|CAMDEN DISTRICT ROLL OF HONOUR
|Remembrance Day Service 2012
Address by Major Michael Ayling
Today we come together to observe the 94th anniversary of the Armistice, when the guns fell silent, ending the Great War in 1918. Since that day in November, we have come to understand Remembrance Day as signifying more than the end of World War 1. Now that the Australian veterans of the Great War are no longer with us, we have begun to focus on remembering the sacrifices of Australians in all wars, much along the lines of ANZAC Day. This is not entirely inappropriate. However, today I would like to focus on how Remembrance Day is different from ANZAC Day.
Much of children's education and popular analysis about the war seems to be viewed through the lens of today's predominant worldview; to some extent this is unavoidable. But let us for a moment attempt to see the war through the eyes of the soldiers themselves…soldiers like my great grandfather who received a non-fatal gunshot wound to the head on 25 April 1915 at Gallipoli.
The motivation of soldiers who enlisted is often misrepresented by film directors and public commentators in such a way that is intensely condescending towards them and even, fortunately much less commonly, openly hostile to their memory. The images depicted range from that of naïve country lads who acted as if they confused the Army Recruitment office for an adventure travel agency, all the way to militant imperialists seeking to expand the influence of the British Empire of which Australia was indisputably a part, and many variants in between. Far more often than not the former is the case, as was depicted in the films Gallipoli and The Light Horsemen, represented as ignorant pawns tricked into the war by evil English generals who, if you believe the films, sent their own soldiers to drink tea on the other beach down the coast, neglecting to mention that over 17 000 British soldiers died in the Dardanelles campaign.
I have trouble accepting the common caricature of the naïve digger or tommy uncritically. Certainly, they would not have been in a position to anticipate the unprecedented scale and rate of casualties on the Western Front, due to machine guns and advanced artillery, but there were historical precedents for wars in which immense numbers had died. Over 311 000 British died in the Napoleonic wars a century earlier and more recently the American Civil War had cost over 620 000 military casualties. There was no questioning that, even though most at the outset believed it would be a brief campaign, every soldier knew he might be killed.
Of course, there were higher geopolitical factors in the lead up to war, as there always are, but today I want to focus on individual motivations of the soldiers and officers themselves, rather than the Kaiser, Prime Ministers and Arch-Dukes. In particular my focus is on those volunteer soldiers of nations whose territory was not invaded or threatened, rather than nations which had no choice such as France or Serbia.
So why did they fight? On memorials across the English speaking world we see the words "God, King and Country". I do not believe that this is merely a glib platitude.
From God and God's laws - especially the Ten Commandments and the exhortation to love our neighbours as ourselves, we as a society derive our morals (and more so last century), our sense of right from wrong, whether believer or atheist. Fighting for God did not mean any kind of Holy War or militant evangelism. For one thing, the Germans and Austro- Hungarians were Christian. In the case of the Ottomans, there is scant evidence that any soldiers from any allied nation believed there was any religious component whatsoever to the war. Quite the contrary: when General Allenby entered the gate to Jerusalem he dismounted and entered on foot, to show that he did not come as a conqueror.
To fight for God then, I think, was to give expression to values underpinned by their morality: to defend "The Freedom of Small Nations" (the expression that was used at the time) such as Belgium and Serbia (whose casualty rates were horrific), to look after our weaker neighbours.
An earlier precedent of fighting purely for a moral principle was the British Empire's campaign which largely rid the world of the scourge of slave trading. Despite having earlier been eager participants in the slave trade, along with the rest of the world, once the British came to the conclusion that slavery was morally wrong, they expended vast sums of treasure and blood as they used their naval supremacy to abolish the slave trade wherever they could, interdicting slave trading vessels across the globe, from Ottoman and Barbary vessels in the Mediterranean, as far afield as Brazil, to force an end to the trade.
Today, many would say that to launch a campaign, based on a moral idea of how others should live, is judgmental, interventionist, arrogant, and imperialistic - quite so. However, I'll leave it to you to decide the rightness or wrongness of that particular interventionism. The same charge is often levelled at those who would "force" freedom and democracy on apparently unwilling people - more like unwilling rulers. Clearly it depends on what the issue is. My point is that in 1914 there were few objections to fighting for noble ideals, reflecting higher aspirations than mere territorial custodianship.
I would argue that at the lowest ranks our feelings have not changed that much. While those in political power have their own strategic reasons for entering into conflict (open as well as secret), and although at the outset those goals are often shared by the soldiers, a combination of human nature and mission creep shape the subsequent motivations. In Afghanistan, the war started in order to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban and leave a self-sufficient nation. At a human level on the ground, I know from personal experience that many defence personnel feel a sense of motivation in knowing that their actions can emancipate oppressed fellow human beings; that their actions have allowed girls to go to school without risking their lives. While the politicians deploy soldiers to war for strategic reasons, soldiers also have their own reasons for going. I further believe that in the longer social historical context, the reasons that individual soldiers engaged in combat is every bit as important to society as the political reasons for the wars themselves.
Since 1688, the King had provided political stability, ensuring supremacy of popular will through the constitutional arrangement of King-in-Parliament. He was the personification of steady moderation, as well as a focus of pride in the common heritage of Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and other nations. As the commander-in-chief of all Imperial Forces, it was in his name that such forces were raised. The King was a unifying figure for the largest empire in history, reflected in the vast range of nations who served abroad. For example, over 74 000 Indians from the British Raj died, out of over a million who served in the Indian Army in Gallipoli and the Somme. Some 200 000 soldiers, black and white, most volunteers, fought in the King's African Rifles in the German territories of Namibia and German East Africa.
Today, the unifying ideal is of course neither Queen nor empire, nor is it limited to the Anglosphere. But among nations of what can be loosely described as "The International Community", usually meaning those nations committed to cooperation for stability and peace, or with a narrower focus "The West", it is my impression that the ideals of individual freedom, popular sovereignty, freedom of expression, conscience and enterprise are those which we take for granted as the minimum requirements for a nation to be considered optimally civilised. These days the shared ideals of nations which may not be in the western hemisphere at all, including Asia, may readily constitute a personal casus belli for the average soldier, let alone the world's governments. Indeed, as I supported in my hands the severed arm of my first fatal battle casualty in Kandahar, Cpl Robert Mitchell of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, I thought at the time, as I do now, "This man is my brother."
While the words I have used describing God, King and Country may belong to an era more at home in a Rudyard Kipling book than in current parlance, even somewhat jarring to modern sensibilities, I hope I have shed some light on how people might have thought about what they were doing, in the context of the time and place in which they lived.
Perhaps the words are gentler today, the language more inclusive, but I think the core values remain the same. That we people of the free nations of the world would have such compassion for people we don't know a half a world away, that we would risk our lives for causes and liberties we believe to be inherent to humanity, even when our own territory is not threatened, is quite rare in history, at least until the early 19th century.
Remembrance Day is when we observe the ideals and reasons that we, as civilised nations of the world, come together to defend human decency. And while there are many compromises, disappointments, backflips and even betrayals, it is still worth fighting for. This does not glorify the awful tragedy that is war; rather, it sanctifies their sacrifice.
Lest we forget.
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