Sometimes, if we are to understand highly complex human tragedies like WWI, we begin by reducing them to the personal. And sometimes, because of our interest in a single person, we are driven to discover a bigger and more abstract context, one that helps us understand what happened, and why.
So I start with Jack, my father’s older brother. Because of the story my father told us when we were small children about the day Jack, aged 18, enlisted in the AIF, I have been drawn into the bigger context.
The photograph of Jack, above my father’s chair in our kitchen in Terang, was a constant reminder of the war. When our young friends asked us, Who’s that? we replied, That’s Jack, he died in the war. He was nineteen. That’s all we knew. We never asked what war. For us there was only one war and that war was Jack’s war. Like many Australians of our generation, we grew up with the dark presence of WWI sitting on our mantelpieces and hanging on our walls.
Because of my father’s story, WWI became personal. On the Saturday morning Jack enlisted, he asked my father, aged 11, to accompany him to the top of the nearest hill. My father sat on the hill and watched Jack walk across the paddocks to Mortlake – never to return. All my life, I have harboured safely that image. It’s that image that brings us together tonight.
It would be fair to say that I have come to abhor Jack’s war. In particular, I abhor the actions of those heads of state who initiated it, and the actions of their military leaders for the manner in which they conducted it. Perhaps because of this passion, I have developed something of an obsession with it.
I still remember my first serious history examination as an adult student. It was in 1963. The only essay I remember writing on that day was the one on Jack’s war. I even remember the question. It involved a quote from the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix.
In 1917, Mannix said that the war was nothing more than a trade war. The Bulletin magazine had said much the same in 1914. Being who I was, I naturally agreed. Ironically, I had it right, or nearly right. I knew little in 1963. There was no one simple answer to explain the causes of WW1, but economic and political power was at the heart of it.
The war was not fought over any great general principles. There was no great moral cause. This view is not shared by a recent Prime Minister. In writing in The Age (28 July 2016, p18) he claimed Jack and his cobbers were fighting for things worthy of sacrifice: the right of all countries to live in peace, and the right of small countries not to be bullied.
That is what the political class told Jack in 1915. To hear that argument repeated again, one hundred years on, beggars belief.
By 1914, a general unease and an atmosphere of fear permeated European nations. Failing to recognise the signs, Europe’s leaders sleepwalked into war. The hard-nosed men, those who had more to lose than most, thought war was inevitable. Economic gains had to be protected. Colonies had to be protected. Profits had to be protected.
But what would my Uncle Jack, a station-hand mustering cattle and fixing fences on the flat grassy plains around Mt Emu Creek between Terang and Mortlake, have known about such things?
Australia entered the war with all the joy and enthusiasm of a young boy flying a kite. But when the war turned sour in 1916, the kite broke away and Australia broke its heart. For many, life would never be the same. The magnitude of the tragedy made it difficult for people to comprehend. How could such a thing happen? It was the efficiency, the scope and the industrial scale of the killing that shocked Australia and the world. Approximately eleven million soldiers and seven million civilians were to die in the war. Total casualties equalled around 38 million.
In the battles around the River Somme in northern France in 1916, the British military elite, incompetent nineteenth-century men, all born in the decade 1860-1870, rarely endured the smell of death. These men, isolated in their chateaux miles behind the trenches and the mud, the rats and the lice, the machine guns and the barbed wire, the gas and the putrid decaying bodies, these same men could have been fighting Napoleon at Waterloo.
That these men fought the war without counting the human cost says little for their humanity. In later life, these same men became Knights and Lords. These men, callous and reckless, offered up their men as sacrificial lambs to the new mechanised gods of war.
In Australia, the fun went out of the war in 1916. In the final six months of 1916, Australia suffered just over 40,000 casualties. 12,000 were killed. Australian towns and regions were devastated. Families struggled to pronounce the names of unknown French villages where their loved ones had died or were missing: Fromelles, Pozières, Gueudecourt. It was as if, in naming them, some meaning could be found. Jack was just one of the 12,000. He was killed at Gueudecourt in his first visit to the front line.
In 1916, many men in the trenches came to believe that life had lost purpose and meaning, but their sardonic humour never deserted them: We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here…
For those reflective men in the trenches, the idea of a loving God, guiding and controlling earthly events, fell and died somewhere in the mud in no man’s land. If there was a God, new definitions had to be found. After 1916, if the men in the trenches believed in anything, it was in each other.
In 1916, the war took on a life of its own. It broke free from those supposedly in control and became an alien thing, gathering up men and hurling them into a giant mincing machine, much larger than my mother’s small silver one, which I screwed tightly onto the kitchen table and then slowly turned its handle as she fed in the cold meat left over from Sunday’s roast.
Jack died in possibly the worst conditions experienced by Australians in the war. Standing in mud over their knees in the freezing cold, their senses assaulted by screaming shells and decaying bodies, unable to sleep and lacking warm food, suffering trench feet and drinking water tasting of kerosene, the Australians cut niches into the sides of their trenches to escape the mud. Jack was lucky to escape death when his trench caved in on him and two of his mates. He was dug out in time, only to be hit by a shell some weeks later.
Jack is one of us. He belongs to all of us. He is representative of a generation. He is one of the 62,000 Australians who died in the war. He is one of 11,000 Australians who died without a grave and is remembered at the Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux. Australia lost 38 dead for every day of the war. In the decade after the war, another 60,000 soldiers died. Proportionally, Australia had one of the highest casualty rates of all participating nations. Some two out of three of all Australians who went to the war became casualties.
So read about Jack. Take him to your hearts, along with your own loved ones who have died in all the unnecessary wars this nation has raced to embrace. In the eyes of the world, Jack was just an ordinary boy. He was unexceptional, but then he never had the opportunities in life his nephew had. One hundred years on, his death still rests uncomfortably with me. Remember him in this, the centenary of his death.