Lamenting the sadness of war, and of New Zealand’s war historians

Flags are at half mast today across New Zealand to mark the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War.

A shell bursting near New Zealand troops, Bailleul, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013399-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

A shell bursting near New Zealand troops, Bailleul, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013399-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Over 100,000 young Kiwi men were drawn into that conflict over a four year span. Of these, more than 58,000 became casualties, 16,500 of them dead. For a country of just on a million souls it was a heart-wrenching tragedy.

New Zealand, of course, was far from alone.

That human cost was multiplied by the fact that survivors came back damaged; this was the war that introduced ‘shell shock’ – post traumatic stress disorder – to the world on the largest scale. During the 1920s, broken men tried to pick up the shattered threads of their lives as best they could. There was often little help. An experience wonderfully described in J L Carr’s A Month In The Country.

Today the overwhelming impression of the war – certainly the way that New Zealand historiography and popular recollection has been shaped – is of unrelenting tragedy. A senseless war of senseless slaughter in which stupid generals didn’t know what to do, other than send innocent men walking very slowly towards machine guns.

Call it the ‘Blackadder’ interpretation.

World War 1 New Zealand machine gunners using a captured German position, Puisiuex, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013511-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

World War 1 New Zealand machine gunners using a captured German position, Puisiuex, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013511-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

This has been the overwhelming tenor of the key interpretations of the war, shaping even academic history. From the military viewpoint it’s not true. Despite the appalling casualty lists and human cost, the tactical reality on the ground was a good deal more sophisticated than historians usually allow. And there is a good deal else that has yet to be discussed – lost, until now, amidst the overwhelming power of human sorrow. The war’s beginning has been portrayed, narrative-style, as a mechanistic result of nationalist pride and inflexible European alliance systems. In fact, there were choices; but the underlying motives for the decision to fight have barely been discussed by historians.  Could it be that, from the viewpoint of British and French politicians in 1914, it was necessary – even essential – to make a stand? A lot was said at the time about German ‘frightfulness’. Was this propaganda or a fair assessment? How far can the underlying trends and issues be validly traced?

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

As yet, these debates have barely begun. They are being raised in Britain – I keep getting invited to contribute papers to symposia and conferences there, via the Royal Historical Society of which I am a Fellow.

Whether I can do anything about exploring the same ideas in New Zealand is moot. I write and publish on my own merits. Alas, New Zealand’s local public- and university-funded military historical crowd – all of whom prosper on full-time salaries at my expense as taxpayer – have rewarded my independent commercial work in their field by treating me like a war criminal. I know these strangers only through their public worth-denials of my scholarship and the commercial work I do to complement their taxpayer-funded activities. They do not respond to my correspondence, I cannot get added to mailing lists, and I have been unable to join their symposia even as audience – I only found out about the latest by accident. All from strangers who have felt unable to approach me directly in the first instance, but have been happy enough to go behind my back to attack me in public and then cowered behind silence when approached over their conduct. However, I’ve been told their status is such that I have no grounds to criticise them.

westernTo me the study of history – as with all human endeavour – is all about positively working together with good will, generous spirit and kindness. Grow the pie, and everybody benefits. But I appear to be a lone voice. And the experience makes me ask why I am paying the salaries, travel expenses and subsidising the publications of this little group through my taxes. There is a LOT of public money sloshing around the First World War centenary in New Zealand. Should it all be accumulated to a few public servants and academics who flourish at taxpayer expense and whose response to commercial authors seeking to work with them is to publicly attack and exclude the interloper?

Wright_Shattered Glory coverThe practical outcome is there seems little chance of my getting support for what I want to do. I’d like to look at New Zealand’s First World War from a different perspective – not to dislodge the ‘Blackadder’ view, but to add to it. There are many questions, including issues to do with New Zealand’s national identity – something I touched, briefly, in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin, 2010). But I can’t see myself being in a position to take that further.

But enough about the schreklichkeit of New Zealand’s military-historical academics. Instead, let’s take a moment to pause and think about the realities of the world a century ago – a world when, for a few brief weeks at least, the notion of a new war seemed somehow adventurous. It would, most of those who flocked to enlist were certain, be over by Christmas 1914.

