Douglas Newton’s Private Ryan and how peace efforts were sabotaged in WW1

Apr 28, 2021

Every now and then a historian produces a book that gives a rational and compassionate insight into the war of 1914-18 and the origins of the Anzac legend. Douglas Newton has given Australia such a work in his story of Private Ryan set against the backdrop of war aims and peace movements.

Douglas Newton’s Private Ryan and the Lost Peace: A Defiant Soldier and the Struggle Against the Great War is a remarkable work of history. His methodology combines the personal story of Ted Ryan, a working-class Broken Hill orphan, with the broader backdrop of the shifting aims of the Entente powers. Initially, Britain’s declaration of war against Germany over the invasion of Belgium was presented as the only means of defending humanity and achieving justice. It was for these idealistic principles that thousands of Australians loyally volunteered, possibly to kill and risk death in support of the empire.

Not long after the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, the powers which invoked these principles began to modify their aims. Britain and France negotiated secretly to wage war until they could capture territory from Germany in Europe and overseas across Africa, Asia and the Middle East and cripple Germany economically. From early 1915 it became clear that they had no interest in any peace overtures from the enemy. Australia’s Prime Minister Hughes quickly became a ‘bitter ender’ and hypocritically voiced support for democracy while undermining it thoroughly, particularly by censoring any reports of Britain’s
secret war aims and Germany’s willingness to negotiate for peace.

Of particular relevance to the Anzac legend is that the Gallipoli campaign aimed to enable Russia to seize parts of the crumbling Ottoman Empire and to draw Italy into the war on the allied side. Meanwhile, Britain insisted that talk of peace by the pope must be censored. Newton identifies many non-government campaigns for peace and notes the hysterical response by the ‘victory at any cost’ press and many British MPs.

While secret agreements and public moves for peace might not have been known to Australian soldiers whose Anzac Bulletin was just a Hughes propaganda sheet, letters from home could well have contained news of anti-war activity, and particularly opposition to Hughes’ conscription referenda. Broken Hill where Ted Ryan and his two soldier brothers spent their formative teenage years was becoming a centre of radical protest led by trade unions.

Perhaps encouraged by such news, Private Ted Ryan had the courage to voice the intuitive disgust many Australian soldiers felt for the carnage at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Ryan was wounded physically and mentally by his experiences, and during convalescence, wrote to Ramsay MacDonald, British Labor MP and an outspoken opponent of the war. He gave MacDonald permission to use his name and signed off ‘Yours peacefully’.

Ryan attacked Lloyd George and Asquith for their changed attitudes and expressed outrage that soldiers were dying for war aims which they had not been asked to support in 1914, but which had been secretly adopted. Ryan spoke with horror of the abattoir that was the battlefield and said that the war would ‘make thousands of orphans, make thousands of cripples, make thousands face this hell’.

Throughout the book, Newton seeks to understand Private Ryan’s actions. Ryan experienced military punishment six times and twice faced courts-martial charged with desertion. He served time in British military prisons after a death sentence was commuted.

The death sentences given to 121 Australians for ‘desertion’ were all commuted despite the urgings by warmongers. Many soldiers did however, break discipline and receive punishments at a rate four times higher than in any other division of the British army.

Newton comments that with this rate of rebellion, perhaps the ‘much vaunted Anzac spirit could include a determination to get the hell out of the battle zone’.

Newton seeks always to understand Ryan’s behaviour, an analysis that did not interest courts-martial. Ryan’s absences without leave might easily be explained by a lack of enthusiasm to continue fighting when his support for the original war aims was being abused. Newton also recognises the likely influence of shell shock on Ryan’s attitudes.

He notes that Ryan’s behaviour in one instance was a protest against the removal of his paybook. Ryan survived the war and had a family. He participated in Labor Party politics in New South Wales but died aged 52 in a night-time bicycle accident.

Ryan’s letter to MacDonald is provided as an Appendix, along with his service summary and the statement to his court martial in which he says conscientiously that he ‘enlisted to fight for a Peace without conquerors or conquered’. Newton also supplies a list of war aims and secret treaties, the texts of six of these and another list of 45 lost opportunities for peace.

This scholarly work of almost 400 pages contains just short of 1,000 footnotes. There are numerous photographs of the main characters among some 280 illustrations. Douglas Newton writes prose that is free of jargon and effortless to read.

Published by Longueville Press, this fine volume has for a dustjacket John Singer Sargent’s poignant painting ‘Gassed’ which depicts a line of blinded soldiers holding on to the pack of the man in front as they troop off for treatment. The painting is symbolic of the way warmongers treat all of us in their determination to prevent us from seeing the truth. We
should be thankful for the light Douglas Newton brings into this dark world.

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