Great Speeches of the War/Law (2)

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RT. HON. A. BONAR LAW


[Speech at a great Ulster Day Anniversary Meeting held in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, on September 28, 1914.]


My Lord Mayor and Gentlemen:—I thank you, not in words only, but from the heart, for the warmth of the welcome which you have given me, and as you, sir [the Lord Mayor], have said, of the sincerity of it no one could have any doubt. [Hear, hear.] It is only the second time that I have had the honour of addressing a great meeting in Ulster, and how different are the circumstances attending the two meetings. At the first, domestic issues, and domestic issues alone, occupied all our minds. Now this meeting is called in connection with the greatest war of which there is any record in history—the greatest not only from the number of men engaged in it, but from the issues which will be decided by it. It is a struggle in which, quite literally, we must conquer, or as a nation we shall perish. [Hear, hear.] The gathering at Balmoral made upon me, as I am sure on every one who witnessed it, an impression which will never be effaced. From that day to this I have been proud—I say this not because I am speaking in Ulster and wish to please you, but because it is true and I feel it—from that day to this I have been proud of the wisdom which, under the guidance of your great leader, has characterized all your actions. [Hear, hear.] Sir Edward Carson and I are more than political associates; we are warm and dear frends—[cheers]—and I hesitate for that reason to say anything in his presence. But perhaps to-night, when he has come to Belfast, not alone—[laughter and cheers]—but accompanied by a gracious companion who will brighten his life and who will strengthen his arm for the great work which still lies before him—[cheers]—I may be permitted to say this, that you have a leader—and I can give him no higher praise — who is worthy of the people whom he leads. [Cheers.] I have been proud of the courage and determination with which at any sacrifice you were prepared to defend the principles which you had inherited. I have been prouder still of the wisdom and the self-restraint which tempered your courage. But I am proud most of all of this, that even now at the very moment when a great injustice has been inflicted upon you by your Government, you are putting your country first and are sending some of the flower of your people to share the danger and the glory of their fellow-countrymen upon the field of battle. [Cheers.]

Against that injustice I made on behalf of our Party, and on your behalf, a protest in the House of Commons. [Hear, hear.] But having made it, the Unionist Party in Great Britain intend to act as you have acted in Ulster. Until our country is out of danger we shall postpone, and so far as we can we shall forget, domestic quarrels, and if they have to be resumed, we shall take them up not less effectively because of the patriotism which Ulster is displaying to-day. [Cheers.] It is my privilege to-night to give you, on behalf of the British Unionist Party, the message of which Colonel Wallace has spoken.

You remember that at Blenheim I gave the undertaking that we would help you in your just cause. I gave that undertaking on no authority, except the authority derived from the belief that I spoke what our Party thought, and I had the knowledge that if I were mistaken I could no longer occupy the position which I hold. [Cheers.] The message which I bring you to-night comes not from any Party leader; it comes from every member of the Unionist Party in the House of Commons. And they mean it. [Cheers.] If the occasion arises, we shall support you to the last—[Hear, hear, and cheers]—in any steps which Sir Edward Carson and your leaders think it necessary for you to take to defend your rights. [Loud cheers.] The pledge which I gave at Blenheim had a condition, rightly or wrongly—I think still rightly—but as the leader of a British Party, whatever your duty might have been—and I never judge as to that—it would not have been right for me to support you if the people of this country had declared against you. But now, after what has happened, after the way in which advantage has been taken of your patriotism—[Hear, hear]—I say to you, and I say it with the full authority of our Party, that we give the pledge without any condition. [Loud cheers, the audience standing.] But, gentlemen, it is my hope and my belief that in the sense in which I gave that pledge — that it might be necessary to support it by force—it is my belief that we shall never be
Rt. Hon. A. Bonar Law

