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The journey of Broken Hill’s own Private Ryan

Saturday, 5th June, 2021

By By Neil Pigot

If you ever get the opportunity to visit the patch of Northern France and Southern Belgium that came to be known as the Western Front, you will most likely be struck by two things.
The first is that each of those villages that gives its name to the great battles of the First World War, evocative names like Fromelles, Villers Bretonneux, Pozier and Hamel are not distant locations on a sprawling canvas. They are, in fact, a gentle bike ride apart.
World War One was not fought across an expansive battlefield by any measure but a comparatively small and uninspiring patch of chalky, featureless farming country.
What you then come to understand having visited these innocuous fields is that, on the Western Front, as it was in Gallipoli, for weeks and in many cases months, thousands would die on muddy battlefields for meagre gains of a few metres rather than miles, many drowning in the chalky clay of the Somme that, after rain and bombardment, became an impassable, stinking quagmire of soil and rotting flesh.
To this day, when you walk across those fields, ball bearings are easily found in plentiful numbers amongst the freshly ploughed soil and make the perfect souvenir. But these trinkets tell another story, the story of what soldiers on both sides were forced to endure in order to gain those few metres.
Each one of those ball bearings was, in the case of the 18-pound shrapnel shell, one of 375 encased in a projectile designed to explode just above the ground. Those ball bearings would then fly through the air, cutting whatever was within range to pieces.
It is in the fields of white crosses, some containing upwards of 100,000 graves, orderly lines that in many cases extend from the side of the road and over gentle rolling hills out of sight, that you get a sense of the work of those shells, the true glory that was the Western Front.
An abattoir where industrial warfare was unleashed for 51 months on a generation of young men, a haunting reminder of a protracted catastrophe that claimed the lives of 16 million and amongst them, over 70,000 Australians.
The question one has to ask when one stands facing one of those cemeteries is, why did it go on for so long? Despite facing military stalemates on virtually every front, why was there no attempt at a negotiated peace before November 1918?
It is this question that lies at the heart of a quite remarkable work of history, Douglas Newton’s Private Ryan and the Lost Peace, a profoundly moving and deeply engrossing book that examines the overarching political machinations that drove the war through the personal wartime experiences of Ted Ryan, a working-class orphan raised, along with his two brothers, by his aunt and uncle Margaret and Jim Mudie, a long time caretaker of the Broken Hill water supply at Imperial Dam.
Ryan followed his two younger brothers to war, enlisting in the 51st Regiment in 1916. It is through a deft shifting between the personal experiences of Ted, both prior to signing up and throughout his service, and the larger geopolitical games that drove the war that Newton has created a work that not only answers the question of why the conflict laboured on, but also offers a compelling human insight into the consequences of that protracted four-and-a-half years of carnage.
While we have come to blindly accept that World War One, using Ryan’s personal experiences as the underlying narrative, Newton exposes a history almost entirely ignored by the chroniclers of ANZAC,  the complex geopolitical moves that began to re-shape the war only moments after the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914.
Ryan, like so many others, signed up to fight for a cause; the defence of humanity, democracy, individual rights to freedom and the promise of a just peace. But he quickly came to doubt the veracity of that cause and Newton clearly shows us that Ryan was correct in his suspicions. By the time he had signed up the war was most assuredly not all it was advertised to be. And perhaps, it never truly was.
As early as 1914, Britain and France had secretly negotiated a deal to continue fighting until they had captured all the German territory in Europe along with their colonial possessions across Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East. The war had presented the two countries, particularly Britain, with a rare opportunity for territorial gains. And so began an almost unconscionable game of political ego and imperial greed using an entire generation of young men as pawns.
Even before Australian soldiers had landed on that now mythological rocky beach in the Dardanelles, Britain, France and Russia had signed the Straits and Persia Agreement, a secret treaty that guaranteed Russian support for the war against Germany by offering a fabulous package of trophies in the Near East that included Constantinople. The Gallipoli campaign, far from having any purpose in ending the war, was almost entirely conceived to perpetuate it.
The day after ANZAC Day Britain, France, Russia and Italy signed the London Treaty, an agreement to destroy Germany with Italy joining the Entente crusade and walking away with a bulging bag of promised territorial gains as a reward. And to ensure there would indeed be a victory and no negotiated peace before their territorial aims had been met. To ensure their plans the Ententé diplomats added an additional article. To block any peace efforts launched by the influential Pope Benedict XV, the man responsible for the “embarrassing” Christmas day truce of 1914 they drafted the anti-Vatican article, officially excluding him from any diplomatic discussions.
Newton goes on to identify the many non-government campaigns for peace and notes the hysterical response to any call for an end to hostilities by the ‘victory at any cost’ press and British MPs.
He also clearly takes us through the multiple occasions in 1915 and 1916 when the leaders of the northern European neutral powers tried to initiate diplomatic negotiations behind the scenes between Britain and Germany, only to be rebuffed by the Entente powers. So too we learn of the German government’s public offer in 1916 to negotiate an end to the war - an offer scorned by Britain and France in the pursuit of a winner takes all victory.
While secret agreements and public moves for peace might not have been known to Australian soldiers on the front, in Broken Hill where Ted Ryan and his two soldier brothers had spent their formative teenage years, rumours were rife. Despite an extraordinary campaign of censorship by Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes, Broken Hill was becoming the centre of radical protest.
Perhaps encouraged by news from home of the anti-war and anti-conscription movements led by men like Percy Brookfield, in mid-1916, Ryan, wounded physically and mentally by his experiences on the battlefields, began to find the courage to voice the intuitive disgust many Australian soldiers felt for the carnage they were forced to endure.
Writing to Ramsay MacDonald, British Labor MP and outspoken opponent of the war, Ryan passionately attacked British Foreign Secretary Lloyd George and Prime Minister Asquith for their changed attitudes and expressed outrage that soldiers were dying for war aims which they had not been asked to support.
He spoke eloquently of the horror of the “slaughterhouse” that was the battlefield, of a war that would ‘make thousands of orphans, make thousands of cripples, make thousands face this hell’. And he asked a plain question. “Why shouldn’t we know what terms of peace we are fighting for, why shouldn’t we discuss what terms we are supposed to accept?” A question that is both compelling and given the wars outcome, heartbreaking.
Throughout the book, Newton seeks to understand Ryan’s actions. Twice wounded and suffering from shell shock, Ryan experienced military punishment six times, twice facing court-martials charged with desertion. He served several sentences in British military prisons after a death sentence was commuted and remained a prisoner until March 1919 when he was repatriated home. All three Ryan boys survived the war. But it is the elder Ryan’s experiences on the battlefield and his courage in bringing truth to power that form the narrative vehicle of a story of immense power and insight. A moral man faced with a moral conundrum. He saw a war that he suspected was being unjustly prosecuted and he chose to act upon it.
Should Ryan have trusted the men it transpires had lied to him?  Should he have blindly continued on? Is it courageous to suppress our moral doubts for “The Big Picture?” Or is it more important to take a stand? In our own complex world, it’s an interesting question.
While Private Ryan and the Lost Peace is a masterful history, one that reads like a thriller, it is above all a human story. A salient reminder of the power of misinformation, its effect on an individual and on democracy.
Highly recommended.

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