Great war myths

by Matthew Wright / 16 April, 2015
Historians are challenging our popular vision of World War I, that of heroic young men being pointlessly killed by obeying the orders of incompetent British generals.
Photo/Getty Images

As we roll into the centenary of World War I with its overwhelming imagery of human tragedy on the back of an international bar-brawl turned bad, there’s a discussion we’ve missed. We may know what happened back then, based on the personal tales of our citizen-soldiers. But we have not – yet – fully explored just how we remember.

New Zealand’s popular vision of World War I is often framed by the thought that it was an unnecessary tragedy: our young men going to fight, only to be cut down while scrabbling to win possession of a few square metres of some muddy foreign field, all at the orders of incompetent British generals.

This popular vision is written into our social rituals – our annual gathering at dawn before memorials that solemnly list the names of the dead. We see it as the organising principle behind museum displays. And we see it in our literature, in the often emotional words historians use to narrate our experience in that war, in the lists of the dead that fill the appendices of such tomes.

Our shared sense of loss is, of course, justified. Half the New Zealand men of the 1914 generation – over 100,000 souls – fought at the sharp end of World War I. Just over 58,000 became casualties, including around 16,700 killed – followed by another 227 who died after the end of the war but before being discharged from the army.

That does not include the “gas-drenched wrecks” who succumbed to their war wounds from the early 1920s – a tragic procession whose numbers were never tallied in the official military record, so we can never know with certainty just how many Kiwis died as a result of the war.

We must not underrate the courage of our citizen-soldiers, either – everyday Kiwis who had to find hidden strengths in themselves, whatever it took, to face the unthinkable. This was heroism by any measure.

But are we right to popularly clothe World War I war in trappings of pointless tragedy? I explored the military mythology in my books on New Zealand’s part in that war and am not the only New Zealand historian to do so. In the UK, however, a more specific debate about the political motives has been unfolding at the hands of such analysts as Niall Fergusson and Max Hastings. It is a debate we should share here, because we followed Britain into that war, almost without question.

The terms are simple: World War I has long been viewed as unnecessary, a product of Europe’s economic and political rivalries that ended in horrific slaughter at the hands of helpless generals, a war the world stumbled into and could not get out of. Hastings, among others, questions that point: would the consequence of Britain not fighting have been even worse than the tragedy that actually unfolded?

To see the Listener's interview with Max Hastings, click here.

Troops landing on the beach at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. Artwork/Alexander Turnbull Library


To follow that discussion, we need to look at the mythology of the war.

The first myth is that of World War I as a futile struggle, pointless slaughter in which idiot generals sent heroic men to certain death in the face of enemy machine guns, largely because they had no idea what else to order. This had its origins in front-line cynicism on the Western Front. It drew strength from the anti-war sentiment of the 1920s, buoyed on the angst of shell-shocked soldiers whose lives had become hollow on the back of their trauma.

Much later, the imagery keyed into post-Vietnam anti-war sentiment with its studied ignorance of matters military – giving it credibility because the tactical realities were seldom discussed. Military historians remained more cynical, but non-military historians swallowed the mythology whole. And the entire one-dimensional edifice was reduced to hyperbole in 1990’s Blackadder Goes Forth.

Like all mythology, none of it was strictly true, not least because World War I also included fast-moving and wide-ranging fighting outside Western Europe. This included New Zealand’s dramatic “Lawrence of Arabia” horseback adventures in Palestine.

Even the Western Front wasn’t like the mythology insisted. The military realities were unpicked decades ago by historians such as John Terraine, who pointed out the truths of the deadlock into which New Zealand forces were entwined after 1916.

The problem was that industrial-age technology could move huge numbers of men into battle and support them for unprecedented periods by earlier standards. The same technology expanded the battlefield on the back of rifles, and machine guns and wire made that battlefield almost impenetrable to foot soldiers. But foot soldiers remained the only way to get to grips with the enemy.

The British army understood the issue before the war. On the basis of British advice, losses of up to 25% per month were written into New Zealand’s pre-war plans for an expeditionary force. This astonishing figure went largely unnoticed by the New Zealand public.

