria-Hungary. When the assassination of Franz Ferdinand occurred in late June 1914, Germany gave its Dual Alliance ally a blank cheque to take what action it wished against Serbia. (See    )

The confident Germans march off to  war in early August 1914
The confident Germans march off to war in early August 1914

The Kaiser did urge Austria-Hungary to act with caution, however the German Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, and the Austrian Chief of General Staff Conrad von Hotzendorff, were determined to teach Serbia a lesson.

When Russia unexpectedly mobilised in support of Serbia, backed by France, the Germans realised that they were about to face a war on two fronts. The Kaiser warned the Russian Czar Nicholas II of the dangers of mobilising to no avail. So the Germans mobilised too (see picture above), so as not to give their enemies an advantage.

Austria-Hungary: turning a Balkan dispute into a European war

Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans. Bismarck’s prediction on how a European war would start

The Balkans in 1914Some weeks after the assassination of its heir to the throne, Austria-Hungary sent Serbia a harsh ultimatum. Serbia accepted most of it and the Kaiser felt that war could be avoided.

However foolishly the Austrians declared war on Serbia on July 28 and next day shelled its capital Belgrade. Austria-Hungary was confident that its ally Germany would stand by them.

These were the first shots in anger, triggered the Russian mobilisation and started an inexorable succession of ultimatums, mobilisations and war declarations across Europe.

Russia: mobilising in defence of Serbia

Serbia was a Slav nation like Russia. The latter was seen by small Balkan nations as The Protector of the Slavs who would assist them in time of need. Back in 1908 Austria-Hungary had annexed the Balkan territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina – a Slav territory once controlled by Turkey. Neighbouring Serbia wanted this area itself to make a larger Slav nation: Yugoslavia.

Russia at the time was recovering from an unexpected defeat in the 1904-05 war with Japan and was not strong enough to militarily support the Serbs. However in 1914 they had recovered and vowed not to let their Slav ally down again.

Once Austria-Hungary declared war and shelled their capital, the Serbian government asked for help from the Protector. Russian Foreign Minister Sasanov told the Austrian ambassador in St Petersburg You want war and have burnt your bridges behind you.

Russia started mobilising its forces from across its huge land area, but there was no plan to just move against Austria-Hungary. The latter’s ally, Germany, was in the firing line too.

France: supporting its one military ally

The confident French march off to war
The confident French march off to war

The French had a military alliance with the Russians which obliged them to provide support if their ally was attacked. So they supported the Russian mobilisation. If France also mobilised Germany was faced with a war on two fronts.

So the Germans on 31 July sent an ultimatum requiring France to

~ to declare its neutrality in a war between Germany and Russia
 ~ hand over key border fortresses to Germany.

If the French had agreed, there might not have been a European-wide war. However accepting the ultimatum would mean losing the support of its ally and weakening its own defences. France understandably refused the terms of the ultimatum and started mobilisation. (See the picture above.)

Britain: standing up for little Belgium

Belgium objects to being treated as a transit zone
Belgium objects to being treated as a transit zone

So on 1 August war between Germany and France was now a reality. What would Britain do? It was not committed to provide military aid to France, but had undertaken to provide some naval support in the event of war.

However it was Belgium that was the catalyst for Britain coming in to the war. The British were  concerned that the ports across the English Channel in Belgium and Northern France, might fall into enemy hands.

To carry out its Schlieffen Plan against France, Germany needed to roll its forces through Belgium. But a 1839 treaty obliged all the major powers to respect Belgium’s neutrality. This didn’t stop the Germans and on August 4 Britain sent an ultimatum demanding that the Germans withdraw from Belgium. It didn’t happen.

Could Britain have done more to initiate a diplomatic solution to stop the war spreading? This would have required all the powers to come to the party. Tragically nationalistic pride and an obsession with their security, led to a process of threats and demands which brought the major powers into conflict.

On 28 July all the great European powers were at peace. A week later they were at war.

A long fuse is allowed to burn

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo

A month earlier an assassination had occurred in Sarajevo, a place which most people in Europe would not have been able to locate on a map. Surely this was a local dispute in the far away Balkans, which Austria-Hungary and Serbia could sort out.

