Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori
October 25, 2005 5:34 PM   Subscribe

Last Post. Evan 'Darby' Allan, the last of Australia's 330,770 World War 1 veterans, was buried with full state honours yesterday, closing one of the most dismal chapters in our history. Joining the navy at 14, Darby avoided the bloody horrors of the Somme and Gallipoli, which contributed heavily to the over 60 000 Australian war dead and 200 000 total casualties (from a population of only about 5 000 000), but he still played his part in what many historians suggest was the prime cause of 20th century totalitarianism, the second world war and the cold war. And it was all so pointless. He seemed like a nice bloke, and the reportage has thankfully avoided most of the 'hero' bullshit (I don't think he would have approved).
posted by wilful (40 comments total)
Excellent, Wilful, thanks for the post.
posted by etaoin at 5:47 PM on October 25, 2005

Really nice work, wilful.

Anyone know how many World War I soldiers are left in the world?
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:54 PM on October 25, 2005

Because I blogged it, I know that in 2002 there were 14 World War I vets left in Canada on Remembrance Day (November 11) that year. There are "only a handful" now, but I can't find anything more definite than that.
posted by zadcat at 6:02 PM on October 25, 2005

Joey Michaels- Not all governments (including America's) open the records on living veterans, and some keep no records at all. But we're talking very small numbers. Belgium, New Zealand- zero. Canada, I believe less than ten. France, last I heard was under thirty.

These people take an interest.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:03 PM on October 25, 2005

Surviving veterans of WWI on Wikipedia.
posted by zadcat at 6:04 PM on October 25, 2005

I love that the oldest man in America (and WWI vet) is named Moses Hardy.
posted by freebird at 6:19 PM on October 25, 2005

More here.

Interestingly, the German account of Hermann Dörnemann's last birthday mentions his veteran status, if only in passing; the English translation does not.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:20 PM on October 25, 2005

When you have the benefit of looking back at a series of actions you canalways then see how "one thing leads to another."

The method(s) of fighting in both the American Civil War and WWII (both sides) were such that they led to incredible numbers of dead and wounded. Studies have been made of this crazed use of fighting "strategies."
posted by Postroad at 6:23 PM on October 25, 2005

Gallipoli - one of my favorite films.
posted by ericb at 6:24 PM on October 25, 2005

We shall not forget.
posted by dazed_one at 6:29 PM on October 25, 2005

Not to sound black dazed.."We shall not forget." but I think we can sadly state that already did.
posted by Mr Bluesky at 6:40 PM on October 25, 2005

sp. "we"
posted by Mr Bluesky at 6:44 PM on October 25, 2005

Can you imagine that casualty rate? 1 in 83 of all Australians dead? 1 in 25 a casualty? Everyone would have known a few people that had died, and several casualties.
posted by wilful at 6:55 PM on October 25, 2005

Several notes about causes in WWI, not necessarily related to the causus belli.

First of all, Bismarck was an essential player in all of this. As the greatest diplomat of his century, he re-created the Reich of the HRE, except of Germanic states as a unified whole. This organization made Germany an explosively developing industrial economy overnight. Germans, who had an inferiority complex, and were sneered at as peasants by many others on the continent, were suddenly a powerful, formidable people.

The fool, Napoleon IIIrd of France, who had a knack for picking fights with the worst possible enemies, including Philip Sheridan, decided to belligerantly menace Germany. Bismarck dealt with this low-level but potentially dangerous threat with the "Ems dispatch", which tricked the French to declare war with no preparation, while the German army waited on the far side of the border to counterattack. A very short war, indeed.

Deposing Napoleon III, Bismarck then wanted to cleanly disengage with France, in a foresighted and wise decision to soothe animosities. Unfortunately, the militarists around him demanded territorial annexation as punishment, which left the French terribly bitter. He strongly opposed this, but was stupidly overruled.

Finally, Bismarck was central to the multilateral defense treaties of the period. What sane person would think that peace treaties would cause a minor war to explode?

The second "cause" that should be mentioned was why WWI was a trench warfare stalemate. Credit for that can be given to Napoleon Bonaparte. His superior tactics, from his brilliant generals, used military units much like chess pieces. He captured an entire enemy army at Ulm solely through the use of complex maneuver. His single army defeated four enemy armies in perhaps the greatest battle in history, Austerlitz.

