Armistice Day

Sunday is Armistice Day –  Remembrance Day if you like – the 100th anniversary of the end of that four year conflict now known as World War One; the one some had hoped really would be the war to end all wars.  It isn’t a day for relitigating the politics, or even for analysing the economics, but for calling to mind and remembering those who died and the sacrifice they made.  In most cases, at least from this part of the world, they were volunteers.

I don’t have direct ancestors who died in World War One, or even siblings of my ancestors.  But when I reflect on the sacrifices of New Zealand servicemen, I think of my grandmother’s cousin, (temporary) Captain Robert K Nicol of whom I’ve learned a little  in the last few years.   As it happens (we generally not being a Wellington family), he attended the same primary school as my children, and the same Baptist church congregation that my family is part of today.     After all the analysis people like me are prone to, connections like that bring it all closer.

Here is the war memorial bell, still there, at Island Bay school


Robert Nicol probably left school quite young and by the time the war broke out he was a painter –  nothing out of the ordinary, and from what accounts there are no particularly special skills.

He served in Gallipoli and then in France (by then a second lieutenant) where in late 1917 he was awarded the Military Cross.   The citation for that award read

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When in charge of Stokes mortars in defence of a captured village one of his two gunds was destroyed, so he handed the other on to his Corporal and joined the company, which was in the village. Here he displayed magnificent gallantry and the utmost fearlessness in assisting the company commander, personally leading a bombing party against an enemy counter-attack, and accounting for six of the enemy himself in the desperate hand-to-hand fighting which ensued. His prompt action and fine leadership saved the situation.

The medal was awarded at Buckingham Palace by George V himself.

Nicol was then recruited to serve in a special British Army unit, which came to be known as Dunsterforce (commanded by a Major-General Dunsterville).  As a Herald article a few years ago recorded it.

Nicol, assigned the rank of temporary captain, had a solid reputation as a capable officer, handy with the Lewis gun and Stokes mortar and a skilled bomb instructor. It made him a perfect candidate, with 23 other New Zealanders, for special service with the British Army.

With volunteers from Australia, Canada and South Africa, the small band of brothers – the War Office had in mind a secret force of 100 officers and 200 NCOs – had a mission to block the Bolsheviks from the Caucasus.

It was a perilous and risky initiative – the NZ Rifle Brigade History notes the men were told when they assembled that few could hope to come through alive.

After Russia’s exit from the war, Dunsterforce’s role was

After crossing Europe as far as Italy, the soldiers boarded a ship for the Suez Canal and round to Basra before heading up the River Tigris to Baghdad in what was then Mesopotamia. The task set for Dunsterforce was ambitious: to blunt Turkish and German expansion reaching the rich Baku oil fields on the Caspian Sea.

The strategy involved the small Allied unit persuading Georgian, Armenian and Assyrian forces to hold the line against the rampant Turkish armies.

You can read a fair amount about the adventures of Dunsterforce, including the attack on Baku, in various on-line documents, including Appendix V of the official history of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade.    Another branch of Dunsterforce, including Captain Nicol, was in Iran (then Persia)

Hemmed in along the western shores of Lake Urumiah were some 80,000 survivors of the Nestorians, or Christian Assyrians, a thriving people that at the beginning of the war had occupied the fertile lands between the two lakes. Though reduced by repeated massacres they had succeeded in holding their own here against the Turks; but now their ammunition was running short, and utter annihilation stared them in the face. On learning of their predicament the British authorities made arrangements to send up supplies under cover of a sortie by the Assyrians, and, on July 19th, six officers and fifteen non-commissioned officers of Major Starnes’s detachment set off from Bijar with the ammunition, an escort of Hussars from Hamadan accompanying them. They were to be met half-way by a small column of mounted Assyrians, but after waiting at the rendezvous for some days without news of any movement they were unexpectedly joined by the bulk of the Assyrian army, numbering some 10,000, who had inflicted a somewhat severe blow upon the Turks. The engagement, however, had taken longer than was anticipated, and, in the absence of the fighting men, the remainder of the Nestorians became panic-stricken and began to rush southwards along the road on the heels of the army. Now the latter in their turn became infected, and there ensued a frightful and disastrous rout. Presently wounded women and children began to straggle in. This sight was too much for the Dunsters, and three officers and three sergeants, taking Lewis guns and a liberal supply of ammunition packed on baggage-mules, moved back along the human stream until they encountered the Turko-Kurdish brigands at their foul work of slaughter. Fighting, withdrawing, and fighting again, in a series of rearguard actions lasting all through a day and a night, these six brave fellows kept at bay a force of over 200 strong, until the arrival of a detachment of Hussars finally relieved the pressure. In this gallant action Captain R. K. Nicol, M.C., of the Wellington Regiment, lost his life.

A record from a publication of the Western Front Assocation records

Robert Nicol exposed himself to enemy fire whilst gallantly attempting to save the mules which enemy snipers were picking off.  His body could not be retrieved from the battlefield.

It was 5 August 1918.