At a higher level, the great powers should have been able to prevent a Balkan incident from turning into a world war. They all failed to use diplomatic means to stop the spread of conflict.

So the long fuse lit by the action of Bosnian Serb, Gavril Princip (see the sketch alongside), was not stamped out and the consequences were disastrous.

A missed turn, a stalled car and an amateurish assassin brought about four of history’s most dismal years and changed the world forever. Historian Colin Campbell


 Road To World War One: The July Crisis

 Finally a situation arises when a Great Power can no longer just look on but must draw the sword. German Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Austrian Chief of General Staff, July 6 1914

Remembering a revolution and a war

By Roger Childs

Paris fireworksJuly 14 is Bastille Day and it celebrates the storming of the notorious Paris prison during the French Revolution of 1789. It is France’s National Day and this year, on the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War One, there have been special ceremonies as well as dramatic fireworks around the Eiffel Tower.

It was in July 1914 that the great powers of Europe were faced with the possibility of fireworks of a different kind. Could they prevent a minor crisis in the Balkans leading to major war?

Serbia is implicated in the assassination

The killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia-Herzegovina in June 1914 was seen in Vienna as a challenge to Austria-Hungary’s right to rule the area. (See: )

Neighbouring Serbia, as a supporter of Pan-Slavism – uniting Slavs in the region – was clearly involved.

Balkans map~ Assassin Gavrilo Princip was a Bosnian-Serb.

~ The assassination team had been trained and armed in Serbia by the Black Hand.

~ Serbian border officials had turned a blind to the armed group crossing into Bosnia.

~ The Serbian government knew that the Black Hand was plotting something, but its vague warning to the Austro-Hungarian government was not recognised as being serious.

There had also been tensions with Serbia in recent years, and many in Austria were convinced that it was now time to deal with Serbia once and for all.

Austria-Hungary checks things out with its ally Germany

Franz JosefFranz Ferdinand was the nephew of Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria-Hungary (pictured alongside), and heir to his throne. Franz Josef was normally opposed to war, but realised that the assassination was a threat to his empire.

He wrote to his ally, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II.

The crime against my nephew is the first consequence of the agitation carried on by Russian and Serbian Pan-Slavists whose sole aim is to weaken the Triple Alliance and shatter my empire.

The Emperor referred to the Triple Alliance which included Italy, as well as Austria-Hungary and Germany.

He also emphasized the influence of Russia:

  • the biggest Slav nation
  • the most populous Great Power
  • a staunch supporter of Serbia.

Russia was part of an allied group called the Triple Entente which included the other two European Great Powers: France and Britain.

All six nations in the alliances had been involved in an arms build up since the late 1890s, to ensure they were ready for war, should it occur.

KaiserAustria-Hungary would not take action against Serbia, without the support of Germany, which was probably the strongest military power of the six. Discussions in Berlin during July 5 and 6 between the two powers, resulted in the Kaiser (pictured alongside), giving Austria-Hungary what has become known as the blank cheque.

Basically the Germans would support any action their ally decided to take against the Serbs.

The Kaiser said: I am with you there (with Austria-Hungary against Serbia) The others (other great powers) are not prepared. They will do nothing against it. Within a few days you must be in Belgrade (capital of Serbia.) I was always a partisan of peace, but this has its limits… Finally a situation arises when a Great Power can no longer just look on but must draw the sword.

Nothing to worry about?

Balkan War For over two weeks Austria-Hungary did nothing. The Sarajevo assassinations had been big news in late June and there was general sympathy throughout Europe for the victims. However as time passed it was felt that this was just another act of violence in Southeast Europe – The Balkans – where assassinations and conflict were common.

Things would get sorted, if necessary by the great powers getting together. In the previous 10 years there had been a number of crises and small wars, however none had lead to a major conflict.

Despite being in different alliances, the major powers had sorted out

  • two crises in Morocco: 1905 and 1911
  • a crisis in Bosnia: 1908
  • the First Balkan War: 1912-13

The Second Balkan War of 1913 only lasted two months and the participants brokered a settlement amongst themselves.

