National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 3/What Great Britain is Doing

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What Great Britain is Doing[edit]

By Sydney Brooks


There was a very striking passage in the speech which Mr. Lloyd-George recently delivered at the Guildhall soon after his return from the Allied conference at Rome. “There is one thing,” he said, “that struck me and that strikes me more and more each time I attend these conferences and visit the Continent—I mean the increasing extent to which the Allied peoples are looking to Great Britain. They are trusting her rugged strength and great resources more and more. She is to them like a great tower in the deep. She is becoming more and more the hope of the oppressed and the despair of the oppressor, and I feel confident that we shall not fail the people who have put their trust in us.”

It would be singularly unbecoming on the part of any British subject to seek to exalt the contribution that his own country is making to the common cause above that of any of the Allies. We can never forget our obligation to Belgium's heroic stand in crucial days, to the impassable wall of steel maintained by unselfish France until we could raise, train, and equip our armies, and to the brave and effective efforts of Russia in the east and united Italy to the south.

If we are now in a position to do rather more than any of them, it is because we have suffered less, because we have been spared the well-nigh mortal blow of an invasion of our territory, and because time has been vouchsafed to us in which to develop and organize our power. But there need be nothing vainglorious—nothing, indeed, but a sober recognition of facts and their responsibilities—in subscribing to Mr. Lloyd-George's estimate of the present situation.

Those who looked at the war with discerning eyes knew from its very beginning that Great Britain was, and could not help being, the linch-pin of the whole alliance. It has taken curiously long for that elementary fact to sink into the general consciousness. America, I should say, is only just beginning to realize it. No doubt it is largely our own fault.

If we had even one-tenth of the German genius for self-advertisement, the world would long ago have understood that without British power the Allies could never have withstood the Prussian onset, and that with British power an Allied victory—complete, smashing, and final—is as certain as the rising of tomorrow's sun.

As it is, Americans in general seem even now to have but an imperfect idea of what Great Britain has accomplished in this war. It is not, in my judgment, that they do not wish to know. It is mainly, I think, that they have been deluded by our old and deceptive trick of taking what we do well for granted and saying nothing about it, while we shriek our blunders from the housetops.

We are by all odds the worst advertisers in the world. We are the most inveterate self-detractors in the world. We are the most persistent grumblers in the world. Nothing that other people say about Englishmen can ever hope to equal what Englishmen say about themselves.

And, being a strong, rebellious, self-sufficient people, tirelessly given to speaking out, we have naturally found in the dislocations and drama and surprises of the war all endless theme for self-depreciation.

Mr. Dooley once accused us of doing our national housecleaning by sweeping things under the sofa and sprinkling the walls with eau de cologne. There has been none of that in this war. We have published every blunder, we have exposed every shortcoming, we have taken every opportunity of informing our rulers in the plainest possible language just what we thought of them.

The way of democratic peoples[edit]

Compared with the silence of Prussia—a silence never deeper than when concealing some untoward incident, some prodigious miscalculation—our British turmoil has seemed a token of confusion and inefficiency; but in reality it has been just the rough, wholesome, Anglo-American, democratic way of doing things. That is how all self-governing peoples who are used to free speech and who are not used to the discipline of universal military service must inevitably act when caught in a great crisis and obliged to shift the whole basis of public and private life in order to strip themselves for a fight for existence.

The Prussians from the first day of the war have shown themselves consummate masters of the art of magnifying all their successes and minimizing all their failures. Mirabeau more than a hundred years ago declared, and declared truly, that war was the national industry of Prussia. But Prussia since then has supplemented that industry with another—the manufacture of opinion, and not merely German opinion, but foreign opinion. The submissive intelligence of her own people she can, of course, mould as she pleases; but it is astonishing how often she succeeds in imposing upon dispassionate and even hostile onlookers in neutral lands.

At this game of words and appearances and making out a case she leaves every one of the Allies, and indeed all of them combined, very far in the rear.

Take, for instance, the Roumanian campaign of last fall. It was unquestionably a German military success. But it was nothing like the success that head-quarters in Berlin tried to make out and that Americans were very largely induced to believe.

All those tales that came clicking over the wireless of the capture of huge stores of grain and oil were fables out of whole cloth. The Allies set fire to the oil wells one by one as the Roumanians retreated and removed or destroyed just as systematically almost the whole supply of foodstuffs.

The present position is that while the great bulk of Roumania has been overrun, from one-half to two-thirds of the Roumanian army is still intact, is being reformed and rearmed for the coming offensive, and that the Germans have to maintain an extra 300 miles of front that would not have been added to their commitments had Roumania remained neutral. From the standpoint of the war as a whole, we have, for the time being, but I agree quite unnecessarily, and as the result of some bad bungling somewhere, lost a pawn, and a pawn that, if employed in another direction, might and should have been extremely useful.