Of course it wasn’t. As always, the enthusiastic young men, the hopeful patriots, the eager populations of 1914 did not know their future.

More on this soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Anzac: a word of humble origin

It’s Anzac day today on both sides of the Tasman, a day of remembrance that strikes to the heart of national sentiment in Australia and New Zealand.

Anzac beach, Gallipoli.  Hampton, W A, fl 1915 :Photograph album relating to World War I. Ref: 1/2-168790-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Anzac beach, Gallipoli. Hampton, W A, fl 1915 :Photograph album relating to World War I. Ref: 1/2-168790-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

All of which belies the humble origins of the term.

Anzac began as a straight-forward acronym, a simple description of the combined Australian and New Zealand Army Corps formed under Lieutenant-General William Birdwood in Egypt in early December 1914.  They were a lash-up. The two formations had been on their way to Britain, via the Mediterranean, to join the fighting on the Western Front. When war broke out with Turkey, they were dumped in Egypt as a hedge against possible Turkish intrusion from Palestine.

That acronym gained enduring life when it was turned into a rubber stamp, “A.&N.Z.A.C.”, by two staff sergeants, A. T. Little and Millington, to frank incoming mail. Apparently this was in use by early January 1915, and the Corps became known by the acronym – which was more euphonious than the alternative ‘NZAAC’.

The Gallipoli operation was proposed a little later, using the ANZAC Corps largely because they happened to be in Egypt at the time. Birdwood’s staff – ensconced in the Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo – began casting around for a formal military code name for the unit. After several false starts came up with the idea of using ‘ANZAC’.

Exactly how that happened, though, has been a matter of versions – the documentation varies, underscoring the difficulties of pursuing historical detail down to its ‘quantum uncertainty’ level. Depending on which account you believe, the idea was either proposed by Lieutenant A. T. White, or somebody else on Birdwood’s staff. In 1936, Little wrote to the RSA newsletter claiming that he had the idea and put it to White. But Little’s account seems to conflate this moment and the stamp-making idea, months earlier.

My photo of soldiers' graves at Tyne Cot, 2004.

My photo of soldiers’ graves at Tyne Cot, 2004.

It remains one of those awkward issues flowing from inadequate and contradictory source documentation. But the fact that we don’t know the exact conversation in that room in the Shepheard’s Hotel doesn’t reduce the fact that ANZAC as a military code name emerged from those people and that room – one way or another – and that Birdwood liked it. So ANZAC became the code name for the force.

The acronym soon became a word, starting with ‘Anzac Cove’ as a nickname for the bay south of Ari Burnu where the Australians and Kiwis landed on 25 April. It was embodied in the “Anzac Book”, written later in 1915 by the Anzacs at Gallipoli. The name was perpetuated in 1916 when the two main Australian and New Zealand formations on the Western Front, in France and Belgium, became 1 Anzac and 2 Anzac Corps.

By this time it was also in common usage as a word back in Australia and New Zealand – not just as the nickname for the oatmeal biscuits being sent to the men at the front, but also to identify the memorial services that began, almost spontaneously, on the first anniversary of the landings.

By 1920 the term was well ensconced, a neologism to conjure with on both sides of the Tasman – as, indeed, it still is today.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014



Black Friday, paraskevidekatriaphobia, and the origin of OMG

I have never quite understood why Friday 13th is viewed with such foreboding.

HMS Invincible - invented by Jack Fisher and absolutely not going to sail on a Friday 13th in 1914.

HMS Invincible –  the first battlecruiser, invented by Jack Fisher (along with ‘OMG’) and absolutely not going to sail on a Friday 13th in 1914.

From the science perspective it’s no different from any other day. The Earth revolves on its axis, creating the illusion of the sun rising and falling – but one revolution, surely, isn’t any different from another. Arbitrary dates and divisions we make up in western society, surely, are just that? (OMG, I sound like Spock.)