Surely in the aftermath of the Franz Ferdinand assassination, good sense would prevail and a settlement between Austria-Hungary and Serbia would be worked through?

Danger time: Austria-Hungary acts against Serbia

July was summer time in Europe and in the middle of the month many of the politicians went on holiday. Then seemingly out of the blue, more than three weeks after the death of Franz Ferdinand, Austria Hungary presented Serbia with an ultimatum.

Basically Vienna demanded that the Serbian government accept all 10 clauses otherwise the country would be invaded.

Serbia was prepared to accept eight of the clauses, which required them to end anti-Austrian groups and propaganda, and arrest anybody who had supported or been involved in planning the assassination.

What it wouldn’t agree to was

Clause 5: Accept the presence of Austrian authorities in Serbia to see that anti-Austrian activities ceased

Clause 6: Open an inquiry into the assassination and allow Austria-Hungary to take part in it.

The government knew that if they agreed to these two clauses, they would be giving up their independence as a country.

British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, described the ultimatum as the most formidable document that was ever addressed from one State to another.

Late July: the road to war?

Serbia accepted everything except allowing Austro-Hungarian officials to operate inside its borders. The German Kaiser was delighted, commenting on July 27

A brilliant achievement… It is more than one could have expected! A great moral victory for Vienna; but with it all reason for war is gone…

Austrian ArmyHe wanted his ally to accept the Serbian answer in principle and negotiate on the other points. However his government officials did not pass on this message immediately.

On July 28 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Then the following day Austria-Hungary shelled the Serbian capital Belgrade.

However there was no invasion at this point as the Austro-Hungarian army would not be fully mobilised until August 12. Surely wise heads and diplomacy could prevent a war breaking out?


(To be continued. The next article will cover the failure of diplomacy)

Road to  World War One: Outbreak

Given the will of all powers concerned to find a peaceful solution on July 1914, this might have been possible at any time until July 29. Historian Imanuel Geiss

 A failure of monumental proportions

By Roger Childs

WW1 damageIn late July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and shelled its capital Belgrade. Were these the crucial events that set in train the outbreak of a European and ultimately World War? Tragically the answer is “Yes”. The six great powers of Europe were split into two rival alliances and if war was to occur, getting your military forces mobilised rapidly was crucial.

The first mobilisation order came from Russia, as that country’s government was determined to support its fellow Slavs in Serbia. This fateful decision set in motion a chain reaction which led to the greatest disaster of the twentieth century.

(For background to the late July – early August developments see and  )

A tragic sequence of decisions

Mobilisation is a declaration of war. French General Rauol de Boisdettre

Austria-Hungary and its ally Germany thought that dealing with Serbia in the aftermath of the Franz Ferdinand assassination would not involve other nations. They were wrong. Once Austria-Hungary fired salvos on the Serb capital events quickly spiralled out of control.

Within a week, five great powers, along with their empires, were at war.

French march~ July 29: Austria-Hungary shells Belgrade / Russia partially mobilises

~ July 31: Russia and Austria-Hungary fully mobilise / German sends an ultimatum to Russia to demobilise

~ August 1: Germany sends an ultimatum to France to declare its neutrality in the event of a war between Germany and Russia / France rejects the German ultimatum / France and Germany mobilise / Germany declares war on Russia

~ August 2: Germany sends an ultimatum to Belgium to allow transit of German troops / Britain guarantees naval support to France

~ August 3: Germany declares war on France

~ August 4: Britain declares war on Germany / Germany invades Belgium

~ August 5: New Zealand and other dominions and colonies join Britain

Mobilisation and war plans

Schlieffen PlanOnce the mobilisation button was pushed, the whole vast machinery for calling up, equipping and transporting two million men (in the case of Germany), began turning automatically. Historian Barbara Tuchman

Mobilising Germany’s forces and its supplies required over 240,000 railway carriages grouped in more than 11,000 trains! It was similar situation in other countries. Once the process was started, it was virtually impossible to stop.