But Prussia has gained nothing except a barren kudos; the Roumanian territories she occupies are a liability and not an asset; to defend them she has to draw upon her swiftly diminishing resources of man-power; a few more such victories and she would be undone. Yet she has undoubtedly managed to fill the unthinking public in more than one neutral land with the idea that her successes in Roumania were in some sort a turning point in the war. I have read I know not how many articles in the American press gravely admonishing us to give up the Balkans as a bad job and withdraw our forces around Saloniki.

Exaggerations are avoided[edit]

And in the same way it has been very noticeable how skilfully the Prussians belittled and how carefully the British and the French refrained from exaggerating the significance of the great retreat from the Somme.

The moral to be drawn is, I think, this: that you can cut all Prussian boastings and all British lamentations in half, and that when the Prussians are silent it is a sign of failure and when the British are silent it is a proof that all is going well. One could easily multiply instances of this.

Take, for example, our intelligence service. You never hear anything of it. It works as a secret service ought to work—in secret. It enjoys not one-half of the reputation, it attracts not one-tenth of the notoriety, of the German intelligence service. Yet those who are at all behind the scenes know very well that there is precious little hidden from it in any part of the world where it is at work and, least of all, at the front. What our men do not find out about the numbers, distribution, equipment, and morale of the German troops along the Somme may safely be left out of the reckoning.

Similarly, without saying much about it, we quietly at the beginning, or, rather, before the beginning, of the war, rounded up all the Prussian spies in the British Isles, and have so handled matters that none of their successors, to the best of my knowledge and belief, has done us any appreciable harm.

This policy of leaving what we do well to speak for itself has been closely followed in the case of our flying corps and our submarines. We have no aviation heroes. In fact, we rather make a point of having as few heroes of any kind as possible. There are at least a dozen of our flying men whose records in bringing down enemy machines would compare quite favorably with those of the much-trumpeted German champions—Immelmann and Boelcke.

But we never hear of them. Their doings are merged in the general record of our armies at the front, where divisions are very rarely named, regiments and battalions scarcely at all, and individuals practically never. Instead of the flashy prominence of a few men here and there, we are quite content to shelter behind the anonymous but incontestable superiority of our flying corps as a whole—a superiority so great that during the latter months of the battle of the Somme the Germans were virtually fighting blindfold.

Prussian submarines ineffective[edit]

And just as we never advertise the feats of our armies, so we allow the world to think that the Prussians are having it pretty much their own way with their submarines. As a matter of fact, the German submarines have scored very few legitimate successes—by which I mean successes that conform to the usages of civilized warfare. It must be nearly two years since they sank any British men-of-war of any importance.

As pirates preying upon fishing smacks, trawlers, Atlantic liners, and the merchantmen of all nations, they have added a new and infamous chapter to naval history. Otherwise it is, I believe, the opinion of most naval men that in German hands the submarine has proved disappointingly ineffective.

What the British submarines have accomplished in the Dardanelles, in the Sea of Marmora, and in the Baltic has been far more remarkable, though far less known, than the exploits of the German U-boats.

Moreover, it has to be remembered that the Germans have something like a hundred chances to our one; that our fleets are constantly cruising in the North Sea, where the German dreadnoughts and cruisers very rarely venture; and that if our submarines had been offered anything like the opportunities we are ceaselessly dangling before the Germans, and if by now they had not sent several German battleships to the bottom of the sea, the world would have justly said that they had bungled their business.

People, I remember, were thrown into a state of quite unbalanced admiration when the Deutschland appeared in American waters. It was spoken of as one of the most remarkable achievements of the war. Few stopped to remember—even indeed if they ever knew—that the war was only a few months old when ten British submarines crossed the Atlantic from Halifax to the British Isles—the first submarines in naval history to make the journey under their own power.

We could, of course, if we liked, if we were given to that kind of grand-stand play, arrange for a succession of British submarines to pop up with the most dramatic effect in every single one of the American east coast harbors. But as we prefer the realities of sea-power to its tinsel, the inducement to any such theatricalities is largely lacking.

The silent voice[edit]

Similarly, while we publish a list of all the vessels sunk by Prussian submarines, we say not a word about the U-boats whose careers are brought to a sudden stop. For myself, I honestly do not know how many of them we have caught, sunk, or destroyed. It may be 180; it may be 200; it may be 220. They come out and they do not return, and there is no one in Germany, and perhaps not half a dozen people in England, who know what becomes of them.

