Author Paul Ham and Australian journalist and commentator Jack Waterford AM explore how ordinary men on both sides endured this constant state of siege, with a very real awareness that they were being gradually, deliberately, wiped out.
Transcript of ‘Passchendaele: Requiem for Doomed Youth’
Speakers: Stuart Baines (SB), Jack Waterford (JW), Paul Ham (PH), Audience (A)
Location: National Library of Australia
SB: Good evening, everyone. Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Library of Australia, I’m Stuart Baines, the Library’s Assistant Director of Community Outreach. As we begin this evening I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home. It’s great to see a lovely audience here tonight. Even my efforts to coerce people into the front row did not work. It’s just like high school, no one wants to sit in the front row but I will forgive you tonight.
I’m delighted that so many of you are here to hear from award-winning Australian author, historian, journalist and publisher, Paul Hamm. Paul specialises in the 20th century history of war, politics and diplomacy. His books have received critical acclaim in Britain and in Australia. After working as a journalist in London in 1992 he cofounded a financial newsletter publishing company whose titles including Governance, the Money Laundering Bulletin, which he sold in 1997. For part of that period Paul also worked part-time as the Editor of Amnesty, the magazine of the British headquarters of Amnesty International so he clearly was not very busy.
On his return to Australia in 1998 Ham was appointed the Australian correspondent for the London Sunday Times. Paul’s of course an author. It would take too much time to list all of his works, awards and nominations but it all started extremely well with his first book, Kokoda, published in 2004 being shortlisted for the Walkley Award for Nonfiction and the New South Wales Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction. Sandakan, the untold story of the Sandakan death marches was published in 2012 and was shortlisted for the 2013 Prime Minister's Literary Award for History. In 2010 Paul cowrote and presented the document, All The Way, based on the history of the Vietnam war. In 2012 he set up an electronic publishing business, Hand Press, which publishes eBooks, audio books and short films. His latest book, Passchendaele, Requiem for Doomed Youth, tells the story of ordinary men in the grip of a political and military power struggle, a struggle that determined their fate and has foreshadowed the destiny of the world for a century. Like his preceding work Passchendaele is engrossing and sometimes confronting. It challenges us as readers, not just providing an insight into the most horrific chapter in what was a horrific war but asks us the questions did this need to happen?
Joining Paul this evening is Jack Waterford, Australian journalist, commentator and former Editor for The Canberra Times. For most of you if you are locals, you do not need this introduction. Jack is well-known for his long-spanning career in journalism beginning with The Canberra Times in 1972. Jack worked his way through the ranks to become its Editor in Chief in 2001. Jack was made a member of the Order of Australia for the services to journalism in 2007 and in the same year was named Canberra Citizen of the Year. Could you all please welcome Paul Ham and Jack Waterford?
JW: Thank you. Paul, in introducing you tonight with a book about events that were 99 years ago I thought I might start with events that are about 290 years ago, the Battle of Blenheim, and a poem written about oh 190 years ago after Blenheim which begins with a child walking around in the garden and tripping over a large round object and he takes it to the grandfather who says oh ‘tis some poor fellow’s skull, says he, who fell in the great victory. I find them in the garden for there’s many here about and often when I go to plough the ploughshare turns them out for many thousand men, said he, were slain in that great victory. Now tell us what was all about, young Peterkin, he cries and little Wilhamain looks up with wonder waiting eyes. Now tell us all about the war and what they fought each other for. It was the English, Casper cried, who put the French to rout but what they fought each other for I could not well make out. But everybody said, quoth he, it was a famous victory.
My father lived in Blenheim then, yon little stream hard by, they burnt his dwelling to the ground and he was forced to fly. So with his wife and child he fled nor had he where to rest his head were far and soared the country round was wasted far and wide and many a childing mother then and newborn baby died. But things like you know must be after every famous victory. They say it was a shocking sight after the field was won for many thousand bodies here lay rotting in the sun. But things like that you know must be after a famous victory. And everybody praised the Duke who this great fight did win but what good came of it at last? Quoth little Peterkin. Why that I cannot tell, said he, but it was a famous victory.
What good came out of Passchendaele? What was it all about?
PH: Well firstly thank you very much for having me at the National Library today and you cast my mind back 290 years, I’m trying to gather my thoughts. Of course universal truths come down to us from Robert Southey and poets ... certainly the romantic poets as well you know you just have to look at Shelley’s poem and he’s obviously the most radical of them. But I ... what good came of Passchendaele? That’s the ... goes to the heart of my books, the question really the book asks is how this slaughter, four-month slaughter from July to November 1917, the purist form of attrition. What good came of it? And the extraordinary thing is the jury’s still out, we’ve still got books championing Passchendaele as a necessary battle, as worth it because it ground the Germans down, it pinned them down in Flanders, it gave the French time to recover. You have to remember they’d been fighting at the Battle of Verdun for most of 1916, they were crushed, they were in a state of mutiny or not so much mutiny but mass desertion. Many of them refused to fight, they were exhausted.
The extraordinary thing then is do we ... are we therefore condemned to fight Passchendaele, to fight Haig’s war of attrition which led to 270,000 commonwealth soldiers dead, wounded, missing in action for that purpose? And my answer is no, I believe that it was utterly futile, a monumental failure and almost lost us the war ‘cause at the end of it we’d never seen the morale of the commonwealth armies so badly damaged, utterly broken. The New Zealand Army, a particular example, their worst afternoon of their ... in their history was in October where they lost thousands needlessly being sent into battle on the orders of General Godley who knew that they were going to die, who knew that they were going to be wounded in massive numbers, as a percentage of their population certainly. And they never forgot it.
The Anzacs ... the Australians as well similarly sent into battle without artillery support, mown down beneath Passchendaele Ridge in the mud unable to move, some of them crawling into battle, blown into shell holes and drowning. This went on and on and on and the book really charts the futility of this battle. Did it do what the apologists say it did? Did it pin the Germans down in Flanders? Did it allow the French time to recover? Well there’s no evidence of the French generals ... there’s no evidence of Foch or Marshal Petain pleading or begging or asking Haig to prosecute the Flanders offensive so that kills off that particular case for the battle.
David Lloyd George himself said at the end of it this almost lost us the war and the extent to which it killed our armies, it severely damaged our armies and crushed our morale. So I’m sort of giving you I suppose the conclusion of the book but to get to that point we need to navigate the various justifications, the various narratives, the various streams of thought which were going through the generals’ heads, the extent to which they were reduced to helpless pawns to some extent. And I actually say in the book of what value were Haig’s or Ludendorff’s or Rupprecht’s characters in a battle where they were helpless to change the nature of the conflict beyond pure attrition?
And to finish, if I may ‘cause it was a vast question, we need to understand what pure ... a battle ... war of attrition means and I’m sure many of you are you know avid readers of military history but I mean many of my audiences, I ask you what do you understand by a war of attrition? And it certainly wasn't the kind of war that Haig has presented to the war cabinet which was a battle of territorial gain, that he was going to take out the submarine bases on the Belgian coast and drive the Germans out of Belgium. But when that failed it degenerated into his second case for Passchendaele and for the Somme which was pure attrition meaning of course that the epic casualty lists were not some sort of accident or blunder, they were planned for, that was built into the equation of attrition. It was about a war of the body count. Can we kill them at a faster rate than they can kill us? That is what attrition means and in fact they said during quiet times, the normal wastage, as they referred to casualties on the western front, would be five to 7,000 per week. During the Somme and during Passchendaele the normal wastage, to use the grotesque euphemism of the time, was 20 to 50,000 casualties per week, planned, expected, anticipated.
JW: And proof if anything that you are being fair dinkum about it instead of mucking around.
PH: That’s right, I mean Haig himself chastised some units for not sustaining enough casualties because it showed a want of offensive spirit. During the Somme in September he actually berated one of his generals saying but they only lost a thousand, they couldn’t have been ... so this is the kind of war that was being fought and I don’t think it’s really been spelt out as clearly as it should be to ... hundred years later, I mean I think now’s the time to really confront what it was all about.
JW: Well in the book the ... as you say you ... to some extent we’re starting at the end but ...
JW: ... the book also is a chronicle of another battle, a battle for influence, power and about a summonsing together of the resources that make that battle. You have a new prime minister in Lloyd George who says that he’s not going to be the butcher’s boy driving cattle towards the slaughter.
JW: But at the end of the day he’s doing precisely that for political rather than military or strategic reasons.
PH: Oh he ... Lloyd George knew it was failing, the battle of Passchendaele, he could see the casualty lists. It was degenerating into the worst kind of slaughter which he’d said at the end of 1916, there’d be no more Sommes when he becomes prime minister, no more Sommes. I will not be the butcher’s boy driving man to the slaughter and of course Passchendaele became just that so it ... is the question which again goes to the heart of the book, is the overriding political narrative betw ... the relationship between ... if you can call it a relationship ... the hatred, the mutual loathing between Lloyd George and Douglas Haig and that goes to the heart of Passchendaele and exacerbate ... the fact that they fell out and hardly communicating goes to the heart of why Passchendaele was such a tragedy because it needlessly prolonged the battle. These two men were very proud men, they’d ... Lloyd George had brutally used his general in ways that would astonish us today, I mean he went behind Haig’s back to hand control of the British and dominion armies to the French in April 1917, an extraordinary thing. That is the extent to which he was going to take command of the war on the western front out of the blood-drenched hands of Field Marshal Haig and into the hands of the French but that’s the extent to which he was prepared to go to stop it but he didn’t stop Passchendaele. Now I haven’t answered that point yet but it’s ...
JW: I was just going to cut in there when you sort of said that we couldn’t imagine today ... we couldn’t imagine for example that a Blamey would sacrifice Australian generals to satisfy American ones, would we? Could we?
PH: Well good point, I’ve addressed that in Kokoda. Shall we talk about Kokoda?
JW: No, no, no, I was just ... you were saying ...
PH: But a nice edit, Jack.
JW: Yes. The battle over the resources and the point reached in effect where it is perfectly clear that Lloyd George knows that this is a senseless slaughter and a battle that they’re losing but he doesn’t act. Why doesn’t he act?
PH: Alright so ...
JW: Because he wants to give rope ...
PH: Well he knew they were losing the war but he wanted it to be seen to be Haig’s loss. This is my conclusion, this ... from an enormous amount of work and research looking at the human factor of this war and the brutal politics at the highest level. You can’t help ... and Lloyd George actually says this in his memoirs. You may have read his extraordinary memories, one chapter’s called the campaign of the mud, a whole chapter devoted to Passchendaele. He lived for decades after the war bearing the guilt of Passchendaele with him and it was guilt, he was stricken by this, he was deeply torn by what happened at Passchendaele. He hadn’t acted. Now why did he not? I mean his answer is that he would have been you know hung, drawn and quartered by the conservatives in his coalition. The press would have attacked him as a meddling politician, thwarting the generals’ battle with their strategies and so that’s how he justified it, of not intervening.
Now had he intervened he certainly would have been seen to be stopping the battle at the most critical point which is on October the 9th, thereabouts, the worst month, the cruellest month as I call it, quoting T S Elliot, of course. That was the moment where they may have stopped it and all the historians of Passchendaele say why didn't you stop at that point? That was the point they were sitting beneath Passchendaele Ridge in the mud being ... the Germans were coming out of their cement pillboxes and just picking them off with rifles and laughing about it pretty much, I mean they were astonished. They weren’t going to waste their machine gun ammunition on an army that had been bogged down literally. Nobody stopped it. Lloyd George felt that if he had stopped it then he would have been pilloried by the press and he would have been ... gone down in history perhaps, possibly as the man who had stopped the war at a moment when Haig was saying ... and remember the politicians didn’t know the precise conditions at the front at that time, they weren’t getting very ... they were getting all the casualty lists but they didn’t know exactly what was happening beneath Passchendaele Ridge at that moment.
