In early June, I travelled with some of my in-laws to various sites related to World War I. My in-laws' grandfather served in World War I in Egypt and Mesen, Belgium and my grandfather also served in Egypt (1916) and Mesen (Belgium and France - 1917-1918). Their grandfather was wounded at Mesen (7 June 1917) and shipped out to Brockenhurst, England for medical care and then to relations in Devon to recover. Mine gained a military cross through action in the trenches near the Wulverhgem-Wytschaette Road (1917) and then was sent for officer training in Oxford, UK in early 1918. Both lives may have been saved by being taken away from the conflict. It certainly seems to be a common story of survivors.
The initial part of our journey was to Bulford to find a chalk kiwi on the hill above what was known a Sling Camp where some New Zealand troops were trained and based. We then went on the Brockenhurst where a New Zealand military hospital was based. This was where we first came across a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in St Nicholas' Church graveyard. In the church, we learnt more about the history of the hospital, the medical innovations developed, and the presence of the New Zealand troops. In the church car park, we came across a Ngā Tapuwae (https://ngatapuwae.govt.nz/discover-the-western-front) board describing New Zealand's involvement in Brockenhurst during WWI.
After a brief exploration of Devon, where my in-laws family came from, it was off to France and Belgium to attend 100 year ceremonies of New Zealand involvement in WWI at Mesen and visit sites that would give us a picture of what it would have been like. Our Back-Roads Tours driver was very well informed and researched a number of things related to those of us on the trip. This included visiting sites where New Zealand troops would have served including the spot where the action occurred that led to my grand father's military medal.
However, visiting cemetery after cemetery containing the graves of those identified (most under the age of 25) and memorials to those who were never found takes its toll. Also seeing graves marked as containing up to eight unknown soldiers leaves you wondering what this war was really about especially when you realise that although the Western Front stretched from the sea to the Swiss boarder, the battles all took place within a band that was only four miles wide. For a lot of the war, it was a complete stalemate. Looking over the battlefields, even those that still have the trenches and bomb craters visible doesn't portray the hardship that the men on both sides had to endure. You could see the importance of holding the high ground which often the German forces did during this period but there is no sign of the mud and rubble that cluttered the landscape nor any realisation of the live ammunitions still buried under the cultivated fields. The landscape looks peaceful now but in 1917 through 1918, what was this really like?
I cannot talk of how my grandfather felt or in fact of how any of the soldiers in this conflict felt during or after the war. Even of the second world war, I only have the stories of my uncles and those of my father's service in Japan after the war. Would they continue to see war as an option? I have no idea but I know that I don't and that I don't see war as a way to bring peace. Some of the stories our tour guide told us left me feeling that war was little more than legalised murder.
Does that mean that I see my grandfather as a murder? No, I suspect that he felt he was simply doing his duty. I cannot make any judgement on them or those who served with them. I suspect that if I lived through that period, I may have taken on the values that they held. My values now are different and my understanding of events are different. I could never serve in the military forces nor use their training opportunities or research grants for my own advancement. Like many others, I call for the government to invest in peace-building initiatives and not militaristic endeavours. What would happen if we invested as much in peace-building as we do in weapon building?
I recognise that a lot of advancement in medical research and technology research (i.e. the internet) have come about because of military expenditure but I would contend that the insecurity we feel and our distrust of others comes from our militarism. I write this with the backdrop of President Trump and North Korea facing off in a struggle of strength with each threatening even more catastrophic action if the other doesn't back down. Who will blink first and who will really suffer because of the posturing of these two leaders and their leadership teams? Who paid or is paying the price in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and other conflict zones around the globe? Do we even have any idea how to rebuild these countries once conflict is resolved? Do we understand how to help past colonies to settle their internal disputes or do they, as I read somewhere, have to go through the same civil unrest (wars) as we did in order to reach some form of peace?
It has taken me two months to get to a point where I could write this blog. I think that I can understand how my grandfather might have reacted in self defence when faced with a German soldier searching the allied trenches. Trained as he was, I too would probably have attempted to fight him off and force them to retreat. Part of the problem is that that was the wrong environment to start negotiations but I wonder about the truces that enabled a football game to be played between the enemy sides. Could there have been an agreement between those on the front that the killings should stop? That they as individuals held no grudge or personal hatred for each other? I don't know but it seems likely if we had a different understanding of how to resolve conflicts.
Before I embarked on this tour of World War I sites, I was unsure of how I would react. I do not see war as a solution and I have considerable difficulty attending ceremonies where war is remembered for the “freedom” that it brought us. This journey reinforced my feelings about the futility of war and has further reinforced the feeling that we need more effort put into international peace and reconciliation studies. There are plenty of examples where non-violence has brought about change on the national stage of a number of countries through exposing what is wrong with the politics of a nation. Is it possible to apply the same principles of non-violence on the international stage to expose world problems and to bring about a redress of the way we interact internationally? Has it ever really been put to the test?
Western nations supply much of the weaponry and then go to war to defeat those that we have supplied and maybe even trained. Does this make any sense? Is our only form of defence when we get a 'rouge' state to posture that we have more weaponry than them? Should we be surprised that these 'rouge' states want the weaponry that we have at our disposal? Is mutual assured destruction (MAD) or self-assured destruction (SAD) really viable forms of maintaining peace? We need viable alternative and we need them quickly.