The reasons for our secrecy must be tolerably obvious to any one who thinks the matter over. All that the Germans are able to infer from the failure of any given U-boat to return to port is that somehow or other it has been lost. But how or where they cannot tell.

It may have been through some error of structure or design—a thought to send a chill down the spine of every admiralty official. It may have been through a mistake in navigation. It may have been through one or other of the endless and constantly changing devices that British ingenuity has evolved and brought into play against the new piracy. It may, too, have happened near the German coast or after the U-boat had reached its appointed station. They cannot tell.

They are faced with a blank wall of possibilities that they have no means of verifying. Weeks must often elapse before they can be sure that a submarine which they thought was operating in a certain area had really perished, and that another boat should be dispatched to take its place.

And from another point of view the reasons for reticence are not less urgent. The British admiralty is frequently unable itself to decide from the reports of the naval officers who have come to grips with the submarines whether the enemy vessel was actually destroyed. Some cases are clear; in many there is a margin of doubt; and there can be no question that it is better to say nothing at all than to put forward official claims which cannot be substantiated and which the enemy may be in a position to disprove.

Sometimes, however, the veil of mystery is partially lifted. Sometimes a German U-boat is towed up the Thames, moored to the embankment, and from $75,000 to $100,000 collected for some naval charity by throwing it open to the public. Sometimes if you are dining with a naval officer you will hear wondrous tales of submarines netted, bombed by aëroplanes even when they are well below the surface, hunted and caught by destroyers, induced by one ruse after another to show themselves where they can be got at.

Sometimes, too, in a British port the men of the merchant marine will tell you of Homeric combats that would have warmed the heart of Nelson and Farragut and made Drake and Frobisher gasp and stare.

But these are mere haphazard personal gleanings. No one knows the full extent of the harvest or how it has been gathered in. But we do know enough—or at any rate we think we do—to feel fairly confident that the Germans can attempt nothing and can invent nothing that we cannot find the means of countering; and that confidence has been rather more than justified by all that has happened since February 1.

With the Prussians succeeding in sinking only about one in every hundred ships that enter or leave the British ports; with three-fourths of all our merchantment that are armed successfully resisting destruction; with the speeding up of shipbuilding and the multiplication of means of defense; with both imports and exports not merely not falling off, but steadily and positively increasing—with these as the first fruits of the intensified submarine campaign, we feel that while there may be cause for apprehension, there is little or none for alarm.

The reasons of Britain's power[edit]

But unquestionably our habit of not talking except when things are going awry has led to some curious misunderstandings and underestimates of the scope and character of the British effort; and I can well imagine that Mr. Lloyd-George's statement, with which I opened this article—his statement about the increasing dependence of all the Allies upon Great Britain and about the main burden of the war falling on our shoulders—must have been received by many Americans with something like incredulity.

It is worth while, therefore, to examine it more closely and to inquire in some detail what it is that has given Great Britain in this immeasurable cataclysm her extraordinary position as the axle on which all else depends.

It is, first, her naval power; it is, secondly, her wealth; thirdly, it is her industrial resources; fourthly, it is that serene and silent doggedness in the national character which in two and a half years has converted an unarmed, commercial, and rather easy-going nation into a military power of the very first rank, and that animates all the Allies with the knowledge that Great Britain can be relied upon to the uttermost.

The British fleet[edit]

I like to think of some future Mahan using the history of this war to point the deadly realities of sea-power. He will need no other example. Everything that naval supremacy means or can ever mean has been taught in the past 32 months in a fashion that he who runs may read.

Suppose Great Britain had remained neutral and the British navy had never moved. What would have happened? The German and Austrian dreadnoughts, with a five-to-one preponderance over the combined dreadnought strength of France and Russia, would have held an easy command over the sea. Germany could then have supplemented her land attack by disembarking troops on both the Russian and the French coasts in the rear of the Russian and French armies; she would have shut off all the French oversea trade; she would have captured or destroyed or driven into port practically the whole of the French and Russian merchant marine; France would have been blockaded; with her chief industrial provinces in German occupation, she would have been prevented from importing any food, any raw material, any munitions; while Germany would have been free to draw on the resources of the entire world. In less than six months, for all her magnificent valor, France could not but have succumbed.

That was the Prussian calculation and it was a perfectly sound one; but it fell like a house of cards when Great Britain intervened. Instead of securing at once the command of the sea, Germany lost it at once. Everything that she had hoped to inflict upon France and Russia by maritime supremacy was in fact inflicted upon herself. What has made it possible for us to land some 2,000,000 men on the Continent of Europe, equipped with every single item in the infinitely varied paraphernalia of modern war?

