History is Not Boring discussion

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Assuming the victim position in retrospect

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message 1: by Peter (new)

Peter Macinnis Charles asked me my thoughts on British empire (as they were then) troops being used as cannon fodder in Britain's wars.

I am ambivalent about it, because the troops themselves were keen to go, and had no qualms at the time. We have to be careful about applying our values to their time. It makes a good myth, but bad history.

In retrospect, the critics point to ways in which the troops were victimised, used and sacrificed, but I am not at all sure that there was any selective injustice worked against the colonials. They were undoubtedly looked down on, because Australians back then were happy to be larrikins, not forelock-tugging serfs, and they put pompous British officers in their place.

I think that the leaders were probably incompetent (the Gallipoli/Dardanelles plan was cooked up during the Crimean war, 60 years earlier, and implemented without considering breech-loading rifles, machine guns, barbed wire or breech-loading artillery) but not malicious.

Winston Churchill undoubtedly dudded Australia in World War II, when he tried to hijack the Australian regular forces, coming home from the Middle East in early 1942 to fight the Japanese advance on Australia, even ordering that their ships turn around without consulting Australia, but were we the victims? Probably not -- we got our troops in the end, and Churchill had his back to the wall and was scrabbling for troops.

The victimised hero is a popular hero -- Breaker Morant was plced before a firing squad in the Boer War, but the Breaker probably got what he deserved (not that the myth says as much). He was quite a cad, young Morant. Ned Kelly was a murdering swine, yet to many, he is a hero.

I suspect that Jesse James would not have been praised in his own time by his own folk as much as he is now.

If you look around on Flickr for a user called ANZAC, you will find 40 photos that I took at Gallipoli in 2002. I don't normally do battlefields, but I was in the area and curious. There were victims on both sides -- and heroes on both.

But among the Allied graves, you will find Muslim names, troops from India, who must surely have had no clear idea of why they were there, and no real pride in being part of a British Empire. or did I miss something?

(Larrikin: Australian for a free and easy, insouciant male who shows little respect for his self-anointed betters.)





message 2: by George (new)

George | 179 comments Actually, I think anyone would have a hard time making a case that the handling of Australian soldiers at Gallipoli was somehow more callous than the handling of British soldiers in France during WW1. Incompetent beyond belief, perhaps, pig-headed, certainly, but not especially callous by the standards of the time. Plus, not all the troops committed to Gallipoli were Australian by any means.

The whole campaign in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli was very badly handled and was based largely on assumptions that proved badly wrong. The tactical commanders failed to advance off the beaches quickly and allowed Ottoman forces time to react. This was especially true when they landed a second time with British forces in a flanking attempt. Plus, most unfortunately, they ran into the one Ottoman commander who was highly competent, Kemal Pasha, who later became Kemal Attaturk on the strength of his reputation built at Gallipoli.


message 3: by +Chaz (new)

+Chaz Gentlemen, While in Egypt, I had the honor of working with an officer from New Zealand. He was particularly angry as to how the, “Commonwealth” had been, “badly used" in past wars. Perhaps I am wrong and further led astray by my conversations with an angry officer that may have been carrying his father’s resentments. So then I must question my interpretation of the relationship between the British and its Colonies; including the question of the use of Indian troops in the attack in the center at El Alameim. Perhaps it was an efficient use of troops available given the greater scope of battle. Again, another window opens.
Thank you both for the correction.



message 4: by Peter (new)

Peter Macinnis Charles, what you describe is, I believe, a fair description of a viewpoint shared by many Australians and New Zealanders. I suspect that it is more valid coming from people in India and Pakistan.

Then again, it appears that between 150,000 and 200,000 of the Chinese "coolies" who were sent to act as labour battalions on the Western Front never made it home -- but please don't ask me for a source on that, it was something I picked up in my reading. Let's face it. Wars eat people.

I wonder what the Middle east and Balkans would have been like if the Ottoman Empire had been allowed to survive and then bloom under Ataturk's modernisation? The Ottomans were marvellously inclusive.


message 5: by George (last edited Apr 05, 2008 06:25PM) (new)

George | 179 comments Again, I think it would be difficult to state that the various forces of the Empire weren't badly deployed on any number of occasions, but as to badly used, I don't think so. It's not as thought the Brits themselves didn't take massive casualties during WWI. Take a walk around any church or monument in the UK and look at the local list of the dead from WW1 versus WWII. I suppose the various Colonials can reasonably ask if they really did have a dog in the hunt during either WWI or WWII, but beyond that I think it would be very difficult to say that the Colonial forces were somehow deployed and exposed to casulaties well beyond that of UK troops. Chinese coolies on the Western Front? Where and when? Burma, no doubt.

As for Ataturk and the Ottoman Empire, one might as well have asked what would have happened if Mohammed Ali had been allowed to advance on Istanbul out of Cairo in the 1800's, rather than have his troops blocked by the Europeans. I doubt very much if even Ataturk could have kept the Arab provinces within the Ottoman empire and he never tried. He did toss out the Caliphate and would have been a useful tool to unite the Arab world with Anatolia had he been interested. There really wasn't anything left of the Ottoman territories in the Balkans after the Balkan Wars just before WWI, beyond what Turkey currently holds in Thrace.


message 6: by Peter (new)

Peter Macinnis George, I cannot give you a source on the Chinese coolies, but it WAS Europe, and it WAS WW I. It was tied in with China's 1911 revolution, and wanting to be seen as part of the modern world, something along those lines. I came across it in 2001 while digging up information on indentured labour in the sugar industry, which was regarded as an evil greater than slavery in some quarters and as a far lesser evil in others, while generally being OK if the workers were Chinese or Indian.

The mention of the WW I coolies was in passing, and it appears the records were so poor that nobody really knows how many of them died. But as it was unrelated to sugar, I failed to pin it in my notebooks.


message 7: by +Chaz (new)

+Chaz Just a note
I mentioned the gentlemen who severed in New Guinea; I was able to talk with his daughter this day. I wanted you to know Peter, that she said her father had spoken very well of the Australian Soldiers. She remembers him saying, “You don’t mess around with the Australian soldiers,” and “they‘re damn good fighters that you better not mess with.” No need to responded, just wanted you to know that the American soldiers had great respect for your troops, regardless of our favorite commander.



message 8: by George (new)

George | 179 comments Hmm. Ok, when you mentioned labor battalions, I was thinking something more along the Soviet model, combat construction. I'll have to look into it a bit. I can't recall seeing anything on this, but that doesn't settle it for me. thanks.


message 9: by +Chaz (new)

+Chaz In reference to the Chinese Labor Corps during the Great War, there is an International conference on Chinese labor Corps during the Great War in Weihai, Shandong, China 16-19 September, 2008. If you google the title there are a number of sites that cover the transport of Chinese laborers to South Africa and France. The South African event is very interesting, although I doubt the Chinese would look at it that way.


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