By Joe Montero
Sunday 11 November was Armistice Day, marked the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War One, and it was observed around the world, including Australia.
This was supposed to be the war to ends all wars. It didn’t work out this way. Rather than learn the lesson, certain myths got in the way. The chief one was that this was a battle for freedom. It was not. This was a war over colonies in the world of empires, to see who was going to be top dog. Millions of lives were lost to enrich those who sat at the top.
This does not mean that the soldiers who fought and died on the battlefield should not be remembered and honoured. On the contrary. At the same time, it is essential to acknowledge what really happened. Their sacrifice means something, when it contributes to building the conditions for an enduring peace. “Lest we forget,” is an appropriate slogan.
The war came to a sudden end in 1918, because it contributed to revolution in Russia and had lost the support of the people in the home turf of the empires. Germany was heading for revolution and its economy was in ruins. its leaders were forced to surrender. The Irish Easter uprising had an impact on Britain. Soldiers in all the armies were increasingly refusing to fight, and sometimes turning their guns on their own officers.
Hostilities between governments did not end with the coming of the peace. The setting up of the short-lived League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles, worked to enable the winners grab the spoils and punish Germany. This was an important factor that set the conditions for the next global conflict.
Australia became involved to fight on behalf of the British Empire. After the shooting started, due to a diplomat and member of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the Archduke Ferdinand, was assassinated in Serbia, war broke out, and young Australians were sent to Gallipoli, Egypt and Europe to die, so that Britain could be top dog.
The landing at Gallipoli is the most celebrated, and somehow officially described as some sort of heroic act. It was not. Turkey was not invading anyone. Australia took part in the invasion of Turkey instead. This is the truth of the matter. This country had previously been pushed into a defence pact with Germany, because the other western powers did not want the newly emerged nation to exist, for fear of the resurgence of the Ottoman Empire and the competition that this would bring.
When the Australian soldiers landed there, they found a people ready to defend their home. They had not gone there to liberate anyone or prevent Australia form being attacked.
This was not the fault of the soldiers. Some may have volunteered because they were taken in by the hype. Others saw it as a way out of unemployment at home. They had been promised jobs and land when they got back.
Increasingly, the war effort depended on conscription. The scale of the involvement expanded and it was becoming unpopular. When the Prime Minister Andrew Fisher stated that Australia would defend the Empire “to the last man and the last shilling,” it came back to bite, and the powerful and ultimately successful anti conscription movement was born.
A lot of the veterans came back changed. They had no time for the Empire, knew that they had been used, and had a grudge against the leaders they saw as being responsible for it. Some became activists for peace. There were those who, like the legendary Simpson, saw the need to fight for a new society.
All of this has been buried under a mountain of propaganda. The truth must be reclaimed.
Looking back over the century that has passed, it is clear that the important lessons remain to be learned. The same sort of leaders stayed at the helm. There has been more war that ever before. Not to win the peace. In most cases, the purpose has been to secure territory, resources and markets.
Armistice Day is important, and the hundredth anniversary comes at a time when the world is once again facing growing tension and the risk of war is rising every day. If we do not heed the lessons of history, we may doom ourselves into repeating them.