Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Nationalities and War

It has recently been ANZAC day in Australia and there is an argument to say that the role of the ANZACs in the First World War first brought together some otherwise disparate people who found common ground in their nationalism. The fires of war forging a new unity of otherwise disconnected groups and an anger fostered against imperialism that would eventually lead to the formation of a new country with independence. This is given huge weight by the fact that this was not just limited to to antipodean nations of Australia and New Zealand but also affected Canada across the Atlantic from the warzone and the many colonies of France in Africa too.

There were differences of approach, certainly, and differences too in the solutions - whereas Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Guiana and others eventually achieved independence the empire of France initially achieved parity with France. One could argue for many many hours and days about these outcomes but the point is that, with the hundredth anniversary of that world conflict now upon us, many of these movements are once again taking centre stage.

The video is a song by Sting. I realise that it has nothing at all to do with the First World War on his part, but a younger version of myself caught the reference to trenches, barbed wire and reconciliation and thought that this summed up the aftermath of the First World War beautifully. I think it fitting for the rant to follow. Would you like to know more?

I have written twice on this blog before about the very modern hijacking of national ceremonies of remembrance by nationalistic and jingoistic groups to bang the drum about the power of nationalism and patriotism: you can find these very similar rants here and here. But this is not confined to to the United Kingdom and the United States (though, they tend to use Veterans to justify pretty much any and all nationalistic and warlike behaviour rather than any specific conflict). I have seen video now of police in Australia suggesting that the celebration of ANZAC day trumps any other concerns that people may have, even if just for a single day, and I have witnessed the use of such days of commemoration used by politicians in the mainstream to quell anything they see as challenging in the name of 'supporting our troops' or somehow selling out what they died for.

So, what did these people die for in the First World War?

One other fact, and I write as a privileged middle-class, white, male in this, is that much of the noise and celebration is white-washed. Let's look at the actual campaign in Gallipoli, recently in the news, as an example. I was struck by radio coverage of the anniversary as I drove into work that morning. It was the Today programme on Radio 4 and the news was talking about the whole thing in the passive voice. There was an extended section on the landings and the eventual retreat that promised "voices from the campaign". It was terrible that campaign. Churchill, for it was he, had promised that he could knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war, and thus destabilise the Central Powers, with the Royal Navy alone. From the outset this was fallacious and anyone could have predicted that the Ottomans would have mined the narrow waters on the approach to Constantinople meaning that mine sweepers would be required. These mine-sweepers were vulnerable to shore-based batteries and the battleships that could swing things the way of the attackers would be kept too far away by the mines to support their vulnerable cousins. And so it proved.

Churchill then decided that he would have to use troops to force a landing, march across the small peninsulae and then capture these shore-based batteries to allow the mine-sweepers to do their work. This is not a bad idea in theory, and had the landings been attempted before the initial attacks there may have been a chance to catch the Ottoman army on the hop. As it was, the initial attacks had awakened them to the possibility that the British may attempt an attack and so the local forces were already mobilised and ready to face an enemy from that direction. It was painfully clear what was likely to happen.

To make matters worse, the Ottoman Empire had taken a new approach to the organisation of their forces, using triangular battalions. This was a relatively new idea that allowed them to use less troops to cover the same length of front as other armies (having two front-line companies to every one in reserve, unlike the British Army of the same date with a square structure of two front to two reserve). This meant that the numerically smaller Ottoman forces would be well dug-in and be able to face off against a much larger foe and still hold the line effectively. The scene was thus set for a disaster.

Radio 4 declined, as did all other media outlets from what I can gather, to mention the central role in the planning of this awful operation of Churchill. Furthermore, the 'voices' that they brought were exclusively English. No member of the ANZACs were included, despite playing one of the largest roles and referenced in the report (a publican from Australia was interviewed but no interviews with dead veterans, and there must have been a few, were used). Not a single Turk was involved. And that was the first alarm bell. A reference was made to the poor conditions of the Turkish forces and the fact that the battle also made them aware of their nationality, that Ataturk himself served in the campaign and that the forces that repelled the Allies would later turn on their Ottoman masters and achieve independence for the new nation of Turkey. But it was just a reference.

So, my first point: this campaign ought to be principally remembered as the epitome of the idiot general planning that many associate with the First World War (erroneously, but valid in this case). It ought to be remembered so to dull the edge of jingositic national pride that is evoked by the name Churchill in the UK and beyond. And it should be remembered as a blatant injustice to the ANZAC troops used in the campaign. Oh, and it's not actually about white people anyway. It's a battle that more properly belongs to the story of brown people, muslim people, people we tend to ignore and hate because of reasons anyway. Yes, I use these terms sarcastically.

The ANZACs are not blameless either, there was much going on in Mesopotamia where they were deployed beforehand and in Egypt too, but I can understand the concept that this was the birth of a nation (though, really, I would have assumed that the disaster of Passchendaele would have done more for that national feeling than Gallipoli, notwithstanding the film with Mel Gibson in it). That said, I question whether it is appropriate for any nation, including Turkey, to use commemoration of this part of the conflict as an excuse to be nationalistic. And, here, I will focus on Australia.

In Australia ANZAC Day seems to have gained the kind of prized calf status that prevents any kind of discussion about what it represents. It has seemingly become about how great the nation and its people are and it is about war and sacrifice and patriotism and pride and flag waving and... It has become about McCrae's poem, the third verse, where he calls upon the reader to take up the quarrel with the foe. And that makes me shiver a little. It's all about white Australia, immigrant Australia, and it ignores the fact that Australia is more than the white population. It ignores the fact that the attempt to turn the awful experience of the First World War into a nationalistic atavistic force betrays those men who fought and died and parodies their suffering by making another war involving their descendents more likely. And, worse, it ignores those for whom experience of Australia is different - it stops them using ANZAC day to draw attention to current and continuing injustice, the sort that truly necessitates and honours those doing the fighting.

In 1915, in one campaign planned by Churchill, the first stirrings of justice and brotherhood were brought together and would eventually mature into a nation. In 2015, the memory of these events ought to be used to continue that march to right wrongs, cancel the injustice of imperialism and, more importantly, to question the great and the good, like Churchill, and make sure no one is sacrificed by others who do not, and will not, face those same risks. Remembrance of the First World War is about the recognition of the human in us all. Or, at least, it ought to be.

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