Lest we forget: A.N.Z.A.C. Day 2019


New Zealand graves at Polygon Wood, Belgium. R. GLENNIE

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon

My visit to Belgium last year had three aims. See some of its rich history, test drive some of their superb craft beer and chocolate and visit some of the more notable war graves and memorials to the madness that was World War 1.

Polygon Wood war cemetery was basking in sunshine when I visited it in September 2018. A beautiful clear autumn day in a peaceful wooded setting with nicely maintained grounds, a far sight from the horribly mangled place that it would have been at the end of 1918 with nary a tree in sight, shell holes half full of ground water with rotting human bodies, bits of uniform, guns, unexploded ordnance and other detritus. So toxic I imagine, that it would not have been fit for even the hardiest biological organism.

When I remember those famous words from Binyon this year and in years coming, I will also remember them for the German soldiers who were just following orders just like ours. I will remember them because those Germans probably no more wanted to be in the war than I suspect any of the others – looking for ways to legitimately “catch a blighty” (be wounded enough to be sent home)was common. With little or no understanding of the horrendous mental toll that living in trenches with inches deep mud, being shelled incessant whilst dreading the whistle that would send everyone over the top in far too many cases for the final time, those who had gone mad were dispatched by a gun shot.

I remember them because as Paul Ham, in his book Passchendaele: A requiem for a doomed youth makes clear, the disgruntlement with a stupid war where no progress seemed to be getting made, by the end of 1917, both the German and British civil populations loathed the war. A war where the youngest British soldier was just 13 and the oldest was 68; where the first British soldier to die, died just 200 metres from where the last British soldier died. The French had nearly mutinied after the blood bath at Verdun the previous year, causing their commanders to effectively withdraw the French military from the war for a year.

What is not so well known is what caused the Germans to suddenly surrender. It was rumoured that after more than a year effectively in dock, the German high seas fleet was finally ready to put to sea again. Except that there was a problem. When the fatal Battle of Jutland occurred in 1916, the German navy had not seen much action and there was some excitement about the prospect of finally fighting. Fast forward two very bloody years on the Western Front, a civil population sick of the huge losses, the nearly universal shortages of just about everything and no end in sight, the German navy had lost the will to fight. Mutiny set in at the naval bases and spread like wildfire. On 8 November 1918, the Kaiser abdicated. Three days later in a train carriage at Compiegne an Armistice was signed.

Nearly 100 years later I visited a museum at Zonnebeke where we could see a collection of defused shells and it was explained to us what their individual purpose was – each colour marking meant a different use. Some were gas shells that would explode and release poison gas. Some were made for piercing the concrete of bunkers and still more were made as incendiary or high explosive shells. The range of uses that were found was impressively depressing. German, British and French shells were all well represented among them.

As I wandered among the many graves – New Zealand, Canadian, Australian, French, German, British, Belgian, South African, Indian and those of others – I thought about where the consequences of World War 1 have taken us in the 100 years since. I thought about the social cost, the several quantum leaps our ability to kill each other has taken, and about how much (or how little) our politicians seem to have learnt from it. When they advocate for war, I think of the millions of young men sent to their deaths all for a war that history is by no means certain about the purpose of.

Those young men never had a voice, but my generation and future generations hopefully do. Binyon’s words are for them too. As a reminder.

What did we learn from W.W.1 100 years on?


When Europe spiralled into war in 1914, there was an almost euphoric, gleeful, delightful jolly mood throughout Europe. What a jolly thing they all said. It will be all over Christmas and we’ll be having pudding on the table, with presents under the tree and a roast for dinner.

So off they all rushed to war, this jolly good European jaunt. The Commonwealth nations excited to be supporting Mother Britain all began to mobilize. The Canadians, the Australians, the New Zealanders, Indians and South Africans all put out calls for troops.

Within weeks the first casualty counts were coming in. The Germans had somehow stalled on the banks of the Marne River. No worries everyone thought. Things will get going again soon. The days turned into weeks. The weeks into months. The nights began to become longer and the days colder. The trenches that were supposed to be temporary were starting to take on a degree of permanence.

No peace would descend on Earth in 1914. Instead the first of many bloody battles up and down the Western Front over which a few square miles of land would be fought with fanatical savagery had begun. Battles costing thousands of lives a piece had happened at St. Quentin, the Marne, Albert, Yser, Ypres (No. 1 of 5) and a host of other places. The ground that would become a muddy hellhole over the next four years was starting to be ground up.

The mincing machines of the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele were still over a year away. But as the mass of pill boxes, bunkers, tunnels and barbed wire accrued on both sides of no mans land the men who sat in water logged dug outs eating, washing, and otherwise trying to live in close quarters to many other men, the task of finding ways to break the stalemate and win the war became a priority.

The plane as a weapon of war was still in its infancy. The tank was still years away. But other sinister developments were taking shape. Desperate to gain the military initiative, the Germans, French and British had begun experimenting with chemicals as weapons. The initial attempts were unsuccessful, but in 1915 the Germans introduced chlorine.

