In my first year of university, my history lecture spoke of the mass murder of Iraqi-Kurdish rebels and civilians in one of the earliest extensive bombing campaigns, as the British attempted to enforce their mandate over Mesopotamia in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles.
I was confused. My lecturer’s recount of events sounded strangely familiar, yet the way he was putting it made it sound like a war crime, redolent of the gulf wars of recent history. My great-grandfather, John Parkinson, was one of the pilots responsible for this early and devastating use of airplane bombers. He had previously served as a soldier and then a pilot on the western front: a grim campaign, but in my mind (as it was recounted to me by my grandmother and great-grandmother), Mesopotamia was like the holiday at the end of the hell of Flanders. He brought back kitsch orientalist postcards of Sheikhs and exotic Baghdad prostitutes, fragments from ruined Sumerian temples, and most memorably for me, a photo of himself in safari gear, complete with pith helmet. It depicted him with a group of Iraqi soldiers outside the Ishtar gate of the ancient city of Babylon, looking rugged and obliviously self- important.
John Parkinson had enlisted in 1917 when he was only 16 years old. His father and older brothers had already been cut down in Flanders, and the recruiting officer turned a blind eye to his age. So with the blessing of the family of local Lancashire gentry and brimming with adolescent hatred for the Hun, off he went to the muddy fields that have so indelibly stamped themselves on modern memory. A large and daring man by all accounts, John was able to get a position in the emerging air force, which was being used to little effect dropping petty explosives that would, more often than not, explode before ever reaching their targets. After Versailles came the Mesopotamian jaunt that I later learnt was an early round of the modern massacres that would come in the war’s wake. After being discharged, John made his way to Australia like so many pommies, though would likely have stayed in the north of England if not for the Great War. Like so many countless others of the twentieth century who owe the circumstances of their birth to the incidence of war, my existence is a product of its unprecedented conflicts.
The same could be said for my great-grandfather on the other side. Angus Moore, then a recently qualified Scottish engineer, boarded a ship at Glasgow in early 1914 to join friends and family who had already immigrated to the South Island of New Zealand. By the time he disembarked in Christchurch, the dominoes had fallen and the Empire had sent out the call across the world for her sons to honour the crimson blood of kinship. Seemingly without question, Angus enlisted in the newly formed ANZACs and set sail with the rest from Western Australia, bound for Gallipoli. Of his experience there I know nothing; he wrote nothing of it and told my grandfather little more than that. I’ve every reason to believe his experience was a typical, if fortunate, one. After being wounded and sent to a hospital in Sydney, he met my great grandmother, a nurse, and they were soon engaged. Before they could marry and start a life together, he re-enlisted and was sent to the Western Front where he would fight at Ypres, Fromelle, and the Somme. After Versailles, he was discharged and given land by the Hughes government near the new soldier settlement of Griffith in the NSW Riverine.
Despite my family’s history, I have never been one for ANZAC Day, very rarely waking up for the televised parade, let alone for the dawn service. It was not so much any ardently anti-jingoist and anti-militarist sentiment that repulsed me. I simply found the historical episode of Gallipoli somewhat boring, its representation so reified and historicised that by the twenty-first century, the ‘ANZAC legend’ ceased to bear any meaningful relationship to the events of the war. It is often barely situated in any historical context at all, but instead, simply alluded to. It has become a vague event in our early history, a rallying point for culture wars and history wars, a totem signifying no values that bear any relation to those we hold today.
In fact, it is this that fascinates me the most about the Great War, as it was known: the difficulty in making the conflict in any sense meaningful or relevant to the modern human, in making the ANZAC story in any way a representation of our values. When I think of my great-grandparents, whose lives would have been so shaped by the war they almost unthinkingly signed up to, I do not feel any sense of pride. The dominant sensation is bafflement – that they regarded enlistment, when one was the age of a year eleven and another had already travelled halfway across the world to start a prosperous colonial life, as a worthy enough cause to throw these plans out of kilter.
For me, there has always been a naiveté, even an innocence, about the generation that so heedlessly signed up to the horrors of the first modern war, about which I cannot help but feel nostalgic. “Never such innocence/Never again” wrote the poet Phillip Larkin in the 1960s, speaking of the ‘flower of English youth’ and the oblivious, moustachioed officers lining up to meet their deaths like so many boy scouts. The sense of a paradise lost – misplaced, of course, but with grains of truth – lingers about the collective memory of those years before Sarajevo. Whether in Downton Abbey, Titanic, or The Wind in the Willows, novelists and filmmakers have waxed nostalgic about the world of garden parties and public school regattas, of the city of lights in its Belle Époque, of gentleman’s clubs and grouse shooting weekends, and in Australia, of a confident and prosperous young nation out to become the social laboratory of the world. They paint a picture of an ornamental and romantic world that would burn in the fires unleashed by the First World War; a world possessed of an innocence that would lead a young man to follow the drums of Rule Britannia to hell and back, to propose to a woman only to leave her and that promise of a rosy future behind to face probable death in the trenches. An innocence that would be lost forever. These men did not doubt that the sacrifice they made would be not only appreciated, but valued and regarded as just and purposeful for generations to come, nor did they doubt that the cause of naïve nationalism for which they died would go on being celebrated. The recruitment posters depicting the young girl asking her father, “What did you do in the war, daddy?” did not doubt that the war would be seen to be as just and purposeful as it was in 1914, that the values of the Edwardians, the moral universe of the nineteenth century, would endure and remain the lens through which the value of a man was to be decided.
Needless to say, it did not, and we still struggle to see why the world they had – optimistic, prosperous and confident, for all its institutionalised patriarchy and racism – was so heedlessly thrown away on account of shipbuilding races and the accidental assassination of an Austrian archduke. Of the loss of confidence that European culture endured after the war I need say nothing here. There was artistic profundity amidst the cynicism, and the world of the twenty-first century is obviously a fairer and more just society than that of 1914. But when the world of Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, the French Impressionists, the Kaiser with his withered arm and poor, deluded Tsar Nicholas gave way to that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Wasteland, Guernica, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, it is hard not to see the perpetual pre-war garden party through rose- tinted lenses.
It is for that reason that the Great War, for all its tragic, wasteful absurdity, still lies so heavy upon our historical consciousness. Its shadow is the great divide, separating that old age of empires from one that is recognisably modern in its aesthetics and its sensibilities. When I think of those great-grandfathers of mine, it is the irrecoverable nature of the sentiments that led them off to war and the nature of the world that created them that strikes me most of all. A world that would regard a murderous and genocidal bombing campaign as a boys-own-adventure is one that we should be glad to have grown out of. However, we can perhaps mourn for it all the same, and for the children of that Edwardian summer who stumbled through a war they had not dreamed of and into a modernity they could not imagine.