An ubiquitous and unshakable power[edit]

How have we been able to conduct simultaneous campaigns in Egypt, East Africa, the Cameroons, Southwest Africa, the Balkans, and the Pacific? There are Russian troops fighting at this moment in France and round Saloniki. How did they get there?

From all the ends of the earth British subjects in hundreds upon hundreds of thousands have flocked to the central battlefield. What agency convoyed them? What power protected them?

The United States has built up with the Allies a trade that throws all previous American experience of foreign commerce into the shade. But how many Americans, I wonder, stop to ask themselves how it is that this vast volume of merchandise has crossed the Atlantic in the midst of the greatest war in all history almost as swiftly and securely as in the days of profoundest peace?

One by one Germany's colonies have been torn from her grasp—those oversea possessions the children of so many hopes, the scenes of such unremitting labor, the nursing plots of such vast ambitions; and not a single blow has been struck in defense of them by the fatherland itself. One and all have had to rely on their own isolated and local efforts.

They have looked in vain to Germany. Germany—paralyzed by what power? held down in helplessness by what mysterious spell?—has impotently watched her beginnings of a worldwide empire shattered beneath her eyes.

How is it, again, that the Belgian army has been rearmed, reconstituted, and reequipped? How is it that the Serbian forces have similarly been rescued and remade? How is it that Russia has been remunitioned, that Italy has been enabled to overcome her natural deficiencies, that France, in spite of the loss of some of her most highly industrialized districts, is still, for purposes both of war and of commerce, a great manufacturing nation, and that all the Allies can import freely what they need from the neutral world?

To what ubiquitous and unshakable power, stretching from Iceland to the Equator and back again, guarding all oceans, girdling the whole world, are these miracles due? They are due to just one thing—the British navy. Because of the British navy, Germany is a beleagured garrison, her strength steadily, ceaselessly sapping away; her people languishing physically under the stress of the blockade, and financially and economically under the total loss of her foreign trade.

It supports the edifice[edit]

Defeat the British navy and the war is over in six weeks. There lies Germany's nearest road, not only to peace, but to full and final victory. Take away from the Grand Alliance the support of the British navy and the whole structure collapses into nothingness.

Some Americans may have wondered why Prussia last fall should have begun to squeal for peace and why, on failing to get it, she should have renewed, even in face of the almost certain prospect of uniting nearly the whole neutral world against her, her campaign of murder on the high seas.

But the answer is very simple. It is because the British navy is preying upon her vitals; because the pressure of our naval thumb upon her windpipe is never relaxed for one moment; because all triumphs on land are illusory and untenable, with privation and discontent mounting up at home; because by commanding the seas we hold the master key to all economic vitality and to all strategic mobility.

Germany has really had no option but to use her submarines for all they are worth. Her one chance of staving off defeat is to raise the British blockade, to break British sea-power, to starve Britain into surrender. It is a ten or a twenty to one chance against success. But what does that matter when it is her only chance?

She sees and sees correctly that our control of the oceans is not a mere adjunct to the strength of the Alliance. It is its basis. It supports the whole edifice. Without it all that the Allies have built up would crumble to pieces. With it they can erect, as on a rock, the instruments of certain victory.

But sea-power is not the only, though it is by far the greatest, of the contributions that make Great Britain the mainstay of the Alliance. We are its bankers, as well as its guardians on the sea. By now we must have advanced to our Allies not less than $4,000,000,000. Virtually we have taken on our shoulders the responsibility for the credit of the Alliance abroad.

Britain's war finances[edit]

And at the same time that we are rendering this service we are spending more in a month than the United States Government, not by any means the most economical in the world, has been compelled to spend in the whole of the last year; our weekly outlay averages some $200,000,000; we have raised on credit over $25,000,000,000, or about five times the generally accepted estimate of the cost of the entire Civil War; our yearly revenue, about four-fifths of which is raised by direct taxation—there are many men in Great Britain at this moment who are paying out to the State more than half their income—amounts to some $2,500,000,000.

And as for the unstinted outpouring of private generosity, let this one fact suffice: that a single London newspaper, acting on behalf of a single fund, has raised nearly as much money as all the American people, the whole hundred millions of them—and they most certainly have not been behindhand in their generosity—have given to all the war charities combined. I should judge that by now the British people must have subscribed for their own sufferers by the war and for their Allies at least $500,000,000.

