A Hawksbill sea turtle swimming in Lady Elliot Island, Australia. Photograph: Getty Images
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A sea change

I took the wild Australian coast for granted, then I had to learn to fight.

In the 20 years since I first published my memoir Land’s Edge, I’ve stayed close to the water, living and working where desert meets sea in my native Western Australia. The littoral, that peculiar zone of overlap and influx, sustains my spirit and fuels my work. I’m still pulled between the sensual assault of the outdoors and the sedentary life of reflection. To go a day or two without seeing, feeling and smelling the ocean wouldbe as disorientating as being without a book or an hour’s privacy.

When I wrote that modest coastal memoir, I was the father of young children, eager to introduce them to the freedom and the privilege of a life at the water’s edge at the bottom of the world. It was what I knew and took for granted as a boy. Like me, my kids inherited a clean, living ocean. They enjoyed a simple, small-town existence on a wild coastline and I tried to make plain to them what a privilege that was, because it is a luxury to be able to wander free and barefoot on an empty beach, to swim with a sea lion, snorkel in a coral lagoon and catch dinner at the end of an ordinary school day. Those children are adults now. One is a parent.

This summer, I took my granddaughter into the sea for the first time. Her whole body shuddered with the strangeness of it, the surge and light and noise, the spill across her delicate skin. What a thrill it is for a sun-damaged old beachcomber to pass on such a life as a birthright. Yet only a fool could suggest that this little girl’s coastal inheritance is secure.

Sadly the world’s oceans are in peril. Ninety per cent of pelagic fishes and sharks are gone. Human beings are eating themselves out of house and home, consuming as if there was no tomorrow and not even our remote stretch of coast is immune.

Hunting and gathering are in my blood but I’ve lived to witness a diminution in the seas around me; I’ve had to boat and swim further and longer to find fish. In the 1990s, I swam across local reefs without abalone, visited submarine pinnacles without snapper, walked beaches festooned with plastic.

Australian waters had begun to feel the effects of shark-finning, drift nets, oil spills and the voracious incursions of the oil and gas industries. The emerging scientific consensus was that, globally, too many species of fish were either fully exploited or being catastrophically overexploited. You didn’t need to be any sort of boffin to know that something was wrong in our seas; every time you wore a mask and fins, the evidence was there in front of your face – more and more of less and less. It was futile blaming faceless strangers. We were all taking too much. It was time for me to act as if there was a tomorrow, as if my actions bore consequences, so I changed my ways, looking more and taking less.

Yet the fragile coast was in more trouble than the restraint of a single middle-aged man could remedy. The oceanic dead zones of Europe and Asia, the plastic gyres of the Pacific, began to haunt me. Unless whole cultures changed, these horrors would be universal; this would be our legacy. This is how I became an activist. To the battle-scarred Birkenstockers of the environmentalist movement, I was a redneck. After all, everything I knew about the sea I had learned with a spear in my hand. The actual rednecks who were my neighbours thought I’d lost my mind. If to change your mind is to lose it, perhaps they were right.

A decade after I first swam with whale sharks at Ningaloo, developers were lobbying to build a marina resort there. Australia’s longest fringing coral reef, it hugs the shore along the red desert for 200 miles. You can swim with a manta ray as a kangaroo cools its heels at the water’s edge a few yards away. There is no place in the world quite like it. Sustainable ecotourism was just finding its feet in the region, thanks to the regular presence of the enormous, gentle whale sharks. From the world over, visitors were coming to Ningaloo, not to take but to look. Dredging and blasting this habitat would have been a disaster but the resort’s backers saw golf courses in the desert, speedboats, cocktails by the pool, a sort of Costa del Sol where whale sharks were an optional extra.

As hard as it is to believe now, their plan had great support in parliament and many boosters in the media. Western Australia is a frontier state, riding boom after boom. Development is regarded as virtuous, almost messianic. To express any reservation about unfettered “pro - gress” is to declare oneself a heathen, a citizen of insufficient revolutionary zeal. With the government and media in thrall to big business, the odds of halting or even modifying a proposal such as the one at Ningaloo were remote.

Those of us who fought the defining struggle to save Ningaloo Reef didn’t expect to win but those ranges and corals were too precious to surrender without a struggle. Naively, I assumed my role would be discreet – as a supporter behind the scenes – but I was wrong.

In middle age, a privacy freak with no experience of either advocacy or politics, I was compelled to acquire a thick skin and a fresh suite of skills. I write novels for a living. In all my working life, I hadn’t collaborated with a soul; I’d never been part of a team or shared an office. I’d never submitted to any sort of discipline but my own, yet here I was, all of a sudden, pressed into service as the most visible member of a motley team made up of citizens of every age and class and political view. With little more than raw passion and a fax machine, we were trying to stop a juggernaut. Every week, there were more of us. We told our story the best we could and in time the campaign gained momentum. Once the reef caught people’s imagination, the tide turned.

For two years, I more or less gave up being a writer. I wrote only press releases, begging letters, strategic notes. I helped plan actions and stunts, met politicians and scientists, made speeches at town halls and too often found myself in front of TV cameras. I took film stars swimming with manta rays, tried to introduce the local rich to the novelty of philanthropy and posed like a prat for hundreds of photos. I made many friends and a few significant enemies.

I resented the lost time, the lazy journalists, the somnolent MPs, the silly theatre of it all, but I think of that period as a late-life education in civics. What it taught me was not always uplifting. To gain any sort of media attention, a social or environmental issue requires a circus, a celebrity or an act of violence.

We tried only the first two. And, yes, money does talk. However, once you get direct access to ordinary citizens, you discover that the victory of selfish consumerism is not yet complete. Despite the numbness and nihilism in our culture, there is still an instinct for justice and proportion, self-restraint and an abiding sense of the common good. I’m no utopian but I found that, deep down, human beings love the world that sustains them. Given honest information and a bit of respect, they will act to defend it, even for the sake of unborn strangers.

Somehow, we prevailed. In saving the reef, we rewrote the laws for coastal development. In 2011, Ningaloo was added to the World Heritage register.

Since the campaign, I have tried to return to the reclusive life I enjoyed before, but one contest seems to lead to another and I find myself enmeshed as a reluctant advocate for the marine environment. It’s a grind at times but it’s heartening to be part of a genuine sea change. This year, Australia is poised to declare a chain of marine sanctuaries from the Southern Ocean to the Coral Sea. The initiative has its detractors and scaremongers in parliament and the press but the idea has broad public support. The mood has shifted; folks have moved on.

Now and then, it’s worth being reminded of just how far a culture can shift within a generation. I think of a hole I once swam in near the Montebello Islands, to the north of Ningaloo. It’s a crater, about 1,000 feet across, left by a British atomic bomb in 1952. A strange place for a snorkel, I admit it. Not much to see down there but glassy sand and weird, white worms. Only a few years before I was born, it seemed necessary to blow islands from the sea and irradiate entire ecosystems. Apparently, the future depended on it. Today, those islands are registered sanctuaries for dugongs, whales and rare marsupials; its birds and corals are protected by law.

The shift of mindset required to achieve this was immense and sobering. It seems odd to say that a swim in a once-radioactive hole can be restorative, but when change feels too slow and the losses mount up week by week, I recall that eerie hole and how far we’ve come since it was gouged into the sea.

Tim Winton’s most recent work is the play “Signs of Life” which premiered in 2012

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle