Monday, April 27, 2015

Myth and Reality

A common factor in accounts of experiences of during World War 1 is that the men who returned never talked about what happened, to either their wives or their families. Most remained silent for the rest of their lives.

One reason for their silence was that their experience did not fit with the public narrative that prevailed at the time.

The government had promised that the war would be short and the victory quick and easy. The British Empire would put those cheeky Germans back in their place by Christmas.

The war against the Ottoman Turks would be easier still. The primitive Turkish heathen peasants would have no show against the sophistication of the British Empire. The men who volunteered to fight were promised a great adventure. They would come back as heroes, having assured the victory of empire and civilisation.

Unfortunately, reality did not match the rhetoric. The British Empire was soon bogged down in France, and the Gallipoli invasion was a disaster from the first day. The population back in New Zealand was shocked at the number of their sons being killed, injured and maimed.

Up against this raw reality of death and defeat, the public narrative had to change. The men who died were turned into heroes. They had sacrificed their lives for empire and for God. Dying for your country was the most noble thing that any young men could do. Those who gave their lives were following the example of Christ and dying for their friends.

This new narrative sustained the war effort and persuaded the people to keep sending their sons to serve and die in the war. By the end of the war, the casualties were so terrible that the narrative of sacrifice essential to justify it. The sacrifices were worth it, because the men died for their country.

The problem for the men returning home was that their experience did not match with the public narrative. Some of those who died were heroes, but many were not. Some died through stupidity, of their officers, or their own mistakes. Some of those who returned survived, because they found a way of keeping out of danger. Other had survived, because they had pushed their bayonets in their attackers, before they got them. Killing another men in hand-to-hand did not feel like sacrifice.

Like any other group of young men, they were a mixture of personalities, character and motivation. Some of their officers were thoughtful and caring, but many were callous and cruel, taking advantage of weakness and looking after their mates. Many of the survivors had seen men sent on futile sorties that they knew would fail before they started. Many knew that some of the men who died only went over the top, because they were afraid of being accused of cowardice, or before shot for treason if they refused to obey orders.

The young men thrust into war, found themselves living in hell on earth. Some lost their minds and fell apart. Many wished that they had never volunteered, and long to be home. Some injured themselves deliberately, so they could be evacuated. A few realised that they were invading a country where they had no right to be.

When they returned home, the men could not talk about what had happened, because they official narrative comforted the mothers who had lost their sons. They did not want to cause these mothers and families further pain, so they went along with the public narrative, and remained silent. Some accepted the narrative, as a way of coping with what had happened to them.

As time went on, the public myth of glory and sacrifice grew stronger and stronger, and is still the dominant narrative.

However, the men who fought in the First World War chose to remain silent, so their descendants do not respect their loss of lives, by talking up what they did. We should respect their silence, and remain silent too.

1 comment:

David Lee said...

I have only just come across the Myth of the heroic NZ WW1 soldier as being perpetuated in order to bolster the war effort and save face. Well-written! My wife teaches English so I will post it to her...