Britain's Deadly Peril/Chapter 1

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



Has Britain, in the course of her long history, ever been prepared for a great war? I do not believe she has; she certainly was not ready last August, when the Kaiser launched his thunderbolt upon the world.

Perhaps, paradoxical as it may seem, this perpetual unreadiness may be, in a sense, part of Britain's strength.

We are a people slow of speech, and slow to anger. It takes much—very much—to rouse the British nation to put forth its full strength. "Beware of the wrath of the man slow to anger" is a useful working maxim, and it may be that the difficulty of arousing England is, in some degree, a measure of her terrible power once she is awakened.

Twice or thrice, at least, within living memory we have been caught all unready when a great crisis burst upon us—in the Crimea, in South Africa, and now in the greatest world-conflict ever seen. Hitherto, thanks to the amazing genius for improvisation which is characteristic of our race, we have "muddled through" somehow, often sorely smitten, sorely checked, but roused by reverses to further and greater efforts.

The bulldog tenacity that has ever been our salvation has been aroused in time, and we have passed successfully through ordeals which might have broken the spirit and crushed the resistance of nations whose mental and physical fibre was less high and less enduring.

We have "muddled through" in the past: shall we "muddle through" again? It is the merest truism—patent to all the world—that when Germany declared war, we were quite unready for a contest. For years the nation had turned a deaf ear to all warnings. The noble efforts of the late Lord Roberts, who gave the last years of his illustrious life—despite disappointments, and the rebuffs of people in high places who ought to have known—nay, who did know—that his words were literally true, passed unheeded.

Lord Roberts, the greatest soldier of the Victorian era, a man wise in war, and of the most transcendent sincerity, was snubbed and almost insulted, inside and outside the House of Commons, by a parcel of upstarts who, in knowledge and experience of the world and of the subject, were not fit to black his boots. "An alarmist and scaremonger" was perhaps the least offensive name that these worthies could find for him: and it was plainly hinted that he was an old man in his dotage. Lulled into an unshakable complacency by the smooth assurances of placeholders in comfortable jobs, the nation remained serenely asleep, and never was a country less ready for the storm that burst upon us last August. I had, in my writings—"The Invasion of England" and other works—also endeavoured to awaken the public; but if they would not listen to "Bobs," it was hardly surprising that they jeered at me.

I am speaking of the nation as a whole. To their eternal honour let it be said that there were nevertheless some who, for years, had foreseen the danger, and had done what lay in their power to meet it. Foremost among these we must place Mr. Winston Churchill, and the group of brilliant officers who are now the chiefs of the British Army on the Continent. To them, at least, I hope history will do full justice. It was no mere coincidence that just before the outbreak of war our great fleet—the mightiest Armada that the world has ever seen—was assembled at Spithead, ready, to the last shell and the last man, for any eventuality.

It was no mere coincidence that the magnificent First Division at Aldershot, trained to the minute by men who knew their business, were engaged when war broke out in singularly appropriate "mobilisation exercises." All honour to the men who foresaw the world-peril, and did their utmost to make our pitiably insufficient forces ready, as far as fitness and organisation could make them ready, for the great Day when their courage and endurance were to be so severely tested.

But when all this is said and admitted, it is clear that our safety, in the early days of the war, hung by a hair. Afloat, of course, we were more than a match for anything Germany could do, and our Fleet has locked our enemy in with a strangling grip that we hope is slowly choking out her industrial and commercial life. Ashore, however, our position was perilous in the extreme. Men's hair whitened visibly during those awful days when the tiny British Army, fighting heroically every step of the way against overwhelming odds, was driven ever back and back until, on the banks of the Marne, it suddenly turned at bay and, by sheer matchless valour, hurled the legions of the Kaiser back to ruin and defeat. The retreat was stayed, the enemy was checked and driven back, but the margin by which disaster was averted and turned into triumph was so narrow that nothing but the most superb heroism on the part of our gallant lads could have saved the situation. We had neglected all warnings, and we narrowly escaped paying an appalling price in the destruction of the flower of the British Army. With insufficient forces, we had again "muddled through" by the dogged valour of the British private.

To-day we are engaged in "muddling through" on a scale unexampled in our history. The Government have taken power to raise the British Army to a total of three million men. In our leisurely way we have begun to make new armies in the face of an enemy who for fifty years has been training every man to arms, in the face of an enemy who for ten or fifteen years at least has been steadily, openly, and avowedly preparing for the Day when he could venture, with some prospect of success, to challenge the sea supremacy by which we live, and move, and have our being, and lay our great Empire in the dust.