Lots of people beg to differ, though. We are, it seems, often paraskevidekatriaphobics – including, it seems, the man who invented OMG. I’ll explain. On 1 November 1914, a German cruiser squadron under Vice-Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee shattered a British force under Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, off Coronel.

The British Admiralty – under their volcanic First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher – responded decisively.

First use of OMG! Part of p78 from Fisher's 'Memories' (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).

First ever use of OMG, in a letter from Sir John Fisher to Winston Churchill, 1917, published two years later; from my copy of Fisher’s ‘Memories’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919). Click to enlarge.

Fisher was an incredible character – deeply devout, creative, brilliant, egotistical, paranoid and prone to pursuing feuds, the man who invented not only the battlecruiser but also the term OMG that we know and love today. Seriously! I have the original publication. “O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)” And as First Sea Lord, he wasn’t going to stand for any rubbish from the Germans.

On the back of von Spee’s Coronel victory, a massive force, including two battlecruisers, was ordered to hunt down and destroy von Spee’s cruiser squadron. But then it turned out that Invincible needed dockyard work at Devonport and would not be ready to sail before Friday 13 November. Fisher discovered the point and declared to Winston Churchill, then his political counterpart in the Admiralty, ‘Friday 13th! What a day to choose!”

Churchill thought so too, though for other reasons than those of a superstitious sailor. Britain was at war, and as far as he was concerned there was no excuse for dockyard slackness.  The ships, he insisted, would leave on Wednesday 11th – even if it meant sending dock workers with the Invincible.

They did. And it turned out to be very bad luck for von Spee, who was caught and annihilated off the Falkland Islands on 8 December.

Do you believe in Friday 13th – or other omens?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write what you know, know what you write

There is an old adage that good writing must be about what you know. It’s been around so long it’s virtually a cliché.

But it’s also true. I posted last week about the methods Ernest Hemingway used to convey authenticity through writing style.  But that wasn’t the only way he gave his work the ‘real feel’. He also wrote about what he knew.

“It’s only a model”. “Shhh!”‘ Photo copyright (c) Matthew Wright 2004, 2012

That’s not to say that authors have to write of exact experiences. Some do – I’m thinking Jack Kerouac. But more usually, experience informs the writing – it becomes abstracted, part of the tapestry. And because that underlying experience is real, it gives the writing a sense of authenticity.

Hemingway was an adventurer, and his inspiration was the hard edge of the human condition. One of his key shaping experiences was the collision between his First World War and his personality – a moment of frisson. He served with the ambulance corps in Italy in 1918, and from that emerged Farewell To Arms. His drive to find ‘real’, to nail the harshness of the human condition, was pushed by that war. Life in post-war Paris lent depth. So did time in Spain.

Hemingway was not alone. A lot of my professional historical work has gone into showing how the First World War changed people – one of my books on the New Zealand experience is being used as a university text, I believe. The war gave the twentieth century its social and political direction – threw a lot of trends into fast-forward. An awful lot of literature came out of the same cauldron.

Ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles on the Somme, probably 1 July 1916. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

One of the best examples was  J. R.R. Tolkien. Middle Earth – and The Lord Of The Rings – was written from life experience on many levels. His life as a scholar and philologist shows. And he also wrote from his First World War and his experience with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers.

I’ve posted before about how the descriptions Tolkien gave of places such as Mordor, of orc talk and battles, were riffs on the Western Front. The Dead Marshes were an exact description of the Ypres trench evironment, where men fought in stinking swamps amidst corpses.

Tolkien also used that experience conceptually. It emerged, for instance, in his repeated motif of extended life – those without long life were jealous of those whose lives flowed into the future. This was a reflection of front-line soldier attitudes, whose own lives might be measured in seconds, minutes or hours. To them, normal lifespan was an endless future. Tolkien, in short, infused his experiences into his ideas. Even readers who had not lived through the First World War could sense the authenticity. That is one of many reasons why Tolkien’s work struck such a chord.

Experience, then, can become a powerful way of creating depth and reality. Sometimes it can even happen without authors doing it consciously.