But besides placing our purse and our fleets at the service of the Alliance we are also its main arsenal and workshop. To Great Britain all who are fighting with her turn as to an inexhaustible treasurehouse and rarely turn in vain. Is it ships, or provisions, or clothing, or raw material, or coal, or guns, or shells, or any other item in the endless catalogue of war? At once and unhesitatingly, for whatever they may happen to need, the Allies with one accord come to us; and it is our proud privilege to satisfy, as far as we can, every one of their demands.

A nation rewrought industrially[edit]

I am not sure that in this country there is much more than a very hazy conception of the industrial revolution that has been wrought by the war in Great Britain. It is not merely that we have scrapped old machinery with a more than American ruthlessness. It is not merely that some of the best and most scientific brains in the Kingdom are now giving their attention, and with astounding results, to the problems of manufacture, or that capital and labor were never working more harmoniously together, or that trade-union practices which interfered with the maximum production have been done away with.

It is not merely that over 4,500 firms, not one of which before the war even dreamed of making munitions, are now engaged on nothing else, or that we have erected over 100 colossal government factories for turning out shells, guns, powder, and the implements of trench warfare; or that we have trained and organized and are now employing on war work some 3,500,000 people; or that we have discovered and utilized the immense, the hitherto unused, industrial capacities of women.

It is not merely that the government is branching out in a hundred helpful directions and backing up our merchants and manufacturers with all the resources at its command. It is not merely that our biggest firms are everywhere getting together and organizing the trades to which they belong as they have never been organized before.

Nor is it merely that questions of industrial welfare and efficiency and the whole economy of production are being studied with incomparable zeal, and that nothing since the introduction of the steam-engine has so renovated, sent such a stir through all branches of British industry, as this war.

These are not the things that matter. What matters is that Britain is working; has taken off her coat; has ceased to be a land of leisure, and has become a land of infinite labor. And to what effect she is working may be judged by the fact that in spite of the vast exodus from industry to the army and navy, and in spite of the concentration of the main labor force upon munitions, her exports of ordinary commercial commodities reached last year a value only once exceeded in the most prosperous times of peace.

A miracle of achievement[edit]

Talk of German efficiency and German organization! I know of nothing in Germany's conduct of the war that for sheer genius and flexibility surpasses the industrial transformation that the past thirty months have produced in Great Britain.

How we have worked up our output of high explosive shells to a point where it leaves the German factories far behind—and less than two years ago Germany was turning out a hundred times as many of these shells as we were; how we have grappled with and solved pretty nearly every one of the technical problems that the war has sprung upon us, and how in doing so we have had to turn all our industrial arrangements upside down and to create what is nothing less than a new industrial order—all this it would need a volume, and a very fascinating one, to describe.

We were set what seemed a hopelessly impossible task and we have accomplished it; and our present independence of America in the supply of munitions and the fighting throughout the latter half of 1916 on the Somme front are more eloquent than any statistics could be of the magnitude of our effort.

But I should just like to say a word or two as to the services that in this way we have been able to render the Allies. I suppose that we must have placed at their disposal not less than 500 British ships. There are special factories in Great Britain solely devoted to meeting the armament needs of Russia, of France, and of Belgium. Shells, field howitzers, heavy guns, grenades, machine-guns, and small arms leave British ports in immense quantities day after day for the use of our Allies.

These wonderful feats made possible by women[edit]

One-third of our total production of shell steel goes to France. That fact alone, to those who understand the character of this war, is an epitome of Great Britain's industrial contributions to the common cause. Three-fourths of the steel-producing districts of France are occupied by the enemy, and our ally absolutely depends on us and on our command of the sea to procure the essential basis of all modern warfare.

It is the same with other metals—with copper, for instance, antimony, lead, tin, spelter, tungsten, mercury, high-speed steel, and other less vital substances. All these we are manufacturing in Great Britain or in other parts of the Empire, or purchasing in neutral lands and delivering to our Allies, under the protection of the British navy, to the value of over $30,000,000 a month.

Millions of tons of coal and coke reach them from our shores every week; one-fifth of our total production of machine tools is set aside for them, and huge cargoes of explosives and machinery are daily dispatched to their address.

It was with the products of British workshops, rushed to the Mediterranean in British ships and guarded by the British navy, that the Italians were able to push back the Austrian offensive of last May; and the shells and guns which we had manufactured for and transported to Russia were the real starting point of Brusiloff's triumphant sweep through Galicia.

The immensity of productive effort required to meet these demands could never have been sustained had it not been for the women. They have entered pretty nearly every trade and occupation, however arduous and dangerous, in the intensity of their desire to “do their bit,” and it is one of the compensations of the war that it should have revealed to us the full splendor of British womanhood.

