Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 33 • 16 Nov 2014


Douglas Newton


Talk to Crows Nest Uniting Church, Nov 2014
On the theme of Remembrance

Thank you, Chris, for the invitation to speak today.

At the outset I should say that I don’t presume to tell
anyone in this Church how they should remember the war
– or how their special acts of Remembrance should work
when they bring to mind those who have served, suffered,
or lost lives in war. I am sure everyone in the church has a
relative who served or suffered in some way in the war of
1914-18. And many of you will have relations or friends
who served, if not in the Great War, in more recent
conflicts – and no special historical knowledge that I might
bring to the subject can displace the personal feelings and
judgements you will make about the loss of a relative or
the meaning of that loss.

I also have members of my family who served in the Great
War, and a father who served in the Second World War. All
that I have to say is watermarked with a respect for those
who served. From high and generous instincts, with a
sense of social obligation few of us can emulate, men and
women everywhere exposed themselves to terrible
dangers to serve militarily for causes which, to the best of
their knowledge, they judged to be right – on every side.
Naturally I pay tribute to those high and generous
instincts.

So today I want to offer some reflections arising from the
two books I have recently had published, some reflections
on remembrance, respect and sacrifice.

Remembrance: The cost of war

This year marks the centenary of the devastating Great
War. This was constantly before me this northern summer
when I visited the UK. Some of the Remembrance
ceremonies and displays were unforgettable. For
example, the display entitled “Blood Swept Lands and
Seas of Red” at the Tower of London scars the mind. The
normally grass-filled moat that surrounds the Tower of
London was being filled with ceramic red poppies, each
the size of a fist, each on its own stem – some 888,000
poppies – to symbolise British military deaths. A heart-
numbing sight. Some of you may have seen this on TV
during the week. The total is an estimate among many. If
we include civilian deaths across the British Empire, it is
closer to a million.

But the wider picture is all the more heart-freezing.
Imagine the moat if filled with poppies to mark
all the dead
of 1914-18. Most sources agree on at least 9 million dead
from the ranks of all the military forces, about one in eight
of all those who fought in uniform.
[Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett,
1914-1918: The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century (London, 1996),
362.]
Niall Ferguson estimates 5.4 million on the Entente
side, and over 4 million on the side of the Central Powers.
[Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (London, 1999), 294-5, including Table 32. For
comparison, see also ‘Appendix II: Total War Casualties’, in Michael Howard,
The
First World War
(Oxford, 2003), 146.] Another respected source
calculates over 11 million dead in uniform, plus almost 6
million civilians, giving a total of more than 17.8 million.
[Ruth Leger Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures 1987/88 (Washington,
1987), 29-31, quoted in John Mueller, ‘Changing Attitudes towards War: The Impact
of the First World War’,
British Journal of Political Science, 21, 1 (1991), 1-28.]
And this includes the three quarters of a million Germans
who starved to death during the economic blockade of
Germany - which was prolonged after the armistice.
[C. Paul
Vincent,
The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919
(Athens, Ohio, 1985), 170.]
If the total of 17.8 million dead is
accepted, the average daily death toll through the Great
War may be calculated at about 11,500 persons per day.
To put this into a contemporary perspective, this
daily
figure is more than
four times the death toll of 2,750 at
the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001. Or, it is
almost
forty times the death toll of almost 300 in the
MH17 disaster. Every single day of the war.

And the reach of the war was stunning: it is estimated that
one in twenty of the entire population of Africa died in the
fighting, the forced labour, and the famines that resulted.
[David Olusoga, The World’s War (London, 2014), 146.] One might recall
the fate of the Fifth Battalion of the South African Native
Labour Contingent. In January 1917, around 800 black
South Africans departed Cape Town on the troopship
SS
Mendi
bound for supply work on the Western Front. Just
before dawn on 21 February 1917, on the last leg of the
journey, the ship was rammed by another British ship in
thick fog off the Isle of Wight and sank in twenty minutes.
More than 600 drowned or froze to death. For the
bereaved relatives, mostly poor people from a small
number of rural districts in the Eastern Cape, 21 February
became ‘Mendi Day’, a day of annual commemoration of
this tragedy.
[Norman Clothier, Black Valour: The South African Native Labour
Contingent, 1916-1918, and the Sinking of the Mendi
(Pietermaritzberg, 1987).]