Had he stopped it Haig would have been able ... said well you stopped ... you thwarted our hopes of overrunning Passchendaele Ridge, securing a jumping-off point for the resumption of battle in 1918, even getting to the coast. Who was to know? I mean they didn’t know to an extent what was going to happen next. Of course Haig knew, Haig knew that he was bogged down, he couldn’t move but that was essentially the reason that Lloyd George refused to intervene. He was not going to intervene in the battle where he knew he would be the punching bag of both the conservatives in parliament and the press. He stopped and let Haig then lose it.
JW: But Haig at the same time ... a little bit like Montgomery in a war later ... was continually redefining what the objectives ...
JW: ... of the war was about and continually insisting that everything was going as planned and that we were doing really quite well regardless. But even by his own standards as defined in advance he wasn’t doing that well, was he? He wasn’t grinding ... he wasn’t killing more Germans ...
PH: No, no.
JW: ... than he was losing himself.
PH: Perhaps to take your question in the broader context, you may well know that the original case for Passchendaele ... it wasn’t Passchendaele Ridge about that, that was just the first stage in a massive offensive, the Flanders offensive of 1917 which would crash out of Ypres or Wipers, as the Tommies call it, and take Passchendaele, these ridges which were radiating east to northeast of the city of Ypres and then he would steer northeast, charge to the coast, seize the submarine bases, the German submarine bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge. This was how he presented it to Cabinet in June 1917 and it was approved on that basis. Of course from those submarine bases the Germans were waging unlimited submarine warfare, U-boat warfare on allied ... neutral shipping. So they needed to be seized and then he would sweep towards Holland and drive the Germans out of Belgium. This was a fantastically ambitious plan. Passchendaele was ...
JW: Needing only an extra 500,00 soldiers.
PH: Only ... that’s what they ... one of his generals actually said, probably ... no, it was ... one of the Cabinet ministers actually said probably only take five ... Milner, I think ... it’ll cost 500,000 troops only. So this was the plan. It took them four months. Passchendaele was supposed to be in his hands within a matter of couple of weeks. It took four months ... now you have got to remember, Passchendaele’s 8km northeast of Ypres. It took them four months to get to Passchendaele with 270,000 allied casualties and 217,000 German casualties so in other words once the war had been bogged down he then reverted to his secondary justification for the battle which he didn’t inform the War Cabinet about which was the war of attrition which was the wearing-down war as he called it after the Somme. And that was about, literally as I’ve said earlier, wearing down the German morale, killing them at a faster rate than they were killing us. Now of course we were losing ... we lost the body count, to put it brutally, at Passchendaele. They killed more of us than we killed of them but in Haig’s mind, and he called it the same or far worse casualties after the Somme, he said these were not extreme given the nature of the battle.
What Haig knew was that he could draw ultimately on a far deeper pool of manpower so the pure mathematics were in his favour because once ... the French were steadily recovering and in fact they were recovering at a fast ... far faster rate than Foch and Petain had informed Haig but it served their purposes to tell him ... to exaggerate that they were pretty well still broken. And the Americans were coming because once the Germans launched unlimited submarine warfare the Germans entered ... the Americans entered the war. So in other words he knew he had these vast armies ultimately to draw on. So he’d keep bashing away using the only armies he had at his disposal, the British, the Anzacs and the Canadians and a small South African brigade. And so that’s basically what happened. He knew that he would just keep pounding away until the bigger armies arrived. So although he lost the body count it didn’t really matter in the ... to him and to many of the generals in the ultimate ... and I say that ... when I say it didn’t really matter, let’s clarify that. Obviously the generals weren’t butchers, they cared deeply about the loss of their men, Haig was a regular visitor to the field hospitals, he’s devoted his life to veterans’ families after the war but strategically at the time this was the cost of attrition, massive casualties. This was their duty, to give their lives to a war of pure wearing down.
JW: And yet if all he wanted was time, if all he needed was a sort of period to wait until reinforcements arrived or the Americans or whatever why was he not adopting what you might call you know an act of defensive mode as the French were doing or as indeed the Germans had been doing for most of 1917?
PH: It’s such a good question that Haig himself devoted an entire section of his final dispatch to why I continued you know ...
JW: To attack ...
PH: ... prosecuting an offensive battle because he’d been ... this had been pushed on him several times and certainly Lloyd George wanted him to fight an offensive battle ideally but didn’t intervene to ... ‘cause ... until it was too late, to insist. In fact Lloyd George wanted to move most of the war to the Italian front, sort of another Gallipoli, a third front in the south which was partially adopted actually towards the end of 1917 but the point is interesting. It’s ... it goes really to the heart of the problem of Passchendaele and I mean I wonder sometimes why you know there wasn’t some sort of meeting amongst the generals to discuss the value of a defensive battle because it really ... there was a strong case for it in 1917 and we had far superior numbers. The German army had not yet been able to send its troops across from the eastern front where ... they’d started to come sort of mid to late 1917, early 1918, really and you had ... the commonwealth troops had already proven themself ... extraordinarily defensive strength of the British at Ypres in the first battle of Ypres in 1914.
There were other ... the other case was the French as I said before had recovered far more rapidly than Foch and Petain was ... were letting on and they’d actually won a battle in October ... 23rd of October against very strong German troops. So in other words there was a case for a defensive battle. It would have been pretty horrific, of course, every battle was but the point is that it may have held the line until ... and it would have expedited I think the case for America getting there quicker and the case for the French recovering sooner. And in fact Foch himself said join us in a defensive battle.
JW: And it didn’t happen.
PH: It didn’t happen, I mean it didn’t play well back home, I mean ... in Haig’s own dispatches he said this was the coward’s battle, defensive battle, you sit there in trenches and wait for the enemy to come to you, of course forgetting that Germany had fought a defensive battle for three years since ... effectively since 1915 ... early 1915 after the battle of ... the second battle of Ypres.