Nor could we have borne our unique burden without organizing powers of the highest efficiency. There is a legend abroad, which we are much too busy and also much too lazy to refute, that Great Britain in this war is following her normal habit of “muddling through.” As a matter of fact, she owes her present predominance precisely to the efficiency which the struggle has surprised out of her.

Prophetic measures[edit]

In almost all the big commercial and administrative undertakings that are inseparable from war, and without which victory cannot be achieved, the British Government has come off with flying colors. Its statesmanship, for instance, in the early days of the war saved the fabric of international credit from what might have been irreparable ruin.

The measures by which it assumed control of the railways and has since directed them were so well thought out that scarcely a life, or an hour of time, or a ton of stores or equipment has been lost in the whole tremendous business of transporting and supplying our armies overseas.

One might recall, again, how its scheme for insuring cargoes and hulls gave instant confidence to the shipping world and went far toward maintaining that regularity of our food supplies which so far has been one of the wonders of the war.

One might recall, too, how it bought up some $90,000,000 worth of sugar and succeeded for a long while in keeping that essential commodity cheaper in England, which has to import it, than in Germany, which produces it.

Similarly, it got a not less effective control of the refrigerated meat trade; it made enormous purchases of wheat and oats without any one, even in the Chicago pit, suspecting that the British Government was the buyer; it bought up the whole of the Norwegian fish supply; it has regulated the price of coal; it has overridden not less successfully the ordinary laws of supply and demand in the case of wool, flax, and jute, to the immense benefit of the State, of the textile trades, and of our Allies.

It is now, under Mr. Lloyd-George's leadership, branching out into a far more minute scheme for controlling the production and distribution of the food of the entire country. It is taking over the shipping trade, the mining industry, and most of the liquor trade.

It is feeling its way toward a system of compulsory civil service as a complement to compulsory military service, so that every man not wanted in the army—and every woman, too—may be set to work where his or her labor can be most useful to the State.

There is not the smallest doubt that it will prove as efficient in these as it has in all its other business enterprises—as it proved, for instance, in devising and in inducing Holland, Norway, and Denmark to accept its plan for rationing those countries more or less in accordance with their ante-bellum needs; and as it also proved in the very complicated arrangements that have to be made with the cotton, metal, and textile trades in the United States.

Even our press censorship, for all its stupidities in the opening months of the war, has triumphantly fulfilled its main purpose, that of preventing the publication of any news which might be of use to the enemy; and if Americans will quietly sit down and imagine the entire American press muzzled into a similar innocuousness they will begin to appreciate at least one of the many hundred problems that the British Government has had to solve. The censorship of the mails is another masterpiece of organization.

Certainly the civilian, English or American, who visits the British front these days and who realizes that every man and every ounce of stores and every pound of equipment, and, indeed, the whole army and all it eats and wears and uses, and the weapons wherewith it fights, have been brought there after two railway journeys and one sea journey, involving at least four and possibly six changes and transshipments, becomes just a little tired when he hears the British accused of inefficiency. And the longer he explores the bases and takes in the perfection of all the arrangements for feeding, supplying, and nursing these tremendous hosts and for making good the casualties to material, the more he perceives that Great Britain is winning this war by the rapidity and completeness with which she has thrown overboard all the slouchy standards of peace.

“Everything we have is yours”[edit]

And when I say Great Britain I mean, of course, not the men and women of the United Kingdom only, but all British subjects everywhere. The rally of the Empire to the side of the motherland has, indeed, been one of the most marvelous and one of the most momentous episodes of the war.

Wherever the British flag waves, in places the ordinary Englishman has barely heard of, among peoples of whom he knows next to nothing there is today, as there has been since the war began, but one impulse and one resolve. From the 450,000,000 British subjects, infinitely varied in speech and creed and color, in habits and geographical distribution, in economic circumstances and pursuits, there breathes the single intense determination to persist in this struggle till victory has crowned our united arms.

The world has never seen anything like it. The Crusades bore but the faintest resemblance to this spontaneous rising of the free communities, scattered over the seven seas, on behalf of a cause that passionately appeals to their sense of right. The poet's prayer has been answered. “In the day of Armageddon, at the last great fight of all,” it has been proved that “our house stands together and the pillars do not fall.” The Prussians always knew that at the touch of war the British Empire would rise. They were quite right. It has risen. But not precisely in the way they expected.

When the storm gathered, the Dominions said with one voice: “Whatever happens, we are with you.” When it burst, they said: “Everything we have is yours.”

