This Anzac Day our politicians will again be front and centre of commemorations for Australia’s 62,000-plus first world war dead and those who died in all this country’s other conflicts.
That’s the thing about wars. Young (mostly) men get to die in them or endure the physical and mental scars while the (mostly) older men who send them get to commemorate while making old bones.
You’ll likely hear a lot from our politicians about the necessary human sacrifice and endurance of the young Australian nation, from the hellfire of Gallipoli to the mud and viscera of the European western front, in the face of German tyranny and supposed continental threat.
Yes, the war was fought right to a bitter, bloody end, despite the human cost, with Germany in tatters and forced to surrender.
But there is a counter-historical truth that you won’t hear much about from the commemorators in chief this weekend. It is one of bitter division on the Australian home front and among the troops themselves, and of the dramatic failure of Britain and her allies – including Australia – to countenance diplomatic opportunities to save millions of lives by negotiating peace earlier.
A hundred-and-six years after then prime minister Billy Hughes began tying the white Australian nationhood of the already 14-year-old federation to the botched, bloody invasion of an obscure finger of the Ottomans, new scholarship raises the critical question: what if the war could have been ended in 1915, -16 or -17?
It is the question at the heart of Private Ryan and the Lost Peace, a new book by Australian historian Douglas Newton that examines, as the subtitle says, “A Defiant Soldier and the Struggle Against the Great War”.
Through the experiences of Private Ted Ryan, a mine worker and unionist from Broken Hill – who publicly urged Britain to make a negotiated settlement with Germany – Newton considers the numerous diplomatic opportunities Westminster turned its back on. Britain did so, he argues with compelling evidence, to indulge the imperial ambitions a soundly defeated Germany would give rise to in Palestine, Persia, Mesopotamia, Africa and the Pacific.
On a micro-level, Ryan’s battlefield experiences and his courage in presenting truth to power form the narrative vehicle for a story of complex geopolitical machinations.
Ryan followed his two younger brothers to war, enlisting in the 51st Regiment in 1916. In the course of serial episodes of being absent without leave and desertions (on a count of which he received a later commuted death penalty) Ryan appealed to the British parliament to wage peace.
It was in October 1916, recovering in England from wounds and shell-shock (and being rehabilitated so that he might re-enter the meat-grinder of men that was the western front) Ryan wrote “to the man the pro-war newspapers depicted as the best-hated and most dangerous … in Britain” – anti-war Labour MP Ramsay MacDonald.
Newton writes how Ryan’s letter “glowed with the white heat of passion” and of how, importantly, he claimed to speak for other Australian soldiers who, he insisted, “hated the war”.
“They called the battlefield ‘the Abattoirs’ … He seized his chance to put down on paper the real opinions of those Australian troops, because the British press [mirrored by the mostly jingoistic Australian!] was hyperventilating about how much the brave Australians ‘relish the glories of war’.
“ … Ryan wrote [of how] two men fresh from the battlefield had just told him that they ‘would rather be shot than face another bombardment like we received at Pozieres’. So, Ryan complained, the blood-and-thunder newspapers were lying about the Australians. Ryan railed at one newspaper in particular for depicting the Anzacs as ‘bright & cheering’, hooraying’ as they came away from the Somme battlefield. The truth was, wrote Ryan, that the ‘frightfulness’ of the bombardments at the front was ‘beyond their imagination’ …”
“Every soldier was ‘absolutely sick of the whole business’.”
Ryan took aim at British prime minister Herbert Asquith and secretary of state for war David Lloyd George, bent on crushing Germany while turning their backs on an offer by US president Woodrow Wilson to mediate a negotiation with Germany. Britain also rejected a papal offer to broker peace.
He wrote to MacDonald while the Australian debate over the Hughes government’s first plebiscite to allow conscription gripped society back home.
Newton reminds us that Hughes said a “no” vote would “encourage the enemy”, would “bring eternal shame” to Australia and would leave “the glorious name of Anzac … a tarnished and dishonoured thing”.
Ryan not so respectfully disagreed with Hughes. He attacked Hughes’ implication that demands for peace were some German conspiracy and he insisted that only troops new to the battlefield – those who’d “not yet been out to face the music” would vote “yes” for conscription (both plebiscites were defeated).
It was the beginning of a long, arduous road for Ryan, who was not released from the army until 1919 after serving time in a British military prison. After surviving four court-martials, a death sentence and prison time he returned to the Broken Hill mines, married, and had children. He died in a bicycle accident at 52.
In his own defence at the court-martial when he was sentenced to death, Ryan said, “I enlisted to fight for a Peace without conquerors or conquered, as a Peace under those conditions [does] nothing to justify another war, either as a war of revenge by the Conquered, or a war of Glory and Patriotic land-grabbing by Conquerors.”
This Anzac Day the shell-shocked, rebellious Private Ted Ryan might well stand as a talisman for today’s personnel whose masters have deployed and redeployed them, to their enduring detriment, for foremost political reasons.
A long-overdue royal commission into defence force suicides, achieved by ex-military personnel who insisted on it until the government finally acceded, will again illustrate just how wide is the gap between the war-wagers and war-fighters.
It’s beyond time that those who start the wars and lead the commemorations do less talking and more of the listening. Never more so than on Anzac Day.