The lessons of history


    A fortnight before last week’s ANZAC day anniversary of the fourth and bloodiest year of the First World War, the Doomsday Clock – maintained since 1947 and representing the likelihood of a man-made global castastrophe – was moved up to two minutes before midnight. 

    We are now closer to a third world war than we ever have been, city councillor and Auckland’s former regional council chairman Mike Lee said, quoting the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Science and Security Board.  

    In a moving speech to the traditional predawn Anzacday gathering outside the Waiheke War Memorial Hall, he described the climatic battle raging across northern France in April 1918 that would decide the outcome of the Great War.  Incredibly, he said, New Zealand soldiers who first went into battle at Gallipoli on that April morning in 1915, were still fighting on the western front three years later and in the crisis of late March 1918 the New Zealand Division was called on to play a role that would help change the course of history.

    “Miraculously the New Zealand Division had recovered from the dreadful slaughter it had suffered at Passchendaele the previous October when in one morning 843 New Zealand soldiers were killed after being ordered to attack in the mud and rain against curtains of barbed wire and walls of machine guns. 

    “Despite this devastating blow, the New Zealand Division remained one of the elite formations of the British Army. When in March 1918 the German High Command launched its supreme effort to win the war, the offensive called Kaiserschlacht (the Kaiser’s battle), attacking with overwhelming numbers of troops and artillery, spearheaded by highly-trained storm troopers, the British 3rd and 5th Armies reeled back in retreat.  

    “In a matter of days the Germans had advanced nearly 100km.  All the gains that had been won over months during the bloody attacks on the Somme of 1916 were lost; now at stake was the war itself.  

    “As the German armies advanced on the strategic city of Amiens, the British high command turned to the New Zealanders and the Australians.  Such was the reputation by then of these ANZAC troops, that when they moved up, along roads crowded with retreating British troops and French civilians, their very arrival stilled the panic.  Military historian Glyn Harper in, Dark Journey Passchendaele, the Somme and the NZ experience on the Western Front, quotes from the diary of Lieutenant Kenneth Luke: ‘We met remnants of the British Divisions that had fought from the beginning of the terrible battle struggling along the road and everywhere our peaked hats were espied the anxious questions were asked ‘Are the ANZACs coming? And cheers and smiles met us everywhere.”

    Harper adds: ‘When asked why the French civilians had halted their flight from the Germans at Amiens, the answer, attributed to a French general, was: ‘They had learnt that the troops they had just passed were the New Zealanders moving in and so there was no need for them to move out and so the evacuation came to an end.  Such was the reputation of the New Zealanders’.   

    The Anzacs would go on to meet the advancing Germans head on and stopped them. Amiens did not fall, the German offensive failed. Making their reputation as ‘the best soldiers in the world in the 20th century’, as British military historian John Keegan described them, the New Zealanders would go on to play a key role in the fighting, right up until 11 November 1918 when the Great War finally came to an end.

    Recalling these events, said Mr Lee, was “not out of chauvinistic pride, or to glorify war – that is not the New Zealand way – but to remember histories largely forgotten and to remind ourselves of the calibre and courage of those New Zealanders and the lessons they left”.

    Not least that the First World War  – the ‘war to end all wars’ – was followed only 21 years later by the Second World War and then, a further 20 years on, the century’s third world war, a nuclear conflict, was only narrowly averted – mainly because world leaders and statesmen then – unlike the leaders of today – had experienced war at first hand and, rightly fearing its consequences, pulled back from the brink.

    If the fallen, and all those who took part in the Great War 100 years ago, could look forward to the continuing annual vigils “I’m sure they would be comforted to know that they had not been forgotten,” said Mr Lee.

    “They would be even more comforted if we people of the 21st century – in these dangerous times of spiralling international tensions  – did not forget the lessons of 1914 and the chain of events that spun out of control – and could not be stopped – that led on to a catastrophe then and that could lead on to an even greater catastrophe now.”  Liz Waters 

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