Britain's Deadly Peril/Chapter 9
THE PERIL OF APATHY
There is an apathy towards any peril of invasion that is astounding.
Of our military measures, pure and simple, I shall say nothing except that it is the bounden duty of every Briton to place implicit reliance upon Lord Kitchener and the military authorities and, if necessary, to assist them by every means in his power. We can do no good by criticising measures of the true meaning of which we know nothing.
There are some other points, however, on which silence would be culpable, and one of these is the amazing lack of any clear instructions as to the duties of the civil population in the event of a German attack.
Now it is perfectly obvious that one of the first things necessary in the face of a German landing would be to get the civilian population safely beyond the zones threatened by the invaders. It is simply unthinkable that men, women, and children shall be left to the tender mercies of the German hordes. Yet, so far as I am able to ascertain, no steps have yet been taken to warn inhabitants at threatened points what they shall do. They have been advised, it is true, to continue in their customary avocations and to remain quietly at home. Does any sane human being, remembering the treatment of Belgian civilians who just did this, expect that such advice will be followed? We can take it for granted that it will not, and I contend that in all districts along the East Coast, where, it is practically certain, any attempt at landing must be made, the inhabitants should at once be told, in the clearest and most emphatic manner, just what is required of them, and the best and quickest way to get out of harm's way, leaving as little behind them as possible to be of any use to the invaders, and leaving a clear field of operations for our own troops.
A century ago, when the peril of a French invasion overshadowed the land, the most careful arrangements were made for removing the people from the threatened areas, and the destruction of food and fodder. Is there any reason why such arrangements should not be taken in hand to-day, and the people made thoroughly familiar with all the conditions necessary for carrying out a swift and systematic evacuation?
I am aware, of course, that already certain instructions have been issued to Lord-lieutenants of the various counties in what may be called the zone of possible invasion. But I contend that the public at large should be told plainly what is expected of them. It is not enough to say that when the moment of danger comes they should blindly obey the local policeman. In the event of a withdrawal from any part of the coast-line becoming necessary, it ought not to be possible that the inhabitants should be taken by surprise; their course ought to be mapped out for them quite clearly, and in advance, so that all will know just what they have to do to get away with the minimum of delay and without impeding the movements of our defensive forces. Whatever we may say or do, the appearance off the British coast of a raiding German force would be the signal for a rush inland, and there is every reason to take steps for ensuring that that rush shall be orderly and controlled, and in no sense a blind and panic flight which would be alike unnecessary and disastrous. It may well be, and it is to be hoped, that the danger will never come. That does not absolve us from the necessity of being ready to meet it. War is an affair of surprises, and Germany has sprung many surprises upon the world since last August.
The refusal of the War Office authorities to extend any sympathetic consideration towards the new Civilian Corps, which are striving, despite official discouragement, to fit themselves for the duty of home defence in case the necessity should arise, is another instance of the lack of imagination and insight which has shown itself in so many ways during our conduct of the campaign. These Corps now number well over a million men. All that the Army Council has done for them is to extend to such of them as became affiliated to the Central Volunteer Training Association the favour of official "recognition" which will entitle them to rank as combatants in the event of invasion. Even that recognition is coupled with a condition that has given the gravest offence and which threatens, indeed, to go far towards paralysing the movement altogether.
It is in the highest degree important, as will readily be admitted, that these Corps should not interfere with recruiting for the Regular Army. That the Volunteers themselves fully recognise. But to secure this non-interference the Government have made it a condition of recognition that any man under military age joining a Corps shall sign a declaration that he will enlist in the Regular Army when called upon unless he can show some good and sufficient reason why he should not do so.
Here we have the cause of all the trouble. The Army Council, in spite of all entreaties, obstinately refuses to state what constitutes a good and sufficient reason for non-enlistment. One such reason, it is admitted, is work on Government contracts. But it is impossible for us to shut our eyes to the fact that there are many thousands of men of military age and good physique who, however much they may desire to do their duty, are fully absolved by family or business reasons from the duty of joining the Regular Army. Many of them have dependents whom it is simply impossible for them to leave to the blank poverty of the official separation allowance; many of them are in businesses which would go to rack and ruin in their absence; many of them are engaged on work which is quite as important to the country as anything they could do in the field, even though they may not be in Government employ. To withdraw every able-bodied man from his employment would simply mean that industry would be brought to a standstill, and as this country must, to some extent, act as general provider for the Allies, it is, plainly, our duty to keep business going as well as to fight.
Rightly or wrongly, this particular provision is looked upon as an attempt to introduce a veiled form of compulsion. It has been pointed out that there is no power to compel men to enlist, even if they have signed such a declaration as is required. But the men, very properly, say that Britain has gone to war in defence of her plighted word, and that they are not prepared to give their word and then break it.
