There’s no glory in war. My family focuses more on its pity, in the words of the World War I poet Wilfred Owen.
Great uncle Ulic Mahoney was just 19 when he enlisted and 20 when he was killed at Quinn’s Post, Gallipoli. He was the youngest of the three brothers who served – and died – in World War I. (My paternal grandfather, Ernest “Mick” Mahoney, joined the British Army and survived.)
Ulic’s elder brother Lance was killed the following year at Bir al Abd in the Sinai desert. He was 22. Brian survived both Gallipoli and the Somme, only to die in a air crash, training for for the RAF after volunteering in 1917. Mick lasted from Mons through to Second Cambrai, where he was severely wounded for the third time. He was shipped to a hospital in England and met my grandmother. A happy ending you might think.
But aside from death and disability, war’s horrors also involve psychological trauma that echoes down generations.
My great-grandmother Harriet used to lock herself in her room at the schoolmaster’s house at Ruātoki for the whole day every ANZAC Day. She had already experienced enough trauma before the war, married to a hard man and hard drinker, my great-grandfather Cornelius.
Mick turned up at Ruātoki after the war (where my father was born in 1920) with his second wife, the sensitive middle-class Englishwoman, Kathleen. Harriet alledgedly took her aside and said: “If I thought you were going to go through what I’ve endured, I’d put you on the first ship back to England.”
Kathleen did return to England in the late 1930s – and stayed there.
Mick rarely spoke about the war in my presence but apparently that changed later in his life. According to Aunt Aroha, it was sometimes hard to stop him. He was a formidable figure, a big man with a gruff manner, a superb athlete in his youth and also a hard drinker. His caustic put-downs of my father, Desmond, were later echoed in my own treatment by Des.
My maternal grandfather, Captain James Muir, died before I was born but nevertheless overshadowed my childhood. He had been awarded a Military Cross and bar for his courage on both the Western Front and in Iraq and his mementos – a dress sword, regimental silver salver and napkin rings – were like holy relics to my mother, Diana.
“Thank God your grandfather can’t see you now,” she would say if I got into hot water during my childhood.
James had been incredibly – almost insanely – demanding. When mum came home with a mere A on her report card, he would ask: “Why isn’t it an A-plus?”. She admitted late in life that the war had wrecked him – physically and mentally.
Uncle Douglas was the most obviously damaged and talked about the war compulsively. He had been gassed on the Western Front. He once told me and my elder sister Anna an appalling yarn from the trenches. A mortar had a firing pin that regularly blew out. “We’d all cover our heads when it happened. One day we were cowering and something landed on the bloke next to me. Wasn’t the firing pin, it was a damned Gerry leg.”
Ulic died a victim of Winston Churchill’s belief that the war could be won through “the soft underbelly of Europe”.
The then First Lord of the Admiralty thought if he sent the British fleet through Turkey’s Dardanelles Strait, they could sail straight to the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, and the Turks would surrender.
The plan failed to take into account the batteries on both shores of the narrow strait, the mines placed there with assistance from the Turks’ German allies, or even the strength of the current running from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. After two ships went down and another was badly damaged, the fleet retreated. Gallipoli was plan B. Land the British army, along with New Zealand, Australian, Canadian and French forces, on beaches at the foot of impossibly steep terrain, then expect them to battle their way to the heights and march overland to Istanbul. Naturally it failed too.
The New Zealand and Australian contingents suffered disproportionate casualties while the British generals “controlled” operations from the bridges of battleships. Elsewhere, young men were dying in droves on the Western Front, made to advance on machine guns through a wasteland of mud. It was war on an industrial scale, with industrial-scale losses, and repeated just 21 years later, taking the life of my uncle Gerry at Ruweisat Ridge. He was but one among millions.
It seems incredible the so-called War to End All Wars and the one that followed did nothing of the sort, and that killing as an instrument of foreign policy remains a principle of so-called civilised societies.
As grandfather James said after Hiroshima: “Good – now the generals are in the front line.”
Obviously Putin doesn’t understand. • James Mahoney