All the major powers had war plans, but Germany’s were the most complex. Their Schlieffen Plan was based on the correct assumption that they would be fighting France on their western frontier and Russia in the east. So it was vital for Germany to mobilise as rapidly as possible.


Why did things get out of control so quickly?

Balkans 1914In the past, the great powers had often met together to bring a crisis to an end and maintain peace in Europe. However the Austrians and Germans thought they could sort out the problems with Serbia themselves. One thing they didn’t anticipate was the rapid action of Russia to support the Serbs.

All the main powers – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary – had huge military resources and also a nationalistic determination to maintain their place in Europe and the world. There had been plenty of tension between them in the period from 1890 and there were a number of crises, three in the Balkans (see the map above),  from 1908 to 1913, which might have sparked a general war.

By 1914 there were hawks and doves in every country and making decisions involved

  • heads of state
  • government ministers
  • diplomats in foreign capitals
  • military leaders.

In an age when communication and travel was very slow by today’s standards, delays and misunderstandings often resulted. There were also rivalries, secret agendas and power plays within nations. Then once Austria – Hungary started threatening Serbia, the powers of Europe became obsessed with maintaining their status and influence, and acting in their own best interests.

There were also obligations between allies: Germany and Austria-Hungary, Britain and France (the entente cordiale), France and Russia.

Stepping back was not an option, so from late July ultimatums and mobilisations became the order of the day. The power brokers were calling the shots and there was no heed given to cautionary sentiments such as appeared in Britain’s Punch magazine in early August:

Why should I follow your fighting line

For a matter that’s no concern of mine?

I shall be asked to a general scrap

All over the European map,

Dragged into somebody else’s war

For that’s what a double entente is for.


Germans marchSo a hundred years ago, in early August 1914, Europe marched off to war in a burst of patriotic fervour: the bands played, the crowds cheered and the troop trains rolled.

All the powers deluded themselves it would all be over by Christmas; but which Christmas?




An Armistice that failed

John Murray : The “If Onlys” Of WW1
2014 November 14
This week New Zealand has joined with other nations to commemorate the ending of the First, devastating, World War. All sorts of myths and misconceptions cloud our history of the event – so here is the viewpoint of John Murray, social activist, writer and former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand.

1918 and all that

“If only …… ” these are the saddest words ever to describe our human history.
If only – at this time – would we even be commemorating the Armistice of November 11th, the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month?
If only the Crowned heads of Europe and their governments had not followed their insane greed for glory and empire…

If only Archduke Ferdinand had not been shot because Austria-Hungary denied rightful freedom and independence to Slavic people within its empire…
If only Winston Churchill had turned from his bullish patriotic blunder that caused the bloodbath of Gallipoli …
If only Douglas Haig had not blindly commanded his troops to their
defeat and bloody massacre on the muddy banks of the Somme …….
If only Tsar Nicholas had heard the cry of his people and not driven them
to senseless revolution and into the evil empire of Stalin, ending in the horror of the gulags ….
If only Georges Clemenceau had not humiliated France’s old enemy Germany, to the point of destitution and called it the Peace Treaty of Versailles ….
If only the death, disease, despair and economic ruin had not inevitably followed the wartime slaughter of the people and the destruction of the land ….
If only the warring madness of Hitler had not infected the humiliation and lost pride of his German people and drove them to their second defeat, and in the process, to the destruction of the Jews and others who were vulnerable ….
If only we the Allies had not dropped The Bomb to obliterate those tens of thousands of Japanese we then called enemies, and now call our friends ….
If only the makers of munitions had not stolen great power and wealth and opened a market for bigger and more destructive bombs and other weapons to keep us fighting each other …
If only the greed and pride of the new Empires of West and East and their ambitious leaders had not continued to provoke war and slaughter …
If only the British and French after World War One, and the Bushes and the Putins of our present age had left the Middle East to work out their own cultural and religious dissensions ….
If only we New Zealanders, our political leaders and our RSA too, had realized that we have been duped, for a century, into fighting other people’s wars, and that Gallipoli has nothing to do with the birth of our national character, nor with us as second-class Australians ….
If only the Great War – through the hoped for wisdom and compassion of all our World Leaders –
including our own Prime Minister and Government – is remembered for what we know is true.
It was to be “the war to end all wars,” but ‘the peace treaty” of Versailles failed.
Will we ever learn?


