On Armistice Day 1993 we buried the remains of the unknown Australian soldier in the National War Memorial. From the time the grave had been randomly chosen in France, it became a costly and spectacular funeral.
Our then prime minister, Paul Keating, gave a speech which stirred most in the audience. Among other things he said that the soldier whose remains were in the casket did not die in vain. Our soldier looking down from Heaven would resent that statement because he knew that his life was thrown away for nothing. He died in vain because it was a war which should never have been fought and which he had no business being in.
For decades there had been an arms race in Europe - so, the individual players were ready. With just about every nation in Europe signed-on to some treaty, the teams were ready. Two bullets from the gun of a fanatic was the whistle blow signaling the kickoff.
We jump in
Whereas today nationalism is expressed by rejoicing in one’s own country’s sporting prowess on the world stage, in those days it was the nation’s perceived military prowess. The pictures of our federation ceremonies of 1901 in Sydney and Melbourne reveal the predominance of military uniforms. The people loved them.
Even if we were at the other side of the Earth, as a member of a great empire we felt proud. The colonial wars of 19th century Britain roused the imagination of young Australian males. However, in spite of the British achievements, there was the home-grown myth that the Aussies (especially those from the bush) would do a better job of it than the Poms.
Our nagging problem was that in 1914 we still did not feel like a real nation. It was the existing identification of national prestige with arms and the sudden opportunity now before us that caused our prime minister (Andrew Fisher) to declare that we would stand by Britain - “To the last man and the last shilling”.
This country was under no security threat and yet we jumped into the fray immediately. The government could not have gotten away with this if the mass of the people were not in the right mood to be exploited. Men were recruited easily due to:
- most males having low-paying, boring and hard physical jobs from which the war offered an escape; and
- the only chance ever of overseas travel (travel in those days was an exotic experience and nothing like the tourism-in-a-package of today).
Mothers felt uneasy and sensed the recklessness in the mass mood, but the thinking of much of the male population of all ages was as irrational as that of an excited crowd filling the stands of a stadium and anxious for the game to begin.
After the declaration of war, German girls threw flowers over the marching and excited men. On both sides, recruits were fearful that the war would end before they had time to become engaged. The fantasy did not include a scene of one’s own mangled body, but only of guns banging away.
Then came the reality
In Europe, the generals had no idea how the changing technology since the Franco-Prussian war (44 years earlier) had reduced their war games since then to irrelevancy.
By 1916, life in the trenches was miserable. All nationalistic fervor had been replaced with reality. It was getting home to family that mattered. In the meanwhile, a man was there to stand-by his mates and nothing else. He was not a hero. He was stuck in a trap and had to make the best of it.
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