Britain's Deadly Peril/Chapter 3

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The vast issues raised by the war make it a matter of most imperative necessity that Great Britain and her Allies shall put forward, at the earliest possible moment, the greatest and supremest efforts of which they are capable, in order that the military power of the Austro-German alliance should be definitely and completely crushed for ever.

It must never be forgotten that the prize for which Germany is fighting is the mastership of Europe, the humbling of the power of Great Britain, and the imposition of a definitely Teutonic "Kultur" over the whole of Western civilisation. That the free and liberty-loving British peoples should ever come under the heel of the Prussian Junker spirit involves such a monstrous suppression of national thought and feeling as to be almost unbelievable. Yet, assuredly, that would be our fate and the fate of every nationality in Europe should Germany emerge victorious from this Titanic struggle she has so rashly and presumptuously provoked.

With our very existence as the ruling race at stake it is clear that our own dear country cannot afford to be sparing in her efforts. Whatever the cost; whatever the slaughter; whatever the action of our Allies may be in the future, when the terrific outpouring of wealth will have bled Europe white, we, at least, cannot afford to falter. For our own land, the struggle is really, and in very truth, a struggle of life and death.

If we endure and win, civilisation, as we understand it to-day, will be safe; if we lose, then Western civilisation and the British Empire will go down together in the greatest cataclysm in human history. Now are we doing everything in our power to avert the threatening peril? Moreover—and this is of greatest importance—are our Allies persuaded that we are really making the great efforts the occasion demands? This gives us to pause.

Let us admit we are not, and we have never pretended to be, a military nation in the sense that France, Russia, and Germany have been military nations. We have been seamen for a thousand years, and the frontiers of England are the salt waves which girdle our coasts. Seeking no territory on the Continent of Europe, and unconcerned in European disputes unless they directly—as in the present instance—threaten our national existence, our armed forces have ever been regarded as purely defensive, yet not aggressive. For our defence we have relied on our naval power; perhaps in days gone by we have assumed, rather too rashly, that we should never be called upon to take part in land-fighting on a continental scale.

Even after the present war had broken out, it was possible for the Parliamentary correspondent of a London Liberal paper to write that certain Liberal Members of the House of Commons were protesting against the sending of British troops to the Continent on the ground that they were too few in number to exercise any influence in a European war! Perish that thought for ever! I mention this amazing contention merely to show how imperfectly the issues raised by the present conflict were appreciated in the early days of the struggle. To-day we see the establishment of the British Army raised by Parliamentary sanction to 3,000,000 men without a single protest being uttered against a figure which, had it been even hinted at, a year ago would have been received with yells of derision. Yet, in spite of that vast number, I still ask "Are we doing enough?" In other words, looking calmly at the stupendous gravity of the issues involved, is there any further effort we could possibly make to shorten the duration of the war?

For eight months German agents, armed with German gold, have been industriously propagating, in France and in Russia, the theory that those countries were, in fact, pulling the chestnuts out of the fire for England. German agents are everywhere. We were represented as holding the comfortable view that our fleet was doing all that we could reasonably be called upon to undertake; that, secure behind our sea barriers, we were simply carrying on a policy of "business as usual" with the minimum of effort and loss and the maximum of gain through our principal competitors in the world's commerce being temporarily disabled. The object of this manœuvre was plain. Germany hoped to sow the seeds of jealousy and discord, and to thrust a wedge into the solid alliance against her. Now it is, to-day, beyond all question that, to some extent at least, this manœuvre was successful. A certain proportion of people in both France and Russia, perhaps, grew restive. In the best-informed circles it was, of course, fully recognised that Britain, with her small standing Army, could not, by any possibility, instantly fling huge forces into the field. The less well informed, influenced by the German propaganda, began to think we were too slow. This feeling began to gather strength, and it was not until M. Millerand, the French Minister for War, whom I have known for years, had actually visited England and seen the preparations that were in progress, that French opinion, fully informed by a series of capable articles in the French Press, settled down to the conviction that England was really in earnest. Unquestionably, M. Millerand rendered a most valuable service to the cause of the Allies by his outspoken declarations, and he was fully supported by the responsible leaders of French thought and opinion. The cleverly laid German plot failed, and our Allies to-day realise that we have unsheathed our sword in the deadliest earnest.

