Great Speeches of the War/Asquith (2)

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RT. HON. H. H. ASQUITH

[Speech by the Prime Minister, delivered at the Rink, Cardiff, on Friday, October 2, 1914, the Lord Mayor of Cardiff in the chair.]

My Lord Mayor, my Lords, Ladies, and Gentlemen:— In the course of the last month I have addressed meetings in London, Edinburgh, and Dublin—[hear, hear]—and now, in the completion of the task which I set myself, and which the kindness of our great municipal authorities have allowed me to perform, I have come to Cardiff. [Hear, hear.] England, Scotland, and Ireland have each of them a definite and well-established capital city. ["Hear, hear," and laughter.] But I have always understood there was some doubt — [laughter]—as to where the capital of the Principality of Wales was to be found on the map. [Laughter.]

Wales is a single and indivisible entity—[hear, hear]—with a life of its own, drawing its vitality from the ancient past, and both, I believe, in the volume and in the reality of its activity never more virile than it is to-day. [Applause.] But I do not know that there is any general agreement among Welshmen as to where their capital is to be found—[laughter]—and without attempting as an outsider to differentiate or to reconcile competing claims—[laughter]—I stand here to-night in what I believe to be a safe coign of vantage under the hospitality and the authority of the Lord Mayor of Cardiff. [Hear, hear.] My Lord Mayor, though I am not altogether a stranger to Wales, you may, nevertheless, ask why I have requested your permission to address this great audience here to-night. I am not altogether an idle man, and during the last two months I can honestly say that there has hardly been a day—indeed, there have been very few hours—which have not been preoccupied with grave cares and responsibilities—[hear, hear]—but throughout them all I have been, and I am, sustained by a profound and unshakable belief in the righteousness of our cause—[loud cheers]—and by overwhelming evidence that in the pursuit and the maintenance of that cause the Government have behind them without distinction of race, of party, or of class the whole moral and material support of the British Empire. [Renewed cheers.]

Let me take the opportunity to acknowledge and to welcome the calm, reasoned, and dignified statement of our case which the Christian Churches of the United Kingdom—[hear, hear]—through some of their most distinguished leaders and ministers have this week presented to the world. I will not repeat, and I certainly could not improve upon, their presentation of the matter. And, indeed, my Lord Mayor, I am not here to-night to argue out propositions which British citizens in every part of the world to-day regard as beyond the reach of controversy. [Hear, hear.] I do not suppose that in the history of mankind there has ever been in such a vast and diverse community agreement so unanimous, purpose so concentrated, a corporate conscience so clear and so convinced, co-operation so spontaneous, so ardent, and so resolute. [Cheers.] Just consider what it means. How is it, in this United Kingdom, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales speak with one plain, harmonious, united voice. Over the sea in our great Dominions—[applause]—Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, our Crown Colonies, swell the chorus. [Hear, hear]. In India—[cheers]—where whatever we won by the sword we hold and we retain by the more splendid title of just and disinterested rule, by the authority not of a despot, but of a trustee—in India the response to our common appeal has moved our feelings to their profoundest depths, and has been such as to shiver and to shatter to pieces the vain and ignorant imaginings of our enemies. [Applause.] That, my Lord Mayor, is a remarkable and, indeed, a unique spectacle.

What is it? What is it that has stirred the imagination, aroused the conscience, enlisted the manhood, welded into one compact and irresistible force the energies and the will of the greatest Imperial structure that the world has ever known? That is a question which for the moment, at any rate, is well worth asking and answering. Let me say then, first, negatively that we are not impelled, any of us, by some of the motives which have occasioned the bloody struggles of the past. In this case, so far as we are concerned, ambition and aggression play no part. [Cheers.] What do we want? What do we aim at? What have we to gain? We are a great world-wide peace-loving partnership. We have, by the wisdom and
Rt. Hon. H. H. Asquith

Rt. Hon. H. H. Asquith
(Prime Minister)

courage of our forefathers, by great deeds of heroism and adventure by land and sea, by the insight, the inbred sagacity, the tried and tested experience of many generations, built up a dominion which is buttressed by the two pillars of liberty and law. [Cheers.] We are not vain enough nor foolish enough to think that in the course of that long process there have not been blunders, or worse than blunders, and that today our dominion does not fall short of what in our ideals it might, and it ought, and, we believe, it is destined to be. But such as we have received it, and such as we hope to leave it, with it we are content. [Hear, hear.] We do not covet any people's territory. [Hear, hear.] We have no desire to impose our rule upon alien populations. The British Empire is enough for us. [Laughter and loud applause.] All that we wished for, all that we wish for now, is to be allowed peaceably to consolidate our own resources, to raise within the Empire the level of common opportunity, to draw closer the bonds of affection and confidence between its parts, and to make it everywhere the worthy home of the best traditions of British liberty. [Hear, hear.] Does it not follow from that that nowhere in the world is there a people who have stronger motives to avoid war and to seek and pursue peace? [Hear, hear.] Why then—I repeat the question—why then are the British people throughout the length and breadth of our Empire everywhere turning their ploughshares into swords? Why are they, the best of our able-bodied men, leaving the fields and the factories and the counting-houses for the recruiting office and the training camp? [Hear, hear.]