Ours isn’t primarily to judge the right or wrong of the actions, and causes, of those who went before us, but there is something very 21st century about a combat death while trying to get to safety a large party of civilian (religious minority) refugees.  Perhaps that is why there have been various articles (including this one) about Nicol –  just one soldier among so many – over recent years.

Captain Nicol died in Persia and there was no marked grave.  But –  strange to realise in this era when relations between Iran and the West have been less than warm –  there is Commonwealth War Graves Commission memorial in Teheran (I gather in the grounds of the –  large –  British Embassy compound). Captain R. K. Nicol is remembered there.

teheran memorial.png

And the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record


And here is how he was remembered back home at church.

berhampore honours board

At this distance it is easy to focus on the geopolitics, the economics, the peace process, and the next war that came too soon afterwards. But, to me, anyway, this weekend is a time to remember those who served, those who – when circumstances were thrust upon them –  exercised such courage, and those who died.

From Binyon

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

UPDATE (26/11)

An article about a new memorial, at Makara cemetery, to the involvement of New Zealanders –  including Nicol –  in defending the Assyrians, and another recent article about this events.

Some reading for Todd McClay

Perhaps naively, I’m still in shock at those comments the other day on the situation in the Chinese province of Xinjiang from National Party foreign affairs spokesman, former senior minister, Todd McClay.

“Abuses of human rights are a concern wherever they occur,” says National’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson Todd McClay, “however, the existence and purpose of vocational training centres is a domestic matter for the Chinese Government.”

Perhaps the million of so spies forced into Uighur households should, in Mr McClay’s reading, best be described as intensive case management of needy families?

I’d come to take for granted that our members of Parliament – all sides –  pretty much knew the evil the regime was up to at home and abroad, but preferred to look the other way, keep quiet, and get along (careers to advance, Beijing to buddy up to).  I didn’t suppose that senior politicians  –  on the public payroll, not that of Beijing-affiliated entities (that’s for too many retired politicians, here and abroad) – would be so shameless as to literally run PRC regime propaganda for them.

But who knows. Perhaps Todd McClay really does believe the regime narrative?  In which case, there was a useful little exercise by a Dutch academic popped into my inbox yesterday morning, courtesy of the US think-tank the Jamestown Foundation, using fiscal transparency, PRC version, to illustrate what is going on.   I had no idea there was such transparency in China.

He begins

In August 2018, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed its concern at reports the PRC had detained as many as a million members of Muslim ethnic minorities in extrajudicial re-education camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). At the same meeting, the PRC flatly denied the existence of “re-education camps”, with United Front Work Department official Hu Lianhe arguing that “criminals involved only in minor offenses” are assigned to “vocational education and employment training centers to acquire employment skills and legal knowledge” (China Daily, August 14).

Perhaps that was what Todd McClay had been reading?

But the PRC government’s own budgets appear to contradict these assertions. Xinjiang’s budget figures do not reflect increased spending on vocational education in the XUAR as the region ramped up camp construction; nor do they reflect an increase in criminal cases handled by courts and prosecutors. Rather, they reflect patterns of spending consistent with the construction and operation of highly secure political re-education camps designed to imprison hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs with minimal due process.

It is tempting to reproduce some of his tables – I like tables but they might be detail too far.  But here are his summary observations from the Xinjiang government budget data

This article supports this conclusion through examination of official PRC budgetary figures, analyzing spending breakdowns at the regional, prefectural, and county levels to produce findings of unprecedented granularity. Among its most striking conclusions:

  • Spending on budget items that explain nearly all security-related facility construction rose by nearly RMB 20 billion (or 213 percent) in 2017
  • Vocational spending in Xinjiang actually decreased from 2016 to 2017, as widespread camp construction began.
  • Instead, camp construction has largely been funded by the same authorities that oversaw the recently-abolished system for re-education through labor.
  • Spending on prisons doubled between 2016 and 2017, while spending on the formal prosecution of criminal suspects stagnated.
  • Expenditures on detention centers in counties with large concentrations of ethnic minorities quadrupled, indicating that re-education is not the only form of mass detainment in the XUAR.

There’s more

The region’s so-called “vocational training” is arguably not substantially different from the former re-education through labor system, which was abolished because the PRC government deemed it inappropriate for a modern society governed by the rule of law (Zenz, September 6).

Moreover, Xinjiang’s so-called “vocational training” campaign has not actually improved employment outcomes among the campaign’s target population. Official reports note that in 2017, 58,500 “poor persons” found employment, 17 percent more than planned, but not a large increase from the 57,800 in 2016 or the 57,900 in 2015. The same figure for the first three quarters of 2018 was 38,800, equivalent to only 51,730 per year [6]. This data provides a powerful official counternarrative to what Xinjiang’s governor is claiming. Neither the 2017 nor the 2018 XUAR employment reports refer to the purportedly successful “vocational training centers”.

Before he concludes

These facts do not support the notion of a large campaign to improve vocational skills. Rather, the mass disappearances of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, beginning in early 2017, almost certainly resulted in their imprisonment in de facto political re-education institutions administered by public security or justice system authorities. It is safe to assume that in 2017, billions of renminbi were spent on these highly secure facilities, where individuals undergoing “training” are involuntarily detained for indeterminate time periods. Furthermore, budget figures indicate that it is unlikely that many of the so-called “criminals involved only in minor offenses” underwent formal trials. It is therefore entirely inaccurate to label them “criminals”. Often, their only “offense” is being Muslim.

