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Remembering the Anzacs includes remembering the war crimes they committed, which are not at all illustrious.


It was observed (…) that the English had killed the wounded and captured German prisoners.

Thus reads a disturbing entry in the war diary of the Bavarian 18th Regiment of 7 June 1917, in which a Schütze (Rifleman) Jakob Eickert of the 2. Machine Gun Company is quoted.

Another Bavarian soldier, Karl Kennel, was nearly among those killed. He later wrote to the Red Cross that he and his friend Friedrich Christoffel were injured when enemy troops bombed their dugout.

They emerged, belts loosened in surrender, and begged for mercy. Christopher was on his knees with his hands raised when a soldier pointed a pistol at him and pulled the trigger. Kennel escaped death by rolling into a shell hole.

The Bavarians fought against the New Zealand Division that day in 1917 during the very bloody Battle of Messines. Both Eickert and Kennel described the actions of New Zealand soldiers – then, as now, war crimes.

Today, New Zealanders and Australians tend to place their soldiers on pedestals on Anzac Day. We are led to believe that these mostly volunteer civilian soldiers were an exceptional group of fighters (something the men themselves believed). But this reputation came at a price.

Happier than some: Wounded German soldiers, captured in Messines, arrive at the New Zealand field hospital.
Alexander Turnbull Library

‘It was very ordinary’

Anzac soldiers should have known that killing enemy prisoners was forbidden. The British Manual of Military Law, which contains the Hague Convention of 1907 on land warfare, forbade soldiers to kill or wound an enemy who had surrendered at their discretion. “This prohibition is plain and clear.”

In addition, both officers and men were expected to know these regulations. But as I show in my book Taking the Ridge: Anzacs and Germans at the Battle of Messines 1917, the diaries and memoirs of New Zealand soldiers confirm that the killing of prisoners and wounded was a feature of the Messines fighting, and probably also elsewhere.

Some diary entries were factual: “Our comrades used the steel (bayonet) a lot, so there were not as many prisoners as could have been,” one soldier wrote. “Many Germans lay on the ground with bayonets, wounded men. It was quite normal,” wrote another.

Read more: An urgent rethink of the idealized image of the ANZAC digger is needed

One of them wrote of a conversation with a German he had captured: ‘He was like the rest, full of stories of British cruelty to prisoners. They all expect to be killed and I’m afraid I’ve seen some very dirty work done, which might explain the stories they hear.

Others simply distanced themselves from such actions: “I’m proud to say it never crossed my mind to (kill injured men) or shoot people with their hands up,” one wrote.

There are also examples of compassion and soldiers comforting wounded Germans. But other actions depended on the circumstances – a case of “them or us”. For example, when gunner Edward Miller and his officer hit a “Fritzes” dugout, they captured a lone German. But they took no chances with another group of Germans, one with a white handkerchief up – they were “finished off”.

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The past on a pedestal: memorial service at Messines Ridge (British) Cemetery in 2007.
Jeffrey McNeill, Author provided

‘Officially sanctioned’

The New Zealanders sent some 300 prisoners to the rear in the battle. But that is only half the number captured by the neighboring British 25th Division. The discrepancy suggests particularly ferocious fighting by the New Zealanders.

Individuals must take responsibility for their actions, but so must their commanders. New Zealand’s senior officers’ support for the killing of prisoners was mostly tacit. A heart-pounding lecture on the use of bayonets by Scottish firefighter Major Ronald Campbell to the New Zealanders before the Somme raid in 1916 provides some insight.

Read more: Anzacs behaving badly: Scott McIntyre and contested history

Campbell had discouraged taking prisoners. Instead, soldiers should use bayonet to surrender enemy soldiers when they raise their hands – “that’s your chance to stick it in the soft part of the belly where the bayonet goes in easily and comes out quickly Campbell instructed.

New Zealand Division Commander General Andrew Russell approved: “Lecture by Major Campbell on bayonet fighting – very good indeed.” Captain Lindsay Inglis, a clerk before the war and a brigadier general in the next war, did not. He wrote in his diary:

It would be interesting to know to what extent (these readings) accounted for acts of the sort that even in war amount to nothing short of brutal murder (…) We were amazed that it had been officially approved.

Read more: The Anzac legend blinded Australia to its war atrocities. It’s time for a reckoning

Lest we forget

Airing this dirty laundry may seem inappropriate for Anzac Day, especially since many of the men have not committed war crimes. But knowing what happened in battle gives a fuller understanding of their experience.

War is cruel. Despite headlines at the time proclaiming Messines as a major New Zealand victory “for exceedingly light casualties”, approximately 3,700 New Zealanders were killed or wounded in the battle. About 3,600 of the Bavarians opposite them were killed, wounded or captured. Only three officers and 30 men from the three Bavarian front battalions returned.

And war is still cruel today, with similar consequences. Investigations into the behavior of Australian and New Zealand troops in Afghanistan over the past few decades only underscore the contemporary relevance of older atrocities.

This includes the investigation into the conduct of New Zealand SAS forces during Operation Burnhamand the Australian Brereton reportwhich found serious breaches of ethical, legal, professional and moral responsibilities by Australian Defense Force soldiers.

By acknowledging that this kind of behavior has occurred during previous wars, perhaps the public will be less reluctant to accept evidence that it can still happen. It should also mean that the military itself will work to make sure it doesn’t happen again in the future.

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