Anzacs: Lions led by donkeys

October 24, 2013
Official events of the ANZAC centenary will not place much emphasis on understanding the carnage of WWI.

With political advantage from a national celebration of the centenary of World War I in mind, the Julia Gillard government last year allocated an initial $83.5 million towards the “Anzac Centenary”.

Through a local grants program, up to $125,000 is available for each federal MP to fund suitable projects in their electorates. But unfortunately for Labor, the project is now headed by Tony Abbott, who has appointed himself head of the Centenary. Stand by for a broadside of jingoism and a celebration of empire.

Unlike World War II, a conflict that arose from the march of fascism, the origins of WWI are more difficult to explain. Why did the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie by nineteen-year-old Gavril Princip in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 lead to war?

Austria-Hungary suspected that the Serbian government was involved in the murders, but there was no proof of this at the time. No proof has been found since. Yet on July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Two days later, Tsarist Russia began its general mobilisation to assert its self-proclaimed status as “patron and protector” of Serbia and the Slav states.

The Austria-Hungary declaration was far from a real war. As the British historian AJP Taylor has pointed out, it was a diplomatic move, albeit a particularly violent one.

Russia’s decision to mobilise was an answer to this bellicose diplomacy — a diplomatic threat that lacked serious intent. It did not want a war, much less plan for it.

Austria-Hungary had taken a belligerent approach to Serbia only after receiving the approval of imperial Germany, as well as its promise of support. Germany, in turn, had a ready-made plan for dealing with armed conflict in Europe that rested on a quick defeat of France before turning its attention eastwards.

Germany gave Russia 12 hours to demobilise on July 31. When they refused, Germany declared war on Russia the following day. Two days later Germany declared war on France and put into action the other part of the Schlieffin plan — to encircle the French armies by passage through Belgium.

This brought the British empire into the war. The Australian prime minister, Joseph Cook, knew what was necessary in this time of need: “Our duty is quite clear — to gird up our loins and remember that we are Britons.”

The Labor opposition leader, Andrew Fisher, had earlier said that Australians would defend Britain “to our last man and our last shilling".

And so it began, “the unexpected climax to the railway age.” The war on the Western Front, which stretched from the Swiss border to the North Sea, would be a long and bloody affair fought mostly across trenches. On the Eastern Front it eventually led to the Russian revolution.

German General Erich Freidrich Ludendorff called the British soldiers “lions led by donkeys.” As Taylor reminds us, this description was not confined to the British, or to soldiers.

He argued “all the peoples were in the same boat. The war was beyond the capacity of generals and statesmen alike. Clemenceau (French prime minister) said: 'war is too serious a matter to be left to generals.' Experience also shows that it was too serious a matter to be left to statesmen.”

One example of how the war was beyond the capacity of generals occurred in 1915. On March 10 that year, General Sir John French, Commander of the British Expeditionary Forces in France, staged an attack on German defensive positions at Neuve Chapelle, chiefly to mollify the French, who were concerned that a “sideshow” in the Dardanelles (at a place called Gallipoli) was diverting troops from France.

The Germans were taken by surprise, principally because the British, being short of shells, couldn’t proceed with the usual bombardment. For the first and only time in the war, British infantry broke the German line.

Perhaps they were more surprised than the Germans: their reluctance to advance until reinforcements arrived gave German troops time to plug the gap. With exemplary timing, the British then attacked. They withdrew three days later, their only achievement being unnecessary loss of life.

Not being one to accept defeat easily, the redoubtable Sir John complained with ferocious audacity that it was shortage of shells that led to his failure. Not to be upbraided without riposte, the Asquith government in turn laid the blame at the feet of lazy and overpaid workers in the munitions factories who, it was said, spent their time in alehouses rather than manufacturing munitions. The obvious solution, which was duly implemented, was to restrict the opening hours of pubs and impose an afternoon closing time.

At the end of 1915 Sir John French was recalled. Asquith lost the prime ministership the following year and his parliamentary seat in 1918, but afternoon closing of English pubs remained in place until near the end of the 20th century.

That bizarre Australian institution, the closing of pubs at six o‘clock, also came from an incident in WWI. In 1916, soldiers at the training camps in Casula and Liverpool in western Sydney went on strike over an extra one-and-a-half hours daily training and walked out of camp. They broke into hotels in the city and in the drunken revelry that followed military pickets shot seven soldiers, killing one of them.

The federal government banned alcohol in military camps and several states imposed six o’clock closing. The early closing of pubs was supposed to be a temporary measure, but it lasted until 1955 in NSW and 1967 in South Australia.

Centenary celebrations are unlikely to inform us of facts like these.

Or that cocaine was administered to combatants in France during WWI, including to Australian troops, who were also given cocaine at Gallipoli. The extent to which it was used will probably remain unknown. What is known, though, is that by 1919 some returned soldiers were demanding cocaine from chemists without a prescription, contrary to the regulations then in place concerning the sale of the drug. And more importantly for them, no doubt, they were being given it.

Its use among soldiers in Sydney had been evident some years earlier. Cocaine use by allied troops, predominantly Canadians, in London in 1916 was largely responsible for its stricter control by regulation in Britain that year.

It’s also unlikely that there will be much emphasis on an understanding of the carnage of WWI that comes from war poems such as Wilfred Owens' Anthem For Doomed Youth: “What passing bells for these who die as cattle? … Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes/ Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.”

Abbott will no doubt use the Anzac Centenary to project deference to empire that was contested at the time.

It’s important that the left reflect on its opposition to the war. Conscription, the blood price of empire, failed twice in referenda. This is our history. We should proclaim it as we did 100 years ago and not leave it to the heirs of Billy Hughes whose xenophobic behaviour at Versailles set us on the long road to Changi.

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