Tactics were changing too. The creeping barrage that moved in front of advancing soldiers had been introduced. A moving wall of exploding shells would proceed the soldiers across no mans land, chewing up and spitting out already mangled land and bodies. Another one, the bite and hold strategy of biting a small chunk out of the enemy lines, consolidating and moving on was another.

By the time the Somme and Verdun, two blood baths with a combined total of nearly 2 million Allied and German dead between them, were over, the French were ready to mutiny. The Russians, sick to death of their wealth hoarding Tsar and no longer able to stomach any further fighting against the Germans were ready to revolt. Food shortages in Germany and Britain were dire and no one knew how or when this giant mangling machine would end.

Conditions were no better in the Commonwealth countries. New Zealand and Australia were permanently scarred by their experiences in Gallipoli in Turkey where they had been trying to take the Dardenelles and secure a supply line to Russia. Canada, South Africa and India were also bleeding steadily. All had further bloody confrontations awaiting them at Passchendaele (Ypres III), and elsewhere.

And so, Passchendaele got underway with the misgivings of just about everyone involved. Only the Generals seemed to be keen for it to happen. The 100 days of mud and blood that followed earnt it a special place in the collection of hell’s that World War 1 was.

Whilst that was happening the Russians had the second of two revolts that toppled the Tsar. Communism became a new term in the language of politics and within months, Russia and the Germans had cut a deal that enabled the Germans to flood the western front with fresh forces.

The German offensive of 1918 temporarily terrified the Allies, moved rapidly west for a month and then, unable to sustain their supply lines, failed. Another 688,000 Germans and 863,000 British, Commonwealth, French and American lives later and it was over for Germany. Before they could recover, the Allies 100 days offensive that would end with the Kaiser abdicating and Germany calling for an armistice began. It took back everything the Germans had taken and was closing on the German border when the Kaiser abdicated.

So what did we learn from World War 1? Apparently not a lot, other than that type of war is criminal. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was apparently cowardice, for which one could be shot. Soldiers went home and suffered permanent mental break downs as a result of what they had seen and done with no redress of any sort. And in that 4 1/4 years, enough progress was made on the technological front to unleash horrors unheard of in 1913. Historians to this day argue over the true meaning of the battles that took place, though all are in agreement that it was a truly appalling time in human history.

It was meant to be the war that ended all wars. The Germans would be vanquished, and unable to conduct offensive wars ever again. It would be punished and made to pay huge reparations. Yet on 01 September 1939 World War 2: The Really Really Dreadful Sequel started.

The pill boxes and the grave yards that litter fields in Belgium and France are silent testament to four years of abject madness where political pride and military prestige were more important than the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. If nothing else, on this 100th Armistice Day Anniversary, we would do really well to remember that. They did not die for nothing.

Remembering Le Quesnoy: 100 years on


There is a little village in northern France called Le Quesnoy. It is a few kilometres from the Belgian border and has a population of 5,000. During World War 1 it was occupied by the German forces, starting on 23 August 1914.

In early November 1918 as the war drew to a close the Allies 100 days offensive saw the western allies making rapid progress through Belgium and northern France across land where the front line had been largely stagnant for the past four years. At the start of the month, the New Zealanders tracked east along a railway towards the town. On 3 November fighting between New Zealanders and Germans began in earnest in the town, whose residents had been told to evacuate in anticipation of a battle. During the battle New Zealanders approached the outer ramparts of the fortified town and mounted a ladder on a narrow ledge next to a sluice gate. They climbed up 13 metre walls to reach the top of the fortifications, which were poorly defended. These actions by New Zealand soldiers liberated it from Germany. To this day Le Quesnoy have not forgotten what happened. It was the last significant action of New Zealand of World War 1.

The Kaiser, realizing the war was going to be lost, abdicated five days later after the liberation of Le Quesnoy on 09 November. The Armistice that ended the war was signed two days later.

During World War 2 it was occupied by the Germans in May 1940 shortly after the invasion of France and the low countries started. It was not freed until late 1944.

Over the decades following World War 2 various nations of the Commonwealth have established their own war memorials. So have non Commonwealth countries. Even if it is just a big graveyard at Langemarck in Belgium, Germany has a memorial of sorts too for 44,000 of its World War 1 dead.

But there is not a New Zealand specific site, which is really quite appalling. Australia spent $100 million on a great memorial to theirs. Canada likewise have a magnificent structure at Vimy Ridge. The South Africans have a war memorial at Delville Wood in France, and the British have the massive Menin Gate, whose walls are filled with the names of dead.

Old notions that war memorials somehow glorify the war dead are simply wrong, misleading and disingenuous. A war memorial has one purpose and that is to recognize the loss in war of a nations service people. In the case of a country like New Zealand, so far away from the major battlefields of World Wars 1 and 2 it is at these places we are finally able to connect with past generations and acknowledge their service.

The people of Le Quesnoy are well versed in the New Zealand liberation. When one identifies themselves as a New Zealander, those who have been there report a great warmth. The people take you in and treat you as one of their own.

They have not forgotten what happened on 04 November 2018, 100 years ago today.