What is the result? Many thousands of capable men, fully excused by their own consciences from the duty of joining the Regular Army, find that, unless they are prepared to take up a false and wholly untenable position, they are not even allowed to train for the defence of their country in such a grave crisis that all other considerations but the safety of the Empire must go by the board. I am not writing of the slackers who want to "swank about in uniform" at home when they ought to be doing their duty in the trenches. I refer to the very large body of genuinely patriotic men who, honestly and sincerely, feel that, whatever their personal wishes may be, their duty at the moment is to "keep things going" at home. For men over military age the Volunteer Corps offer an opportunity of getting ready to strike a blow for England's sake should the time ever come when every man who can shoulder a rifle must take his place in the ranks. And it certainly argues an amazing want of sympathy and foresight that, for the lack of a few words of intelligible definition, a splendid body of men should lose the only chance offered them of getting a measure of military education which in time to come may be of priceless value.
No one complains that the Army Council does not immediately rush to arm and equip the Volunteers. Undoubtedly, there is still much to be done in the way of equipping the regular troops and accumulating the vast reserves that will be required when the great forward move begins. Much could be done even now, however, to encourage the Volunteers to persevere with their training. It should not be beyond the power of the military authorities, in the very near future, to arm and equip such of the Corps as have attained a reasonable measure of efficiency in simple military movements, and in shooting with the miniature rifle. At the same time some clear definition ought to be forthcoming of what, in the opinion of the Army Council, constitutes a valid reason, in the case of a man of military age, for not joining the regular forces. It is certain that when the time comes for the Allies to take a strong offensive we shall be sending enormous numbers of trained men out of the country, and, the wastage of war being what it is, huge drafts will be constantly required to keep the fighting units up to full strength. In the meantime large numbers of Territorials in this country are chained to the irksome—though very necessary—duty of guarding railways, bridges, and other important points liable to be attacked. There seems to be no good reason why a great deal, if not the whole, of this work should not be undertaken by Volunteers. This would free great numbers of Territorials for more profitable forms of training and would, undoubtedly, enable us to send far more men out of the country if the necessity should arise.
If the Volunteers were regarded by those in authority with the proper sympathy which their patriotism deserves, it would be seen that they provide, in effect, a class of troops closely corresponding to the German Landsturm, which is already taking its part in the war. It is important to remember that, up to the present time, we have enlisted none but picked men, every one of whom has had to pass a strict medical and physical examination. We have left untouched, in fact, our real reserves. Those reserves, apparently scorned by the official authorities, are capable, if they receive adequate encouragement, of providing an immense addition to our fighting forces.
No one pretends, of course, that the entire body of Volunteers whom we see drilling and route-marching day by day are capable of the exertions involved in a strenuous campaign. But a very large percentage of them are quite capable of being made fit to serve in a home-defence army, and it is a feeble and shortsighted policy to give them the official cold shoulder and nip their enthusiasm in the bud. At the present moment they cost nothing, and they are doing good and useful work. Is it expecting too much to suggest that their work should be encouraged with something a little more stimulating than a scarlet arm-band and a form of "recognition" which, upon close analysis, will be found to mean very little indeed?
There has been too strong a tendency in the past to praise, in immoderate terms, German methods and German efficiency. But, undoubtedly, there are certain things which we can learn from the enemy, and one of them is the speed and energy with which the Germans, at the present moment, are turning to their advantage popular enthusiasm of exactly the same nature as that which has produced the Volunteer movement here. It is a popular misconception that in a conscriptionist country every man, without distinction, is swept into the ranks for his allotted term. This is by no means the case. There are many reasons for exemption, and a very large proportion of the German people, when war broke out, had never done any military duty.
Travellers who have recently returned from Germany report that the Volunteer movement there has made gigantic strides. Men have come forward in thousands, and the Government, with German energy and foresight, has pounced upon this splendid volume of material and is rapidly licking it into shape. I don't believe, for one moment, the highly coloured stories which represent Germany as being short of rifles, ammunition, and other munitions of war: she has, apparently, more than sufficient to arm her forces in the field and to permit her to arm her volunteers as well.
Whether I am right or wrong, the German Government is taking full advantage of the patriotic spirit of its subjects, and there does not appear to be any good reason why our Government should not take a leaf out of the enemy's book. If they would do so and help the Volunteer movement by sympathy and encouragement, and the assurance that more would be done at the earliest possible moment, we should be in a better condition to meet an invasion than we are to-day, in that we should have an enormous reserve of strength for use in case of emergency. No doubt the military authorities, after the most careful study of the subject, feel convinced that our safety is assured: my point is, that in a matter of such gravity it is impossible to have too great a margin of safety. It is no use blinking the fact that, despite the efforts we have made, and are making, the time may come when the entire manhood of the United Kingdom must be called upon to take part in a deadly struggle for national existence. Trustworthy reports state that the Germans are actually arming something over four million fresh troops—some of them have already been in action—and if this estimate prove well founded, it is quite clear that the crisis of the world-war is yet to come. I do not think any one will deny that when it does come we shall need every man we can get.