Do you find your experiences working their way into your writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Remembering a century of wars

It’s Anzac Day in New Zealand – memorial day, A day when – with Australia – we remember the dead of all our wars. In a way it is a peculiar choice. Britain remembers their dead on 11 November – the anniversary of the Armistice in 1918. We remember ours on the day our forces stormed ashore on the coasts of Gallipoli, opening a disastrous eight-month campaign.

The reasons are entwined in the mythology of New Zealand’s nationalism. After the campaign ended in December 1915, grieving New Zealanders turned it into a triumph of national identity – a moment when we fought for our beloved Empire. It was an astonishing turn-around. The first celebrations of 1916 turned into tradition; afterwards, the day became more rallying point for military remembrance than Armistice Day. And so Anzac Day was born.

It has evolved since, shaped by the wars New Zealand got involved with through the twentieth century. As part of the British Empire, New Zealanders fought alongside others from Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa and allies such as the United States, from the Arctic ocean to the deserts of Africa, from the Pacific islands to the jungles of Borneo. Later, Kiwi forces were sent on peace-keeping duties to Ethiopia, the Balkans, Sinai and Timor among others. Today, there are Kiwi soldiers in Afghanistan.

More than half of New Zealand’s military casualties of all time occurred on the Western Front of 1916-18 – the soul-destroying conflict that defined the First World War. I wrote about that in my book Shattered Glory: The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front (Penguin 2010).

New Zealanders today would not be here were it not for the sacrifices of these brave men in 1914-18, and particularly 1939-45, a war that, for all its tragedy, had to be fought as the only way of saving the world from a new dark age. We will remember them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

OMG – it’s not new at all. OMG!

Last Saturday I posted an entry on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. With a puzzler of my own at the end. Who first used the abbreviation “OMG”?

The answer is this man: Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher (1840-1920), the volcanic, megalomaniac, temperamental naval officer who – as First Sea Lord – reformed the Royal Navy between 1904 and 1910. They didn’t call it ‘the fleet that Jack built’ for nothing.

Fisher’s role as inventor of the term was recently revealed in the third edition Oxford English Dictionary. Not too astonishing for anyone familiar with Fisher. And in any case, the OED is not to be dissed; it is the English gold standard for, with long-standing and thoroughly deserved repute for the calibre and quality of its scholarship. J. R. R. Tolkien was one of their writers, back in 1919-20.

So while in the linguistic sense I suspect it’s likely that “OMG” has been invented and re-invented many times in recent colloquial usage, there can be little doubt about Fisher’s role as original creator. The OED traced it to a letter he wrote to Winston Churchill in 1917, which he finished with a typical Fisherian explosion: “O.M.G. (‘Oh! My God!) – Shower it on the Admiralty!!”

As it happens – partly thanks to interest fired up by an honours dissertation I wrote on this man (in another century, sigh) – I own the book where that letter was first published in 1919, Fisher’s autobiography Memories. The text is also available online.

First use of OMG! Part of p78 from Fisher’s ‘Memories’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).

Fisher’s writing was littered with abbreviations, multiple underlinings, Biblical references, multiple exclamation marks and red ink. He was a career navy man, deeply religious, ambitious, unforgiving, ruthless, prone to pursue vendettas beyond any point of reason. He was addicted to waltzing. He even believed he was a second Nelson, to the point of pursuing an affair with his own ‘Lady Hamilton’. But he was also a megalomaniac, and in April 1915, finally managed to bring the British government down over the Gallipoli crisis.

That also destroyed his own career, but that did not stop him being appointed, in 1916-17, to lead the committee that invented sonar, then known by its British acronym ASDIC.

His main legacy, however, remains his 1904-05 naval reform programme which set the Royal Navy up for the twentieth century – and allowed it to help Britain win the First World War. This included introducing the all-big-gun battleship and battlecruiser in 1905, committee projects Fisher led which extended existing naval trends. Much of the repute of the type flowed from the way Fisher sold the new vessels to the media – particularly HMS Dreadnought which, he insisted, had been built in just 366 days. This was typical Fisherian theatrics. Her actual construction time was fifteen months, still an astonishing achievement.

So – whenever you use ‘OMG’ or its modern form ‘ZOMG’, don’t forget Jack Fisher – the man who gave it to us.