JW: So what does this say?
PH: With great courage, I should say.
JW: What does this say about military decision-making, a about political decision-making, about the advice that comes to the people that are involved and what does it say about why this could never happen again or happen in a modern day?
PH: Which one shall I start with? You’re sort of like ... you’re throwing ...
JW: No, you’re talking say for example about ...
PH: I agree.
JW: ... Ha ... the personality of Haig. Now you’ve disputed in a sense that Haig could really change sort of thing but there’s no doubt about it that it was Haig’s will rather than necessarily the will of his generals that made things go the way they were.
PH: I get ... look at this question because this is a rare example I think ... the moment, October 1917 ... is a rare moment in history where the strategic and tactical battle impinged on the political class or political mind and the Cabinet more than any other because this was a moment where if any Lloyd George should have intervened. Now the great ... at the heart of the question is political accountability because if ... and as I ask in final chapters ... if the generals and Field Marshal Haig had been reduced to just continually sending wave after wave of young men to inevitable slaughter, if that was the only answer you had to the German trench lines ... and they tried many other alternatives you know they tried the lightning strike, the Nivelle offensive of April 1917 which was supposed to sort of smash through in 48 hours and failed dismally.
They tried the creeping barrage and Gough himself tried another sort of lightning strike in August 1917 ... I’m just going through these to show how exhau ... how much they exhausted various alternatives. The creeping barrage and the bite and hold tactics of General Plumer in September 1917 worked to a certain extent because the rain stopped. The great problem with Passchendaele as we haven’t mentioned yet is it was the worst rains in 70 years which caused ... it turned the battlefield into a quagmire, duck ... all those things of duckboards you’ve seen in those famous photographs are from Passchendaele. If you got blown off a duckboard into a liquid mud-filled crater you drowned and thousands drowned. They were weighed down by 25 to 30 kilos of their pack. That’s what I mean by the tactical war impinge ... should have impinged and was to a certain extent impinging on the political decision-making at the top.
Now humanely I think we’re driven to a question and a conclusion about Passchendaele and the Somme. If the generals could find no other way of bashing through, using attrition as a method, then surely it should have gone further up to the government, the governments of Europe because remember the Germans were sustaining absolutely colossal casualties, to actually sit down and mediate and talk and try and come up with some kind of negotiated truce. Now Haig ... that’s not me saying this from a great distance, it’s ... Haig himself said this in early 1918 when he was at his lowest ebb, when his own morale had been destroyed by Passchendaele and he managed to rally but he was on the point of getting sacked. Lloyd George didn’t sack him because he was under pressure from the conservatives in the government and the press.
JW: And the King and his own Cabinet ...
PH: Yes, I mean his wife was a lady in waiting to the King and you know he’s extremely well connected. So the question is ... that is the question that it poses ... it forces us to answer is ... well it’s in my book, I think they certainly should have and I think they failed the societies they ruled or represented by not doing that and there were many voices urging some sort of negotiation, some sort of mediation, not just from the left and from the unions who were on strike for ... we had the greatest numbers of strike action in 1917 in war factories. So the people were turning against the war but not just the left and the unions who can be counted upon at that point to oppose the war, certainly obviously that was the year of the Russian revolution so the Bolsheviks used the slaughter on the western front as a political gift so they could ... they were hoping for the destruction of the Russian which they ... which was a gift to their movement. But you just didn’t see any attempt to do this because the war had degenerated into one of vengeance. We’ve lost so many men, what did they fight for? What did they fight for?
JW: And anyway the generals are promising us peace by Christmas.
PH: That mantra went on throughout the war but Haig himself was in despair at the end of 1917. That was really the blackest year of the war for the allies and the Germans.
JW: Now just go back a second. In the way that you’ve shaped it in the book and the record very much supports this, the personality of Lloyd George at the political end is overwhelmingly the significant one. There are people such as the Tories who are saying you cannot sack Haig and who were enthralled to the army if you like but where was the political class generally? Where was the bureaucrats or whatnot who were actually sort of capable of reviewing the dispatches and the information coming in? Where was the evidence ... I mean as you say there’s plenty of material which suggests that the war was unpopular and that people knew about the carnage, why was there not a more active political movement leading to an end?
PH: Very ... fine question, I mean it ... and it’s ... it can answered succinctly, I think, with the word morale but also an effective ... I wouldn't say dictatorship although that word has been used by a Welsh historian of David Lloyd George’s Cabinet because he had reduced the Cabinet to five men and ruled ... effectively ruled ... he stamped his authority on the whole procedure. He’d surrounded himself with effective yes men, I mean they hardly challenged him. And I suppose one could say that during a war to have free thought of decision-making, you need to be able to override the bureaucracy. The war office were opposing many of the decisions Lloyd George made but they were effectively reduced to a ... well to an ineffective influence at Cabinet level. Lloyd George was really ...
JW: But they were acting in any event as agents of the generals rather than as agents to public interest.
PH: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.
JW: So was Hankey.
PH: Yeah, that’s right and certainly the war office are aghast at a lot of Lloyd George’s decisions such as ...
JW: Well who’s a vulgar little Welshman. Wasn’t he?
PH: Well certainly Haig regarded him as a vulgar little Welshman. He was ... there’s probably not the time to fully navigate the circumference of this colossus of British politics but he was a college-bred Welsh opportunist as Haig called him, you know a monstrous influence in many ways, an extraordinary man. A brilliant orator, a brilliant manipulator of events, a great ... he was ... he really didn't stand for anything as such, you couldn’t take Lloyd George ... as I said he stood for this or that ... he admitted this himself ... he said I can’t really identify what I really stand for but I know at the time effectively ... paraphrasing one of his comments but he stand ...
JW: The Brendan Nelson of his day.
