Britain's Deadly Peril/Chapter 10
THE PERIL OF STIFLING THE TRUTH
Ignorance of the real truth about the war—an ignorance purposely imposed upon us by official red-tape—is, I am convinced, the gravest peril by which our beloved country is faced at the present moment.
I say it is the gravest peril for the simple reason that it is the root-peril from which spring all the rest. And this ignorance springs not from official apathy, or from the public wilfully shutting its eyes to disagreeable truths. It is born of the deliberate suppression of unpleasant facts, of the deliberate and ridiculous exaggeration of minor successes. In a word, it is the result of the public having been fooled and bamboozled under the specious plea of safeguarding our military interests. Are we children to believe such official fairy-tales? The country is not being told the truth about the war. I don't say, and I do not believe, that it is being fed with false news of bogus victories. But untruths can as easily be conveyed by suppression as by assertion, and no one who has studied the war with any degree of attention can escape the impression that the news presented to us day by day takes on, under official manipulation, a colour very much more favourable than is warranted by the actual facts.
Day after day the Press Bureau, of course under official inspiration from higher sources, issues statements in which the good news is unduly emphasised and the bad unduly slurred over. Day by day a large section of the Press helps on, with every ingenious device of big type and sensational headlines, the official hoodwinking of the public. Many pay their nimble halfpennies to be gulled. A naval engagement in which our immensely superior forces crush the weaker squadron of the enemy is blazoned forth as a "magnificent victory" for our fighting men, when, in sober truth, the chief credit lies with the silent and utterly forgotten strategist behind the scenes, whose cool brain worked out the eternal problem of bringing adequate force to bear at exactly the right time and in just exactly the right place.
I say no word to depreciate the heroism of our gallant bluejackets. They would fight as coolly when they were going to inevitable death—Cradock's men did in the Good Hope and Monmouth—as if they were in such overwhelming superiority that the business of destroying the enemy was little more dangerous than tho ordinary battle-practice. My whole point is that by the skilful manipulation of facts a wholly false impression is conveyed. There is, in truth, nothing "magnificent" about beating a hopelessly inferior foe, and our sailors would be the last to claim to be heroes under such conditions. It is, of course, the business of our naval authorities to be ready whenever a German squadron shows itself, to hit at once with such crushing superiority of gunfire that there will be no need to hit again at the same object. That can only be achieved by sound strategy, for which we are entitled to claim and give the credit that is due. When our Navy has won a decisive success against great odds we may be justified in talking of a "magnificent" victory. To talk of any naval success of the present war as a "magnificent victory" is simply to becloud the real, essential, vital facts, and to assist in deceiving a public which is being studiously kept in the dark.
By every means possible, short of downright lying of the German type, the public is being lulled into a false and dangerous belief that all is well—a blind optimism calculated to produce only the worst possible results, a state of mental and physical apathy which has already gone far to rob it of the energy and determination and driving force which are absolutely necessary if we are to emerge in safety from the greatest crisis that has faced our country in its thousand years of stormy history.
As an example of what the public are told concerning the enemy, a good illustration is afforded by a well-known Sunday paper dated March 7th. Here we find, among other headings in big type, the following: "Stake of Life and Death!" "Germany's Frantic Appeal for Greater Efforts!" "Russia's Hammer Blow." "German Offensive from East Prussia Ruined: Losses 250,000 in a Month." "German Plans Foiled: Enemy's 3,000,000 Losses." "On Reduced Rations: German Troops Getting Less to Eat." "Germany Cut Off from the Seas." "Germans Cut in Two: 15,000 Prisoners and 'Rich Booty' Taken." "Killed to Last Man: Appalling Austrian Losses." "The Verge of Famine: Bread Doles cut down again in Germany: Frantic Efforts to Stave Off Starvation."
And yet, in the centre of the paper, next to the leader, we find a huge advertisement headed "The Man to be Pitied," calling for recruits, appealing to their patriotism, and urging them to "Enlist To-day." Surely it is the reader who is to be pitied!
Again, we have wilfully neglected the formation of a healthy public opinion in neutral countries. While Germany has, by every underhand means in her power, by wireless lies, and by bribery of certain newspapers in America and in Italy, created an opinion hostile to the Allies, we have been content to sit by and allow the disgraceful plot against us to proceed.