We neglected all warnings; we calmly ignored our enemy's avowed intentions; we closed our eyes and jeered at all those who told the truth; we deliberately, and of choice, elected to wait until war was upon us to begin our usual process of "muddling through." Truly we are an amazing people! Yet we should remember that the days when one Englishman was better than ten foreigners have passed for ever.

Naturally, our preference for waiting till the battle opened before we began to train for the fight led us into some of the most amazing muddles that even our military history can boast of. When the tocsin of war rang out, our young men poured to the colours from every town and village in the country. Everybody but the War Office expected it. The natural result followed: recruiting offices were simply "snowed under" with men, and for weeks we saw the most amazing chaos. The flood of men could neither be equipped nor housed, nor trained, and confusion reigned supreme. We had an endless series of scandals at camps, into which I do not propose to enter: probably, with all the goodwill in the world, they were unavoidable. Still the flood of men poured in. The War Office grew desperate. It was, clearly, beyond the capacity of the organisation to handle the mass of recruits, and then the War Office committed perhaps its greatest blunder. Unable to accept more men, it raised the physical standard for recruits. No one seems to have conceived the idea that it would have been better to take the names of the men and call them up as they were needed. Naturally the public seized upon the idea that enough men had been obtained, and there was an instant slump in recruiting which, despite the most strenuous of advertising campaigns—carried out on the methods of a vendor of patent medicines—has, unfortunately, not yet been overcome.

Following, came a period of unexampled chaos at the training-centres. Badly lodged, badly fed, clothed in ragged odds and ends of "uniforms," without rifles or bayonets, it is simply a marvel that the men stuck to their duty, and it is surely a glowing testimony to their genuine patriotism. I do not wish to rake up old scandals, and I am not going to indulge in carping criticism of the authorities because they were not able to handle matters with absolute smoothness when, each week, they were getting very nearly a year's normal supply of recruits. Confusion and chaos were bound to be, and I think the men—on the whole—realised the difficulties, and made the best of a very trying situation. But they were Britons! My object is simply to show how serious was our peril through our unpreparedness. If our enemy, in that time of preparation, could have struck a blow directly at us, we must, inevitably, have gone under in utter ruin. Happily, our star was in the ascendant. The magnificent heroism of Belgium, the noble recovery of the French nation after their first disastrous surprise, the unexampled valour of our Army, and the silent pressure of the Navy, saved us from the peril that encompassed us. Once again we had "muddled through" perhaps the worst part of our task.

No one can yet say that we are safe. This war is very far indeed from being won, for there is yet much to do, and many grave perils still threaten us. It is, perhaps, small consolation to know that most of the perils we brought upon ourselves by our persistent and foolish refusal to face plain and obvious facts: by our toleration of so-called statesmen who, fascinated by the Kaiser's glib talk, came very near to betraying England by their refusal to tell the country the truth, or even, without telling the country, to make adequate preparations to meet a danger which had been foreseen by every Chancellory in Europe for years past. It can never be said that we were not warned, plainly and unmistakably. The report of the amazing speech of the Kaiser, which I have recorded elsewhere, I placed in the hands of the British Secret Service as early as 1908, and the fact that it had been delivered was soon abundantly verified by confidential inquiries in official circles in Berlin. Yet, with the knowledge of that speech before them, Ministers could still be found to assure us that Germany was our firm and devoted friend!

The Kaiser, in the course of the secret speech in question, openly outlined his policy and said:

"Our plans have been most carefully laid and prepared by our General Staff. Preparations have been made to convey at a word a German army of invasion of a strength able to cope with any and all the troops that Great Britain can muster against us. It is too early yet to fix the exact date when the blow shall be struck, but I will say this: that we shall strike as soon as I have a sufficiently large fleet of Zeppelins at my disposal. I have given orders for the hurried construction of more airships of the improved Zeppelin type, and when these are ready we shall destroy England's North Sea, Channel, and Atlantic fleets, after which nothing on earth can prevent the landing of our army on British soil and its triumphal march to London.

"You will desire to know how the outbreak of hostilities will be brought about. I can assure you on this point. Certainly we shall not have to go far to find a just cause for war. My army of spies, scattered over Great Britain and France, as it is over North and South America, as well as all the other parts of the world where German interests may come to a clash with a foreign Power, will take good care of that. I have issued already some time since secret orders that will at the proper moment accomplish what we desire.