Recent research on Australian losses has upgraded our
totals: from a country of less than 5 million, 308,000
served in war abroad, and 62,000 were killed. (This
includes 550 who died by their own hand in 1919 and
1920). There were 208,000 hospitalisations due to
wounding, 30% of these due to shell shock. Of the
survivors, the 270,000 who returned home, more than half
were discharged as medically unfit. Of the 62,000, it is
estimated 23,000 were missing.
[David Noonan, ‘Why our WWI
casualty number are wrong’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 April, 2014. (http://
www.smh.com.au/national/ww1/why-our-wwi-casualty-number-are-
wrong-20140430-zr0v5.html) See David Noonan,
Those We Forget: Recounting
Australian Casualties of the First World War
(Melbourne, 2014).] ‘Known unto
God’ masks the reality: this was a war of industrialized
killing, mechanized slaughter, a kill chain more cruel than
any charnel house, where men were reduced to abattoir
refuse, or little bundles of bone-filled rags fluttering in the sun.

When we stand in front of the Thiepval Monument we
learn that it lists on panels there the names of 72,000
missing soldiers. At the New Menin Gate there are 54,000
names of the missing, including 6,191 Australians. As
Siegfried Sassoon asked of the names at the New Menin
Gate, “Who can absolve the foulness of their fate?”
Anyone with an imagination must ask themselves –“What
happened here? Something so terrible that 54,000 men
could not be identified afterwards?” What an indictment
hangs over our civilisation – an indictment that cannot be
removed by simply pointing the finger at those who may
be blamed for starting this. Who prolonged this? That
question is equally relevant.

Now I am lingering upon the cost in corpses for one
simple reason: in the shadow of this enormity, we must
ask ourselves, what should be the tone of our
Remembrance? Epic and heroic – or elegiac and tragic?
What big truth do we tell wide-eyed children at
Remembrance ceremonies? That the departure of 38
ships from Albany carrying the AIF was “one of the most
stirring sights in the whole history of the war.”? That
military endeavour is the way to the stars? “FALL AN
ANZAC – RISE A LEGEND” as some Anzac merchandise
proclaims?

My two books.

Now a touch of history. The two books I have just
published attempt to explain the question that must loom
large for us all: ‘How on earth did we and the world get
into this mess?” One book is a study of the British choice
for war during the last days of peace in 1914 –
The
Darkest Days
– and the other interleaves the Australian
and the British story –
Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the
Great War.
[Douglas Newton, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s
Rush to War, 1914
(London: Verso, 2014) and Douglas Newton, Hell-bent: Australia’s
Leap into the Great War
(Melbourne: Scribe, 2014).]

I immersed myself in the private papers of the war-
makers, and the war resisters, across the last ten days of
peace in 1914. Here is a quick summary of the
conclusions of both books. The British book:
First, the war
was eminently avoidable – if Europe’s political leaders had
found the political will to resolve the international dispute
at the Permanent Court at The Hague.
Second, during the
crisis Britain’s decision-makers frogmarched events. They
did very little to restrain Russia or France. Britain took
provocative actions herself in her naval preparations.
Third, Britain’s choice for war was a very close-run thing.
The British Liberal Cabinet was deeply divided over
intervention in Europe – best estimate is eleven neutralists
versus eight interventionists. The interventionist minority in
Asquith’s Cabinet ‘jockeyed’ the neutralist majority, so the
majority complained, and there was deep recrimination.
Four, cheerleaders for war were active in London.
Influential men, in government and the press, linked with
the French and Russian embassies, barracked loudly for
Britain’s instant intervention – for the sake of Russia and
France, irrespective of Belgium.
Five, democracy was
sidestepped. Asquith and Grey deliberately blindsided the
Cabinet and parliament, and attempted to quash all
parliamentary debate on Britain’s decision-making.
Six,
Britain’s choice for war was made on Sunday 2 August,
when Cabinet authorised the Foreign Secretary Edward
Grey to pledge naval assistance to France – before the
Belgian disaster of Tuesday 4 August. This pledge almost
wrecked the Cabinet. So appalled were neutralist
ministers at their own government’s haste that four
resigned. Nowhere else did this happen in Europe.