Canada proposed sending an expeditionary force two days before war was declared. Australia put the Australian navy and 20,000 men at the complete disposal of the home government. New Zealand, five days before the war broke out, declared her intention to send her utmost quota of help in support of the Empire. South Africa at once assumed, and very brilliantly carried out, full responsibility for her own defense. Newfoundland engaged on the spot to meet all the local expenses of raising 1,000 men for the naval reserve.

Marvelous gifts from India[edit]

As for India, a veritable tidal wave of loyalty and sacrifice swept from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin. The rulers of the native States, nearly 700 in all, offered the King-Emperor their personal services and their local resources. There are 27 States in India that maintain Imperial service troops. One and all of these corps were literally flung at the head of the Viceroy.

Money, jewelry, horses and camels and men poured in upon the government. The Dalai Lama of Tibet offered 1,000 troops. The chiefs of the frontier tribes pressed their services. Sir Pertab Singh, though in his seventieth year, would take no denial, and his spirit was the spirit of all the diverse millions in the dependency.

A vast competition ensued to see which State, which prince, could do most for the Empire. Faction ceased; grievances were put on one side; discontent was smothered. When the news came that the King-Emperor would use the valor of his Indian subjects, the whole peninsula rang with joy.

All this in the first month of the war. Soon the stream became a mighty torrent fed from every corner of the Empire. All the fruits of the earth, all the products of the factory, all the resources of public treasures and private purses, all the accessories of war that individual generosity could furnish, were lavished without stint upon the government in London.

Time and again the Colonial office had to refuse gifts that it felt would be putting too great a strain on the donors. From the seamstresses and marketwomen of the Bahamas, with their offerings of two or three shillings, to the Nizam of Hyderabad, with his initial gift of $2,000,000; from East African chiefs, with their contributions of bullocks and goats, to the millions forwarded in money and goods from the self-governing dominions—one common passion to give and spend swept through the Empire.

If it had been confined to men and women of British blood and origin, it would still have been wonderful enough; but what gave and gives it—for the tide still runs flood high—its preëminent significance is that the native rulers and peoples have been everywhere foremost in words and deeds. They hastened as one man to show their gratitude for what British justice and British government had done for them; and the more they knew of Prussian rule the more quickly they hastened.

Not in a thousand years could the Hohenzollerns earn such touching and unforced tributes of loyalty and affection as Sir Hugh Clifford on the Gold Coast and Sir Frederic D. Lugard in Nigeria—to mention but two instances—have been privileged to receive.

And what have the men of the dominions and of India achieved in the war? They have seized the German possessions in the Pacific; they have conquered Togoland and German Southwest Africa and the Cameroons; they hold virtually the whole of German East Africa in their grip; they made an end of the Emden; in Flanders and the Dardanelles, at the head of the Persian Gulf, in Egypt, in Arabia, and along the course of the Tigris and Euphrates, Indians and New Zealanders, Australians and Canadians, have shed their bravest blood.

Before the war is ended the Empire overseas will have thrown into the struggle well over 1,000,000 men, unsurpassed the world over in physique, intelligence, and the qualities of daring initiative.

It is a superb record. No Britisher can even think of it without a feeling of awe mingling with his pride. Far beyond any material strengthening, it has brought to the motherland the inspiration of the real sense of oneness that underlies all the peoples of the Empire.

This war will change many things; on the structure and machinery of the British Empire its mark will be indelible. No one after the experience of the first two and a half years can think it possible to maintain much longer the arrangement by which policies that affect the governments and peoples of the entire Empire and involve them in unlooked-for perils, sacrifices, and responsibilities are decided in London by the leaders of a single British political party, without any consultation whatever with the statesmen of the dominions. That is an anomaly which will have to go. But to uproot it means not merely to alter, but to revolutionize, the constitution of the British Empire.

As if America should raise 11,500,000 troops[edit]

Meanwhile to make the rounds of any of the British fronts at any of the theaters of war is to view a microcosm of the Empire. It is, indeed, the climax to all our other services and achievements that we should have turned ourselves into a military power of the first order. People talk of Great Britain being slow to wake up to the realities of the war. So we were in some ways. But 2,000,000 men enlisted in the first year of the war, which seems to show a certain consciousness that at any rate something unusual was going on. And before conscription came into force in May of last year—that is, before the war was two years old—5,000,000 men, or more than 11 per cent of the total population of the British Isles, had volunteered.

If Americans will imagine themselves raising a volunteer army of 11,500,000 men—which is what they would have to do to parallel the British achievement—they will get some idea of the magnitude of what has been accomplished. Altogether it seems probable that at least 6,500,000, and possibly 7,000,000, men of the United Kingdom will have served with the colors before the war is over.