But his primary tactic was called the "axe". He would attack on a broad front with his first eschelon to force a broad defense from his enemy. His second eschelon would maneuver behind the front lines, looking for a weakpoint, then it would quickly insert through, like an axe blade, and split the enemies forces. As soon as the penetration happened, the mission of his first eschelon changed to defend their front position at all costs.

It was devastatingly effective in the Napoleonic wars. So after that time, every modern army in the world embraced those tactics. Which had only one drawback.

The "axe" tactics don't work if both sides use them. They result in stalemate and trench warfare. America had gotten a preview of this paradox in the US Civil War, but Europe had to learn it in WWI, excepting Russia, that bowed out of the war early. The Soviet Union still embraced Napoleon Bonaparte's tactics until it collapsed. The tactics finally were discovered to be obsolete only after Gulf War I, and the devastating defeat of the Iraqi army using those tactics.

It can be said that much of WWI could have been averted if there had been political leaders who wanted to avoid the war. But all of the major combatants were convinced of their invulnerability, afraid of their potential enemies military buildups, and fatalistic about the inevitability of war.
posted by kablam at 6:57 PM on October 25, 2005

Very nice analysis, kablam. And thanks, all, for the surviving veteran links.

I remember an episode of Cheers that featured the last dough boy of his unit coming to a reunion at the bar. Very funny, but a little poignant also.
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:05 PM on October 25, 2005

I personally liked Harold Gardner's story from the Wikipedia link. Lucky Harold, indeed.

When I was a child in the 1970s, I remember meeting some WWI vets; my (step-)great-grandmother, an Irish lass who died in 1983 at the age of 101, in fact had been married to one. She outlived all three of her husbands, and rarely talked about the experience of being a young adult during that time, but her visceral horror at WWI and the Easter Uprising did come through when we were at school and talking about history.

Right now we're running an "Age of WWI" upper-division course at the University where I teach, and the students are remarkably receptive to its lessons about futility and pride. This is why education is a net good, much better than more guns.
posted by trigonometry at 7:24 PM on October 25, 2005

this brit will never forget. thanks old aussies. i am and will always be deeply indebted.

present day aussies however can imho, go royally fuck themselves. the raucous turd they've unleashed on the rest of the world will surely make WWI look like a teddy bears picnic.
posted by rodney stewart at 7:38 PM on October 25, 2005

I will add to Kablam's post that the roots of the First World War can essentially be found in the Balkan Wars of the early part of the century. The conflict was hundreds of years old, stretching back to the Battle of Vienna in 1683. From an earlier post of mine:

The Hapsburgs ruled in Bosnia only after Serbian objections to that annexation were dropped in return for tacit approval for Serb troops and guerillas to flood into Macedonia, then controlled by the Ottoman Turks and contested by the (essentially Russian-controlled) Bulgarians and many others (eventually leading to the Balkan Wars). The Macedonian resistance (essentially the first modern organized resistance, you could go so far as to call it the blueprint on which modern insurgency/terrorism is based), later developed into IMRO, which was essentially the model for Young Bosnia and Black Hand, the organizations responsible for the death of Ferdinand and Sophie.

Much of the legacy of WWI is seen in terms of the impact on Western Europe, and the conflict between Germany and the Allied powers. Less examined is the effective end of the Ottoman empire, an empire that had existed for 500 years and threatened Europe's very identity as a Christian land. The legacy of the Ottomans lives on the Balkans today, in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Albania, and Serbia. WWI may have been a vicious, bloody war, but I wouldn't necessarily call it pointless. I also wouldn't say that WWII was a direct result of it. Totalitarianism had been on the rise since the mid 18th century, and had already taken hold in Russia before the end of WWI. German nationalism and socialism were an inevitable result of the philosophies of the age. Perhaps the outcome of WWI aided in their rise, but it was not the cause.
posted by loquax at 8:15 PM on October 25, 2005

rodney stewart - excuse me? what the fuck did I ever do to you?
posted by russm at 8:19 PM on October 25, 2005

*boggles quietly in the direction of rodney stewart*

Unless, of course, you're referring to Kylie Minogue. In which case, two words: Spice Girls.
posted by coriolisdave at 8:29 PM on October 25, 2005

Nice post wilful, this was all over the TV and newspapers but according to the link posted by IndigoJones - Correspondence with the Sydney Morning Herald in the thread: "Government sources confirm that there is only one surviving World War One veteran in Australia, John Ross. Your ongoing feedback will help us publish a better newspaper." The posters in there mention a few others too. So I guess he may not be the last. We might find out in a couple of weeks with a few 'dead' ones spotted playing two-up in the rubberty.
::decorum:: rodney stewart.
posted by tellurian at 8:56 PM on October 25, 2005

WTF is up with rodney stewart (apart from the fact he cant sing?).