What emerges if we interleave the Australian story and
British events?
First, encouraged by Britain, Australia
prepared for expeditionary warfare – beyond a war of
mere defence – before 1914.
Second, during the July-
August crisis, Australia ‘jumped the gun’ – pre-empting
Britain’s decisions. Most importantly, a rump of Prime
Minister Joseph Cook’s Cabinet sent a cable offering an
expeditionary force of 20,000 men to London on Monday 3
August –
before Britain asked for it. Third, Australia’s
‘jumping the gun’ had a political impact in Britain. Pro-war
politicians and the press lauded all the Dominions’ offers.
This increased pressure on the Liberals for instant war.
Fourth, Australia’s decisions were made in the din of
politics. The international crisis coincided with a federal
election campaign. A love-of-Empire auction began. Both
sides promised unstinting aid to Britain. But Liberal
politicians began to smear Labor as lukewarm on Empire
and defence. In response, Labor leader Fisher repeatedly
promised unlimited assistance to Britain – last man, last
shilling. This inspired the Liberal leader Cook to offer
20,000 men.

The conclusions are dispiriting. 1914 was hardly a ‘stand-
tall’ moment – for anyone.

Respect for the dead and those who served

Our ceremonies of Remembrance have at their centre
respect for the dead and those who served our country. In
my view it should be an all-encompassing respect – a
deep respect. Let me explain.

There can be a superficial form of this respect that
masquerades as deep respect – but is in reality a mere
flag-waving, nationalist, side-drum parody of patriotism. In
this superficial form of respect, our history must always be
presented as a ‘see-how-great-we-are’ story – indeed a
‘greatest-pluckiest little-country-in-the-whole-wide-world’
story. In this vein, the war is a chest-swelling moment, a
‘baptism of fire’, when we entered on the world stage,
showed the world how we can fight, when we did ‘the
heavy lifting’, and ‘punched above our weight’ – and all the
cascade of clichés.

If this spirit catches fire, respect for the soldiers will be
cheapened by an assault on the adulthood of our
understanding of the war. We will simply cater for that
strange schizoid Australian conviction; that war is a very
bad thing, but the fact that we are good at it is a very good
thing. We will miss the opportunity to really learn about
war.

Respect for the dead (and for all who served and are
serving) is not meant to be a great red-white-and-blue flag
(or green-and-gold flag) to throw over everything difficult in
the story. A genuinely deep respect for the dead, and all-
encompassing respect for those who serve – for those
heroes in the pantheon – should include a willingness to
undertake the most searching enquiry into the heart of
conflict: its causes, the processes by which we enter war,
the objects and aims for which wars are fought, the
diplomatic deals that underpin them, the reasons wars are
prolonged. Respect for the dead cannot mean suspending
our critical faculties and confining our story-telling to
deeds of special valour. Respect for the soldiers cannot
mean keeping our heads down in the trenches. The idea
that to keep faith with the dead we must never challenge
the wars that killed them is bizarre. That would be a
murderous loyalty to the dead indeed.

The National Commission on the Commemoration of the
Anzac Centenary put it best:

The most bitter disappointment for the original Anzacs
was that their war was not, in fact, the ‘war to end all
wars’.
The best way we can honour their memory is
to focus our thoughts on how we might reduce the
risk that future Australians will have to endure what
they have endured
. [The National Commission on the
Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary,
How Australia May Commemorate
Anzac
(Canberra, 2011), 29.]

Sacrifice – and self-sacrifice

One more difficult word – sacrifice. So many were so
young. Looking at all British forces, it was the slice of
soldiers in the age range 15 to 19 who endured the
highest percentage of soldiers killed outright – 16.2 per
cent were killed in their ranks, near one in five. Looking at
the great total of all killed in British forces, it was the age
group 20 to 24 years old that made up the greatest slice of
the heap of dead, that is, the highest percentage of the
total of all deaths sustained by the British forces, 38.6 per
cent.
[J. M. Winter, ‘Britain’s “Lost Generation” of the First World War’,
Population Studies, 31, 3 (1977), Table 5, 451, and Winter, ‘Some Aspects of the
Demographic Consequences of the First World War in Britain’,
Population Studies,
30, 3 (1976), Table 9, 551.]
The youngest men, mostly voteless
and without property were clearly over-represented among
the killed.

