Lessons from Passchendaele

Author of “Good Sons” and Passchendaele Society Director Greg Hall writes:

Nearly one thousand young New Zealand men were killed in a battle which took place on 12th October 1917. That day has become as symbolic and important as 25th April 1915 in focusing on the lessons of The First World War. Why – and in what cause – and have we learned anything from the deaths of those men and the eternal grief which their loss perpetrated on their families, their communities and our society?

Throughout history young men and sometimes women, have been called to arms, given a weapon and a uniform and asked or ordered to die either for or against a cause. Whether the cause is a country, a region, a religion, or a political idea or movement – those determined to gain ascendancy and power or to oppose it, through force of arms, have encouraged, cajoled, threatened and bullied others to join them.

Although young men, whether in uniform or not, have been borne the brunt of the fighting, the casualties have been women and children, families, communities, societies, ethnic and religious groupings. No one is immune from the effects of war.

The First World War arguably needed to be fought. Militarism and Totalitarianism and racial or religious hatred are cancers that grow within a country or a religious or a political movement and if not contained can spread like a virus through the air and may physically cross borders to invade, occupy and suppress others. History tells us that the physical invasion is usually on the back of some pretext or incident such as the ‘Sarajevo incident’ in July 1914 or the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland and Poland in 1938/39 or more recently the Russian annexation of the Crimea and attempt at fomenting rebellion in Ukraine.

After the First World War – “the war to end all wars” – the peace process established a League of Nations in order to intervene in geo-political squabbles before they escalated to armed conflict. It was not successful. Its successor, the United Nations, established in 1945, has been more effective with the imposition of sanctions and the threat of armed force assisting to keep some potential conflicts from developing further. Sanctions are helping to contain Russian aggression and are the most potent force in maintaining relative peace on the Korean Peninsula. Long term, the United Nations with its ability to enforce economic sanctions coupled with the threat of armed force probably remains the most effective ‘last resort’ in the face of a serious threat to world peace. However, that organisation is still in its infancy and the ability of any one of the nine Security Council members to veto a UN proposal is a major flaw in its make-up, as is the ability of powerful members of the UN to manipulate the organisation as we saw when the United States and Great Britain invaded Iraq on the pretext of the existence of “weapons of mass destruction.” There were no such weapons in Iraq and the subsequent destruction of that country, its infrastructure, and political systems was to lead directly to the emergence of ISIS and to the current slaughter in Syria and both instability and the imposition of totalitarianism elsewhere in the Middle-East.

The UN recognises that real peace and stability in the world will only come about through true equality, eradication of poverty, increased education and has developed many programmes to oversee those seemingly impossible ideals.

Governments must wholeheartedly support a peaceful world order through equality and eradication of poverty and they must embrace negotiation and mediation and disavow armed conflict. If not, then once again as happened 100 years ago young men and women will become the pawns in the games of the power-hungry, the genocidal and fanatical. These are the true lessons of Passchendaele.