If, as I have said, my Lord Mayor, we have no desire to add to our Imperial burdens, either in area or in responsibility, it is equally true that in entering upon this war we had no ill-will to gratify nor any wrongs of our own to avenge. In regard to Germany in particular—[hisses]—our policy, repeatedly stated in Parliament, resolutely pursued year after year, both in London and in Berlin—our policy has been to remove one by one the outstanding causes of possible friction, and so to establish a firm basis for cordial relations in the days to come. [Hear, hear.] We have said from the first—I have said it over and over again, and so has Sir Edward Grey—we have said from the first that our friendships with certain Powers, with France—[cheers]—with Russia, and with Japan—[renewed cheers]—that our friendships with those Powers were not to be construed as implying cold feelings, and still less hostile purposes against any other Power, but, at the same time, we have always made it clear, to quote the words used by Sir Edward Grey as far back as November, 1911—I quote his exact words:—

One does not make new friendships worth having by deserting old ones. New friendships, by all means, let us have; but not at the expense of the ones we have.

[Hear, hear.]

That has been, and I trust will always be, the attitude of those whom the Kaiser in his now notorious proclamation describes as the treacherous English. [Laughter.] We laid down—and I wish to call the attention, not only your attention, but the attention of the whole world, to this, so many false legends are now being invented and circulated—in the following year, in the year 1912, we laid down, in terms carefully approved by the Cabinet and which I will textually quote, what our relations to Germany ought in our view to be. We said, and we communicated this to the German Government—we said: "Britain declares that she will neither make nor join in any unprovoked attack upon Germany. Aggression upon Germany is not the subject, and forms no part of any treaty, understanding, or combination to which Britain is now a party, nor will she become a party to anything which has such an object." [Cheers.] There is nothing ambiguous nor equivocal about that, but, my Lord Mayor, that was not enough for German statesmanship. They wanted us to go farther. They asked us to pledge ourselves absolutely to neutrality in the event of Germany being engaged in war; and this, mind you, at a time when Germany was enormously increasing both her aggressive and defensive resources, and especially upon the sea. They asked us—to put it quite plainly—they asked us for a free hand, so far as we were concerned, if and when they selected the opportunity to overpower and dominate the European world. To such a demand but one answer was possible—[cheers]—and that was the answer we gave. [Renewed cheers.] Nevertheless, we have continued during the last two years, and never more energetically and more successfully than during the Balkan crisis of last year, to work not only for the peace of Europe, but for the creation of a better international atmosphere and a more cordial co-operation between all the Powers. [Cheers.]

My Lord Mayor, from both points of view—that of our domestic interest as a kingdom and an empire, and of our settled attitude and policy in the counsels of Europe, a war such as this, which injures the one and frustrates the other, was and could only be regarded as among the worst of catastrophes—among the worst of catastrophes, but not the worst. [Hear, hear.] Four weeks ago, speaking at the Guildhall in the City of London, when the war was still in its early days, I asked my fellow-countrymen with what countenance, with what conscience, had we basely chosen to stand aloof, we could have watched from day to day the terrible unrolling of events—public faith shamelessly broken, freedom of a small people trodden in the dust, the wanton invasion of Belgium and then of France by hordes who leave behind them at every stage of their progress a dismal trail of savagery, of devastation, of desecration—[hear, hear]—worthy of the blackest annals in the history of barbarism. [Hear, hear.] That was four weeks ago. The war has now lasted for sixty days, and every one of those days has added to the picture its share of sombre and repulsive traits. We now see clearly, written down in letters of carnage and spoliation, the real ends and methods of this long-prepared and well-organized scheme against the liberties of Europe. [Applause.] I say nothing of other countries. I pass no judgment upon them. But if we here in Great Britain had abstained and remained neutral, forsworn our word, deserted our friends, paltered and compromised with the plain dictates of our duties—nay, if we had not shown ourselves ready to strike with all our force at the common enemy of civilization and of freedom, there would have been nothing left for us and for our country but to veil her face in shame and be ready in her turn—for her turn would have come—to be ready in her turn to share the doom which she would have richly deserved, and go, after centuries of glorious life, down to her grave "unwept, unhonoured, and unsung." [Hear, hear.] My Lord Mayor, let us gladly acknowledge what becomes clearer and clearer every day, that the world is just as ready as it ever was—and no part of it readier than the British Empire—to understand and to respond to moral issues. [Cheers.] The new school of German thought has been teaching for a generation past that in the affairs of nations there is no code of ethics. According to them force, and nothing but force, is at once the test and the measure of right. As the events which are going on before our eyes have made it plain, they have succeeded only too well in indoctrinating with their creed—I will not say the people of Germany—like Burke, I will not attempt to draw up an indictment against a nation—[cheers]—I will not say the people of Germany, but those who control and execute German policy. [Cheers.]