For this reason we must also think deeply about invoking
‘sacrifice’ too quickly in our Remembrance ceremonies.
There is great confusion between sacrifice and self-
sacrifice. The word ‘sacrifice’ is deployed in praise of the
war dead when the speaker clearly intends it to mean
‘self-sacrifice’. But when worshippers at the cult of the
fallen use the word ‘sacrifice’ implying ‘self-sacrifice’, this
implication often masks a dark truth: the decision of
governments and people to sacrifice the young –
especially when conscription prevails. But even when
young men do choose to enlist, whether or not they are
freely choosing to risk their own self-sacrifice is
debateable. When we consider the poisoning of young
minds, the inculcation of nationalist and imperialist and
militarist values, can we be confident that there is really a
free choice on the part of the young to risk or pay ‘the
ultimate sacrifice’ – or is it the passing generation that
chooses to sacrifice them? Sometimes the self-sacrifice is
not genuinely free at all – or only as free as the choice
made by the young John Kipling, son of Rudyard Kipling,
a boy with poor eyesight, who was harried into war by his
father at 17, and shaped by all the dogma of empire
peddled by his father, from cradle to unknown grave. “My
boy Jack” - killed on his first day of battle, aged 18 and a
few weeks. Self-sacrifice?

Christianity and war

I scarcely need to tell you the troubles that Christians have
had through the ages, reconciling their Christianity with
war. We preserve our right to self-defence. But can we
reconcile that right and our faith with the Great War – with
what President Wilson once called “that vast gruesome
contest of systematized destruction”? But many did
reconcile it. Church leaders on all sides declared their
nation’s war just and presided at ceremonies for the cult of
the fallen. In 1914 there were countless sermons on
Psalm 144 that begins: “Blessed be the Lord my strength,
which teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight.”
There were even sermons suggesting that the incident of
Simon of Cyrene carrying Christ’s cross was a “proof text”
in favour of conscription. When it was over, there were the
monuments adorned with biblical verses: and one of the
most amazing is that to the Machine Gun Corps on Hyde
Park Corner in London, which carries the quotation: “Saul
has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands”,
from the first book of Samuel – dementedly suggesting
that God endorses machine guns.

The great danger, then and now, was to confuse religious
notions of vicarious atonement and blood sacrifice with the
maddening nationalist hysteria that grips nations that get
warm blood on their faces. For then national leaders invite
the young into what Shakespeare’s Henry V called the
“royal fellowship of death”, singing hymns of praise to their
sacrifice when they die, heroes all – an “extreme of
heroism” that, as the soldier Frederic Manning reminds us,
“alike in friend and foe, is indistinguishable from despair”.
[Frederick Manning, Her Privates We (London: Pan, 1967), 21.]

And yet, throughout every war, there are also brave souls
who have insisted that the command to “love your
enemies, do good to those who hate you” cannot simply
be put in a drawer until the blood-letting is over – and that
Christians should be on the side of those seeking
negotiation, reconciliation, and international structures that
build human solidarity to prevent war. There have always
been those who insist that the foundation of faith, so
clearly laid out even in the book of Genesis – that all are
made “in the image of God” – means that Christianity is on
the side of all who believe in the universality of the
brotherhood of man, in lifting our horizons beyond the
individual, the family, the tribe, and even beyond the
nation. The scriptural passage I have always liked is from
the Jewish texts – where God angrily admonishes the
angels who sing his praise over the drowning of the
Egyptians in the Red Sea. “How can you rejoice? How can
you sing when my children are perishing?”

Each of our Remembrances is deeply personal – each to
their own. I acknowledge that. Feelings can range from
pride, and honour, to respect, loss, consolation, and
lamentation. But for me the spirit that grips me on
Remembrance Day is overwhelmingly a spirit of regret,
infinite regret.

Douglas Newton, 16 November 2014