PH: I couldn’t possibly comment on that but he certainly was opposed throughout this reign ... if you can call it that ... to inherited wealth and that’s the starting point of his distrust and dislike of Haig because Haig of course was the inheritor of immense wealth through the Haig whisky distillery. I mean he was a highborn lowland Scot, aristocratic pedigree, went to all the right schools and here’s this upstart as Haig viewed him actually taking command from his ... behind his back and handing it to the French. So what you saw after that disastrous act or incredibly disloyal act of Lloyd George’s, their relationship plunged into ... it wasn’t ... this wasn’t just a breakdown in political relationship at the highest level, it was deeply personal, absolute personal loathing, visceral hatred between these two men, playing out with one ... with two eyes ... with four eyes on a history book how they would be viewed with hindsight and jockeying for power, using an appalling struggle on the western front to shore up their influence and their power.
On the one hand we see Haig determined to ... at least to take Passchendaele Ridge because that was his fall-back position, that was what he said. If I don’t get to the coast at least I will definitely take Passchendaele Ridge. And if he didn’t take that then certainly ... and this was the flipside to the other question from Haig’s point of view, if he didn’t Passchendaele Ridge Lloyd George then would have hung him out to dry, destroyed ... not only sacked him but destroyed his reputation forever. He succeeded in doing that to some extent 30 years later with his memoir but at the time of course they took Passchendaele Ridge. It lasted a couple of months because the Germans in the spring offensive, the beginnings of the spring offensive took it in a few days pretty much and forced the allied armies back to the gates of Paris. A miracle that we actually were victorious and Lloyd George himself had said Passchendaele did more to risk and jeopardise our chances of victory over the Germans than any other battle and to some extent I agree with him. And the analysis is in the book ... don’t have time probably to go into the details of that comment.
JW: This was the war to end all wars, it was the first ... well if you exclude the American civil war, I suppose but the first sort of really total war on Europe’s shores, millions died, millions of civilians died, people starved and we all dedicated ourselves to the idea that there would be no more war again. Did we actually learn anything out of it all?
PH: Could throw that open to the audience, actually, did we learn anything at all? Looking what happened 25, 30 years later some historians now regard world war one and world war two as a continuum, as a ... we had the Weimar blip of peace in the middle, the jazz age, massive depression, hyperinflation in Germany and then the resumption of total war. What did we learn? At the time of 1917 ... I’ll tell you what Lord Lansdowne learnt so in other words to take it back to the actual time rather than for us and for me to pontificate ... I can give you my views of whether we learnt anything but this is what he learnt at the time and Lord Lansdowne you have to remember is a Tory statesman, former foreign secretary so the last man you’d think’d be talking this so-called defeatist talk. But he said we are not going to lose this war ... he wrote to the papers, he publicised this ... he wrote we’re not going to lose this war but it’s promulgation will spell the ruin for the civilised world and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon us. What will be the value of the blessings of peace? He asks. To a nation so exhausted that they can scarcely stretch out a hand with which to grasp them. And that is the le ... what he took from what was happening. What have we learnt from this battle? I see now people ... historians, experts, military specialists saying that we had to fight world war one to crush German tyranny.
There’s been a big debate on the BBC earlier this year involving that very question, should we have fought world war one? And the pros, yes, we should have fought world war one resoundingly won the debate. I would have been on the other side. Now what astonished me about that debate was that yes, we won world war one but they didn’t actually properly address for what? For what were we continuing the slaughter for and what was it going to ... and Niall Ferguson is very interesting on this point ... we won’t go into his book but one of the questions was the pro side, that we had to crush German tyranny. They were likening it to Nazi Germany which is an astonishing thing when you think about it, Nazi Germany was nothing like Germany of the first decade of the 20th century where you had a country as democratic as Britain’s, one man, one vote, you had the first welfare state or the first welfare structure embedded in politics through the Bismarckian reforms which you know Kaiser Bill did largely try to dismantle but the legacy of it was still there, you had a country that yes, was a democracy although the one thing you didn’t have however was a constraint or a hand to hold back the Prussian military caste and as they gained power ... they gained more power with every failure of ours ... to intervene and negotiate and talk to the civilian government. The French didn’t speak to them in 10 years.
And their economic power was ... they were the economic locomotive of Europe so there was that that obviously the British empire did not like. And they wanted a slice of empire. The French, the British and the Russians commanded most of the world. So we look at Germany, a very different country. The question was if they had been ... if Kaiser Bill’s regime had been the tyranny that the pro world war one brigade make out why then would one of these historians have said ... have answered yes ... no, we shouldn’t have gone to war if Germany had honoured Belgium’s borders. I mean you can’t have it both way, it’s either a tyranny which we need to crush regardless of whether Germany honoured or breached Belgium’s border. So there's an incoherence there which still exists to this day but I believe that even Grey, Edward Grey in his lukewarm and rather battered and fragile way was trying to mediate right up until the July crisis when it was too late. But there was this hope that mediation could intervene. They’d done it in 1905, they’d done it in 1911 with the Aberdare crisis, 1905, first Moroccan crisis, they’d done in 1912 and 1913 with the first two Balkan wars and initially the war ... the first world war was initially called the third Balkan war in July. So these questions should be asked rather than to retrospectively say this was another Nazi Germany, we needed to crush them. I mean extraordinary looking at ... reading history backwards.
JW: But one of the other ... sorry, one of the other sort of aspects of it though is say if you look at modern wars such as Afghanistan and Iraq and almost certainly V ... well definitely Vietnam as well, you have decisions being made rightly or wrongly, usually wrongly, to intervene but the nature of the battles, the nature of the struggles inexorably changing and then inevitably sucking in more resources, changing the way that people are doing it, more and more generals insisting that if only we get this we can have the troops home by Christmas, seeing light at the end of the tunnel, in the case of Vietnam going from you know 20,000 troops to half a million troops, in Afghanistan, being there forever, the combined length of the first and the second wars.
