9 Nov 2018

Armistice Day: 'Don't anyone talk to me of the glories of war'

8:53 pm on 9 November 2018

Sunday is Armistice Day, commemorating the end of the World War I.

Armistice Day in 1918 at Waimate.

Armistice Day in 1918 at Waimate. Photo: Waimate Museum and Archive

About 18,000 New Zealanders died in or because of that war.

They were among an estimated total of 40 million people, both military and civilian, who died due to the conflict

It was called the war to end all wars, but as history later showed this was not to be.

Padre James Young served on the Western Front.

He spoke in 1964 in a recording now held by Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision.

"So futile. We of 1914-18 fought a war to end war. Over and over again you would hear it from ordinary Diggers when they stopped and wondered what they were fighting for. And how utterly and completely we failed.

"Don't anyone talk to me of the glories of war. It makes me want to spit. It's so awfully, stupidly clumsy.

The horror of war has been outlined by many veterans over the years and many recorded for posterity.

"The Somme in 1916 was ghastly, hell, it was just mud, mud, mud," Mr Young said.

"And when it was wet, well it was just up to your waist. Men and mules and horses wounded and fallen and drowned in it quite easily, quite often."

A panoramic view of the crowd celebrating the Armistice in Cook Gardens, Whanganui. 1918.

A panoramic view of the crowd celebrating the Armistice in Cook Gardens, Whanganui. 1918. Photo: Image courtesy of the Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, Record number: AWNS-19181121-43-1

About 100,000 young men left New Zealand heading to what many regarded as a great adventure and for the first-wave it was commonly believed the war would be over by Christmas 1914. Some thought they would not get there in time.

Culture and Heritage chief historian Neill Atkinson said in a country with a population of only one million at the time, the scale of the tragedy affected every family, workplace, school and club.

"The number of names on memorials tells the story and behind that of course were families, wives and parents and children and so on, so really it rippled out right through New Zealand society."

He said the toll from the World War I left gaps in society for many years.

"Where many of those people would have come back and taken up or carried on in their careers and many of them done interesting and good things in a whole lot of different fields.

"It certainly did have an effect and also those that did come back, many of them were changed, certainly carried those scars psychologically, as well and in some cases physical scars which really affected their lives and affected their families," he said.

When peace finally came many men were quite unprepared.

James Carrington wrote in his book "Soldier from the Wars Returning".

"The young soldiers had known no trade but war and had no civilian jobs to which they longed to return. I was a little scared of the new word, demobilisation."

Mr Atkinson said the World War I cast a huge shadow over the country in the 1920s, which was followed by the depression of the 1930s, and then the Second World War.

"That generation I think always carried that impact with them and of course often it was their families and sometimes their children who bore some of the impact of that too."

Peace activist Corey Anderson questions New Zealand's involvement in the World War I.

"What sort of society could we have had we not had to do that is an open question I think and there is the democratic toll along with the more extremes of patriotism."

The centenary of the Armistice will be commemorated on Sunday at 11am: The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the guns fell silent over the Western Front in 1918.