In spite of this, however, the thoughtful section of the public have been asking themselves whether, in fact, our military action is not slower than it should have been. Germany, we must remember, started this war with all the tremendous advantage secured by years of steady and patient preparation for a contest she was fully resolved to precipitate as soon as she judged the moment opportune. She lost the first trick in the game, thanks to the splendid heroism of Belgium, the unexpected rapidity of the French and Russian mobilisation, and lastly, the wholly surprising power with which Britain intervened in the fray—the pebble in the cogwheels of the German machinery.

The end of the first stage, represented, roughly, by the driving of the Germans from the Marne to the Aisne, temporarily exhausted all the combatants, and there followed a long period of comparative inaction, during which all the parties to the quarrel, like boxers in distress, sparred to gain their "second wind." Now just as Germany was better prepared when the first round opened, so she was, necessarily, more advanced in her preparations for the second stage. Thanks to her scheme of training, there was a very real risk that her vast masses of new levies would be ready before our own—and this has actually proved to be the case.

New troops are to-day being poured on to both the eastern and western fronts at a very rapid pace, probably more rapidly than our own. We know that it was, in great part, their new levies that inflicted the very severe reverse upon the Russians in East Prussia and undid, in a single fortnight, months of steady and patient work by our Allies. It is also probably true that Germany's immense superiority in fully trained fighting men is steadily decreasing, owing partly to the enormous losses she has sustained through her adherence to methods of attack which are hopeless in the teeth of modern weapons. But she is still very much ahead of what any one could have expected after seven months of strenuous war, and we must ask ourselves very seriously whether, by some tremendous national effort, it is not possible to expedite the raising of our forces to the very maximum of which the nation and the Empire are capable. It is not a question of cost: the cost would be as nothing as compared with the havoc wrought by the prolongation of the war. If there is anything more that we can do, we ought, emphatically, to do it. It is our business to see that at no single point in the conduct of the war are we outstripped by any effort the Germans can make.

Now it is a tolerably open secret that we are not to-day getting the men we shall want before we can bring the war to a conclusion. Why? When our men read of the utter disregard of the spy question, of the glaring untruths told by Ministers in the House of Commons, of how we are providing German barons with valets on prison ships—comfortable liners, by the way—of the letting loose of German prisoners from internment camps, and how German officers have actually been allowed, recently, to depart from Tilbury to Holland to fight against us, is it any wonder that they hesitate to come forward to do their share? Let the reader ask himself. Are all Departments of the Government patriotic? Is it not a fact that the public are daily being misled and bamboozled? Let the reader examine the evidence and then think.

Now, though no figures as to the progress of recruiting have been published for some months, it is practically certain that we are still very far from the three million men we still assuredly require as a minimum before victory, definite and unmistakable, crowns our effort. I have not the slightest doubt that before this struggle ends we shall see practically the entire male population of the country called to the colours in some capacity, and unfortunately that is an aspect of the case which is certainly not yet recognised by the democracy as a whole. We have done much, it is true. We have surprised our friends and our enemies alike—perhaps we have even surprised ourselves—by what has been achieved, but on the technical side of the war, under the tremendous driving energy of Lord Kitchener, amazing progress has been made in the provision of equipment, and the latest information I have been able to obtain suggests that before long the early shortage of guns, rifles, uniforms, and other war material will have been entirely overcome, and that we shall be experiencing a shortage, not of supplies—but alas! of men.

That day cannot be far off, and when it dawns the problem of raising men will assume an urgency of which hitherto we have had no experience. Up to now we have been content to tolerate the somewhat leisurely drift of the young men to the colours for the simple reason that we had not the facilities for training and equipping them. We cannot, and we must not, tolerate any slackness in the future. The wastage of modern war is appallingly beyond the average conception, and when our big new armies take the field, that wastage will rise to stupendous figures. It must be made good without the slightest delay by constant drafts of new, fully trained men, and when that demand rises, as it inevitably will, to a pitch of which we have hitherto had no experience, it will have to be met. Can it be met by the leisurely methods with which we have hitherto been content?