PH: Well it makes my blood boil actually to see the lack of accountability at the political level war after war after war. And recently ... ...some of you may have read the Chilcot Inquiry. Well it’s a million words or so but ... so probably not but the first 150 pages is the executive summary which is very interesting because this is really a kind of inquest into war, it’s kind of looking at ... civilian-written committee of inquiry into why we ... why Britain went into Iraq and it’s an astonishing document. I mean it basically throws the book at the Blair Government of the day. It stops short of calling anyone a war criminal and I don’t think Blair was but certainly the government had ... did fail to exhaust the routes towards a negotiated peace or some sort of way where we could stay out of Iraq ... not a peace but ... they failed to look at ... to account to parliament, they failed to a debate or account to the people. I mean the litany of charges goes on and on and it’s an incredible document. Had our governments been aware possibly of a Chilcot Inquiry at the end of Vietnam and these other wars, perhaps they would have thought a little more carefully about ... I doubt it but it’s nice to think, isn’t it? They would have thought a little bit more carefully before Menzies decided to take us to Vietnam without any parliamentary discussion or debate. I mean in my book in Vietnam takes us through that in detail.
Now I probably sound to some of you like I’m being quite judgemental and I suppose in a discussion like this we’re allowed to be, aren’t we? And ... but my books take a very set course. For nine-tenths or pretty much 98% of them, give or take, they are charting a narrative, they’re looking at what happened and I look at all sides, I look at all voices. I look at the left and the right, I look at Japanese and Australians in Kokoda. Some reviewers didn’t like that. And you look at what’s happening. You take the story forward with a sort of symphony of voices and you try to bring that together as a narrative. But in my last chapter I think I owe it to the reader to give my views and to ... I’ve done all this work, I think it’s only fair that I should make some sort of judgment. So what we’re discussing here I suppose are my judgements. I don’t want you to think I’m writing polemics here, this is ... I’m trying to actually get to the bottom of what happened from various perspectives.
JW: Now political accountability is the critical one because ...
JW: ... also another question which is military accountability. And there’s a Canberra aspect of this that I just sort of want to raise. When they started building Canberra, Walter Burley-Griffin’s plan, just west of Mason Street or north of Mason Street we built a vast windbreak to protect Canberra from the dust blowing in. And we called it Haig Park.
PH: I can see where this is going.
JW: Yeah. Is it time to think about changing the name? Let me tell you it is named after Sir Douglas Haig.
PH: I understand, I understand. They’re having this battle in England with ... at Oxford or Cambridge over the Rhodes statue, Cecil Rhodes’ statue now damned as a slavedriver ...
PH: Imperalist and until recently a great man who opened up Africa for trade etc, the Rhodes scholarship named after them. They’ll have to rename that, I suppose. I suppose I’m in the unfashionable position of saying no, they should not change it and the reason I say that is because there is a case for negative history, there is a case for sustaining the controversy, there’s a case for people saying why is that named after Haig? If anything forces us to confront history it’s that we do not have all these comfortable shibboleths and totems around us named after great men and great women who we all love and adore. I think we need to drag the misery with us to a certain extent and we need to focus on why this is named after Haig, we need to know that this man was responsible for sending the best part of our youth, British youth into battle in the western front knowing that they were going to be slaughtered. Now this is an unpopular view, I’m sure, in ... amongst many of you and amongst many younger people but how else are we going to know what happened if we simply expunge from the record what actually happened? Using these totems if you like.
JW: Couldn't we find a few of our own villains, though? An Abbott Park or something like that?
PH: I can think of many villains we can name many parks after.
SB: On that note I’d just like to thank both Paul and Jack. I hate to bring the discussion to a close but this is an opportunity for you, the audience, to ask Paul some questions. We do have a microphone that Hugh has so if you raise your hand please wait for the microphone because we are recording this and it also goes through the hearing loop. But to kick us off I'm actually going to ask the question which I very rarely indulge myself doing. From someone who’s walked these battlefields and cemeteries several times, this whole notion of is it worth it? For me the answer is no when you go into who Hooge Crater Cemetery and many others and you see one headstone that says here lies the remains of 16 commonwealth soldiers. That to me is a reason not to do this. But you talk about your books being a symphony of voices and we’ve talked about controversy a little bit so I thought we’d start with this question. And given that you write with a symphony of voices, Paul, and you have that broad perspective what do you think about the increasing narrow and idealistic Australianism that’s surrounding the telling and retelling of our military history and particularly as it relates to the first world war and I guess traditionally Gallipoli and now moving into the western front?
PH: Well this is the school of history known as it was the Aussies what won it. As we celebrate ... the word celebrate is pointed ... every year on Anzac Day and ... rather than commemorate or mourn or acknowledge what happened or stand aside silently and try to understand, even to atone for what happened as the great writer, Richard Aldington, makes clear in his excellent novel, Death of a Hero. He asks how do we atone for 37 million people, casualties dead, wounded, missing in action in world war one? Total ... a total casualty. How do we atone for that? He asks. And that I think, atonement, is the word that no one seems to use anymore, it’s ... that’s one of those ... it’s kind of an old-fashioned word that you don’t hear much about, what does atonement mean? We are collectively responsible for what happened in the 20th century, I believe, it is living history. I’m speaking ... every talk I give I speak to the grandchildren of veterans, relatives of veterans and what they went through and so we are in the grip of it, it’s living amongst us. I think that Australia is ... has ... there is a dangerous tendency, almost a warped tendency to zoom in on particular Aussie battles and I’m ... to some extent you could say I’m guilty of that but if we are going to look at an Australian victory on the western front crucially that must be setting the context of the allies and the German and the French and the Russian ... this vast confrontation of which we were a very small cog.
And you can’t write about the western front as a uniquely Australian experience, I don’t believe, because it gives ... it plays to the audience, it plays to the popular or populist taste for a good Aussie battle but it isn’t history. And ... take Kokoda, this was an Australian struggle but you can’t write about Kokoda without going to Japan and sitting down with the Japanese veterans because even if we disagree, and of course we all do, of what happened in the Pacific, vehemently so ... I’ve written about Sandak Sandakan, the ... what happened to the prisoners of war there, I know exactly what the Japanese did to our soldiers but we need to go and ask them, we need to understand the context of that particular battle which was uniquely Australian, no New Zealanders there, and with some national guardsmen from America which of course you’ve got to bring them in. That is history and history is hard, I mean it’s hard, it’s hard work. It’s not ... it’s ... you don’t ... you don’t expect ... you don’t write hoping for five stars or you know great reviews on Amazon you know people have got to rise to the occasion a little and use their brains to get their heads around a bigger picture than it was the Aussies what won it because that is what this book is trying to do, I mean you have to expand it to the Tommies’ experience, to the German experience.