The British developed tactics to cope, partly because – in contrast with Continental conscript forces – their army was a small force of professional soldiers. But that didn’t apply to the “citizen army” deployed after 1914 by New Zealand – or to Britain’s equivalent. Quite a bit had to be relearnt, and levels of training were never those of the pre-war force.

The real answer was new technologies and new tactics to go with them, which took time to develop. When in 1918 the mix was available – a heady combination of flexible-wave infantry assault, artillery, large-scale tank deployment and ground-attack aircraft – the Western European war returned to one of movement and ended relatively swiftly. All was based on what had been learnt during the trench period.

As for the image of chateaux generals cynically supping on filet mignon while their men walked into machine guns – well, it’s not borne out either. The scale of World War I’s armies demanded layers of control, topped by command headquarters behind the lines, kept in touch by telephone. But mid- and even senior-ranking officers still led by example, from the front.

New Zealand’s officer cadre was no exception and suffered heavy casualties. Even our senior officers came under fire, including our divisional commander, Sir Andrew Russell. He survived. His helmet, punctured by a bullet in mid-1917, ended up hanging on the back of his kitchen door at Tunanui Station, near Hastings.

A burial party. Photo/National Army Museum/2007-550/from Images of War/Glyn Harper


The other main pillar of the mythology is that World War I was unnecessary – a tragic outcome of foolish pride, pig-headed politicians and a mechanistic international system. But lately that’s being questioned in Britain.

The debate flows around Max Hastings’ argument that it was a necessary war after all. The idea is that before 1914, France and Britain viewed Germany’s international ambition as an extension of Otto von Bismarck’s drive to unify Germany under a militaristic and domineering Prussia. This is what drove the alliance systems of the day. This belief caused Britain to spend colossal sums on its navy and was shared by the wider society.

Then World War I happened. It’s important to not confuse the underlying causes with the superficial litany of diplomatic failures in July 1914, as if it were no more than a bar brawl. Yes, those events triggered the war. But surface events were driven and given sinister form by far deeper forces.

What followed brought tragedy to victors and defeated alike. Nobody won in any human sense; and by the mid-20th century – given the profound evil of the Nazis – there was a view that perhaps old Kaiser Bill and his generals weren’t so bad after all. Maybe the Allies were also to blame for World War I.

This became the way the war was seen. Only a few voices dissented. One of them was Lord Robert Vansittart, who in 1944 argued that any settlement with Germany in its latest war needed to address the “Reich” mentality that had coloured German ambition since the 1870s, of which Nazi-ism was merely the extreme expression. Hitler had not come out of a vacuum.


A father receives news of the death of one of his sons in World War I. Artwork/Dunedin Public Gallery

The current historical debate in Britain flows from a return to this idea, an acceptance that once stripped of the language of social militarism and national pride, Western nations a century ago may have had a point. Britain and France went to war with Germany in 1914 for many reasons. Competing ambitions were implicit in the mix. But Britain – in particular – also feared the spectre of Europe dominated by an ambitious and militaristic Germany, led by its autocratic Kaiser, backed by his generals.

This discussion has yet to play out in British circles. Despite finger-pointing at German territorial demands, we should not discount the threat Britain saw in German economic ambition, which reflected the same underlying mindset and was a more serious threat to British trading interests. The debate also applies to New Zealand because our practical interests were entwined with Britain’s. Over this was laid our social need: back then we were at the height of our pro-imperial love affair, our sense of being the “best” of Britain’s children.

Instead of being victims of war, perhaps our combatants were participants in a succession of genuine efforts to win battles in adverse circumstance, for a purpose that seemed clear at the time. Our citizen-soldiers were, in short, likely to have been much greater heroes than is allowed by our popular view of World War I as pointless tragedy.

That’s why we need to discuss these matters – reasonably, fairly, generously. It’s a debate that should be held outside the narrow confines of New Zealand’s academic military history, for it is to do with the wider way we see our origins as a nation and how we frame the undeniable sorrow of the Great War. What’s more, the act of having that debate is likely to also tell us a good deal about how we think today – if we let it. 

Matthew Wright has written extensively on New Zealand’s social and military history. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.

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