Our old army that formed the expeditionary force to France; that covered itself with credit during the retreat from Mons; that helped to save the French forces from being outflanked, and that barred the way to Calais against a German army that outnumbered it by more than four to one, was, I suppose, one of the most wonderful military instruments that has ever been fashioned.

A democratic army[edit]

But it was a profession, a caste, apart. The new armies, however, are not a caste; they are the nation itself. They are drawn from every class and trade and profession in the Kingdom, and they proved conclusively on the Somme that they could beat the Germans at their own game.

They gave the German army such a mauling as seldom any army has ever received since warfare first began. The battle of the Somme was not only by far the biggest battle of the war; in duration, in the numbers engaged, and in the intensity of the artillery fire it was the biggest battle the world has yet seen. Some 750,000 of the enemy were put out of action before it ended. Our troops captured position after position, each one stronger than any the Germans have taken since the beginning of the war.

They made “the blood bath of the Somme” a name of terror throughout the fatherland, charged with horror no less deep than that of Verdun. They compelled the greatest retreat that it has so far fallen upon the German troops to execute. They pounded the heart out of them, and they have followed the enemy to his new lines with a definite conviction that they have at last the upper hand.

But our men who are thus helping to wear down the most formidable foe that has ever assaulted the freedom of Europe, who have captured Bagdad, and are contributing to end Turkish rule in Asia Minor; who have mopped up the German colonies, while preserving intact the integrity of all British possessions, and who are holding up their end in the difficult warfare of the Balkans—these men are something more than the backbone of Britain during the struggle. They will be its backbone also in the hardly less anxious years of peace. They will be the pivot of the new England that is being forged in the furnace of the war.

Lessons of the war[edit]

And that new England is a very different country from the old one. A political democracy we have long been. A social democracy before the war we were not. But we are now. Some six or seven million men, as I have said, have mingled with one another; have learned to understand and sympathize with one another in the new armies; have been trained into an equal brotherhood in the severest school of courage, efficiency, and discipline; have had most of the nonsense of social distinctions knocked out of them.

Gone is the vicious consideration that wealth has always claimed and received in the plump security of the British Isles. Duke's son and cook's son are fighting shoulder to shoulder; great ladies do the waiting in the soldiers' refreshment buffets; work like sewing maids in the Red Cross arsenals; like factory hands in the munition works; a shop walker and a grocer's assistant wear the Victoria Cross—the new patent of nobility; for the convalescent wounded there is a boundless outpouring of hospitality and affection, free from the remotest tinge of condescension; the impulse to succor, to link hands, to know and understand one another, is universal.

We have learned from this war, and perhaps nothing else could have taught us, the nobility of sacrifice and of work. We have learned the full meaning of citizenship. We are going through an ordeal that has called into play every faculty we possess, and that will leave us facing life sanely, distinguishing very sharply between its realities and its solemn plausibilities and a hundred times more efficient than we were for meeting all its emergencies.

You must not think of England as depressed. She is facing her task, she is bearing her titanic load, with a tenacity that is wonderfully serene. She is serene not only because she is confident of her power, but because she knows she is fighting for the noblest causes that ever summoned a nation to arms, and because she knows, with an equally passionate certainty of conviction, that honor and duty left her no alternative.

A nation in transition[edit]

Although nowadays in England there is little social life—people have no time in which to see anybody—and little travel, and practically no sport, and few opportunities and less inclination for amusement, and although we have to get along as best we can without servants, or with very few of them, without letters—everybody is too busy to write except to the men at the front—without motoring, without lights in the towns after dark, and without Paris fashions and dinner parties and balls, and although every morning there stares us in the face the ghastly list of the fallen and the wounded, still we are buoyed up by the knowledge that the cause, the great cause, is worth all sacrifices and all privations.

That is why we have gladly surrendered our most cherished liberties, turned our parliamentary system inside out, and submitted to a multitude of restrictions and inconveniences any one of which in the little days of peace would have started a rebellion.

Great Britain, that seemed so fixed, is now in transition; the foundations of its whole scheme of life are shifting, even if they are not breaking; habits and prejudices and old instinctive attitudes of mind are in process of dissolution; economic conditions that one thought were rooted in the deeps are made plastic and adjustable; and from this welter of renewal there is springing up an England strengthened by enormous sacrifices for great ideals, ennobled by poverty, disciplined without losing her characteristic flexibility and self-reliance, knowing more than a little of the true faith of social equality, and proud to have played once more, and not without honor, her historic rôle as the defender of the liberties of Europe.

Source: Sydney Brooks (March 1917), “What Great Britain is Doing”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(3): 193–210.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1937, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.