"I shall not rest and be satisfied until all the countries and territories that once were German, or where greater numbers of my former subjects now live, have become a part of the great mother country, acknowledging me as their supreme lord in war and peace. Even now I rule supreme in the United States, where almost one-half of the population is either of German birth or of German descent, and where three million German voters do my bidding at the Presidential elections. No American Administration could remain in power against the will of the German voters, who … control the destinies of the vast Republic beyond the sea.

"I have secured a strong foothold for Germany in the Near East, and when the Turkish 'pilaf' pie will be partitioned, Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine—in short, the overland route to India—will become our property. But to obtain this we must first crush England and France."

And, in the face of those words, we still went on money-grubbing and pleasure-seeking!

If ever the British Empire, following other great Empires of the past, plunges downward to rack and ruin, we may rest assured that the reason will be our reliance on our ancient and stereotyped policy of "muddling through."

I am glad to think that in the conduct of the present campaign we have been spared those scandals of the baser type which, in the past, have been such an unsavoury feature of almost every great war in which we have been engaged. Minor instances of fraud and peculation, of supplying doubtful food, etc., have no doubt occurred. Human nature being what it is, it could hardly be expected that we could raise, train, equip, and supply an army numbered by millions without some unscrupulous and unpatriotic individuals seizing the opportunity to line their pockets by unlawful means. We hear occasional stories of huts unfit for human habitation, of food in camp hardly fit for human consumption. On the whole, however, it is cordially agreed—and it is only fair to say—that there has been an entire absence of the shocking scandals of the type which revolted the nation during the Crimean campaign. Much has been said about the War Office arrangement with Mr. Meyer for the purchase of timber. But the main allegation, even in this case, is that the War Office made an exceedingly bad and foolish bargain, and Mr. Meyer an exceedingly good one. Indeed it is not even suggested that the transaction involved anything in the nature of fraud. It seems rather to be a plea that the purely commercial side of war would be infinitely better conducted by committees of able business men than by permanent officials of the War Office, who are, after all, not very commercial.

Undoubtedly this is true. We should be spared a good deal of the muddling and waste involved in our wars if, on the outbreak of hostilities, the War Office promptly asked the leading business men of the community to form committees and take over and manage for the benefit of the nation the purely commercial branches of the work. Yet I suppose, under our system of government, such an obvious common-sense procedure as this could hardly be hoped for. We continue to leave vast commercial undertakings in the hands of the men who are not bred in business, with the result that money is wasted by millions, and so are lucky if we are not swindled on a gigantic scale by the unscrupulous contractors. It is usually in an army's food and clothing that scandals of this nature are revealed, and it is only just to the War Office to say that in this campaign, for once, food has been good and clothing fair.

Most of our muddling, so far, has been of a nature tending to prolong the duration of the war. Our persistent policy of unreadiness has simply meant that for four, five, or six long months we have not been ready to take the field with the forces imperatively necessary if the Germans are to be hurled, neck and crop, out of Belgium and France across the Rhine, and their country finally occupied and subjugated.

Already another new and graver peril is threatening us—the peril of a premature and inconclusive peace. Already the voice of the pacifist—that strangely constituted being to whom the person of the enemy is always sacred—is being heard in the land. We heard it in the Boer War from the writers and speakers paid by Germany. Already the plea is going up that Germany must not be "crushed"—that Germany, who has made Belgium a howling wilderness, who has massacred men, women, and even little children, in sheer cold-blooded lust, shall be treated with the mild consideration we extend to a brave and honourable opponent. Sure it is, therefore, that if Britain retires from this war with her avowed purpose unfulfilled, we shall have been guilty of muddling compared with which the worst we have ever done in the past will be the merest triviality.

If this war has proved one thing more clearly than another, it has proved that the German is utterly and absolutely unfit to exercise power, that he is restrained by no moral consideration from perpetuating the most shocking abominations in pursuit of his aims, that the most sacred obligations are as dust in the balance when they conflict with his supposed interests. It has proved too, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that England is the real object of Germany's foaming hate. We are the enemy! France and Russia are merely incidental foes. It is England that stands between Germany and the realisation of her insane dream of world dominion, and unless Great Britain to-day completes, with British thoroughness, the task to which she has set her hand, this generation, and the generations that are to come, will never be freed from the blighting shadow of Teutonic megalomania. It is quite conceivable that a peace which would be satisfactory to Russia and France would be profoundly unsatisfactory to us. Happily, the Allies are solemnly bound to make peace jointly or not at all, and I trust there will be no wavering on this point. For us there is but one line of safety: the Germanic power for mischief must be finally and irretrievably broken before Britain consents to sheathe the sword.