But it is one of those products of German genius which, whether or not it was intended exclusively for home consumption—[laughter]—has, I am happy to say, not found a market abroad, and certainly not within the boundaries of the British Empire. [Applause.] We still believe here—old-fashioned people as we are—[laughter]—we still believe here in the sanctity of treaties—[hear, hear]—that the weak have rights and that the strong have duties—[hear, hear]—that small nationalities have every bit as much a title as large ones to a life of independence; and that freedom for its own sake is as well worth fighting for to-day as it ever was in the past—[applause]—and we are looking forward at the end of this war, we are looking forward to a Europe in which these great and simple and venerable truths will be recognized and safe-guarded for ever against the recrudescence of the era of blood and iron. [Applause.] My Lord Mayor, stated in a few words, that is the reason for our united front—the reason that has brought our gallant Indian warriors to Marseilles—[applause]—which has attracted from our most distant Dominions the best of their manhood, and which in the course of two months has transformed the United Kingdom into a vast recruiting ground. [Hear, hear.] I have come here to-night not to talk, but to do business, and before I sit down I want to say to you a few practical words.

We are confronted, as you all know and recognize, by the greatest emergency in our history. [Hear, hear.] Every part of the kingdom, and every man and every woman in every part of it, is called upon to make his or her contribution and to do his or her share, and our primary business is to fill the ranks. [Cheers.] There is, I find, in some quarters an apprehension that the recruiting for the new army, and the functions to be assigned to that army when it is formed and trained, may interfere with or may in some way belittle or disparage the Territorial Force. Gentlemen, believe me, no delusion can be more mischievous or more complete. No praise can be too high for the patriotic and sustained efforts of the county associations or for the quality and efficiency of the Territorial troops. [Hear, hear.] It is a comparatively easy thing—do not forget this—it is a comparatively easy thing to make great efforts and sacrifices under the stress and strain which we are now experiencing of a supreme crisis. Territorials, without any such stimulus, in the piping times of peace, when war and the sufferings and struggles and glories of war were contingent and remote—these men gave their time, sacrificed their leisure, and underwent not only their annual training, but in thousands of cases, both of officers and men, devoted their spare hours all through the year to prepare themselves in the study and practice of the art of war. They have now been embodied for two months, and I am expressing the considered opinion of some of our most eminent generals when I say that the divisions now in camp in various parts of the country, improving every day in efficiency, completely justify their title to play any part which may be assigned to them, either in home defence, in the manning of our garrisons, or in the battle line at the front. [Hear, hear.]

It is, then, no want of appreciation of the patriotism and of the efficiency of the Territorial Force that leads me to ask you to-night for recruits for the Regular Army. We wish—let me make that clear to you here—we wish, so far as military exigencies permit, that the new battalions and squadrons and batteries should retain their local associations and their corporate and distinctive national character. [Hear, hear.] Why, gentlemen, the freedom and autonomy of the smaller nationalities is one of the great issues in this gigantic contest. I went a week ago to Dublin to make an appeal to Ireland, and I asked Irishmen then, as I do now on behalf of the Government and of the War Office, to enlist in, and make up the complement of an Irish army corps. I repeat that appeal to-night to the men of Wales. [Cheers.] We want them—we want you to fill up the ranks of a Welsh army corps. [Cheers.]

We believe that the preservation of local and national ties, and the genius of a people which has a history of its own, is not only not hostile to, nor inconsistent with, but, on the contrary, fosters and strengthens and stimulates the spirit of a common purpose, of a corporate brotherhood, and of an underlying and binding Imperial unity throughout every section and among all ranks of the forces of the Crown.

Men of Wales, of whom I see so many thousands in this splendid gathering—men of Wales, let me say one last word to you: Remember your past. [Applause.] Think of the villages and the mountains which in the old days were the shelter and the recruiting ground of your forefathers in the struggles which adorn and glorify your annals. Never has a stronger and a more compelling appeal been made to all that you as a nation honour and hold dear. Be worthy of those who went before you—["Hear, hear," and "Clywch, clywch"]—and leave to your children the richest of all inheritances—the memory of fathers who in a great cause put self-sacrifice before ease and honour above life itself. [Loud cheers.]