Saving (our) Private Ryan

A book of this title is to appear next year. Its author professor Douglas Newton of Newcastle University gave a talk on the underlying story to the Canberra branch of ISAA last month; the story is worth marking in this blog, or – as it happens – by a statue in Ryan’s hometown of Broken Hill.

In short Ted Ryan, brought up in the strenuous trade unionism of that town in its first phase of mining expansion, went to war following his two younger brothers’ enlistment in 1916. His experience was in many ways no different to many of Australian volunteers – physically injured (within days of joining the front line in France), a short recovery in England then rejoining his regiment (51st);  again back to England with shell shock; time in camps there sufficient to reflect and be informed; then unusually commencement of a concerted campaign to draw attention to the failure of politicians to honour the ‘defence of empire call’ and perhaps more importantly the army terms of employment.

Opportunities to end hostilities from 1916 onwards were blocked by Westminster to allow new imperial ambitions time to be put in place – notably in the Middle East – Palestine, Persia and Mesopotamia – in Africa and the Pacific. Ryan in the course of serial desertions appealed to Ramsay Macdonald to take up the openings for a negotiated settlement that would have saved millions of casualties from the industrial carnage being experienced in the trenches of northern France, and avoid the consequences of the swingeing terms imposed on Germany at Versailles.

His appeal, as indeed his other actions that lead to him being among the small number of deserters receiving a  death sentence (commuted in the case of Australians – the condition the Australian Government extracted from the British at commencement to guarantee volunteer numbers from this ex-colony) were a reflection of Ryan’s early immersion in the militant politics of the Broken Hill miners. He viewed the direction of the war as outside the terms in which he had enlisted; and he insisted on his pay and conditions entitlements, to the point of refusing to embark until these had been restored*.

In consequence of his actions he received the full force of military retribution, was repeatedly returned to his regiment in France, and was not discharged until one year after hostilities had finished. 

This unusual story however highlights the preoccupied courts martial, with cases (of the order of 200,000) rivaling all army casualties for the War. The end of hostilities did not end desertions; certainly in Ryan’s case it is not easy to reconcile the easy association of desertion with cowardice.

One can reasonably conclude from the bare chronology of Ryan’s war record, circulated at the talk, that Ryan used desertion as a platform for a full-throated – and informed – attack on bad faith in the British Government’s prosecution of the war, as seen by one of those tasked to carry it out. The extract below is from Ryan’s statement to his Court Martial, 12 September 1917 [where he received the capital sentence]: 

“Previous to enlisting as a soldier in the Australian Army [I believed] that Germany intended to crush her European enemies and by so doing had accepted the policy of might-is-right which is opposed to the ideals of Humanity and Civilisation.

“About eleven months ago, England to my mind adopted the same policy [these words underlined in blue by his prosecutors] towards Germany. England’s policy at that time consist[ed] of no peace conferences until Germany was crushed so as to teach them a lesson of virtue. When the war had reached this stage, it was no longer a war of resistance….

“I enlisted to fight for a Peace without conquerors or conquered, as a Peace under those conditions as [does?] nothing to justify another war, either as a war of revenge by the Conquered, or a war of Glory and Patriotic land-grabbing by Conquerors.”

Private E. J. Ryan’s Statement to his Court Martial, 12 September 1917, as circulated to those attending Professor Newton’s talk,  National Library of Australia, 14 November 2018. The original document is held by National Archives of Australia.

I trust this gives enough encouragement to read the full account to appear in 2019. For further in depth reading I can recommend John Moses’ related scholarly account on the events in the ruling circles in Germany leading up to the war that has just appeared, bringing together a lifetime of scholarly attention.

For the final isaa talk of the year one of John’s eminent German colleagues Helmut Bley spoke about August Bebel,  who lead the Social Democrats through 40 years  the democratic revival that marked Wilhelmine Germany of the second half of the 19th century, up to the War. The possibility of  Social Democracy emerging as dominant German power in the aftermath of an early conclusion to the war may well have been as much on the mind of Lloyd George as crushing the Hohen Zollerns. 

Who knows what isaa will dish up in Canberra in 2019? 

*Ned Twynam, career Major in the Australian Army, in a short note to his brother before embarking for France from Egypt in 1916, instructs Henry, in the event of his being killed, to insist on full pay entitlements from the Army. The other things on his mind was disposal of his horse (to be shot, rather than left in less scrupulous hands), and his mother’s carved chair, sharing space in the cow shed.

** More specific context is in another blog post referencing work by Newton:

*** For a more complete coverage of the implications in marking this centenary see