Against the prosecution of the war to its final and crushing end, the bleating pacifists are already beginning to raise their puny voices. I am not going to give these gentlemen the free advertisement that their hearts delight in by mentioning them by name: it is not my desire to assist, in the slightest degree, their pestilential activity. They form one of those insignificant minorities who are inherently and essentially unpatriotic. Their own country is invariably wrong, and other countries are invariably right. To-day they are bleating, in the few unimportant journals willing to publish their extraordinary views, that Germany ought to be spared the vengeance called for by her shameful neglect of all the laws of God and man.

Is there a reader of these lines who will heed them? Surely not.

Burke said it was impossible to draw up an indictment against a nation: Germany has given him the lie. Our pro-German apologists and pacifists are fond of laying the blame of every German atrocity, upon the shoulders of that mysterious individual—the "Prussian militarist." I reply—and my words are borne out by official evidence published in my recent book "German Atrocities"—that the most shameful and brutal deeds of the German Army, which, be it remembered, is the German people in arms, are cordially approved by the mass of that degenerate nation. The appalling record of German crime in Belgium, the entire policy of "frightfulness" by land and sea, the murder of women and children at Scarborough, the sack of Aerschot and of Louvain, the massacre of seven hundred men, women, and children in Dinant, the piratical exploits of the German submarines, are all hailed throughout Germany with shrieks of hysterical glee. And why? Because it is recognised that, in the long run and in the ultimate aim, they are a part and parcel of a policy which has for its end the destruction of our own beloved Empire. Hatred of Britain—the one foe—has been, for years, the mainspring that has driven the German machine. The Germans do not hate the French, they do not hate the Russians, they do not even hate the "beastly Belgians," whose country they have laid waste with fire and sword. The half-crazed Lissauer shrieks aloud that Germans "have but one hate, and one alone—England," and the mass of the German people applaud him to the echo.

Very well, let us accept, as we do accept, the situation. Are we going to neglect the plainest and most obvious warning ever given to a nation, and permit ourselves to muddle into a peace that would be no peace, but merely a truce in which Germany would bend her every energy to the preparation of another bitter war of revenge?

Here lies one of the gravest perils by which our country is to-day faced, and it is a peril immensely exaggerated by the foolish peace-talk in which a section of malevolent busybodies are already indulging. It is as certain as the rising of tomorrow's sun that, when this war is over, Germany would, if the power were left within her, embark at once on a new campaign of revenge. We have seen how, for forty-five long years, the French have cherished in their hearts the hope of recovering the fair provinces wrested from them in the war of 1870–1871. And the French, be it remembered, are not a nation capable of nourishing a long-continued national hatred. Generous, proud, and intensely patriotic they are; malicious and revengeful they emphatically are not. As patriotic in their own way as the French, the Germans have shown themselves capable of a paroxysm of national hatred to which history offers no parallel.

They have realised, with a sure instinct, that Britain, and Britain alone, has stood in the way of the realisation of their grandiose scheme of world-dominion, and it is certain that for long years to come, possibly for centuries, they will, if we give them the opportunity, plot our downfall and overthrow us. Are we to muddle the business of making peace as we muddled the preparations for war? If we do we shall, assuredly, deserve the worst fate that can be reserved for a nation which deliberately shuts its eyes to the logic of plain and demonstrable fact.

Germany can never be adequately punished for the crimes against God and man which she has committed in Belgium and France. The ancient law of "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is the only one under which adequate punishment could be meted out, and whatever happens we know that the soldiers of the Allies will never be guilty of the unspeakable calendar of pillage and arson and murder which has made the very name of "German" a byword throughout civilisation throughout all the ages that are to come. However thoroughly she is humbled to the dust, Germany will never taste the unspeakable horror that she has brought upon the helpless and unoffending victims of her fury and lust in Belgium and in parts of France. It may be that if they fall into our hands we should hang, as they deserve to be hanged, the official instigators of atrocities whose complicity could be clearly proved—though we, to-day, give valets to the Huns at Donington Hall. We cannot lay the cities of Germany in ruin, and massacre the civilian population on the approved German plan. What we can do, and ought to do, is to make sure that, at whatever cost of blood and treasure to us, Germany is deprived of any further capacity to menace the peace of the world. It is the plain and obvious duty of the Allies to see that the hateful and purely German doctrine that might is the only right shall, once and for all, be swept from the earth. It is for us to make good the noble words of Mr. Asquith—that Britain will prosecute the war to the finish. It is for us to see that there shall be no "muddling through" when the treaty of peace is finally signed in Berlin.

