Quintinshill, the Lies of War and Respect for the Dead.

Apologies for the recent silence, I’ve been in New Zealand for ANZAC Day this weekend. As the forces representatives gathered on the beach at Gallipoli for the ceremony, and Nicola Sturgeon laid a wreath at the Scottish War Memorial, it was perhaps an obvious opportunity to reflect on the different experiences between Kiwis and Scots. For me, as someone who grew up in the north of Edinburgh, Gallipoli’s main significance was in the lure that drew the 7th Royal Scots (a battalion recruited mainly from Leith) away from their intended deployment in France, to instead board a train from Larbert bound for Liverpool, where they were to board the Aquitania. Just before 7am, the first train, carrying 498 (half of all ranks) collided with a local passenger train at Quintinshill, just north of Gretna Green. The train overturned, largely from the southbound on to the northbound lines, just a minute before the Glasgow-bound express hit the wreckage, igniting the wrecked old wooden carriages with their gas tanks for lighting. Although ten died on the express, 216 of the 7th Royal Scots died, with only 62 surviving unscathed – only 6 of them (officers) went on to join the second half of the battalion when they embarked from Liverpool. Due to the damage and incineration, only 83 of the 216 bodies were ever identified in what remains the worst rail disaster in the UK. Although hushed up for obvious moral reasons, no family in Leith was untouched by the disaster.

Unsurprisingly for a first world war venture, the Gallipoli campaign itself proved a fairly futile exercise, in its failure to secure the capital of Turkey: after 8 months occupying cliffs around the peninsula in trenches, the allied forces abandoned it in January 1916 – or ‘retreated’, as you would say, if describing another army. A surprising trivia fact: Rupert Murdoch’s father is credited with the ‘Gallipoli letter’ that allegedly ended the botched Dardanelles campaign through its exposure of the needless deaths of thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers. At the commemoration ceremony, Kemal Atatürk’s magnanimous quote (see below) was repeated, with one modern Turkish representative explaining that just as they were under Germany, so New Zealand was under Britain, and that was the only reason that they fought each other. I wondered if that was receiving quite so much coverage back in the UK…and it made me reflect on the impossibility of such a quote as Ataturk’s being broadcast by a German state representative to any British dead. Not that such a statement was unlikely to be made – just that it would not be likely to be reported on the BBC these days.

I have talked before about the waste of life at this time (see ‘Greys’ Psychology: Inside the Mindset of a Defeated Demographic’), with Scotland’s losses per capita (145,000 Scots dead out of 887,000 total British losses gives a disproportionate 16%) as among the highest of any combatant nation. But I found the BBC’s online description of the campaign interesting. Although it asserts that with New Zealand only becoming independent in 1907, and Australia doing similar in 1901, that there was “no question” that they would “fight for the mother country”, the BBC’s website continues “war also fanned the flames of nationalism…Ordinary men…had the chance to ‘do their country proud’, and by joining the global conflict, Australia and New Zealand would establish themselves on the international stage.”

I found that a noteworthy departure from the line that we have become accustomed to hearing throughout the Referendum campaign, of how independence automatically rendered any death in wartime as a death betrayed. Labour’s John Reid, amongst others, was quite keen to draw a line suggesting that all those who went to war in Scotland were fighting not for their families, but for a monarch or British flag, as though that was in some way paramount. This was then used, in a fairly transparently desperate argument, to contend that therefore anyone voting for independence in the Referendum was in fact betraying dead relatives. Firstly, there is something of an arrogance in that presumption – you can drink a monarch’s health, sign on a dotted line, and if things go badly for you know that your family will have the privilege of receiving a letter signed with a genuine royal rubber stamp, but I would hardly say that that makes any declaration of your primary loyalty, or what your political views were towards either a republic or self-determination – and woe betide anyone who casually assumes otherwise.

After that arrogant presumption there is secondly the arrogant conceit of making such a judgement on people contemplating a better political future for their fellow citizens and families, and the naked use of such crass irrational emotional blackmail against reasoned arguments for a better future – invoking, and presuming to speak for, the dead, often of your own family.

And yet – it isn’t so unusual. It is not just Labour Party members on their way to the House of Lords that espouse such disdain for genuine popular political aspiration.

Currently, there are debates on removing the Queen – Elizabeth the First and Second – as head of state in New Zealand. It can be contended that such questions are being raised this year, to distract from a general National (=Conservative) Party failure here, and that also it is somewhat cynical to raise the question during a centenary year for the origin of the ANZAC legend. As some have suggested David Cameron is deliberately intending to ‘throw’ the EU vote with a weighted question, so there is a similar suggestion that this is a distraction, rather than a seriously considered political proposal. But the same patterns of political opposition can still be discerned.
New Zealand, with a slightly smaller population than Scotland, is having the same dirt thrown at people arguing for the monarch to be removed as head of state – that, again, this is so disrespectful to all who died for New Zealand in the past. The difference, of course, is that New Zealand has been happily independent for over a century – and was even independent before its military legend was forged. Apparently that does not provide an expiry date on this nonsensical monarchist claptrap, where wartime combat can apparently still only be permitted to be packaged and presented as purely a monarchic statement, and nothing else.

There are many lies of war that are told by governments. The true scale of Quintinshill was suppressed for reasons of morale for some time. Gallipoli was an inept campaign of protracted failure – but it took some decades before historians could freely come to that conclusion. The story of the tanks being sent into Glasgow before the peace treaty was signed in 1919 was similarly downplayed. But it seems that even after their lives were taken from them and their families, the dead are still a legitimate currency for the establishment to employ – long after they can speak for themselves, or answer back against their misrepresenters. Even when it is the establishment that bears the guilt for the misdeeds that led to those deaths, they find guilt an easy currency for them to employ without any thought to propriety or respect, as an attempt to block any threat to their own position.

Harry Patch may have described war as “the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings” – but once dead, they are still not allowed to rest by those responsible for their deaths, as they can always be hauled out to dance for them one more time.

“There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, on the fallen at Gallipoli)

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