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.

 

Syrian crisis shows no major players should be trusted


Around lunch time yesterday (N.Z.T.), France, Britain and the United States launched strikes against chemical weapon targets in Syria. The strikes which come after a chemical weapons attack against defenceless citizens in Douma a few days ago, have inflamed the rhetoric from both Moscow and Washington. But as we wait to see what kind of response Russia will make, it is also clear that the major media agencies in both countries have been far from freely dispensing the truth.

The only thing New Zealand should be relentlessly pushing aside from a truce of some sort is a neutral set of inspectors not from any U.N. Security Council country, being allowed to go in, unfettered and report direct to the Secretary General. I am specifically thinking or Switzerland or Sweden, New Zealand, Brazil and maybe Singapore – nations that are known for maintaining original foreign policy, but also crossing a diverse geographical and ethnic divide.

I do not trust the White House or the Kremlin. Nor do I trust RT or Fox. All of these networks have a degree of bias that undermines journalistic integrity. RT is known – by its own admission to talk direct to Kremlin. Its blind support of the incumbent suggests to me it potentially faces consequences if it writes an original thought. whilst Fox is a neo-conservative  channel that was established by Rupert Murdoch as a sort of light entertainment/news channel. The company they keep in terms of viewers and commentators in their comments section suggest a channel that supports war against Iran and North Korea, ignorant of the consequences and dismissive of anyone who raises a counter argument.

The spiels that the media feed the people, sometimes with a clear government spin, as is the case with Russia should be checked by a fact finder first. In the case of the suspect chemical weapon facilities in Syria, the French, British and Americans should have given the inspectors a chance to confirm them as chemical weapon facilities. Governments by default have the means to hide information so that it cannot be released. All Governments – western or otherwise have an agenda. Some are corrupted by money. Some have huge monetary resources to tap into.

In some respects Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reminds me of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Mr Castro became well known for his staunch anti-American rhetoric. Mr al-Assad might not be so staunch, but he is becoming well known for his contemptuous regard international norms and human rights. All of this has led me to wonder if he quietly agitates for a major strike by the United States so that Russia is somehow justified in a massive military retaliation – in order to deter the Americans from attacking Mr Castro got the U.S.S.R. to place medium range nuclear missiles on the island knowing there was no way the Americans would tolerate that kind of threat so close by. This is what triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The Russian ambassador to the United Nations tried to divert attention when confronted at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

New Zealand needs to stick to its instincts. As a nation the only assumption we should make is that this is far from over as a crisis and has the potential to get considerably worse.

 

Power games in South Pacific concern New Zealand


Every year there is an annual forum in the South Pacific called the Pacific Islands Forum. It is an opportunity for the nations of the South Pacific to meet and discuss issues of the day – be it climate change, security, the economic performance of the region or disaster relief.

Like other regions of the planet, the South Pacific has its own power games going on. These games are played at three different tiers with an interchange between them. At the top there are the major nations of New Zealand, Australia and now France – whose colonial outposts of French Polynesia (Tahiti, etc) and New Caledonia – have now joined the P.I.F. The mid tier are the ones with regional power, such as Fiji and Samoa, the Solomons and Papua New Guinea.

With climate change, the Frank Bainimarama dictatorship, China trying to muscle its way into South Pacific affairs and ongoing issues with socio-economic development there is plenty happening at the P.I.F. each year. In 2016 it is the turn of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who is trying to suggest that Australia and New Zealand, the traditional power houses whose economic and political muscle could cripple his dictatorship effortlessly – or run the risk of turning ordinary Fiji’s ethnic divisions into something worse – should not have a place at the P.I.F.

To this end Commodore Bainimarama has been cultivating a group of smaller nations to form a sub forum as part of a power play against Australia and New Zealand. Commodore Bainimarama is playing on dangerous ground. His dictatorship is very sensitive to New Zealand and Australian media and would have known when it stripped the the Fijian Minister of Foreign Affairs of his role  and arrested Opposition Members of Parliament that this would anger the trans-Tasman neighbours.