When the war was forced upon us, the best business brains of this country recognised that one of the surest and speediest means of securing an efficient guarantee that Germany should not be able to injure us in the future would be a strenuous effort to capture her enormous foreign trade. Modern wars, it must be remembered, are not merely a matter of the clash of arms on the stricken field. The enormous ramifications of commercial undertakings, immeasurably greater to-day than at any time in history, mean that, in the conduct of a great campaign, economic weapons may be even more powerful than the sword of the big battalions. This unquestionable fact has been fully realised by our leading thinkers. Thoughtless people have been heard to say that, if France and Russia wish to conclude peace, England must necessarily join with them because she cannot carry on the war alone. There could be no greater mistake.

Just so long as the British Fleet holds the command of the sea, Germany's foreign trade is in the paralysing grip of an incubus which cannot be shaken off. In the meantime, all the seas of all the world are free to our ships and our commerce, and, though the volume of world-trade is necessarily diminished by the war, there remains open to British manufacturers an enormous field which has been tilled hitherto mainly by German firms.

We may now ask ourselves whether our business men are taking full advantage of this priceless opportunity offered them for building up and consolidating a commercial position which in the future, when the war is ended, will be strong enough to defy even the substantial attacks of their German competitors. I sincerely wish I could see some evidence of it. I wish I could feel that our business men of England were looking ahead, studying methods and markets, and planning the campaigns which, in the days to come, shall reach their full fruition. But alas! they are not. We heard many empty words, when war broke out, of the war on Germany's trade, but I am very much afraid—and my view is shared by many business acquaintances—that the early enthusiasm of "what we will do" has vanished, and that when the time for decisive action comes we shall be found still relying upon the traditional but fatal policy of "muddling through" which has for so long been typical of British business as well as official methods.

We shall still, I fear, be found clinging to the antiquated and worn-out business principles and stiff conventionalities which, during the past few years, have enabled the German to oust us from markets which for centuries we have been in the habit of regarding as our own peculiar preserves. That, in view of the enormous importance of the commercial warfare of to-day, I believe to be a very real peril.

King George's famous "Wake up, England!" is a cry as necessary to-day as ever. I do not believe Germany will ever be able to pay adequate indemnity for the appalling monetary losses she has brought upon us, and if those losses are to be regained it can only be by the capture of her overseas markets, and the diversion of her overseas profits into British pockets. Shall we seize the opportunity or shall we "muddle through"?

This is not a political book, for I am no politician, and, further, to-day we have no politics—at least of the Radical and Conservative type. "Britain for the Briton" should be our battle-cry. There is one subject, however, which, even though it may appear to touch upon politics, cannot be omitted from our consideration. If the war has taught us many lessons, perhaps the greatest is its splendid demonstration of the essential solidarity of the British Empire. We all know that the German writers have preached the doctrine that the British Empire was as ramshackle a concern as that of Austria-Hungary; that it must fall to pieces at the first shock of war. To-day the British Empire stands before the world linked together, literally, by a bond of steel. From Canada, from Australia, from India, even—despite a jarring note struck by German money—from South Africa, "the well-forged link rings true." Germany to-day is very literally face to face with the British Empire in arms, with resources in men and money to which her own swaggering Empire are relatively puny, and with, I hope and believe, a stern determination no less strong and enduring than her own. The lesson assuredly will not be lost upon her: shall we make sure that it is not lost upon us?

For some years past there has been a steadily growing opinion—stronger in the Overseas Dominions, perhaps, than here at home—that the British Empire should, in business affairs, be much more of a "family concern" than it is. Either at home, or overseas, our Empire produces practically everything which the complexity of our modern social and industrial system demands. Commerce is the very life-blood of our modern world: is it not time we took up in earnest the question of doing our international business upon terms which should place our own people, for the first time, in a position of definite advantage over the stranger? Is it not time we undertook the task of welding the Empire into a single system linked as closely by business ties as by the ties of flesh and blood and sentiment? That, I believe, will be one of the great questions which this war will leave us for solution.

In the past, Germany's chief weapon against us has been her commercial enterprise and activity. It should now be part of our business to prevent her harming us in the future, and, in the commercial field, the strongest weapon in our armoury has hitherto remained unsheathed. Shall we, in the days that are to come, do our imperial trading on a great family scale—British goods the most favoured in British markets—or shall we here again "muddle through" on a policy which gives the stranger and the enemy alien at least as friendly a welcome as we extend to our own sons?

Perhaps, in the days that are coming, that in itself will be a question upon which the future of the British Empire will depend.