Tellurian, I suppose a point of clarification is required, Darby Allen was the last serving combat veteran. John Ross, as my first link states, enlisted in 1918 but never saw combat.

My grandfather made it as far as Egypt in 1918 before catching a troopship home. And then spent 7 years in Europe the second time around.
posted by wilful at 9:06 PM on October 25, 2005

If you're referring to John Howard, rodney stewart, some of us tried our damnedest to keep him away from inflicting himself on us (let alone the rest of the world). He doesn't reflect all of us any more than George W reflects all Americans, or Tony Blair all Brits.
posted by andraste at 9:17 PM on October 25, 2005

I can't believe Rodney Stewart knows that I unleashed a raucous turd this morning. I know it smelled a bit, but...
posted by bunglin jones at 9:26 PM on October 25, 2005

Ah! I see wilful. Our man rodney may be pissed off that he didn't register as roderick.
posted by tellurian at 9:30 PM on October 25, 2005

Boy, I'd like to be at that picnic! Kaiser Wilhelm tossing the ball around with Emperor Franz Joseph, Ismail Enver pouting because he dropped his ice cream cone. What a bunch of teddy bears!
posted by loquax at 9:42 PM on October 25, 2005

AHA! I think I may have found the boulder in our friend rod's gaping rectum: this previous post seems to indicate he may have a slight distaste for Aussie soaps.

To which I can only say: can you blame us for sharing the pain? ;) Also: The Bill.

posted by coriolisdave at 10:08 PM on October 25, 2005

zadcat: Because I blogged it, I know that in 2002 there were 14 World War I vets left in Canada on Remembrance Day (November 11) that year. There are "only a handful" now, but I can't find anything more definite than that.

I was curious when I saw the post, so I went looking: as of 27 December 2004, there were six Canadian World War I veterans still living. This is a relatively recent article, but since they'd all have to be over 100, it's entirely possible that there are only one or two left today. (On a slightly different note, it's a bit disappointing how hard it was to find this information. I couldn't find anything whatsoever on the Veterans Affairs website, for example. Even "six veterans" isn't really information -- we'll probably never know their names until they die. It would be nice if there were at least some sort of maintained, official list.)
posted by alsorises at 10:21 PM on October 25, 2005

Duh, sorry, their names are in the Wikipedia article linked above, which I managed to miss.
posted by alsorises at 10:32 PM on October 25, 2005

The only reason those atrocious things still get made is because of British money. If the poms wern't lapping em up they would have been cancelled years ago.

Anyway, I don't know what Darby Allan thought of em.

Interesting that the croaker up-thread thanked us (the rather generic "aussie" us of course). For such a pointless, stupid bloody war (even moreso than usual). What were we fighting for? King and country? I wonder how royalist/pro-empire/anglophile the average man on the street really was back in those days. Probably when he enlisted at age 14 the young Mr Allan mostly just liked ships, and needed a job.

I thought it was hilarious the other week when Brendan Nelson said we should remember the story of Simpson and his donkey. What, you mean the Geordie republican hard drinker?
posted by wilful at 10:33 PM on October 25, 2005

- Eric Bogle
Now when I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of the rover.
From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback,
Well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915, my country said, "Son,
It's time you stop ramblin', there's work to be done."
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun,
And they marched me away to the war.

And the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
As the ship pulled away from the quay,
And amidst all the cheers, the flag waving, and tears,
We sailed off for Gallipoli.

And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water;
And of how in that hell that they call Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk, he was waitin', he primed himself well;
He showered us with bullets, and he rained us with shell --
And in five minutes flat, he'd blown us all to hell,
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

But the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
When we stopped to bury our slain,
Well, we buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs,
Then we started all over again.

And those that were left, well, we tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire.
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
Though around me the corpses piled higher.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head,
And when I woke up in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, well, I wished I was dead --
Never knew there was worse things than dying.

For I'll go no more "Waltzing Matilda,"
All around the green bush far and free --
To hump tents and pegs, a man needs both legs,
No more "Waltzing Matilda" for me.

