Sunday, 11 November 2007

lives ripped apart so far from home

Tyne Cot war cemetery near Passchendaele. Photo: Flickr

In Australia, today is Remembrance Day, when we are all supposed to remember the sacrifice of soldiers who died serving their country. Most Australians are very supportive of our troops and deeply thankful for the sacrifices made, but many have mixed feelings. For none died on Australian soil and the majority were not defending our country.

Most died on the other side of the world, and it is tragically true to say that so many died in wars with questionable purposes or futile tactics.

Anzac Day is one of Australia's most solemn days, and it commemorates the costly sacrifice of Australian and New Zealand troops as part of an abortive British invasion of Turkey in 1915. But perhaps the most destructive, and often futile, campaign was in France and Belgium between 1914 and 1918.

Many books, films, TV shows and newspaper articles have been written about the terrible trench warfare in World War 1, and the senselessness of charging artillery and machine gun positions across boggy land in broad daylight, and getting cut down - again and again! But in recent times, the emphasis has been more on the human aspects - what sort of people were these diggers, how did they cope with the inhumanity of that war, and how did their suffering and dying affect those who live on back home?

Many Australians now take great interest in the experiences of their relatives and some research their forbears' fate via diaries, war records and first hand visits to the battle fields. In the Sydney Morning Herald this weekend, Ray Black talks of the 60,000 Aussies who never returned from France and Belgium, "many thousands of them blasted into oblivion by artillery, and as a result with no known grave", the further 60,000 who returned but died within a decade as a result of the war, and those who were so traumatised that their lives were all but destroyed by alcoholism, violence, broken relationships and suicide.

He also paints some memorable pictures: battled toughened men crying as they approached their homeland again; a gravestone with the desperately sad epitaph: "An only son killed in action on his way to his leave and wedding"; a farmer recently uncovering 5 bodies, one man found to have been carefully wrapped in his groundsheet by his own brother, who apparently participated in the same attack.

Ray's great uncle was killed in Flanders, so this year he visited the battlefield on the 90th anniversary of the attack on Broodseinde Ridge near the village of Passchendaele to find the place where his relative probably lost his life and to remember by burning Aussie gum leaves at the spot.

Ray's story is just one of many, but moving in its simplicity. I cannot read such stories without feeling a deep sadness about the young lives so unnecessarily lost or marred, and anger about the careless stupidity of generals who sent brave men to certain death on ridiculous missions, without understanding, or in some cases even seeing, the hellish conditions they were fighting in.

We can say, probably fairly, that they were different, and more ignorant, times. But we understand so much more now, and we know the devastation war causes to both sides. We should know enough to be firmly committed to the view that war is absolutely the last resort, only to be chosen when there genuinely is no other option, and in full understanding of its terrible toll. If only the politicians and revolutionaries would learn the lessons!

Read Ray's account from the Sydney Morning Herald. Anyone wanting to read more human stories about Aussie troops in WW1 should read The Great War by Les Carlyon. You may also enjoy this blog based on the letters of an English soldier who served in Flanders.

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