What happened to Armistice Day? Reflections on Remembrance Day 2015

At one time we celebrated the outbreak of peace on this day, Armistice Day. Now we honour the dead, even as we do them the great dishonour of adding to their number. When did Armistice Day become Remembrance Day? And when did we come to accept the logic of perpetual war?

We are not a war-going family, I say that with neither pride nor shame. Even if he hadn’t missed the Vietnam conscription ballot by several years, Dad’s dwarfism would have disqualified him from service. In World War II, my paternal grandfather Peter was excused as a worker essential to the war effort, being an Engineer at Australian Defence Industries in Albury, while my Mum’s father Reg was an asthmatic, and worked on the line at the Austen Motor Company in England, given over to munitions manufacturing during the war years.

To find active service you’d have to go back to my Great-Grandfather’s brother Alfred Paterson,

War record of Alfred Paterson.

War record of Alfred Paterson.

who was “severely wounded, right buttock” on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. He was discharged in London in 1917, having found munitions work at the Ailsa Craig Motor Company. After the war he returned to the family farm near Panawonica WA, where he became, according to his obituary in the Pastoral Review and Graziers’ Record, “one of the leading experts in Australia on dingo destruction.”

My eldest daughter was excited to learn about Alfred. It has been impressed on her that we all deserve our slice of the ANZAC legend. Earlier this year, on the centenary of the invasion of Gallipoli, she attended Camp Gallipoli at the Melbourne Showgrounds to partake in “the ANZAC experience” for herself. There were food trucks and deluxe centenary swags for sale, and they watched a Russell Crowe movie.

At the time, it made me think of the English World War I poet Siegfried “Mad Jack” Sassoon’s poem Blighters, in which he rages against the glorification of war in popular Music Hall songs of the time:

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

Sassoon was known for his fearlessness in combat, earning the nickname “Mad Jack” for his


Siegfried “Mad Jack” Sassoon in 1915

near-suicidal courage under fire. He was awarded the Military Cross for significant gallantry and was nominated for, but not awarded, the Victoria Cross.

In 1917, after a period of convalescence, Sassoon refused to return to service and published his crazy-brave Soldier’s Declaration in protest against continuation of the war, stating “I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.” Rather than court marshall Sassoon and risk the publicity of a trial, the War Ministry declared him unfit for service and sent him to Craiglockhart War Hospital to be treated for neurasthenia; “shell shock”.

My partner Sara’s Great Grandfather, Francis Liguri Leonard, also served at Gallipoli in 1915, was honourably discharged, then reinlisted and fought at the Battle of Messines in 1917. Sara’s Grandmother always told her he died of a war wound several years after repatriation. It was true, if not strictly reflective of the documentary record. His death certificate shows the cause of death as strychnine poisoning. As a groundskeeper at the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, Francis would have had ready access to poisons.

The psychological effects of war on soldiers are well known but only starting to be truly understood. We’ve come a long way from the diagnoses of shell shock (and its association with cowardice) in WWI to treatment of PTSD today, but recent research has challenged the long-held view that PTSD is the result of near-death trauma. There’s an emerging body of evidence that PTSD in the context of war is a kind of moral injury, trauma arising not from risk of death but from the act of killing. Studies analysing clinical data on soldiers across eras and controlled for demographic factors show that “those who kill in war are at greater risk for a number of mental health consequences and functional difficulties, including PTSD”. (In this fantastic series by David Wood, some of these soldiers tell their own experiences of moral injury.)

Wilmot Memorial Hall, Wilmot TAS

Wilmot Memorial Hall, Wilmot TAS

This century-worth of clinical data is a living monument to generations of soldiers profoundly damaged by being forced to kill. The monuments to the dead that stand in every country town and city tell a different story, but no less poignant. A week or so ago, I passed through the small town of Wilmot, in northern Tasmania, population 350. There’s a war memorial on Main Street, erected in 1922, that lists 22 men killed in World Wars I and II. The WWI names are neatly arranged, orderly and symmetrical. When Wilmot’s war memorial was being quarried, 19th Century empires a world away had been replaced by nation states marshalling their considerable pre- Depression resources around a United Nations and binding international conventions to ensure the atrocities of the Great War never occurred again. They did occur again, of course, and again, and more names were added later to Wilmot’s memorial. They sit in crowded rows on the foundation stone, looking very much like an afterthought.

It was in the twilight of the second great war that most countries changed the name of Armistice Day, which celebrated the end of war, to Remembrance Day, which honours the dead. We have a moment of silence to reflect on their sacrifice but little encouragement to reflect on why. And so we find ourselves today with a refugee crisis of World War proportions. Having destabilised the Middle East with successive overt and covert military adventures in the 100 years since Lawrence of Arabia armed the nomadic tribes of Saudi Arabia against the Ottoman Empire, having at least partly caused the largest refugee crisis in Europe since 1944, we have settled on decreased foreign aid and more bombing as the solution.

There are rare politicians who challenge this. Labor Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek was widely pilloried by the political right and the Murdoch press for

Tanya Plibersek depicted as giving gifts to terrorists for daring to suggest that perhaps we should try dropping food, not bombs, on Syria.

Tanya Plibersek depicted as giving gifts to terrorists for daring to suggest that perhaps we should try dropping food, not bombs, on Syria.

suggesting that perhaps food parcels, not bombs, should be dropped on Syria. On the ABC’s Insiders, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop argued that Plibersek’s suggestion was unworkable because food parcels would be very difficult to accurately target. We are so inexorably caught in the logic of war, of target identification and load delivery, that it never seemed to occur to Bishop that civilians in war zones might actually run towards a humanitarian package.

On Remembrance Day, we’ll take a moment of silence to honour those who gave their lives, as we should. Very few will spare a thought for those forced to kill. The dead have made the ultimate sacrifice, but clinical psychiatrics has now confirmed what poetry has long told us: we not only ask soldiers to risk their lives, we ask them to risk their humanity.

I come back to Sassoon. Well before ISIS, well before the West armed Saddam Hussein or the CIA seeded a revolution against the Shah in Iran and ushered in the reign of the Ayatollahs, well before Vietnam or Korea, well before the Rape of Nanking or the horrors of Dachau or Hiroshima, even before Armistice Day became Remembrance Day and muffled the dream of peace, Sassoon asked in Aftermath:

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

I will spend my minute of quiet reflection on Remembrance Day honouring the fallen, yes, and the damaged. But in that brief moment, I will also reflect on how I can contribute in some way to a politics that doesn’t add to their number, lest we forget the promise we made on the first Armistice Day, at the conclusion of the war to end all wars.

*France and Belgium, the nations of the Western Front, still celebrate Armistice Day.

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