Nor should New Zealand.

 

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Tourism – Part 2


Continued from Part 1.

Generally the old town quarters of Ghent, Brugge and Ypres was cleaner than you would expect to find cities in New Zealand. I do not know what litter ordinances any of these places had in place, but little evidence of litter was found around them. This is important for all three, as tourism is a significant part of their economy.

Belgium towns have a lot of bars and cafes with a different culture to New Zealand. Namely if anyone drinks alcohol – and I did see a lot of people doing so – they would generally order something to eat as well. It could be something simple such as fries or a proper meal. All of them are bike friendly, and one could hire scooters for several hours or a day. Canal tours of various descriptions existed and seem to be well patronized.

The Hop on/Hop off bus is a well developed concept in all of the big cities – London, Stockholm, Goteburg, Brussels, Amsterdam and Singapore all have their own versions. The number of routes varied from one location to the next – Brussels had two lines – the No. 1 and No. 2 lines; Singapore has the Red, Brown, Yellow and Blue lines. All operated a pass system where one purchased a pass that would give them access to the network for 2-3 days or 5 days. It was an easy way to get around the city. The European cities also have a “_______” (enter name of city) City Pass that gives you access to the major attractions. Like the Hop on/Hop off passes they were set to last 2-3 days or 5 days.

I do not know if such passes exist in New Zealand, but it would be an easy way to ensure tourists used the public transport networks if it was too difficult for them to hire a rental car. In Auckland for example an “Auckland City Pass”, might include the Sky Tower, Auckland Museum, Auckland Zoo, Kelly Tarlton Sea Life Aquarium and so forth. The Hop on/Hop off route would have no trouble covering all of those in a reasonably quick time.

One thing that was notable in European cities was their charge for using the toilet. Many public places charged and I assume it was just their way of funding the up keep. Given – even if it was not necessarily said so – that it was polite to purchase something in the bars, cafes and restaurants that one would find themselves ducking into to relieve themselves, it did result in some otherwise unintended beverage and food purchases. On the other hand the bars, restaurants and cafes that I/we ducked into were not so fussy but we repaid them by having a round, a small bite or something whilst on the premises.

Given in some districts there is a small rate payer base, but high tourist numbers, such as the Mackenzie District in the South Island, a 0.50c fee for using the toilets would not be out of place. It would enable the charging council to keep a tighter rein on council rates as user pays would be a fairer model than simply making the whole district pay. With the summer tourist season coming up and local government elections due again next year, it will be interesting to see whether councils think about such approaches or elect to make the rate payers cough up more money.

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Transport – Part 3


Ship passing through lock, Brugge, Belgium. (R. GLENNIE)

This is the third part in my Lessons from Europe and Singapore series, and the last from the transport segment.

One of the great revelations in terms of transport during my trip to Europe was the canal and lock system in the Netherlands and Belgium. Centuries old, it first began to form when towns such as Ghent and Brugge were reliant on two modes of transport for goods: the horse pulled cart and the barge. Even hundreds of years later one can still see significant ships plying these canals.

In New Zealand obviously, we do not have the appropriate geography for canals that can take ships. Few, if any, rivers are likely to be deep enough to take ships and those that are often have hazardous features such as hidden shoals that would make navigation tricky.

Another mode of transport that I think we should take greater note of is railways. The large cities in Europe all have modern railway stations that at any given time whilst I was there might have had 500 people or more in my immediate or near vicinity, all either coming to or going from a train at the station. The trains were a mix of faster ones that were normally express trains to places like Schipol Airport or cross border ones that ran into neighbouring countries like Germany/Belgium or France. In Sweden for example, there is an express train running between Stockholm Centralen and Stockholm Arlanda (Airport), which reaches speeds of up to 180km/h. Processing tickets was easy – they were purchased at the counter or an automatic teller where one entered the destination, indicated how many tickets they were purchasing and whom they were for (children/adults/seniors, etc).

All I can say is that all of the trains were on time, clean inside and a pleasure to ride. The only problem was the announcements were sometimes not always in English, but a digital display on board saying where ones train was next stopping made things easier. Railway stations are sited in generally central areas with good car, bicycle and foot access. Light railway stops would often be just outside, so that if one needed to transit to something going within a city’s limits they could do that easily.

The railway station at Amsterdam, Netherlands. (R. GLENNIE)

Investing like this would be very expensive and not necessarily worth the cost. A more realistic investment might be to electrify the main trunk line in the South Island and upgrade the rolling stock. I do see a time in the near future with the hikes in petroleum prices when trains might be required to move petroleum in bulk instead of putting it into a fleet of tankers. As for passenger trains, restoring The Southerner in the South Island is perhaps the best bet – there are too few people in the southern half of New Zealand’s land mass to make large scale passenger services economic – Christchurch for example would need by my guess another 100-150,000 people to even get close to considering light rail.

In conclusion, I think it is fair to say whilst numerous lessons can be taken from what I saw and experienced in Europe, not all are applicable. We can learn from their integration of different modules and invest more in non vehicular alternatives, but others such as the canals will not be workable.