Friday, April 25, 2014

Blogging Anzac Day

Over the years Anzac Day has been an occasional subject of this blog. The day fills me with contradictory feelings - awe at the scale of the slaughter on northern hemisphere battlefields like Gallipoli and the Somme, sympathy for the families who cling to their sorrow as a substitute for the loved one they lost, optimism at the sight of thousands of New Zealanders showing an interest in history, that often-scorned subject, by standing in the pre-dawn darkness, and exasperation at the distortions of history by populist politicians who fill their orations with windy abstract nouns like valour and patriotism, so that they sail safely above the blood and shit of the battlefield. I'm not surprised to find, then, that the posts I've made through the years seem to communicate conflicting emotions, and proceed from apparently contradictory points of view.

Emmerson, the benighted cartoonist for the New Zealand Herald, has marked this year's Anzac Day with a portrait of a soldier marching across the no man's land of World War One, above the caption 'Whatungarongaro te tangata tioto te whenua' ('People fade away, but the land remains'). That phrase was often used by Princess Te Puea, who led a Waikato campaign of resistance against conscription during World War One. Te Puea didn't understand why her people should have to fight under the flag of the empire that had confiscated several million acres of their land. I blogged about Te Puea's campaign of passive resistance back in 2008. I guess Emmerson wasn't reading...

In this post from 2009, I argued that the growing numbers of young Kiwis attending Anzac Day ceremonies were a sign that events like Gallipoli had passed from living memory, and had acquired a mythic character that makes them irresistable to a generation that has been raised in an era apparently devoid of truly significant events. Keri Hulme took issue with me in the comments box.

In a follow-up post, I suggested that Anzac Day ought to be made over, so that it becomes a commemoration of wars that have been fought on the soil of these islands, as well as elsewhere. This argument didn't impress everyone: the Marxist scholar John Edmundson felt that if New Zealand's nineteenth century history were made into a part of official Anzac Day discourse then it would be 'recuperated', and drained of its radical significance.

The one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Waikato War fell last July, and the last nine months have seen large-scale and sometimes dramatic commemorations of several of the most important battles of that war. This year's Anzac ceremonies, though, remain focused on the distant battlefields of Turkey and Western Europe.

Some defenders of the northern hemisphere focus of Anzac Day talk of the necessity of remembering the places where Australian and New Zealand troops were thrown together in battle. In this post, though, I argued that the very first Anzacs fought and died in the Waikato War, not in Gallipoli, and wondered why thousands of Kiwis visit Turkey to remember events in 1915 when they could drive along Auckland's Great South Road to the monument that honours the Aussies and New Zealanders who died in 1863 and 1864.

As well as being one of New Zealand's greatest intellectuals, Kendrick Smithyman was a rather unenthusiastic member of New Zealand's air force during World War Two. In a 2010 post I discussed a short and innocuous poem that Smithyman wrote about an Anzac Day service in the little Bay of Plenty town of Opotiki in the 1980s, and argued that this text concealed, in typical Smithyman fashion, a series of profound insights into history. My discussion of 'Anzac Day' ended up in Private Bestiary, an annotated selection of Smithyman poems published by Titus Books in November 2010.

As the storeman for a section of the air force stationed in Norfolk Island during the last years of World War Two, Smithyman suffered no war wound except a severe case of hemorrhoids. Keith Douglas, by contrast, saw some of the most spectacular fighting of the Second World War, and was sometimes so moved by it that he parked his tank, leapt from its turret, and ran about the North African desert lobbing grenades at the enemy.

Douglas survived the campaign against Rommel, but died shortly after the D Day landings, at the age of twenty-four. He is nowadays recognised as the greatest English poet of the Second World War, and I consider him one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. In this 2011 post I argued that, because of his machismo, Douglas gives us a far better insight into the reality of war than almost any pacifist writer. I'm not sure how such a claim is consistent with my celebration of pen-pushing Private Smithyman's insights into World War Two.
I spent last year's Anzac Day in Tonga, where the date is marked by a small ceremony in central Nuku'alofa dominated by military and diplomatic representatives from Australasia. Tonga sent only a few soldiers abroad during World Wars One and Two, but during the second conflict it suffered an occupation by nearly twenty thousand Allied troops, many of whom came from the southern states of America, and brought with them new and sinister ideas about race. During a field trip to the outer island of 'Eua last year, some of my students from the 'Atenisi Institute investigated the various accounts of a conflict between the occupiers and locals that ended with the death of a New Zealand soldier. There is an extended discussion of the sad fate of AE 'Shorty' Yealands underneath Ian Stebhens' photograph of the man's grave.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...




6:13 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:48 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I'm glad of your stance Scott. I started to hear the crap about the ANZACS again on the news and I switched it off. I hate it all. It is all a veiled way of glorifying war. The Maori fellow in that video said it: that they are not mourning but trying to understand and remember history (and history has manifest contradictions which is why someone such as Smithyman is eminently qualified to write "about" it. In those poems he had very little desire to go anywhere near the ANZAC ceremonies and bullshit. We SHOULD be looking at our own history.

The trouble is, it seems focused now on Turkey ( I suspect that many NZrs will have no idea not only that that battle was of a relatively insignificant nature in the war but they wont even know WHY OR WHAT CAUSES BROUGHT ABOUT THE WAR, and where did it start): and yet Maori have a great memory of what happened in the NZ Wars. Many Kiwis I suspect will think that the war was about the ANZACS in Turkey (Anatolia)...

Without using Wikipedia, how many actually know how and why it started, or any of the history of the 19th Century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the formation of the German Empire in 1971, the struggles of the Balkan people against the Ottoman's (very few will realise the significance of the Ottoman Empire if they know what it was): and they probably wont know who was fighting who.