There’s a chapter looking precisely at how the Germans sat in their trenches month after month watching a creeping barrage come before them ... towards them. This monstrous war of explosive, the guns lined up in one stretch behind which were hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers, they knew that. They couldn’t run, they were going to be shot. They sat there month after month waiting for this ... the instrument of their inevitable death or terrible wounding coming towards them which ... defensive war which Haig damned as cowardice. I mean you cannot write about the western front without understanding the German experience. I believe, that’s my view and to answer your excellent question.
SB: There’s a question in the middle there?
A: Thanks very much for a great conversation so far. The press.
PH: Could go off a cliff now.
A: We ... in the modern world I think we look to the press to hold up truth against power or truth to power you know particularly since the Vietnam war and subsequently but in world war one there were journalists and there were some members of the press who did seek to hold up truth against power. Could you talk a little bit more about the role of the press or the mediascape more generally and whether or not there was a fundamental failure of the press and journalism around Passchendaele in particular?
PH: Great question and I could talk at length about it which I won’t, I’ll try to keep it concise. The excellent journalism that we saw in the western front was the exception to the rule and you met ... Charles Bean was one of them, excellent journalist who managed to cut through with his genius the censorship on many occasions. Certainly Philip Gibbs on the British side, an excellent journalist who also conveyed something of what was going on, something of the conditions, these appalling conditions. But by and large the press were in the ... were the tools of Haig’s intelligence. And his general in charge of intelligence, General Charteris, pretty much ran the press and fed them what he believed they should be fed which was you know at some time it degenerated to you know a jolly good romp, a victorious romp through Flanders fields and northern France to inevitable victory and photographs of cheering soldiers on their way to the front lines, all you know played up. I think it was a woeful failure, the media, I think that they were often used as propaganda weapons. Certainly the famous case of boiling down prisoners’ bodies into soap ...
JW: Or Edith Cavell.
PH: ... which was the German ... Germans were supposedly boiling down prisoners’ bodies and using them as extracts for all sorts of chemical substances. This was a Charteris lie which he fed to the press and of course the Daily Mail ran with it. Astonishing isn’t it? So I think ...
JW: Well whose side were they on?
JW: As somebody might ask.
PH: And when the ... exactly ... when the ... they certainly had no ... if truth was the first casualty of war it was write large in world war one. But if they had any responsibility to the truth it was pretty much snuffed out in late 1917 when they might have started reflecting the popular will against the war. As we saw in Vietnam when the people turned against the war the press turned. The press didn’t lead the mood of the people by and large during Vietnam, the people led the press. Up until ’68, the Tet Offensive, there just was a gung-ho story against Commies in Vietnam but when they realised the people had turned, that’s when the press turned. Now you may dispute that but in my analysis for the media during Vietnam ... and there are exceptions, of course, there are always exceptions, these are generalisations ... but in world war one once they realised the people were turning Lloyd George got on his prop ... got out his propaganda unit and did a ... the King did a tour of the country visiting factories, trying to encourage workers to go back to work and once the King appeared of course they did go back to work. You had ... the propaganda offensive was going across the country, the press was all part of it so it was a shocking dereliction of any kind of duty to the idea of the truth.
JW: And yet ... I agree entirely and I think that one of the shameful things is if you like ... not that I actually accept the well-crafted version of Keith Murdoch in relation to Gallipoli but there was no Murdoch, no Murdoch there. But it was a war fought fairly close to home. British soldiers went on leave, British populace, certainly the British working class was well aware of the conditions in the trenches and they m might have been reading jolly wonderful stuff in the Daily Mail or whatever but they knew it was crap.
PH: I think yeah, those stories were coming back ...
PH: ... throughout. It was up until late 1916 though when that really started coming home with the ...
JW: With the Somme.
PH: Yeah, with the Somme and whole communities not coming home because the pal battalions as many of you know were born of local communities for local workers and if a whole community were wiped out they were bereft of young men such as Accrington in Lancashire. This ... so the idea that an entire generation of young men were being wiped out. So yes, they did know, the rumours were coming back but the press were muzzled insofar as they were able to really portray in detail what was happening in Passchendaele. But people knew.
A: Thank you. Thank you, Paul, for a very interesting discussion. I couldn’t help but think when you were talking about the October situation at Passchendaele and the pressure perhaps on Lloyd George to stop Passchendaele and compare it albeit in a different way with what happened at Gallipoli. I know Gallipoli is you know not as big an offensive but at least the politicians there listened and sent other generals out to have a look and then decided we must withdraw. Now is it fair to compare and contrast those issues? And Jack asked earlier what have you learnt from war? I can say as a Vietnam veteran, the son of a world war two veteran and the grandson of a world war one veteran, the one thing I have learnt is don’t trust politicians. So as a supplementary question how do we ensure that the prime minister such as what Howard and Menzies did, can’t just turn around and send us to war again?
PH: I’ll endeavour ... try to answer your question in reverse perhaps. We haven’t had a Chilcot inquiry here so that’s not going to happen so accountability will not be exercised, we won’t see any accountability for our entry into the Iraq war. And I use the word accountability advisedly because blame is too crude. We’re looking at responsibility to the people who were ordered to go to war. I believe there should be an inquiry into a war of that sort when it was so divisive, certainly the Vietnam war. There’s been no inquiry into the Vietnam war as such, not one that I’ve found anyway, it just was something we did and after it ... we ... it fizzled out. The soldiers were treated appallingly on their return and we just wanted to shove it under the carpet. The same thing has happened recently with the wars we’ve sent our young men to, it’s not popular anymore, it’s not something that ... and yes, we will grieve the return of the remains of young soldiers and that has become a political opportunity rather than almost a moment for serious national self-reflection on what we did.