Surprisingly New Zealand has not reacted strongly. Contrary to the strong reactions of 2000 and 2006 when moves to stifle democracy and freedom of speech in Fiji were met with outrage, the New Zealand Government seems content with tip toeing around the fringe of the issue. Despite Chinese interest in the region, this delicate movement of toes rather than feet has not had anything to do with Beijing’s quests for more natural resources to feed its vast economy.

With climate change threatening numerous smaller island members of the Forum, some of whom may disappear completely in the coming decades, any opportunity for China to develop more “friendly” ties with vulnerable atoll states should be watched with caution. By stepping up to the plate with a more aggressive climate change policy, New Zealand would be saying that it is aware of and respects the concerns of these small states, something it has thus far been rather lacklustre in.

 

France paying the price for being an imperial power


There was a time when to be a great national power meant having colonies under ones thumb. European powers such as Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium viewed them as a source of immense prestige. It meant having a powerful military that could colonize far away lands and turn them around to the ways of the colonizing power. The colonies were a source of raw materials, food and labour.

It would be an understatement to say that the people in the lands that were colonized were often very poorly treated. In the case of Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, the Hutu people were considered to have worse physical features than the Tutsi’s and were generally more poorly treated. This discrimination was one of the underlying causes of the massive blood letting that was the 1994 genocide.

That subjugated peoples fought back is no surprise at all, except to the Governors of the colonies, unable to understand how and why supposedly inferior peoples and cultures should be resisting. That the injustices committed, which the former imperial powers by and large refuse to acknowledge, should still be the source of angst two centuries later should not come as a surprise either – just like Europeans, these peoples have oral histories that passed on down stories of mistreatment, and instilled a quest for justice.

Now let us be very clear. Two wrongs have never made a right, and will not in the future. But when peoples trying to seek redress for long held injustices are systemically ignored, put down and sometimes even subjected to further injustice, no one should be surprised if resistance switches from diplomacy to armed confrontation.

After World War One, the British and French began a grand political experiment in the Middle East. They annexed the lands that would become Iraq and Syria and installed governors to oversee the birth of new colonies. With total disregard for the geographical boundaries of ethnic groups, lines in the baking sands became borders and the people within those borders became Iraqi’s and Syrians. They were expected to learn languages and have new ways imposed on them. Cultural norms were thrown out the window. Widespread resistance broke out across Syria which was not put down until 1927.

Colonization ended with the end of World War Two. A vast power vacuum began creeping into the colonies of the major World War Two participants who suddenly had much bigger problems than their far flung territories. In the case of French colonies, Algeria, Tunisia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and others, France has been reluctant to fully let go of them. It took the Japanese occupation to force the French to leave Cambodia and Laos. Their attempts to retake Vietnam ended in a military disaster at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 that characterised how the struggle in the Vietnam War would be fought.

Even today, France is still reluctant to stop interfering in the affairs of Algeria. Its intelligence agencies have been collaborating with Algerian authorities to arrest or crack down on the civil liberties of its civilians, causing some to seek asylum in other countries, including New Zealand, knowing that if they stay, they might be made to disappear.

The ordinary French civilian is in no way to blame for the horrors subjected to their nation and countrymen by Islamic State. For them this is a train wreck of horrors whose origins began to take shape before they were even born, and which might continue even after they die – without doubt a horrible thought, but one that is equally horribly realistic.

What is to blame are successive French Governments that have continued to interfere in the former French colonies, unsettling any democratically elected Governments that look like being resistant to French interests. These same French governments have failed to plan for the large scale immigration that has resulted from these countries remaining poor and unstable, thereby letting in over the course of decades, hundreds of people of undesirable character. They have then compounded this by failing to address concerns raised by French citizens, which has unfortunately led to the rise of the Front Nationale and caused a surge in hate attacks.

France can end this. It will have to end this, lest it find the hate-mongering Front Nationale winning an election, and inflaming the situation further. But until it does, this is the bloody price that gets paid for being an imperial power and not accepting the consequences of ones actions.

Nasty, but true.