And the link to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code? In 2006, Holy Blood – Holy Grail authors Richard Leigh, Michael Baigent and Henry Lincoln (whose names became that of Brown’s villain “Leigh Teabing”) sued Random House and Brown for copyright infringement. Not from copied words, but because the ‘central theme’ had been allegedly lifted from them. They lost. Justice Peter Smith ruled that there had been no breach – for reasons summarised here. Amidst the judgement document he embedded a code of his own, apparently for amusement. It did not take long for a Guardian journalist to decode. Here’s an enthusiast analysis of the mechanism. And it read: ‘Smithy Code. Jackie Fisher, who are you? Dreadnought.” A very explicit reference to the Admiral, of whom Smith was apparently a fan.

As, indeed, am I. ZOMG!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011

31 May is Jutland Day!

Does anybody remember the Battle of Jutland? The one and only clash of dreadnoughts in the First World War, 31 May 1916. And the last major sea battle controlled via flag signals.

Today is the 95th anniversary. I covered the drama in my book Blue Water Kiwis, a decade ago, but it deserves fresh mention. It seems to me, as a writer and historian, that certain historical truths have been lost amidst endless arguments about the tactics.

The strategic reality is clear enough. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe did not have to destroy the German High Seas Fleet. All he had to do was remain in command of the North Sea – and on 1 June, the only fleet at sea was his one. That strategic victory flowed from Jellicoe’s tactical decisions; he twice decisively out-manoeuvered the Germans, forcing Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer to turn away in confusion before his leading ships were destroyed, then put his dreadnoughts between the Germans and their base. The fact that the Germans still scuttled home, via a different route, was a consequence of British intelligence failures – the Admiralty’s ‘Room 40′ picked up where the Germans were going from wireless intercepts, but they didn’t tell Jellicoe.

Afterwards, the fact that Jutland was a crushing strategic defeat for Germany was lost amidst a good deal of British soul-searching. The problem was that although the Germans had not affected British sea superiority, the tally of ships lost was in the German favour. There was also a huge popular expectation in Britain that the clash of fleets should be a ‘second Trafalgar’ in which the losing side was annihilated. Jellicoe was castigated for his apparent caution in not pursuing the German fleet as it fled into the misty darkness. Indeed, the argument blighted his subsequent career and was still being fought out, by proxy, into the 1920s. Jellicoe himself was too gentlemanly to be closely involved; I’ve got his autobiography in my collection, along with Scheer’s – and some of the key books by Reginald Bacon and others, arguing the to-and-fro polemic. It all makes for interesting historical reading.

Yet – to run a counterfactual – had he turned towards the desperate German torpedo attack at dusk on 31 May, and lost half a dozen dreadnoughts, what then?

One other point stands out. The four largest British ships that went down – three battlecruisers and an armoured cruiser – were not battered into submission; they disappeared in cataclysmic explosions after just a few hits. That wasn’t expected – as Vice-Admiral David Beatty put it, ‘there’s something wrong with our bloody ships today’. From an engineering perspective the reasons were different – complex machinery always breaks in complex ways, and analysis has shown that thin armour was only one factor in a human mix that included faulty munitions-handling procedures, faulty anti-flash precautions – and, perhaps worst of all, munitions storage outside the magazines. That last was a consequence of early war experience in which the British ‘hail of fire’ approach to engagements quickly depleted the designed 80-round-per-gun capacity of the magazines.

It is here that we see the real historical impact of Jutland. Ships riven by magazine explosion sank in two or three minutes;and the crews of 800-1200 had no chance to escape, going down to a terrible death as the compartments around them filled. We know their names. Here are the casualty lists of HMS Invincible, HMS Indefatigable, HMS Queen Mary and HMS Defence. A handful only survived – often those in the spotting tops. It was an appalling casualty rate, comparable with that of a ‘push’ on the Western Front. And it is for that reason that we need to remember the battle. The lethality of the First World War was not just restricted to land battles.

Tomorrow, of course, it’s the Glorious First of June. But that, as they say, is another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011