I do not think so for a moment, and I am convinced that our responsible Ministers should at once take the country fully into their confidence and tell us plainly and unmistakably what the man-in-the-street has to expect. I have so profound an admiration for the men who have voluntarily come forward in the hour of their country's need that I hope, with all my heart, their example will be followed—and followed quickly—to the full extent of our nation's needs. But I confess I am not sanguine. The recent strikes in the engineering trade on the Clyde have gone far to convince me that, even now, a very large proportion of our industrial classes do not even to-day realise the real seriousness of the position, for it is incredible that Britons who understood that we are actually engaged in a struggle for our very existence should seriously jeopardise and delay, through a miserable industrial squabble, the supply of war material upon which the safety of our Empire might depend. The strike on the Clyde was, to me, the most evil symptom of apathy and lack of all patriotic instincts which the war has brought forth; it was, to my mind, proof conclusive that a section at least of our working-classes are entirely dead to the great national impulse by which, in the past, the British people have been so profoundly swayed. Is the Government doing enough to rekindle those impulses? Has it taken the people fully and frankly into its confidence? Above all, has it made it sufficiently clear to the masses that we are not getting the men we need, and that unless those men come forward voluntarily, some method of compulsory selection will become inevitable?

No, it has not!

We come back to the question in which, I am firmly convinced, lies the solution of many of our present difficulties—are we being told the truth about the war? Has the nation had the clear, ringing call to action that, unquestionably, it needs?

No, it has not!

I shall try to show, in the pages of this modest work, that the country has not been given the information to which it is plainly entitled respecting the actual military operations which have been accomplished. It is certainly not too much to say that the country has not been really definitely and clearly informed as to the measure of the effort it will be called upon to make in the future. I am not in the secrets of the War Office, and it is impossible to say what the policy of the Government will be, or what trump cards they hold, ready to play them when the real crisis comes. But there certainly is an urgent and growing need for very plain speaking. I speak plainly and without fear. We should like to be assured that the recruiting problem, upon the solution of which our final success must depend, is being dealt with on broad, wise, and statesmanlike lines, and that the Government will shrink from no measure which shall ensure our absolute military efficiency. I have no doubt that Lord Kitchener has a very accurate estimate of the total number of men he proposes to put into the field before the great forward movement begins, of the probable total wastage, and of the period for which, on the present basis of recruiting, that wastage can be made good.

The country would welcome some very definite and explicit statement, either from Mr. Asquith or Lord Kitchener, as to the real position, and as to whether the Government has absolute confidence that the requirements of the military authorities can be met under the existing condition of affairs. The time is, indeed, more than ripe for some grave and solemn warning to the people if, as I believe, the effort we have made up to now, great though it has undoubtedly been, has not been sufficient. We to-day need an authoritative declaration on the subject. There is far too strong a tendency, fostered by the undue reticence of the irresponsible Press Bureau and the screeching "victories" of the newspapers, to believe that things are going as well and smoothly as we could wish; and though I would strenuously deprecate an attitude of blank pessimism, the perils which hedge around a fatuous optimism are very great.

My firm conviction, and I think my readers will share in it, is that the great mass of public opinion is daily growing more and more apathetic towards the war, and truly that is not the mental attitude which will bring us with safety and credit through the tremendous ordeal which lies before us. The Government is not doing enough to drive home the fact that greater and still greater efforts will be required before the spectre of Prussian domination is finally laid to rest: the country at large, befogged by the newspapers, and sullenly angry at being kept in the dark to an extent hitherto unheard of, is in no mood to make the supreme sacrifices upon which final victory must depend. We are, as a result, not exercising our full strength: we are not doing enough, and our full strength will not be exerted until the Government takes the public into its confidence and tells them exactly what it requires and what it intends to have. That it would gain, rather than lose, by doing so, I have not the slightest doubt, while the gain to the world through the throwing into the scale of the solid weight of a fully aroused Britain would be simply incalculable.

