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"The Foolishnes of the Past - Due to be Repeated" by Russell Skeet 

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to France and the U.K. on a World War One battlefield tour with a little research thrown in for good measure in London. Travel is always interesting, for many and varied reasons. In my case, the opportunity of exploring some of the places that our World War One soldiers had been would provide some knowledge of, and a connection with, the experiences of kiwi soldiers on active service during the 1914-18 period.  The tour was an intimate one with five participants and a tour guide from the New Zealand Military History Society – who was deeply knowledgeable about the Western Front, from a New Zealand perspective.

The eleven days on tour were very focused and highlighted a number of learnings, some of which I will share with you.

My interest in N.Z. military history has lead me to read widely about New Zealand’s experience on the battle fields of World War One. Textbooks are a rich source of information, but the maps, illustrations, narratives and stories, and formatting can only deliver so much understanding. Witnessing the geography of some of our great fights, has enabled an enhanced understanding of our soldiers war-fighting reality. Gazing upon a very gentle, almost imperceptible slope toward a barely discernable ridgeline feature, which was an objective for a New Zealand attack, catapulted me into a clarity of understanding about the tactical reality of a situation that textbooks failed to achieve.

It might also be that I came to understand a little more deeply why the word ‘futile’ defines so many descriptions of World War One battlefields. Books hint at this but viewing the actual ground and reconciling it with modern tactical considerations throws a spotlight on a reality that remains foggy and obscure, mostly, from books – no matter how well written and constructed those books may be. Such reflection reveals that those travelers, who are focused on a particular subject, may find that perception derived from reading does not match a reality determined from ‘walking the ground’. Something that falls out from this realization is that history is (often) written to suit a particular agenda; an agenda that may be subverted by an understanding of the physical reality, the unfailingly predictable behaviour of men and of context.

A second point that was made clear to me relates to the enduring relevance of events. It was immediately evident that many French people value the sacrifices made by New Zealander’s during the Great War (especially). Their gratitude is often tangible - in the ceremonies they regularly facilitate, in their hospitality, in the memorialisation of historic events, and, in their genuine warmth toward New Zealanders. Now, if the war had been within living memory, we might understand both the immediacy and intensity of this feeling, but the Great War is now well outside living memory – so that active engagement with the sentiment of appreciation or thankfulness – whatever – by generations who have had no direct experience of the activities they are remembering, is a remarkable thing.

The longevity of this remembrance is chilling at some level. It was evident that our men and our sacrifice remains real to many French citizens – why is this? might then be the question. My answer would be ‘the defense of French soil – of their homeland’. Colonial troops that traveled from afar who fought and bled on French soil to repel the German invader, are venerated for their actions and sacrifice equally as their French counter-parts. New Zealand families grieved for their losses, but over time that feeling has been replaced by the annual celebration of New Zealand nationhood as it was manifest in our prowess as soldiers.

Our grief has been diluted as the losses our nation incurred grew more remote in time, so that the grief surrounding the tangible loss was subsumed into the vacuum of nation building – manifest in the commemoration of death as hero worship. France, a strong and secure nation in 1914, came perilously close to being conquered by Germany so that those involved in the defense of their homeland are annually eulogized with a passion that assumes a very human dimension. For an example of the enduring nature of this feeling closer to home we might consider how Maori still feel the hurt of their loss of land through the colonization process.

For all the many settlements, the land remains lost to them. In France however, New Zealanders were part of the allied force that repelled the invader, with great loss on both sides, and contributed to the rebuilding of their homeland. And New Zealanders, having traveled the greatest distance to fight and die, and with as little to gain as any colonial power from the victory, fought tenaciously - not so much for British ideals, or power, or loyalty, as we may want to believe, but rather in defense of  mates, and of France. For this the French remain thankful, the more so as we did it not once, but twice.

These are but two of the lessons that travel has taught me. Some might think them obscure and irrelevant to modern day life, but a deeper understanding of the motivation that impels man to action and reaction allows a deeper appreciation of the fact that little in human kind changes. From this realisation we may discern the broader sweep of history repeating in the detail of our daily lives, and, if we care to cast an eye wider a field, in the curious turn of international events, that we are witness to currently.

Looking back may allow us to be prescient.

Now that is some lesson.




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