Saturday, September 3, 2011

Not learning from our mistakes....

In 1914, a member of the Austrian royal family was assassinated in the city of Sarajevo.  This one isolated act of terrorism ultimately determined that an 18 year old farm boy from a small country town in Western Australia, would never live to see his 19th birthday.
95 years ago, on this very day, he would fall on the battlefields of France, a world away from his home.  He would never feel the warmth of the Australian sun on his back again, never walk among the apple trees of his farm again and never feel the kiss of his mother on his cheek, never ever again.

How did this happen?  How did the death of an Austrian Archduke ultimately lead to the death of this young man?

For generations, Australian school children have been taught the Gallipoli legend but in mythicising this particular part of our history, we have lost the truth behind why it ever happened in the first place.  And the truth is scary.
On the 28th of June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne) was assassinated by a member of a Serbian nationalist group while visiting the Balkan city of Sarajevo.

Sure, the Austro-Hungarians were pissed off about the Archduke getting knocked off but there were some power-brokers in Austria who were rubbing their hands with glee.  The Austro-Hungarian government had been wanting to increase its power in the Balkans for ages and this was the perfect opportunity to make it happen.

3 weeks after the Archduke met his maker, the Austro-Hungarians accused the Serbian government of being involved in the assassination.  They issued an ultimatum to Serbia for the assassins to be bought to justice along with a long list of other demands that were so ridiculously severe the Serbian monarchy would effectively be brought to its knees.

The Austro-Hungarians fully expected Serbia would reject the terms of the ultimatum, giving them a perfect excuse to declare war against Serbia and take the country by storm.
But the Austro-Hungarians also knew that Serbia held strong ties with Russia.  If they went to war with Serbia, Russia might stick its nose in and get involved too.  So, the Austrians went and visited their close friends, the Germans, and effectively said 'if we beat up Serbia, and Russia decides to come and beat us up will you come over and help us beat up both Serbia and Russia.'

Germany said 'sure mate, no problems' but that's because Germany had an ulterior motive (more about that in a second).

As expected, Serbia told Austria-Hungary to get stuffed and exactly a month after the Archduke's assassination, Austria declared war on Serbia on the 28th of July, 1914.

Russia, who had signed a treaty to protect Serbia, began to mobilise its army to come to Serbia's defence.

Germany, who had agreed to come to Austria-Hungary's aid should Russia get involved, immediately declared war on Russia on August 1st, 1914.

This is where it all starts getting ridiculous (as if it wasn't ridiculous enough).
Poor old France had signed a diplomatic treaty with Russia back in the 1880's to come to its aid should it ever be threatened.

For years, the Germans had been looking for a way to get their hands on French territory - this was their ulterior motive behind helping the Austrians to begin with - so when France announced it would support Russia, the Germans immediately declared war on France on August 3rd.

The very next day, on August 4th,  the German army moved north and invaded the neutral country of Belgium as this was the quickest route to reach Paris (invading France by crossing the Alps would be near impossible).  The speed at which Belgium was invaded just goes to show how long Germany had been plotting to get into France.

75 years earlier, Britain had signed a treaty to defend the neutral country of Belgium.  When Germany invaded Belgium, Britain committed herself to Belgium's defence the same day and declared war on Germany.

Britain also had a much looser treaty of 'moral obligation' to defend France so either way it was committed to get involved.  Considering you can see the French coast from Britain on a good day, the British were not too keen on having the Germans as neighbours.

Once Britain had entered the fray, her colonies and dominions were quick to offer their military assistance, including Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa.
Japan, who also had an alliance with Britain, declared war on Germany on August 13th.

Turkey, who had a beef with Russia, decided to side with Austria-Hungary and Germany in October.  Russia declared war on Turkey on November 2nd and Britain and France declared war on Turkey on November 5th.

And it goes on and on with Italy siding with Britain & France in 1915 and the USA eventually joining the fray, late in 1917.

This is how the first World War came into being.  For no other reason than greed, power and a handful of dusty diplomatic treaties did 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians lose their lives.

In those last few moments of his life, covered in the blood and mud of the Somme, did Private William Henry Bowman, of the 51st Battalion AIF even know or understand what he was giving his life for?  Did his mother, on receiving a telegraph advising that her first born child was missing in action, presumed dead, think it was worth it?  Was this cause really worth the blood of over 60,000 young Australian men?

Nina Murdoch, an Australian poetess of the time, summed it up in her poem Warbrides -

"This is the bitterest wrong the world wide,
That young men on the battlefield should rot,
And I be widowed who was scarce a bride,
While prattling old men sit at ease and plot."
One thing I do know..... as a nation we don't seem to have learnt from our mistakes - we have not looked at history and learnt a lesson from the terrible price paid.  We've built up the Gallipoli legend to become something almost superhuman in order to create a national identity for ourselves....but in doing so we've ignored the truth of why we were even there in the first place.

Are we still ignoring the truth now?  Is the only difference that we don't leave our dead to rot on the battlefield, we fly them them home instead...


  1. Interesting & thought provoking.

    Your site is gorgeous. Eloise you are a talent!

  2. Nice entry and one of my favourite quotes has always been, "When the rich wage war, it's the poor who die."

    People of power might gush themselves about soldiers, but it's not their sons going to war. As an ex-soldier I know the type of people in the army and they're definitely not rich or with much power...

  3. Powerful stuff and so succinctly written. I never studied history, so now I know more about WWI than I ever did. Thank you.

  4. Still loving your work, Eloise you are a legend!


Thanks for commenting, I appreciate you taking the time xxx

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