Your question about Gallipoli versus Passchendaele. Very different situations obviously but was there a case of comparing them? Yes, I believe there is a case because you’re asking should they have examined what was going on and intervened? Now that happened at Gallipoli and they were bogged down on a beach, beach head and Birdwood and other generals who did a brilliant job actually of getting them off with limited casualties. Passchendaele was very different and here we had a battle which was in the grip of the egos if you like of two men who despised each other and were driving it forward for their particular personal agendas. That is what is so shocking about Passchendaele and I don’t think that it’s really been unravelled before, the extent to which their personal egos played such a considerable part in prosecuting the war and keeping on going until the Ridge was taken. Had they stopped beneath Passchendaele Ridge, well there was an untenable position. Haig would have been forced all the way back to Ypres to find a solid ground on which to regroup and to consolidate because there was nowhere safe for him to stop in between Ypres and Passchendaele, to get in tactical level.
But had he gone back to Ypres and kept on ... but kept on bashing away with his artillery and waves of troops he would have continued prosecuting the attritional war and achieving what he was setting out to do but he couldn’t have sold that, he couldn’t have talked about that to the Cabinet, he would have been in disgrace, the press would have been onto him within moments. It was not politically acceptable so he pleaded with the Canadian general in the most desperate point of battle of Passchendaele, they were the only troops he had left. The British were ... their morale was crushed after August, the Anzacs were defeated in September, early October, just shot to stalemate and so he had the Canadians and that is the most extraordinary story of Passchendaele because General ... Field Marshal Haig went to the Canadian headquarters. Arthur Currie, General Arthur Currie, the Canadian commander, said I’m not sending my men in to this slaughterhouse, I won’t do it. So Haig said okay, can I speak to your officers and some of your men? He went to the Canadian headquarters, he said look ... I’m paraphrasing ... but your commander doesn’t think you can do it. I mean Haig at that moment knew the psychology of the young soldier perfectly, he read it perfectly. Of course they were going to fight as the last men standing to take Passchendaele Ridge and they did and Arthur Currie predicted ... he said okay, you go in and he predicted there’d be 16,000 casualties of this small force. There were 15,600 or 700 casualties. That’s how precise their arithmetic had become in actual estimating the casualty levels. Nine Victoria crosses in a few days, the Canadians earned in taking Passchendaele Ridge which ... it was held as I say for a few weeks, couple of months after almost 300,000 casualties.
What lessons? I’m helpless here ... I urge you to read the book, really, I think that they come out through the process of ... but I thank you for your question and also interesting to hear that you’ve had generations subjected to the will of politicians who have shown little or no accountability after the event to what happened.
SB: We just have one last question over this side.
A: Thank you for the talk.
A: So just a little bit about myself, my grandfather served in Gallipoli and then he went across and served in Amiens where he was wounded and went through world war two and it possibly follows on behind this question, and it goes to Churchill’s legacy and since reading a little bit about world war one I’m not so sure that he was actually as deserving of his legacy that is and I’m just curious for your views on Churchill.
PH: At that point in time after world war one? Well he was you know Gallipoli, he was basically held up as responsible and he ... it was his brainchild, I mean he was very much behind shifting the war to a third front at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles and squeezing Germany in a three-way vice ...
JW: Soft underbelly.
PH: Soft underbelly, yeah. And it failed as we all know the story. Then he was in disgrace, he was removed from the Cabinet. He came back under Lloyd George, Lloyd George and Churchill got on very well. He became the Minister of Munitions and did a great job. And you’ve got to remember that Churchill in ... I suppose in trying to redeem himself after Gallipoli, did become a commander on the western front. He’s one of the few politicians who had actually seen what was going on and commanded a battalion, yeah.
JW: And that’s when by his own account he vented the tank ...
PH: Yeah, of course. Then of c ... I mean ... so that ... after the war then it’s a mixed ... it’s certainly a very mixed record. But if you judge him entirely on Gallipoli then ... as many of us do and many Australians do then he goes down very poorly in many historians’ judgement. I’ve not written about Gallipoli, I don’t ... I’m not a specialist on Gallipoli but yes, he make a colossal error of judgement but then again it was an error which cascaded down to the actual landings, to the strategic and tactical battles. It’s difficult I believe looking at history from all these different angles to sheet home responsibility just to one man which is why I do not believe that Haig should be held responsible in a different context for these battles, there were many ... there were all sorts of forces compelling the generals to fight the war as they did. And Haig confessed himself that he was ... that he couldn’t do it, that this was bogged down. Churchill probably had a healthier ego than that and rarely if ever accepted responsibility openly at least and certainly David Lloyd George never accepted responsibility for any of his grotesque misjudgements.
And 30 years later if we can expand your point to political responsibility, even in David Lloyd George’s memoirs he blames ... most of the blame we have for Haig, most of the I suppose ... the oh what a lovely war, Blackadder view of world war one comes from ... originates from Lloyd George’s memoir, that chapter where he blames Haig pretty much for the whole disaster and this is just a misreading of events ... it makes great reading, of course but it’s a misrepresentation of what happened. So Churchill, yes, you could ... a lot of people do blame him but I ... you can’t see it in that light, there are many ... all sorts of different confluences of events and forcing acting on these men in power. The great man theory, I don’t buy, it’s ... nor do I buy Tolstoy’s theory of the mass wheel driving history if we can ... it’s an interplay between the leaders and the led at every level, there are always ... the leader of ... at any level is always under the influence of the will ... whether it’s the mass will or the will of his immediate subordinates and they have to act accordingly. And so that’s what I mean by history is hard, you just can’t look for some sort of easy solution that ... and identify the baddies, you’ve got to look at the context.
SB: Well unfortunately we are out of time, I’d love to keep going.
[End of Recording]