War Poets tell It How It Was

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

Wilfred Owen Dulce et Decorum Est

Reflections of the horrors of World War One

By Roger Childs

Harry RickettsLast Friday the Friends of the Library Literary Festival opened with world authority, Harry Ricketts, giving an enthralling talk on the war poets. Being the hundredth anniversary of the start of the 1914-18 war, the festival was based around its literature. The Victoria University English Professor is a biographer of Rudyard Kipling and the author of Strange Meetings: The Lives of the Poets of the Great War.

Expectation and reality

SassoonHarry touched on a range of war poets and their work, from the well known, like Rupert Brooke, to the obscure New Zealander, Donald H Lea.

The talk was illustrated with a power-point presentation and focused on the wartime experiences of the poets and extracts from a number of their poems. Harry started with Siegfried Sassoon’s “They”. This set the tone, as it brilliantly highlighted the huge gap between home expectation of the impact of war and the front line reality.

The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
‘They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
‘In a just cause: they lead the last attack
‘On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
‘New right to breed an honourable race,
‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’

‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
‘ And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’

KiplingThe title of the poem was taken from a 1905 story by Rudyard Kipling, who before the war was one of the great imperial writers and poets. However Kipling became very disillusioned by the Great War, especially when his only son John was killed on the first day of the Battle of Loos in 1915. His embittered reaction was well summed up in two lines:

If any question how we died

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Reflecting the horror

Harry Ricketts used Wilfred Owen’s famous Dulce et Decorum Est as an illustration of the grim, horrific realities of war, which the poets expressed in verse.

Wilfred OwenThis highly graphic and emotional poem tells of the results of a gas attack when one soldier can’t get his mask on. (See the three lines at the top.) Owen’s message is summed up in the last few lines, that if the reality of the war was known back home:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.

 (It is sweet and right to die for one’s country”)

New Zealand’s own on wanting it to end

Harry’s final example of Great War poetry, was New Zealander Donald Lea’s view of the common soldier’s desire to get back to normal life.

When this blasted war is over,

Oh how happy I shall be!

When I get my civvy clothes on,

No more soldiering for me.

No more church parades on Sunday,

No more asking for a pass,

I shall tell the sergeant-major

To stick his passes up his arse!

A lively question and answer exchange followed the presentation and one member of the gathering wondered why poetry was so important in World War One, but not so in World War Two.

Harry’s view is that in the early twentieth century there was strong music hall influence with its emphasis on verse and much of the war itself was a very static fought across fronts that didn’t shift much.  Soldiers often carried poetry with them and  the expectation for more writing  was there. By comparison, the Second World War was much more mobile affair.

Read the book!

Strange meetingsThis fascinating book gives a realistic and very human account of the lives and works of these brave poets. Tom Paulin, Financial Times

The informative and entertaining presentation left the captivated audience wanting more. It was an excellent taster for getting into the detail of Harry Ricketts’ recent publication which covers fifteen real and imagined meetings between war poets.

(There will be a full review of Strange Meetings: The Lives of the Poets of the Great War later in the month. The book has gained international acclaim and is available at Paper Plus.)


Gallipoli: a disastrous and wasteful military fiasco

By  Roger Childs

Chunuk BairThere was no forging of a national identity at Gallipoli – just a tragic waste of lives!

New Zealand provided only about 2% of the troops who fought in the eight-month campaign, so our country played a very small role. Tragically there were about 8000 needless New Zealand casualties in the ill-fated and unnecessary venture.

So now another Anzac Day has come and gone. This year there was extra publicity because it’s the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

But why do we give Gallipoli such importance? It is like the French celebrating the Battle of Waterloo or the Germans regarding the Battle of Stalingrad as an important event in their history.