While writing this, came the extraordinarily belated news of the decision of the Government to declare a strict blockade of the German coasts. It has been a matter of supreme bewilderment to every student of the war why this decision was not taken long before. Why should we have failed for so long to use the very strongest weapon which our indisputed control of the sea has placed in our hands, is one of those things which "no fellah can understand." We have been foolish enough to allow food, cotton, and certain other articles of "conditional contraband" free access to Germany, and it is beyond question that in so doing we have enormously prolonged the war. And all this, be it remembered, at a time when Germany was violating every law of God and man! Assume a reversal of the prevailing conditions: would Germany have been so foolishly indulgent towards us? Would she have treated us with more consideration than she showed towards the starving population of Paris in 1871? The very fact of our long inaction in this respect adds enormously to the strong suspicion that in other directions we are not doing as much as we should. Lord Fisher is credited with the saying, "The essence of war is violence: moderation in war is imbecility. Hit first, hit hard, hit everywhere."

I think it is safe to say that in more than one direction we have displayed an imbecility of moderation which has tended to encourage the Germans in the supreme folly of imagining that they are at liberty to play fast and loose with the opinion of the civilised world. Our treatment of German spies and enemy aliens in our midst is a classic example of our contemptuous tolerance of easily removable perils, just as much as is our incredible folly in neglecting to make the fullest use of our magnificent naval resources. Thanks to our tolerance, the Germans have been freely importing food and cotton, with probably an enormous quantity of copper smuggled through in the same ships. We have paid in the blood and lives of our gallant soldiers, husbands, brothers, lovers, while the Germans have laughed at us—and not without justice—as a nation of silly dolts and imbeciles. Yet we have tardily decided upon "retaliatory measures" which we were perfectly entitled to take the instant war was declared, only under the pressure of Germany's campaign of murder and piracy at sea! Are we doing enough in other directions?

Equally belated, and equally calculated to give the impression that we have been too slow in using our strength, is the attack upon the Dardanelles. It has long been a mystery why, in view of the tremendous results involved in such a blow at Germany's deluded ally, this attack was not made earlier. We do not know, and the Government do not enlighten us. But the delay has helped to send the price of bread to famine prices through blocking up the Russian wheat in the Black Sea ports; it has given the Turks and the Germans time to enormously strengthen the defences, and has prevented us from sending to our Russian friends that support in munitions of war of which they undoubtedly stood in need. There may, of course, have been good reasons for the delay, but if they exist, they have baffled the investigation of the most competent military and naval critics. It must never be forgotten that the reopening of the Dardanelles and the fall of Constantinople must exercise a far more potent influence on the progress of the war than, say, the relief of Antwerp—another example of singularly belated effort! It must, in fact, transform the whole position of the war and react with fatal effect through Turkey upon her Allies. Yet the war had been in progress for seven months before a serious attempt was made at what, directly Turkey joined in the war, must have been one of the primary objects of the Allies. What added price, I wonder, shall we be compelled to pay for that inexplicable delay, not merely in the increased cost of the necessaries of life at home and the expenses of the war abroad, but in the lives of our fighting men? For it must not be forgotten that a decisive blow at Turkey would do much to shorten the duration of the war. It would be a serious blow at Germany, and would be more than likely to precipitate the entrance into the struggle, on the side of the Allies, of Italy and the wavering Balkan States. In hard cash, the war is costing us nearly a million and a half a day. We have to pay it, sooner or later. The loss of life is more serious than the loss of wealth, and there is no doubt that both must be curtailed by any successful operation against the Turks.

The Army has, beyond question, lost thousands of recruits of the very best class owing to the parsimony displayed in the matter of making provision for the dependents of men who join the fighting forces. The scale originally proposed, it will be remembered, produced an outburst of indignation, and it was very soon amended in the right direction, but when all is said and done it operates with amazing injustice. One of the most striking features of the war has been the splendid patriotism shown by men who, in social rank, are decidedly above the average standard of recruits.

Many comparatively rich men have joined the Army as privates, and the roll descends in the social scale until we come down to the day labourer. We draw no distinction between the loyalty and devotion of any of our new soldiers, but it cannot be denied that the working of the system of separate allowances is exceedingly unfair to the men of the middle classes.

Financially, the family of the working-man is frequently better off through the absence of the husband and father at the front than it has ever been before—sometimes very much better off indeed. I am not complaining of that. But when we ascend a little in the scale we find a glaring inequality. The man earning, say, £250 a year, and having a wife and one child, finds, too often, that the price he has to pay for patriotism is to leave his family dependent upon the Government allowance of 17s. 6d. per week. Is it a matter for wonder that so many have hesitated to join? Can we praise too highly the patriotism of those who, even under such circumstances, have answered the call of duty?