We have, all of us, read the screeches of the pro-German press in the United States, and in Italy the scandal of how Germany has bribed certain journals has already been publicly exposed. The Italians have not been told the truth by us, as they should have been. In Italy the greater section of the public are in favour of Great Britain and are ready to take arms against the hated Tedesco, yet on the other hand we have to face the insidious work of Germany's secret service and the lure of German gold in a country where, unfortunately, few men, from contadino to deputy, are above suspicion. We must not close our eyes to the truth that in neutral countries Germany is working steadily with all her underhand machinery of diplomacy, of the purchase of newspapers, of bribery and corruption and the suborning of men in high places. To what end? To secure the downfall of Great Britain!
I have myself been present at a private view of an amazing cinema film prepared at the Kaiser's orders and sent to be exhibited in neutral countries for the purpose of influencing opinion in favour of Germany. The pictures have been taken in the fighting zone, both in Belgium and in East Prussia. So cleverly have they been stage-managed that I here confess, as I sat gazing at them, I actually began to wonder whether the stories told of German barbarities were, after all, true! Pictures were shown of a group of British prisoners laughing and smoking, though in the hands of their captors; of the kind German soldiery distributing soup, bread, etc., to the populace in a Belgian village; of soldiers helping the Belgian peasantry re-arrange their homes; of a German soldier giving some centimes to a little Belgian child; of great crowds in Berlin singing German national songs in chorus; of the marvellous organisation of the German army; of thousands upon thousands of troops being reviewed by the Kaiser, who himself approaches you with a salute and a kindly smile. It was a film that must, when shown in any neutral country—as it is being shown to-day all over the world—create a good impression regarding Germany, while people will naturally ask themselves why has not England made a similar attempt, in order to counteract such an insidious and clever illusion in the public mind.
Such a mischievous propaganda as that being pursued by Germany in all neutral countries we cannot to-day afford to overlook. Our enemy's intention is first to prepare public opinion, and then to produce dissatisfaction among the Allies by sowing discord. And yet from the eyes of the British nation the scales have not yet fallen! In our apathy in this direction I foresee great risk.
With these facts in view it certainly behoves us to stir ourselves into activity by endeavouring, ere it becomes too late, to combat Germany's growing prestige among other nations in the world, a prestige which is being kept up by a marvellous campaign of barefaced chicanery and fraud.
The dangerous delusion is prevalent in Great Britain that we are past the crisis, that everything is going well and smoothly, perhaps even that the war will soon be over. In some quarters, even in some official quarters, people to-day are talking glibly of peace by the end of July, not openly, of course, but in the places where men congregate and exchange news "under the rose." The general public, taking its cue from the only authorities it understands or has to rely upon, the daily papers, naturally responds, with the eager desire of the human mind to believe what it wishes to be true. Hence there has grown up a comfortable sense of security, from which we shall assuredly experience a very rude awakening.
For, let there be no mistake about it, the war is very far from ended; indeed, despite our losses, we might almost say it has hardly yet begun. For eight months we have been "getting ready to begin." To-day we see Germany in possession of practically the whole of Belgium and a large strip of Northern France. With the exception of a small patch of Alsace, she preserves her own territory absolutely intact. Her fortified lines extend from the coast of Belgium to the border of Switzerland, and behind that seemingly impenetrable barrier she is gathering fresh hosts of men ready for a desperate defence when the moment comes, as come it must, for the launching of the Allies' attack. On her Eastern frontiers she has at least held back the Russian attack, she has freed East Prussia, and not a single soldier is to-day on German soil. I ask any one who may be inclined to undue optimism whether the situation is not one to call imperatively for the greatest effort of which the British nation and the British Empire are capable?
We are assured by the official inspirers of optimism that time is on the side of the Allies, and is working steadily against the Germans. In a sense, of course, this is true, but it is not the whole truth. I place not the slightest reliance upon the stories industriously circulated from German sources of Germany being short of food; all the evidence we can get from neutrals who have just returned from Germany condemns them in toto. The Germans are a methodical and far-seeing people, and no doubt they are very rightly looking ahead and prudently conserving their resources. But that there is any real scarcity of either food or munitions of war there is not a trace of reliable evidence, and those journals, one of which I have quoted, which delight to represent our enemy as being in a state of semi-starvation are doing a very bad service to our country. The Germans can unquestionably hold out for a very considerable time yet, and we are simply living in a fool's paradise if we try to persuade ourselves to the contrary. If it were true that Germany is really short of food, that our blockade was absolutely effective, and that no further supplies could reach the enemy until the next harvest, it might be true to say that time was on the side of the Allies. But supposing, as I believe, that the tales of food shortage have been deliberately spread by the Germans themselves with the very definite object of working upon the sympathies of the United States, what position are we in? Here, in truth, we come down to a position of the very deepest gravity. It is a position which affects the whole conduct and conclusion of the war, and which cannot fail to exercise the most vital influence over our future.
