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Thursday 4 August, 2016
“You who says: ‘To die is the best destiny’
And who, without knowing, exalts the tomb,
Come closer, in its torments reflects upon
The reality of a soldier’s death.” (1)
I have always been fascinated by history. I was extremely lucky to be very close to my Great Uncle Fernand who had been called in as a surgeon during the the First World War, serving in a first aid post in Verdun. We talked and talked about his experiences, his mates and his dealings with the enemy – he spoke both English and German fluently. From as young as five, I became obsessed to learn more about the Great War and dug around in my grandmother’s library to read anything I could get my hands on that would tell me more.
Later, when I was older and my Father returned from his Army service in the Second World War, which included being a POW, I started asking more questions about my family’s history on both sides. Who had served? Where and when? How many had survived? What happened to them? The answers were grim. Of fifteen who enlisted, just 3 had survived.
The youngest, my Great Uncle Léon Leclère joined up saying he was 18 years old when he was just 15. He was badly wounded, twice. He was also awarded the Médaille Militaire, the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’honneur for his bravery and gallantry during what were a few short years. He died of septicaemia just after the end of the war, aged 19.
My Great Uncle Fernand survived World War I, despite being gassed twice and wounded at Verdun. Fortunately for me he went on to live until the ripe old age of 99 all the while smoking like a train. My grandfather on my Mother’s side served in the French Navy. He was also wounded, but survived. He died when he was 80 but chose not to share much about his military experiences.
The sheer tragedy of it all – the complete destruction of a whole generation – struck me as insane. I have never forgotten what I learned. Every year from a young age I went with my Great Uncle at the Arc de Triomphe to light the flame and to meet with his surviving comrades until he himself passed away.
It was for this reason I felt so passionately about doing something special here in Adelaide to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. With my friends Sue Crafter, and Heidi van Gerwen, who along with others on the organising committee supported me in this endeavour, we slowly but surely put together a program of events which constitute the Flanders Fields Poppy Trail program (2).
History records that the first World War started with the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, shot with his morganatic wife, was killed by a revolutionary Serb, Gavrilo Prinzip, whose aspiration was the liberation of Serbia and the creation of a federation with Bosnia. Of course there were many tensions that built to that moment. They included the fact that Austria had always wanted Serbia to submit to Austro-Hungarian rule and that the German Emperor Wilhelm II, confronted by the assassination, which he considered a sacrilege to his divine right of rule, decided to take side with Austria and invade Serbia.
Meanwhile France and Russia signed a treaty of alliance. There were two factors in my mind which played a major role in their interest to become involved in the conflict. The first was the reconquest by France of its provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost during the 1870 war between France and Germany. The second, Tsar Nicholas II had appointed himself a protector of Slavic nations.
On 23 July 1914, the Austrian government sent an ultimatum to Belgrade, but it was rejected by the Serbian government. Russia consequently sent troops to the Austro-Hungarian border. On 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia. Two days later, on 3 August, 1914 Germany declared war on France. German troops violated Belgian neutrality invading Belgium, which ultimately led to the British entering the war, with Australia following soon after.
In my view the war was badly managed by the Allies, with inadequate command at the highest levels. Both the British General Haig , and the French General’s Joffre and Manguin left a lot to be desired, but then no-one anticipated the clash of men and technology that would turn Flanders Fields to blood.
Australian’s know the British asked its Commonwealth countries to send forces for ‘King and Empire’ but many may not be aware that French provinces were also called upon to encourage their young to fight for the cause – young men from Newfoundland, Senegal, Vietnam, Algeria and Morocco, all enlisted in the French forces.
Four years and three months later, from the Arabian desert and from Gallipoli, to the vast plains of Poland, across most of the European continent, on the Mediterranean, in the Atlantic Ocean and in the North Sea the war took its ghastly course. The Americans finally came to the aid of the allies in 1917 to finish the business, and none too soon.
Approximately 10 million military and 7 million civilians died during World War 1. Another 20 million were wounded; a generation of loss and injury that would impact on the families and communities of those who bore it for decades to come, only to be repeated two decades later on a larger scale in World War II. Let’s not forget too the pandemic of influenza that also took its toll on the weak and vulnerable of all ages at this time.
The economies of the majority of western nations were in tatters. Whole cities had been destroyed and fields across Europe were made unsuitable for farming with shell, upon shell, upon shell buried deep in their soil, not to mention the human remains strewn across every field, in need of respectful recovery and farewelling, which continues to this day.
Despite the ordeal, there were a few positive factors to come out of the terrible slaughter. The war accelerated Europe’s change from a rural to an urban economy; from cottage industry to industrialisation; from a society based on rural traditions to one that understood its need to be more mass orientated; from a world ruled by monarchists and traditionalists to one more guided by democracies, economy and finance.
In mixing populations, generations and social classes, country and town folks, an incredible change came about; one which contributed to the transformation of military violence on the battlefield into a more civil and socially demanding western society, where people demanded more of a say in what went on.
Women now took on jobs that would never have been available to them before the war. European Empires of old were toppled and decolonisation began. Progressively this would prove beneficial as time marched forward. Although these positives started a world-wide exchange between countries, adjustment was not easy, and the scale of the major change needed would sadly contribute to the outbreak of World War II.
The Great War saw the birth of the Anzac tradition penned as it was by someone so suited to the task in Charles Bean. Along with these official histories came those written by the Diggers themselves, the equivalent of the Poilus (3) from France and Belgium – men who came from all levels of society, who had learned to read and write and who sent their stories in letters and diaries home while living, suffering and dying together in the melting pot that was the World War I trenches.
In fact even from the the first weeks of the Great War, French soldiers reacted rapidly against nationalist and warlike propaganda. Their humanism put in question the systematic discrimination of the enemy, and the collective illusion of a national consensus: General Galliéni, politicians, poets, painters, writers such as Jean Jaurès, Marcel Proust, Henri de Montherlant, Fernand Léger, Guillaume Apollinaire, Henri Barbusse, Jean Giono and Charles Péguy wrote about the unspeakable in their letters and in their trench diaries. They questioned what mankind was doing to each other and expressed their inner outrage through their words and works.
They told the ‘between the lines’ story of how the war could have turned them into beasts and barbarians, but that it had instead brought them to see more clearly the way to their salvation. Their works are extraordinary. Some composed on the battlefields themselves, in the grip of grief and in the aftermath of their dreadful experiences. They, like other artists of their time, turned to art, words and music as their salve. It helped them to get through, as it helps all of us to grapple with, explain, and appreciate the conditions of the time that lead to such loss.
We must never forget the sacrifice those millions of young men of the Great War made, nor the nurses and medical staff who dressed their wounds and ensured they died with dignity wherever this was possible. They did not have the time to speak, or write of their experiences. But fortunately for us, others have done it for them. Not only to ensure their experiences would never be forgotten, but surely too because it helped alleviate some of the burden of that loss.
‘The words they did not speak made the weight of those dead in their coffins a burden heavy to carry’ Henri de Montherlant (4)