The truth is that the whole system of separation allowances, framed to meet the necessity of recruits of the ordinary standard, is inelastic and unsuitable to a campaign which calls, or should call, the entire nation to arms. It is throwing a great strain on a man's loyalty to ask him to condemn his wife and family to what, in their circumstances, amounts to semi-starvation, in order that he may serve his country, particularly when he sees around him thousands of the young and healthy at theatres and picture palaces, free from any domestic ties, who persistently shut their eyes to their country's need, and whom nothing short of some measure of compulsion would bring into the ranks. I am not going to suggest that every man who joins the Army should be paid the salary he could earn in civil life, but I think we are not doing nearly enough for thousands of well-bred and gently nurtured women who have given up husbands and brothers in the sacred cause of freedom.

And now I come to perhaps the saddest feature of the war—the ease of the men who will return to England maimed and disabled in their country's cause. That, for them, is supreme glory, though many of them would have infinitely preferred giving their lives for their country. They will come back to us in thousands, the maimed, the halt, and the blind: pitiful wrecks of glorious manhood, with no hope before them but to drag out the rest of their years in comparative or absolute helplessness. Their health and their strength will have gone; there will be no places for them in the world where men in full health and strength fight the battle of life in the fields of commerce and industry. Are we doing enough—have we, indeed, begun to do anything—for these poor victims of war's fury, much more to be pitied than the gallant men who sleep for ever where they fell on the battlefields of France and Belgium?

Too often in the past it has been the shame and the reproach of Britain that she cast aside, like worn-out garments, the men who have spent their health and strength in her cause. Have we not heard of Crimean veterans dying in our workhouses? With all my heart I hope that, after the war, we shall never again be open to that reproach and shame. We must see that never again shall a great and wealthy Empire disgrace itself by condemning its crippled heroes to the undying bitterness of the workhouse during life, and the ignominy of a pauper's grave after death. Cost what it may, the future of the unhappy men "broke in our wars" must be the nation's peculiar care. I do not suggest—they themselves would not desire it—that all our wounded should become State pensioners en masse and live out their lives in idleness. The men who helped to fling back the Kaiser's barbaric hordes in the terrible struggle at Ypres are not the men who will seek for mere charity, even when it takes the form of a deserved reward for their heroic deeds.

Speaking broadly, the State will have the responsibility of caring for two classes of wounded men—those who are condemned to utter and lifelong disablement and those who, less seriously crippled, are yet unable to obtain employment in ordinary commercial or industrial life. As to the former class, the duty of the State is clear: they must be suitably maintained for the rest of their lives at the State's charges. With regard to the second class, I do most sincerely hope that they will not be thrown into the world with a small wounds pension and left to sink or swim as fortune and their scattered abilities may dictate. It is for us to remember that these men have given their health and strength that we might live in safety and peace, and we shall be covering ourselves with infamy if we fail to make proper provision for them.

As I have already said, they do not want charity. They want work, and I venture to here make an earnest appeal to the public to take up the cause of these men with all its generous heart. First and foremost, such of them as are capable should be given absolute preference in Government and municipal offices, where there are thousands of posts that can be filled even by men who are partially disabled. Every employer of labour should make it his special duty to find positions for as many of these men as possible: there are many places in business houses that can be quite adequately filled by men of less than ordinary physical efficiency. Most of all, however, I hope the Government will, without delay, take up the great task of finding a way of setting these men to useful work of some kind. In the past much has been done in this direction by the various private agencies which interest themselves in the care of discharged soldiers. A war of such magnitude as the present, however, must bring in its wake a demand for work and organisation on a scale far beyond private effort; and if the disabled soldier is to be adequately cared for, only the resources of the State can be equal to the need.

Are we doing enough, I ask again, for the gallant men who have served us so well? There are those who fear that, comparatively speaking, the war has only just begun. However this may be, the tale of casualties and disablement rises day by day at a terrible pace, and there is a growing need to set on foot an organisation which, when the time comes, shall be ready to grapple at once with what will perhaps be the most terrible legacy the war can leave us.