Horrors of war our leaders never have to confront
Published 15/09/2008 | 09:00
Just outside Andrew Holden's office at the Christchurch Press off Cathedral Square is a brightly coloured, cheerful little water-colour. Boarding a big steamship, thousands of New Zealanders in big brown hats are lining the quaysides, the gangplanks and the decks.
For a moment this week, I thought this might be some annual festival. But then Andrew spotted my interest. “They're going to Gallipoli,” he said. And — fast as the lightning bolt of history — my eyes returned to the tiny figures on the deck. Off they were going, another flower of youth, to the trenches and dust and filth of my father's war.
I'm not sure of this, but I think that the Great War, the war of 1914-1918, is beginning to dominate our lives even more than the terrible and infinitely more costly conflict of 1939-1945. As the years go by, the visitors to the great cemeteries of the Somme, Passchendaele and Verdun grow greater in number.
The statistics still have the power to overawe us. As John Terraine calculates, by November of 1918, France had lost 1,700,000 men out of a population of 40 million, the British Empire a million — 700,000 of them from the 50 million people of the British Isles. The British Army, let it be repeated, lost 20,000 killed on the first day of the Somme.
Who would have believed, even half a century ago, that this year's Toronto Film Festival would open with a film called Passchendaele, the film poster showing just a young man standing in mud and filth and rain? Who could conceive that one of the most popular non-fiction books in recent Canadian history would be the Ottawa War Museum's Great War historian Tim Cook's At the Sharp End, the first volume of his monumental study of Canadians in the 1914-18 war?
Canada had its Douglas Haig — a maniac called Sam Hughes (‘Minister of Militia and Defence’) who forced his men to use the hopeless Canadian-made Mark III Ross rifle which jammed and misfired and heaped up the corpses of Canadians who could not defend themselves with this patriotic, murderous weapon.
Cook’s description of young Canadian men cowering in shell-holes — showered by the putrefying remains of their long-dead friends as bodies are again torn apart by shells — is devastating. So, too, are his quotations from the letters home of Canadian soldiers. “I went thru all the fights the same as if I was making logs,” Sergeant Frank Maheux writes home to his wife in an innocent, broken English. “I bayoneted some (sic) killed lots of Huns. I was caught in one place with a chum of mine he was killed beside me when I saw he was killed I saw red... The Germans when they saw they were beaten they put up their hands but dear wife it was too late.”
And here is Captain Joseph Chabelle of the Canadian 2nd Division's 22 Battalion: “Oh! The sensation of driving the blade into flesh, between the ribs, despite the opponent's grasping efforts to deflect it. You struggle savagely..., lips contorted in a grimace, teeth gnashing, until you feel the enemy relax his grip and topple like a log. To remove the bayonet, you have to pull it out with both hands; if it is caught in the bone, you must brace your foot on the still heaving body, and tug with all your might.”
How the gorge rises at such wickedness. But it rises far more as you turn the pages of the beautifully produced, desperate collection of French soldiers' amateur paintings and sketches of the Great War — “Croquis et dessins de Poilus” — which, ironically, includes a set of sad portraits of the poilus' Canadian comrades. This magnificent book was produced by the French Ministry of Defence; why it could not have had a joint production with the Imperial War Museum beggars belief — does the Entente now count for nothing? For anyone who wants to understand the total failure of the human spirit which war represents — and the utter disgust which must follow the “arbitrament” of war — must read the extract from Jean Giono's Le Grand Troupeau, which accompanies Louis Dauphin's bleak, rainswept painting, "Supply Route at Peronne”.
My father saw these horrors on the Somme. They all did. Of course, Messrs Bush and Blair did not have to soil their thoughts with such images. Our boys shipping off to war — Mrs Thatcher happily endured the Gallipoli-like departures from Portsmouth — is enough for our leaders.