On the day we’ve had the traditional dawn parades and other gatherings around the war memorials of the nation: the veterans have marched, the wreaths have been laid, the speeches have been delivered and the Last Post has been played. We have also had the reminders: Lest we forget and We will remember them. Next year there will be every greater emphasis on remembering 25th April, as it is 100th anniversary of Gallipoli campaign.

The 1915 Gallipoli campaign was a humiliating defeat for the British and French Empires, which left 450,000 dead or wounded. New Zealand’s casualties were 7991. It was a mismanaged affair from start to finish. Not quite finish, as ironically the withdrawal from the peninsula without a single death was the most successful part of this disastrous venture.

Establishing a national identity?

Boer WarGallipoli helped foster a developing sense of national identity. Those at home were proud of how their men had performed on the world stage, establishing a reputation for fighting hard in difficult conditions. New Zealand History Online

Much is made of this commonly held belief that the Gallipoli Campaign was crucial in forging a national identity. However, this was not the first time New Zealand soldiers had fought overseas in the cause of the British Empire.

In the South Africa War, known as the Boer War at the time, the government sent 6500 soldiers, as well as some doctors, nurses and teachers, to support the English colonies against the Afrikaner republics in southern Africa. This war was eventually won by the imperial forces.

In 1914 the first New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) was destined for France, but stopped in Egypt as the soldiers were diverted to join Welsh, Australian, Indian, French, Scottish, English and Irish troops in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.

There is no doubt that the New Zealand troops fought bravely on the peninsula, as did the other nationalities including the Turks, Kurds and Arabs. Leaders like Freyberg and Malone are justifiably regarded as Kiwi heroes.

However the pride in how New Zealand men had performed on the world stage came more from the action of our troops on the western front, where the vast majority fought in World War One. Gallipoli gave the New Zealanders, and other allied soldiers, little chance to show their skills and bravery because of the lack of leadership and management from most of the high command and officers.

A campaign to take Turkey out of the war

Gallipoli mapThis campaign was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, who is better known as the heroic British prime minister in World War Two. In 1915 he was First Lord of the Admiralty and had the idea of taking Turkey, an ally of the European enemies Germany and Austria-Hungary, out of the war.

This would be done by using his beloved navy, the most powerful on Earth, with the assistance of the French, to sail through the narrow channel known as the Dardanelles, east of the Gallipoli Peninsula, into the Sea of Mamara and beyond, to capture the Turkish capital of Istanbul (Constantinople).

However this attempt failed, because guns from the Turkish forts at The Narrows and mines in the water sank a number of British and French ships. So it was decided that troops would be needed to land on the western side of the peninsula and capture the forts.

The disastrous campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula

Y Beach the Scottish Borderer cried

While panting up the steep hillside

Y Beach!

To call this beach is stiff

It’s nothing but a bloody cliff.

Y Beach?

Jack Churchill, Winston’s brother

The ingredients of the disaster are well known and one of the best books on the campaign is still Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli published in 1963.

It all went wrong from the start.The master plan was to land troops at six beaches along the southern and western coasts of the Gallipoli peninsula and capture the Turkish forts overlooking the Dardanelles. But

  • the maps used by the high command were 60 years old
  • the Australian and New Zealand troops were landed 1000m further north than they should have been, on Z Beach which was about 20m wide, and suffered heavy casualties
  • at V Beach the British soldiers disembarked from a ship, the River Clyde, that had been run onto the shore.  There were massacred and hundreds never even made it to the beach. The attempt to land forces was stymied. A pilot flying overhead said that for 50 yards the calm sea was absolutely red with blood
  • at S Beach the Welsh landed successfully but could not link up with the English because they had failed to disembark at V Beach
  • at W Beach English troops, mainly from Lancashire, secured a beachhead, but suffered 35% casualties
  • at X Beach the English landed virtually unopposed and pushed inland. They came to the empty village of Krithia but left it and headed back to the coast. If they had seized the town then, the campaign would probably have been won.
  • at Y Beach the Scots also landed in the wrong place and were faced with rocks and a cliff. (See the poem above.)

Anzac CoveMeanwhile the Turks were reacting intelligently to the various landings and quickly plugged gaps in their defences. They were advised by the brilliant German Lieutenant General, Liman von Sanders, and led by a man who would found their modern republic, Mustafa Kemal Bey.