So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed,
And they shipped us back home to Australia.
The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane,
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And as our ship sailed into Circular Quay,
I looked at the place where me legs used to be,
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
To grieve, to mourn and to pity.

But the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"
As they carried us down the gangway,
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared,
Then they turned all their faces away.

And so now every April, I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
Reviving old dreams of past glory,
And the old men march slowly, all bones stiff and sore,
They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask meself the same question.

But the band plays "Waltzing Matilda,"
And the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear
Someday, no one will march there at all.

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong,
Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
posted by tspae at 11:53 PM on October 25, 2005

Can you imagine that casualty rate? 1 in 83 of all Australians dead? 1 in 25 a casualty? Everyone would have known a few people that had died, and several casualties.

"It is especially fitting that the documentary features two young soldiers from Scone. The town suffered more than its share of casualties; more than 500 men and women, then nearly half the population enlisted. A quarter never returned, 18 men were killed at Gallipoli."

From an interview on Stateline regarding a documentary from Turkish director Tolga Orneka.
posted by fullysic at 12:37 AM on October 26, 2005

All of my male Australian relatives of eligible age (17 and above) were killed in WW1. I don't think any of them lasted more than two weeks in the freezing mud.
The only reason I exist is that my grandfather was too young to enlist.
Incidentally, where do we Northern hemisphere dwellers get the idea that this was a 'World War' from? Surely (yet another) European War would be a better title for it?

Wherever you travel in Britain you will find War memorials with the names of most of the male population at the time mentioned amongst the dead. There are many villages that have never recovered from the destruction of a generation of young men. Linked from the Wikipedia page I find that 32 'thankful' villages lost no men in WW1.
posted by asok at 5:32 AM on October 26, 2005

But his primary tactic was called the "axe". He would attack on a broad front with his first eschelon to force a broad defense from his enemy.

There's more to it that that, though your comments are not, by any means, inaccurate.

The biggest problem in WWI was the change in infantry range, while infantry mobility hadn't changed at all. To whit, a frenchman made a bullet, and thousands of Americans died.

The slaughter of the trenches was easily forseen. It had already happened, in America, in 1864, in a place called Petersburg, VA. One side, desperatly short of men and supplies, was fully entrenched around the city. The other, wealthy in both, surrounded two thirds of the town. (Petersburg was called a siege, but in fact wasn't cut off from the Confederacy. The supply shortage was endemic to the Confederacy at the time.)

See, in Napolean's time, the infantry carried Muskets. Worse, they used gunpowder. Gunpowder leaves residue when fired -- at the time, lots of it, modern gunpowder leaves less. This fouled the bores of the muskets. Thus, musket balls were much smaller than the bore, to make sure that they would still fit in the guns after they'd be fired a few times, since stopping to clean your gun in battle wasn't a good idea.

The rub of this was accuracy, or lack thereof. The ball would bounce in the bore as it was fired (the term in ballistics is "balloting") and would emerge sort of heading thataway.

Thus, the standard tactic for the infantry was to march to about 100 yards out from the enemy, march double-time to about 30 yards, level, fire, and then charge with bayonets fixed. In the earliest days of muskets, you'd intersperse your musketeers amongst your pikeman. The invention of the ring bayonet made it possible for an infantryman to be both musketeer and pike. Such were the ways of war in Napolean's time.

Time passes. We had a better way to use guns. Mill some spiral grooves into the bore, and fit a tightly patched ball into it, and you'd get much more accuracy. This was known well before Napolean's time -- in the late 1700s, the Kentucky Long Rifle gained fame for it's accuracy and hitting power. The problem? Took forever to load as you had to hammer the ball down the bore, and after two-three shots, you had to at least make a quick cleaning pass, or you couldn't fit a ball into it. As a hunter's weapon, supreme. (Daniel Boone named his "Tick Licker") As a military weapon, not so.

Then, Captian Claude-Etienne Minie made his new musket "ball", and change war. The Minie Ball was conical, not round, had a cup molded into the base, and was made smaller than the bore, much like a musket ball. It would easily drop onto the powder of a clean rifle, and could be rammed home even in a very fouled bore. When fired, the cup would expand, sealing the bore and making contact with the rifling. Now, you had the speed of a smoothbore with the accuracy and power of a rifle. The US was all over this idea, and issued, amongst others, the 1863 Springfield.

