Sunday, 19 April 2015

Ormond E Burton and Anzac Nationalism

There's a famous quote by Ormond E Burton which gets mentioned many times by Anzac commentators: ‘somewhere between the landing at Anzac and the end of the battle of the Somme New Zealand very definitely became a nation.’ . Just what this means exactly, and just how much of our so called 'national identity' derives from our inheritance of WW1 battle experience is a subject I will leave to the various newspaper and magazine editors. I'm much more interested in the man Ormond E Burton, and how this conservative trope squares – or fails to square – with his subsequent statements about nationhood and his militant pacifism.

Born in 1893, he is deeply immersed in the dominant colonial culture of early twentieth century New Zealand. As a very devout Christian, Burton begins life as a passionate and dedicated conformist. He is loyal to the British Empire: its Kings and Queens, its Imperial state apparatus and its Holy Church. After the war he feels betrayed and disillusioned, so he ditches his loyalty to the state completely. This is the radical side of Burton: he totally repudiates the idea that war is either just or necessary. Nation states are selfish Imperial powers fighting for the interests of the elite. He combines the socialist argument that capitalism is the root cause of war with the pacifist argument that war never leads to peace, only to more war.

The other side of Burton is that of the loyal and brave soldier. Favoured by the military authorities for his courage and ability, he is commissioned to write about his regiment while he is taking leave from the trenches near the end of the war. This small book, Our Little Bit (1918) is followed by four more versions of the same military history: The New Zealand Division (1919), Official History of the Auckland Regiment (1921), The Silent Division (1935) and Concerning One Man's War (1968). The most famous of these books is the 1935 version, which includes an appendix declaring the author's views on war and his adoption of Christian pacifism.

Portrait of 3/483 Ormond Burton in Lance Corporal Uniform in 1916, Field Ambulance Unit

All of these books celebrate the courage and heroism of the New Zealand soldiers and include the claim that New Zealand became a nation forged through battle. Although Burton's pacifism comes through now and then in passing references, these texts are all examples of remembrance in its most literal sense: he describes his memories of each and every battle, and offers us an authentic and frequently moving account of the suffering endured by the Anzacs. Interestingly, Burton completely refrains from making any moral or political judgements in these descriptions. His intent is to establish an historical memorial to the men he fought alongside. He deeply respects their courage, sense of duty and willingness to sacrifice their lives for a greater cause.

This mode of historical description is the dominant mode in 21st century New Zealand writing about Anzac history. All questions about politics and the morality of war are effectively marginalised by a very narrow and highly personalised focus on the individual Anzac soldiers and their experiences. A vast amount of energy is put into researching soldier's diaries and letters, and huge amounts of money are spent on movies and documentaries which focus almost exclusively on the trenches. Famous battles such as Gallipoli are subject to a sort of 'forensic' version of historical inquiry: the various batallions are described in great detail, battles are studiously recounted and discussed.

Unlike the one dimensional forensic exercises of contemporary Anzac history, there is another side to Burton. Although he retains his deep respect for the individual Anzacs he fought alongside, he becomes massively disillusioned by the political system which created the conditions for the so called 'Great War'. Like many other men and women of his generation, Burton realised that the promise contained in the phrase “the war to end all wars” was completely false. The war served to heighten rather than diminish a vicious form of aggressive nationalism amongst a large number of people in all western nations. The punitive conditions of the Treaty of Versailles reflected this viciousness, and helped to lay the seeds of discontent which would lead to another outbreak of imperialist war in 1939.

Alongside these reactionary developments there was another much more positive reaction to the misery of the period between 1914 and 1918. Many people began to question the justness and necessity of the slaughter, and also the values of the jingoistic nationalism promoted by the elites and the governments of the major powers. This progressive reaction takes many forms, from pacifist statements such as Erich Maria Remarque's book All Quiet on the Western Front, to the growing popularity of socialist politics. The Russian revolution in 1917 sends a powerful message to people all over the world that an alternative to nationalism and war exists. This socialist vision has a huge impact in New Zealand, and the rise of the Labour party throughout the 1920s, eventually culminating in the first Labour government of 1935, has a lot to do with this progressive spirit engendered by the bitter disillusionment following the WW1 bloodbath.
Burton's own words about this sense of bitter betrayal deserve recognition:

The Great War, more perhaps than any other in history, was able to preserve the sacrificial illusion. The infantry soldier was the backbone of the army – the fighting man. He was subject to the utmost rigour of scorching heat and freezing cold; sniped at by unseen foemen; blown to bits by guns concealed miles away; smashed by bombs that screamed down upon him from the skies; all the while living in conditions of the most squalid sort – and for months at a time never seeing an enemy soldier. Then in the fiery heat of a great battle he perished on a torn battlefield under the fury of the barrage. To suffer, to endure, to die; that was the life of the infantry soldier. The real glory of the war was the amazing willingness with which the youth of the world, of whatever country, went to suffering and death for the best they could see. […..]

The war had come because the fear and greed of innumerable people of all nations had produced the capitalist system, and from this, operating within national groupings, had arisen the great imperialisms that had come into head-on collision. The war was the inevitable result of a process which could not be overcome, but only intensified into still more monstrous forms, by military action. Those of us who had fought for a new world and for the ideals the politicians and editors and parsons and teachers had held up as our goals were betrayed.

With this radical vision, shared by many others of his generation, it is not surprising that Burton joined the Labour party shortly after arriving home in 1919. He becomes good friends with another veteran who was also a very notable figure in the Labour party, John A Lee. His deep commitment to Christian principles, and the somewhat intolerant political atmosphere of the party, lead to him being expelled from the party in 1925. He retains his radical commitment to both pacifism and socialism, and stands for parliament as an independent in 1925. Burton puts forward a radical platform which includes the socialisation of the means of production and the complete abolishment of the 'depressive machinery of criminal courts, penal laws, police and prisons'.

Writing about this period forty years later, Burton maintains that even though he was very clearly defeated (receiving only 200 votes), “.. I still think that most of these things [in the platform] were sound. The fundamental error was the endeavour to think nationally and Christianly at the same time”. Clearly this critical, anti-nationalist perspective sits very uneasily beside the famous example of Anzackery I quoted at the beginning of this article. These tensions in Burton's writings between his early nationalism, his socialism and his militant version of Christian pacifism provide us with a complex and fascinating alternative view into the meaning of Anzac day and the contested politics which surround it.

(Quotes taken from Ormond E Burton's 1970 pamphlet 'Christian Action”)

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