Closely allied with the subject of invasion are the German methods of "frightfulness" by means of their submarines and aircraft. Of the latter, it would seem, we are justified in speaking with absolute contempt. Three attempts at air raids on our shores have been made, and though, unhappily, some innocent lives were lost through the enemy's indiscriminate bomb-dropping, the military effect up to the day I pen these lines has been absolutely nil, except to assist us in bringing more recruits to the colours. Several of the vast, unwieldy Zeppelins, of which the Germans boasted so loudly, have been lost either through gunfire or in gales, while we have official authority for saying that our own air-service is so incomparably superior to that of the enemy that the German aviators, like the baby-killers of Scarborough, seek safety in retreat directly they are confronted by the British fliers. No doubt the German airmen have their value as scouts and observers, but it is abundantly clear that, as a striking unit, they are hopelessly outclassed. They have done nothing to compare with the daring raids on Friedrichshafen and Düsseldorf, to say nothing of the magnificent and devastating attack by the British and French airmen on Zeebrugge, Ostend, and Antwerp.
The submarine menace stands on another and very different footing, for the simple reason that luck, pure and simple, enters very largely into the operations of the underwater craft. It is quite conceivable that, favoured by fortune and with a conveniently hidden base of supplies—one of which, a petrol-base, I indicated to the authorities on March 15th—either afloat or ashore, submarines might do an enormous amount of damage on our trade routes.
A few dramatic successes may, of course, produce a scare and send insurance and freight rates soaring. Moreover, the submarine is exceedingly difficult to attack: it presents a very tiny mark to gunfire, and when it sights a hostile ship capable of attacking it, it can always seek safety by submerging. But, when all is said and done, the number of German submarines, given all the good fortune they could wish, is quite inadequate seriously to threaten the main body of either our commerce or pur Navy.
We are told, and quite properly, nothing of the methods which the Admiralty are adopting to deal with German pirates. But it will not have escaped the public attention that the submarines have scored no great success against British warships since the Hawke was sunk in the Channel. I think we may fairly conclude, therefore, that our Admiralty have succeeded in devising new means of defence against the new means of attack. We know that at the time of writing two enemy submarines have been sunk by the Navy, and it seems fairly certain that another was rammed and destroyed in the Channel by the steamer Thordis. Whatever, therefore, may be our views on the general subject of the war, it seems clear that we can safely treat the submarine menace as the product of the superheated Teutonic imagination.
We know of, and can guard against, the risks we run of any armed attack from Germany. But there is another peril which will face us when the war is over—a renewal of the commercial invasion which we have seen in progress on a gigantic scale for years past.
We know how the British market has, for years, been flooded with shoddy German imitations of British goods to the grave detriment of our home trade. We know, too, how the German worker, over here "to learn the language," has wormed himself into the confidence of the foolish English employer, and has abused that confidence by keeping his real principals—those in Germany—fully posted with every scrap of commercial information which might help them to capture British trade. We know, though we do not know the full story, that hundreds of "British" companies have been, in fact, owned, organised, and controlled solely by Germans. We know that for years German spies and agents, ostensibly engaged in business here, have plotted our downfall.
Are we going to permit, when the war is over, a repetition of all this?
I confess I look upon this matter with the gravest uneasiness. It is all very well to say that after the war Germans will be exceedingly unpopular in every civilised community. That fact is not likely to keep out the German, who is anything but thinskinned. And, I regret to say, there are only too many British employers who are likely to succumb to the temptation to make use of cheap German labour, regardless of the fact that they will thus be actively helping their country's enemies.
Germans to-day are carrying on business in this country with a freedom which would startle the public, if it were known. I will mention two instances which have come to my knowledge lately. The first is the case of a company with an English name manufacturing certain electric fittings. Up to the time the war broke out, every detail of this company's business was regularly transmitted once a week to Germany: copies of every invoice, every bill, every letter, were sent over. Though the concern was registered as an "English" company, the proprietorship and control were purely and wholly German. That concern is carrying on business to-day, and in the city of London, protected, no doubt, by its British registration. And the manager is an Englishman who, before the war, explained very fully to my informant the entire system on which the business was conducted.
The second case is similar, with the exception that the manager is a German, at least in name and origin, who speaks perfect English, and is still, or was very recently, conducting the business. In this case, as in the first, every detail of the business was, before war broke out, regularly reported to the head office of the firm in Germany. I wonder whether English firms are being permitted to carry on business in Berlin to-day!
Whether we shall go on after the war in the old haphazard style of rule-of-thumb rests solely with public opinion. And if public opinion will tolerate the employment of German waiters in our hotels in time of war, I see very little likelihood of any effort to stay the German invasion which will, assuredly, follow the declaration of peace. Then we shall see again the unscrupulous campaign of commercial and military espionage which has cost us dear in the past, and may cost us still more in the future. Our foolish tolerance of the alien peril will be used to facilitate the war of revenge for which our enemy will at once begin to prepare.