Suddenly, 100 yards was well within effective range of the infantry. So, you'd march up to 100 yards, and the defending line would be laying into you like mad with their rifles. Double-time to thirty, and by this time, well, you'd probably broken and started running away.

The Confederates, it seems, found the real trick, at Fredricksburg. They formed up behind a stone wall, knelt behind it, and protected from the oncoming Union fire, basically destroyed any Union unit that dared tried to charge.

It took a while for everyone to get the point, but even Grant, in the end, after the nightmare of Cold Harbor. The Confederacy had built strong earthworks. Grant, with a 2-1 advantage in men, and far more in supply, ordered the attack. 90 minutes later, 7000 Union soldiers were gone, to less than 2000 Confederate. Grant himself, after the war, said "I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made....At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained."

Everyone noticed that. Rifles only became better -- from muzzle to breech loaders, with integral primers, rather than seperate caps. Furthermore, the repeating rifle, in the form of the mounted machine gun, made its appearance. Now, a defended infantry man could make effective shots out to 500 yards.

Infantryman still walked and ran about the same rate. But to run 500 yards took minutes, with the defenders firing 10 rounds a minute, and machine guns 500 a minute, and it taking fifteen minutes to cross 500 yards, well, if you could entrench, you were all but unbeatable.

When the German attack in 1915 stalled on the French entrenchments, and the Germans counter-trenched, the stage was set. The lines never moved much after that. The stalemate wouldn't end until the rebirth of the cavalry, as armor -- which could get to, and through, the infantry trench lines in good order. The first persons to figure that out would have a real advantage in the next war.

They did. They were the germans, and we know that, today, as Blitzkrieg.
posted by eriko at 5:48 AM on October 26, 2005

The biggest turd to come out of Australia, in my opinion, is the dastardly Rupert Murdoch. But I don't blame the rest of Australia for him. Besides he's an American citizen now I believe.
posted by Mr T at 8:43 AM on October 26, 2005

The biggest turd to come out of Australia, in my opinion, is the dastardly Rupert Murdoch. But I don't blame the rest of Australia for him. Besides he's an American citizen now I believe.

Ironically, however, the first link in this post comes from a Murdoch-owned web site.
posted by beagle at 9:18 AM on October 26, 2005

All this talk of WWI tactics is a bit o/t but eriko, I'd add that the German military had, by 1918, figured out how to overcome entrenched positions and exploit the gap. The use of stormtroopers, lightly provisioned, fast-moving and heavily armed (SMGs, grenades, flame throwers) and the concentration of forces on a narrow front, allowed Ludendorff to make massive advances. I think there was even a national holiday in Germany to celebrate the imminent victory. Of course, it didn't succeed (extended supply lines were an issue) and the US forces soon began to have a strategic influence, but the all-conquering 'Blitzkrieg' of 1939-42 simply built on the experiences of Spring 1918, with Guderian's genius thrown in.
posted by pots at 10:05 AM on October 26, 2005

So I've been wondering... I know the American opinion of Churchill and have heard the British opinion, but never gotten a sense of the Aussie view. So, what gives? Is there hatred over his role in Galipoli? Adoration? Respect? Indifference? What?
posted by Pollomacho at 10:25 AM on October 26, 2005

asok, it's pretty much the same in Australia. You never go through a country town, no matter how small, without seeing the prominently displayed war memorial and a huge list of the dead - often the majority of young men in the district. Because we're a relatively young nation, many small country towns at that time were still fairly new, and therefore mostly populated by fit young people who made good fighting fodder.

One of the most striking memorials I've seen is the Avenue of Honour in Roma, Qld - 93 bottle trees, one for each person killed in WW1, and a plaque at the base of each tree to commemorate that soldier.
posted by andraste at 2:06 PM on October 26, 2005

Avenues of honour are a dime a dozen - and a lovely reminder. Some are getting a bit old these days, starting to disappear, have road bypasses cut through etc. Bacchus Marsh has a nice one near me. Would have been a small country village then, with a big big avenue reflecting a lot of loss.

Pollomacho, wrt Churchill and his role in Gallipoli, it's not much of an issue. Generally believed that the British field commanders were worse than useless, but the actual fact of why ANZACs were invading the dardanelles is one for historians, not mythologies.
posted by wilful at 4:30 PM on October 26, 2005

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