So the outcome was basically decided in April, when the allied attacks were mismanaged and not followed up. Tragically many units that did land had lost their officers in the slaughter in the sea and on the beaches. Very little land was gained because of the rugged landscape and the murderous Turkish gun fire

Later in the year the overall commander at Gallipoli, General Sir Ian Hamilton, observed that the beautiful battalions of April are wasted skeletons.

Late in the campaign, the British successfully landed 16,000 in the flat area further north at Suvla Bay, but they failed to push inland until it was too late.

Finally, in January 1916, the evacuation was carried out with the organisational skill that was sorely lacking during the campaign and leaving behind self-firing rifles the troops were withdrawn without casualties.

Kiwis at Gallipoli: part of a humiliating defeat

Chunuk BairSo the first New Zealand action in World War One was to be a part of a British military disaster at Gallipoli. How bravely the Kiwis fought is hard to assess and they were probably no less courageous than the other ten nationalities involved.

However the New Zealanders did succeed in briefly capturing the high point of the peninsula – Chunuk Bair. (See the illustration alongside.) Led by the capable Lieutenant Colonel William Malone, they ascended the steep cliffs by night, instead of repeating the disastrous day time assaults which had led to massive casualties, such as in three failed assaults by the Australians at Lone Pine.

Malone and his men were tragically killed by friendly fire from the royal navy who mistook them for the enemy and from counter attacks by the Turks.

There was no forging of a national identity at Gallipoli – just a tragic waste of lives. Kiwi soldiers had gone to Turkey to beat the stuffing out of Johnny Turk only to leave like thieves in the night.

Like all the other allied soldiers who were killed or wounded, they were badly let down by the men in high places, safe in London or on their ships off the coast.

Myth making about Gallipoli

The first casualty when war comes is truth. American Senator Hiram Johnson 1917

And so it was with Gallipoli. Morale on the home front is very important in wartime and in New Zealand the Massey Government decided in 1916 to set April 25 aside to remember the fallen.

It would not be a good look to say that our boys had been needlessly slaughtered in a military fiasco, so the emphasis was on bravery, showing the world what we were made of and remembering the sacrifice Kiwi soldiers had made.

The reshaping of history has continued through to the present and the myth of helping to forge a national identity at Gallipoli is endlessly repeated

  • in media reports
  • in Anzac Day speeches
  • in some history books and websites
  • in school projects and essays
  • at Anzac Cove ceremonies where so many Kiwi make the pilgrimage.

It is all very solemn and almost religious, but it’s not true.

Forging a national identity is an evolving process and for New Zealand this had begun before World War One with

  • the enlightened social and economic legislation of the 1890’s Liberal government
  • being the first country to  give women the vote, in 1893
  • our contribution to the war in South Africa
  • the triumphant All Black tour of the British Isles in 1905-06
  • the South Pacific posturing of Premier Dick Seddon
  • the gaining of Dominion status in 1907 when New Zealand ceased to be a colony.

New Zealand further showed its distinctiveness and independence in its social reforms in the late 1930s, the stance taken over the United Nations in 1945, progressively dropping the Statute of Westminster, the anti-nuclear stand, opposing apartheid, not fighting in Iraq and so on.


Remembering the casualties of war

White poppyselling poppies April 25th is Anzac Day and will remain so. However, it is important to acknowledge that April 25 1915 was the day New Zealanders soldiers started fighting in a disastrous campaign that would end in defeat. It was not a time when a distinctive Kiwi identity was forged

At Gallipoli, New Zealand provided about one fiftieth of the troops who fought in the eight month campaign, so our country played a very small role. Tragically there were about 8000 needless New Zealand casualties in this ill-fated venture.

It is right and proper that we should have a day to remember New Zealanders who served overseas in South Africa, two world wars, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, East Timor and Afghanistan, and especially those who died in their country’s service.

But we should also remember all the casualties of those wars, whatever their nationalities, including the majority who were innocent civilians. Above all, we should be emphasising living without war and give peace a chance. Lest we forget.



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