Without consulting Wikipedia can they say who were the protagonists, or talk about the struggles between the various Imperialist Powers that really continued through to the Second World War. Who were the Italians fighting against? Where was the place where a single event "ignited" this huge, tragic, and ultimately futile war?

Most will have no idea. More will know very little about the NZ Wars.

I have no interest in ANZAC day and I refuse to allow myself to feel anything about it. Those who kill others are the ones who cause war, they are murders. We could celebrate such as Alan Mulgan, or Bertrand Russell as well as the many other Pacifists who refused to take part in the obscene slaughter. To that extent the Maori, by refusing to participate (when they did) are the ones I celebrate and think about.

To "remember them" is a political act. It is right wing act. It is backward step. Those who died in that really stupid war were simply stupid. We can’t blame war on "abstractions" - we can think about those who pull triggers or go off like sheep to kill other human beings. I refuse to mourn or thank any of them. I refuse to get caught up in the jingoism, the war fever of it all.

Douglas was a great poet indeed. He demonstrates by his life a more complex approach than you will get from the hysteria of ANZAC day.

It IS worth while also, though, to read say Pat Barker's trilogy on WW1 which deals with the war poets such as Wilfred Owen and Sassoon and the kindness of the Psychiatrist Rivers [a real person in those times] (Douglas was well aware that, great as Owen, Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, and even T. E. Hulme and others, had "failed" although there was indeed, and this is forgotten, there was a huge negative reaction to the War that affected man; and one result were rebellions in Germany and desertions and even
mutinies amongst the armies, including Russia: and those uprisings lead in part to the Russian Revolution.)

But the brutally direct and eerily beautiful poetry of Douglas suddenly makes one wonder - did they die for "us"? Was it not that many, like Douglas, loved war and killing? These questions, the why of war, the questions of mass motivation and Nationalistic or mob hysteria (which Hitler was able to utilize so well - he was a great enthusiast for WW1 - he, like many others, saw it as a way for glory and for a way out of boredom: for once in a life (like millions of others) he was "someone".

11:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

8:09 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Christopher Clark is a historian who's spent a lot of time reviewing the events of that day in Sarajevo and what led up to it. He's the author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War.

"It's one of those subjects that — no matter how many times you go through it — it never loses its magnetism," he says.

Clark tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel that despite warnings of a Serbian plot to kill the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the archduke and his wife went on a visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina. They had minimum security and their motorcade route through the city had been published.

Partway through the trip, one of the cars was bombed and several people were injured. The tour was supposed to take a new route (but no one told the Czech-speaking drivers, who carried on as before). Clark says the miscommunication took the royal couple right in front of Gavrilo Princip, one of the assassins who was stationed on the original path. Princip had just stepped out of a general store where he'd purchased a sandwich.

"Suddenly the car is in front of him [Princip] and to his astonishment, the car stops because someone in the car is telling the driver, 'You idiot, you're not supposed to go down this road. Stop the car and back up,'" Clark says. "And just as the car comes to a halt ... he took these two shots."

The rest, as they say, is history.

You can hear the entire interview with Clark here on Monday, March 10. In the meantime, we invite you to play along in a counterfactual history of World War I we will be exploring March 10-14 — use the form below to imagine how one aspect of the last 100 years would be different if Ferdinand had lived in 1914.

NPR ASKS: What If World War I Had Never Happened?

All Things Considered wants you to help us imagine a counterfactual history of the last 100 years. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand propelled the world into a war that left millions dead, shattered empires and rearranged power throughout the world.

But what if the assassin in Sarajevo had missed? What if, like his small band of amateur co-conspirators, he didn't hit his target?

That's hardly unthinkable. Moments before the murder, Franz Ferdinand's car made a wrong turn. The vehicle was pushed backwards to turn around and came to a stop right in front of the gunman.

So, what if Franz Ferdinand had lived?

EXAMPLE: Without World War I, Russia remains prosperous and the Bolshevik Party's October Revolution fails. As a result, Vladimir Lenin moves to the United States where he becomes a professor of Russian history at Columbia University. Having maintained his left-wing connections, he comes in contact with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and helps write the pro-union musical, "Pins and Needles."

9:32 am  
Blogger Tim Leadbeater said...

Great post, it has given me a lot more to think about. I've recently set up my own blog which focuses on Anzac and WW1 related memoirs:

7:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


9:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


2:18 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks very much for the link to your blog, Tim, and thanks for blogging about Hyde's Passport to Hell, which is a book I'm just getting around to reading (Robin Hyde is a writer I shamefully neglected for too many years). I want to track down the protagonist's grave across the road in Waikumete.

10:28 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I had 'Passport to Hell' out from the library so I didn't finish it but it is interesting. I wasn't sure about it. I'm not such a fan of her poetry but after a second attempt I really found 'Wednesday's Children' to be, in my view, one of our great novels. Her books about 'Starkie' (based on a real man) are also very good). They include 'Nor the Years Condemn' and 'The Godwits Fly'. But she wrote a long poem which is worth reading I think. She had interesting and even a 'quirky' political outlook. She met Smedley who wrote the epic story of Chu Teh, who was so legendary the peasants used to speak of a great leader called "Chu Mao" who was leading China to victory over the pro-Japanese and pro Us fascist Kuomintang who were driven out of China. She also met Bertram and Rewi Alley, Edgar Snow and others. She was also one of the first to talk about injustices or (the problematic nature of) European-Maori relations and history, and she protested at Bastion point when the Government were pushing the local Maori around. There wasn't much on such things from Alan Curnow or Smithyman or even a lot of the 60s poets for example. A lot of them took drugs and talked a lot and did nothing.

(I wasn't, "officially" at least, a poet in the 60s to 70s!)

I have spoken.

3:23 pm  

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