Whatever “employment training” these facilities provide is, evidently, not administered or paid for by the vocational education system. This would explain why teacher recruitment notices for the newly constructed re-education system do not require tertiary degrees or relevant skills, in stark contrast to genuine vocational education (Zenz, September 6).

The actual employment benefit of the camps’ re-education “training” is questionable. Quite the contrary: the real goal of Xinjiang’s “skills training” campaign appears to be political indoctrination and intimidation.

In a way it is sickening to even have to write this bloodless stuff.  Every honest and decent person with the slightest interest knows what this campaign is about –  and it isn’t better job opportunities.  But careful work like that of Adrian Zenz helps remove any sort of fig leaf that people like Todd McClay might try to use for cover.

And what of those million spies forced on Uighur households? I’d urge you to read the full story, which ends with this chilling reflection

The tyranny that is being realized in Northwest China pits groups of Chinese citizens against each other in a totalitarian process that seeks to dominate every aspect of life. It calls Han “relatives” into coercive relations with their Uighur and Kazakh hosts, producing an epidemic of individualized isolation and loneliness as families, friends, and communities are pulled apart. As new levels of unfreedom are introduced, the project produces new standards of what counts as normal and banal. The “relatives” I spoke to, who did the state’s work of tearing families apart and sending them into the camp system, saw themselves as simply “doing their jobs.”

I believed them. For the most part, they simply did not seem to have thought about the horror they were enacting. No free press was available to them. The majority of the people I interviewed simply did not know or believe that the reeducation camps function as a Chinese-specific form of concentration camps where beatings and psychological torture are common, or that Uighurs and other minorities tended to view being sent to the camps as a form of punishment. Only one of the 10 Han people from Xinjiang I interviewed believed that the camps were functioning as prisons for people who were guilty of simply being in the wrong religious and ethnic categories. It is also important to remember when writing about Han civilian participation in the mass detention of Muslim minorities, as David Brophy and others have noted, that Han civilians who resist state policies toward Uighurs put themselves in serious danger. As one of my Han friends from Xinjiang told me, in this part of the world the phrase “where there is oppression” is met not with the phrase “there will be resistance,” but rather, “there will be submission.” Given the totalitarian politics of the Xinjiang police state, Han civilians in Xinjiang often appear to feel as though they have no choice but to participate in the state-directed oppression of Muslim minorities.

Citizens of totalitarian states are nearly always compelled to act in ways that deny their ethical obligations. In order for a grass-roots politics of Han civilian refusal of Chinese state oppression of Muslims to even be imaginable, what is taking place in Northwest China needs first to be accurately described. As Hannah Arendt observed decades ago, systems like this one work in part because those who participate in them are not permitted to think about what they are doing. Because they are not permitted to think about it, they are not able to fully imagine what life is like from the position of those whose lives they are destroying.

Perhaps Todd McClay thinks this is all made up too?  If so, I can only do that rare thing and urge him to read the strident ultra-nationalist spinoff of the People’s Daily, the Global Times, where the story a couple of days ago was.

1.1 million civil servants in Xinjiang pair up with ethnic minority residents to improve unity

Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has implemented the pairing and assistance program between officials and the ethnic minority citizens to promote communication and interaction among different ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

Until September 2018, some 1.1 million civil servants have paired up with more than 1.69 million ethnic minority citizens, especially village residents, People’s Daily reported on Wednesday.

The report said that various administrative departments, enterprises from the central government and military departments, including the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and Xinjiang Armed Police Corps, have made over 49 million visits to local residents. The number of activities themed “ethnics unite as a family,” held by these departments, reached more than 11 million.

“The pairing and assistance program has been implemented for two years, which is a successful practice for Xinjiang,” Zhu Weiqun, former head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

Besides promoting the unity of different ethnics in Xinjiang, Zhu noted that the program is beneficial to both the masses and civil servants in Xinjiang, as it helps officials get close to the grassroots level of Xinjiang society, bringing advanced technology and views to rural districts, which can solve their life difficulties and develop the productivity.

“It can also help officials of Xinjiang to improve their serving conscious and capabilities,” he added.

Zhu pointed out that the program should be insisted for a long time in accordance with the practical need.

The program began from October 16 in 2016, encouraging civil servants to interact actively with the masses in Xinjiang through various methods like pairing and regarding as relatives.

It is a sickening level of repression, intimidation, destruction of families, of faith, or cultures, and so on.  And that is before one gets onto the bird-like spy drones (which initially sounded a bit fanciful, but the story is fron a regime-sympathising Hong Kong newspaper) the movement restrictions, the forced organ transplants and so on.

That’s unambiguously sickening.  But so is senior elected politicians in a free Western state –  who know better – trying to minimise evil, spin the regime propaganda, and provide cover for one of the worst regimes on the planet.  Without any legitimate excuse whatsoever.