Speaking at the Lord Mayor's banquet last November, Mr. Asquith said:
Those noble words, in which the great soul of Britain is expressed in half a dozen lines, should be driven into the heart and brain of the Empire. For they are, indeed, a great and eloquent call to Britain to be up and doing. Four months later, Mr. Asquith repeated them in the House of Commons, adding:
Every thinking man must realise the truth and force of what the Premier said. The question inevitably follows—are we acting with such swiftness and decision that we shall be in a position, before the opportunity has passed, to make those words good?
There is a steadily growing volume of opinion among men who are in a position to form a cool judgment that, partly for financial and partly for physical reasons, a second winter campaign cannot possibly be undertaken by any of the combatants engaged in the present struggle. If that view be well founded, it follows that peace on some terms or other will be concluded by October or November at the latest. We, more than any other nation, depend upon the issue of this war to make our existence, as a people and an Empire, safe for a hundred years to come. Have we so energetically pushed on the preparations that, by the time winter is upon us again, we shall, with the help of our gallant Allies, have dealt Germany such a series of crushing blows as to compel her to accept a peace which shall be satisfactory to us?
There, I believe, we have the question which it is vital for us to answer. If the answer is in the negative, I say, without hesitation, that time fights not with the Allies but with Germany. If, as many people think, this war must end somehow before the next winter, we must, by that time, either have crushed out the vicious system of Prussian militarism, or we must resign ourselves to a patched-up peace, which would be but a truce to prepare for a more terrible struggle to come. Despite our most heroic resolves, it is doubtful whether, under modern conditions of warfare, the money can be found for a very prolonged campaign.
I do not forget, of course, that the Allies have undertaken not to conclude a separate peace, and I have not the least doubt that the bargain will be loyally kept. But we cannot lose sight of the possibility that peace may come through the inability of the combatants to continue the war, which it is calculated will by the autumn have cost nine thousand millions of money. And we can take it for granted that the task of subduing a Germany driven to desperation, standing on the defensive, and fighting with the blind savagery of a cornered rat, is going to be a long and troublesome business. We are assured that the Allies can stand the financial strain better than Germany. Possibly; but the point is that no one knows just how much strain Germany can stand before she breaks, and in war it is only common prudence to prepare for the worst that can befall. This is precisely what we, most emphatically, are not doing to-day. Thanks to the reasons I have given—the chief of which is the unwarrantable official secrecy and the wholly unjustifiable "cooking" of the news—the British public is not yet fully aroused to the deadly peril in which the nation and the Empire stand.
The British people are, as they ever have been, slow of thought and slower of action. They need much rousing. And in the present war it is most emphatically true that the right way of rousing them has not been used. Smooth stories never yet fired British blood. Let an Englishman think things are going even tolerably well, and he is loth to disturb himself to make them go still better. But tell him a story of disaster, show him how his comrades fall and die in great fights against great odds: bring it home to his slow-working mind that he really has his back to the wall, and you fan at once into bright flame the smouldering pride of race and caste that has done, and will yet do, some of the greatest deeds that have rung in history. Is there, we may well ask, another race in the world that would have wrested such glory from the disaster at Mons? And the lads who fought the Germans to a standstill in the great retreat did so because the very deadliness of the peril that confronted them called out all that is greatest and noblest and most enduring in our national character.
Is there no lesson our authorities at home can learn from that deathless story? Are they so blind to all the plainest teachings of history that they fail to realise that the British people cannot be depressed and frightened into panic by bad news, though, such is our insular self-confidence, we can be only too easily lulled into optimism by good news? If the autocrats who spoon-feed the public with carefully selected titbits truly understood the mental characteristics of their own countrymen, they would surely realise that the best, indeed the only, way to arouse the British race throughout the world to a sense of the real magnitude of the task that lies before them is to tell them the simple truth. We want no more of the glossing over of unpleasant facts which seems to be one of the main objects of the press censorship. We want the real truth, not merely because we are, naturally, hungry for news, but because the real truth alone is capable of stimulating Englishmen and Welshmen, Scotchmen and Irishmen, the world over to take off their coats, turn up their sleeves, and seriously devote their energies to giving the German bully a sound and effective thrashing.