Lest We Remember
4 November 2018
My grandfather was wounded at Passchendaele. My grandmother was the Army nurse who looked after him in hospital. He was one a five brothers all of whom went to the war. Three came back, one a respiratory invalid from chlorine gas. He did not speak much about the war and rarely went to any of the commemorations. He had a lot of medals in the drawer when he died. I pressed him once on what it was like and he said cryptically, ‘You had to shoot them or they would shoot you’. He did not elaborate. Perhaps he knew that the stories about the glories were to hide the realities but he could not say so.
Much is written about what it was like in the trenches, but ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ documents it well, a German description, translated by an Australian. He describes the misery in the trenches, killing a man with his bare hands and the mental stress that would never go.
The British were ill-led at Gallipoli, landing on the wrong beach. The ANZACs managed to occupy a hill that they then were ordered off and never managed to take in the next 10 months. They were ill-led in France, with an anti-Semitic prejudice and personal jealousies hindering the emergence of a more innovative Australian General, John Monash. The Battle of Passchendaele was hurried up despite the fact that neither the men nor the tanks could move in the muddy conditions because Kitchener, the British general, was in danger of being sacked and needed a battle, at whatever cost, to retain his position. Prime Minster Billy Hughes was happy for the Australian forces to be used as shock troops as it increased Australia’s prestige, ignoring the excessive casualty rate.
It was not the war to end all wars and as Germany’s industrialisation continued to increase their strength. A dictator capitalized on the injustice of the peace to start again.
After the blitzkrieg of Poland, Britain declared war on Germany to start the Second World War and our Prime Minister Menzies announced that ‘as a result, Australia is also at war’, following the Brits without question. Our troops went over to North Africa and when the Japanese landed in Papua the few soldiers on the Kokoda Track with uniforms coloured for the desert fought with minimal resources as the American Commander, General Douglas Macarthur, who had moved from Melbourne to Brisbane to be closer to the action did not think them very important.
Vietnam showed on our TV screens what war was really like and this was blamed for the loss, but no invader who has come and gone has ever won against the people who live there. Lives were wasted; the lack of thanks and respect for the Vietnam veterans has caused immense suffering ever since. ‘If any question why we died, tell them because our fathers lied’ written in WW1 was ever true.
The largest protest march since the Vietnam war with 74% of Australians opposing our entry into the Iraq war was not enough. John Howard followed the US into the war anyway, then on to Afghanistan and the deaths and refugees in their millions continue to this day. Post-traumatic stress is rife in the Australian army but hushed up. Foolish wars with people dying for nothing. John Cantwell, the Australian commander retired with post-traumatic stress and explained this in his moving book, ‘Exit Wounds’.
An ex-US Marine from Iraq lectures on how he tried to keep his men alive but could not get the armoured vehicles he needed to protect them from the roadside bombs. He believed the US government did not actually care about the troops. It was ever thus.
Last week I drove back from Western Sydney. There was a big billboard recruiting for the Army and a much smaller one in the supermarket asking for donations for discharged veterans with post-traumatic stress. There was a lot of excitement over the Invictus Games as maimed soldiers tried to overcome their injuries. No one asked why they were injured and the Games were generously sponsored by the arms manufacturers who are on steroids of late as Trump demands countries spend 2% of their GDP on weapons to help the US balance of payments and Australia decides it will become an arms exporter, starting with a big order to our friends the Saudis who are famous for beheading journalists not to mention millions of Yemenis.
This week will have massive speeches and commemorations of our heroic soldiers. The War Memorial will be upgraded to bigger than any cathedral as our new shrine, generously sponsored by the arms manufacturers again. And the politicians will make fine speeches and improve their electoral prospects.
It is the glorification of folly.
Lest We Remember.
Arthur Chesterfield-Evans is a medical doctor who started as a surgeon but saw that preventive health was more important and went into the anti-tobacco campaign, including time with the activist group, BUGA UP (Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions). He spend some time in NSW Parliament and was for time CEO of the Sydney Peace Foundation.
Lest We Remember traces the history of how Australia was drawn into wars by the British and the Americans, and looks at how poorly the strategies had been thought out and how poorly the troops themselves have been treated. The hype and hoopla of the centenary of the end of the First World War will be used by the arms manufacturers and the politicians to cover the folly and indeed to perpetuate it.
 Remarque, Erich Maria, Translated by Wheen, Arthur Wesley 1928
 Kipling Rudyard, Epitaphs of War 1914-18. He had encouraged his son to join up and his son was killed just after his 18th birthday.