We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here: These words, sung to the tune of 'Auld Lang Syne' captured the futility of the exercise in industrial scale bloodletting that was the First World War. It would serve as a much more fitting tribute to the slaughtered sons of New Zealand than 'I Vow To Thee My Country'.
“WE’RE here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here …” This tongue-in-cheek anthem to utter futility was sung with gusto all along the Western Front during World War I. The tune – an adaptation of Auld Lang Syne – was entirely appropriate. Between a third and a half of the men who sang it at the “sharp end” of that pointless conflict never returned to celebrate the fifty New Year’s Eves that were their due.
Sadly, we do not sing “We’re Here” at dawn services on ANZAC Day. It’s lugubrious nihilism would sit uncomfortably alongside the youthful heroism with which the day is still infused. The 18,000 dead of World War I must be shielded from the muck and stink of the killing fields to which they were consigned. For more than ninety years we have bathed their memories in the radiant colours of idealism and self-sacrifice: singing hymns to the “love that never falters, the love that stands the test/That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best.”
But how many of us realise, as we sing the stirring verses of “I Vow To Thee My Country”, that the God who claimed our dearest and our best was not the Christian Yahweh, but Moloch – the insatiable pagan deity into whose fiery bowels the ancient Carthaginians were forced to consign their own precious children?
To sing “We’re Here” would be to acknowledge that between 1914 and 1918 twenty percent of our military age population – some 58,000 young men - were needlessly and pointlessly maimed and slaughtered. More importantly, it would be to identify the commission of a vast and unforgivable crime by the Imperial and Dominion Governments of the day. But that is something which the New Zealand state – and the New Zealand people – will not do. Even after the passage of nine decades, the huge exercise in national denial that is ANZAC Day continues.
It is young New Zealanders I feel most sorry for. Every ANZAC Day they throng to the cenotaphs and memorials, yearning for some sort of mystical communion with the boys who “will not grow old – as we who are left grow old”, and never quite finding it.
When questioned by breathless young reporters, they speak about the soldiers who “fought for peace”, and “died so we could be free”. Freedom? Peace! The invasion of Turkey was intended to open the sea lanes to the Russian Empire. Yes – that’s right – the Russian Empire. Nearly 3,000 young Kiwis died at Gallipoli for the Tsar of Russia – a ruthless autocrat whose Cossacks, just nine years earlier, had massacred hundreds of his own subjects on “Bloody Sunday”. It modern terms, it would be like asking 3,000 young New Zealanders to die for the Chinese politicians who ordered the troops into Tiananmen Square.
Not that the men who volunteered in 1914 objected to invading Turkey. Far from it. Many of them had acquired a taste for action less than a year earlier when they mounted up and rode into Auckland and Wellington to crush the General Strike of 1913. To read the contents of these “special” policemen’s newspaper – “The Camp Gazette” – is to discover the mindset that would later become familiar to the world as fascism. Oh yes, those boys on the slopes of Gallipoli fought for their King and their Country all right: but for “our” freedom? – I think not.
Of course the working class lads whose heads were split open by “Massey’s Cossacks” in 1913, died in considerably greater numbers than the ANZACs of 1915. But the 50,000 casualties of the New Zealand Division didn’t suffer in the mud of Flanders for Peace and Freedom, they suffered because, as conscripts, they were given little choice.
Bill Massey, New Zealand’s ferociously conservative Prime Minister, introduced conscription in 1916. This bigoted Ulsterman fervently believed that the British were descended from the Israelites, and ordained by God to rule the world. The Labour Party was born out of the struggle to make his hideous sacrifice of a whole generation mean something.
“We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here…” the Diggers sang. If we are to celebrate anything on ANZAC Day, let us celebrate the grim gallows humour of men who in the face of political criminality, unspeakable horror, and an overwhelming sense of the utter futility of their conduct, could still go “over the top” with a song on their lips.
They will not grow old. But it is long past time that those of us who are left grew up.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 28 April 2006.