Rt. Hon. A. Bonar Law
(Leader of the Opposition)

called upon to redeem it. I have faith, and I think you too can trust to the sense of justice and fair play of your countrymen who will decide, and who have never been against you. [Hear, hear.] It has been said of you men of Ulster, that you are narrow, intolerant bigots. Those who make that charge do not understand you, for they do not know what earnest conviction, what unselfish devotion to a great principle, means. [Hear, hear.] I remember that I said at Balmoral, and you cheered it—and the same thing has been said again and again by your own leader—that you have no ill-will to your Catholic fellow-countrymen. [Hear, hear.] You wish to have them not as enemies, but as friends. [Cheers.] We have heard a good deal—we shall hear more—about the recent meeting in Dublin. [Laughter.] People talk as if it were a victory over you. What nonsense! We are glad if it is true that our Nationalist fellow-countrymen are to a greater extent than before sharing the sympathies which are animating the whole Empire. We are glad of it, but that can never be a reason why you should be deprived of your just rights, for no man and no nation—though I think the Government has forgotten it—can ever be justified in betraying old in order to make new friends. [Cheers.]

Gentlemen, after this war is over, in which men of every class and every race and of every creed throughout the Empire are playing their part, the position will not be the same, and it will not be worse for you. [Cheers.] When we have succeeded—and we shall succeed—[cheers]—in preserving the rights and the liberties of Europe, your rights and your liberties will be respected too—[cheers]—and I am sure of this, that after the sacrifices which you are making, your fellow-countrymen will not tolerate that you should ever again be called upon to defend by force your right—your elementary right—to a full and equal partnership in that United Kingdom which now, as always, you have done so much to strengthen and to defend. [Cheers.]

But, gentlemen, this is not a Home Rule meeting. That can wait, and you are strong enough to let it wait with quiet confidence. This meeting is called to stimulate, though no stimulus is necessary, the men of Ulster to play their part in this world struggle. And in this connection there are two observations which I should like to make at the outset. For a time there were complaints that our people were hanging back. These complaints were never, I think, justified. The war came so suddenly that as a nation we did not at first realize that for us, just as much as for Belgium or France, it was a struggle for life or death. The hesitation did not last long. [Cheers.] It was not recruiting meetings ; it was not speeches, however eloquent. It was the account of the deeds of our soldiers on the field of battle. It was the knowledge of the risks they ran, which would have made cowards hang back, which caused the youth and manhood of our country to rally around the old flag. I am told, gentlemen, that even now pressure of all kinds is being put upon the individual; that men are being stopped in the street and urged to join the Army. To me such methods seem detestable. [Cheers.] If we are to get the men we need by voluntary service—and I believe we can, though it has never been done before—it must be really voluntarily. And you have no right to put pressure upon any man. And how unnecessary it is. Let me give you one instance, one of many in my own experience. A young friend said to me a week or two ago, "I wish to join the Army." I knew that there were only two of them; that his brother had already joined. I said, "Surely your family has done its duty already." This was the reply: "This is all very well for the duty of the family, but what about my duty?" And he has gone too. [Cheers.] That is the spirit which is animating all classes throughout this country. [Cheers.] The Germans said, and perhaps believed it, that we were a decadent nation. They have got their answer. [Cheers.] Our soldiers have already had to bear the severest tests to which soldiers can ever be subjected, and they have stood those tests. [Cheers.] They have been faced by the choicest troops in the German army in overwhelming numbers, and they have been unbroken and undefeated. [Cheers.] They have also had to bear the trial which every soldier knows is the worst to which any army can be subjected—that of a forced retreat; they have had to bear it, and they have come out of it gloriously. [Cheers.] We have reason—great reason, as great as we have ever had in our history—to be proud of the deeds of our small army, which, small as it is, was large enough, I believe, to turn the scale and to save Paris. [Hear, hear.] We have reason to be proud of our soldiers, but we have reason to be proud of the spirit with which every one throughout this country and throughout the Empire—and nowhere in a more marked degree than in Ulster—men are rallying round the flag of their country. [Hear, hear.]

The second observation I wish to make is this. Politicians live upon words. [Laughter.] And I had the feeling to which Lord Rosebery gave expression the other day that it is not pleasant to call upon other men to make sacrifices which you do not mean to make yourself. I felt, too, that at a time like this, when they are running risks such as they are running now, our soldiers were not treated quite fairly—that too much of the sacrifices was expected from those who are fighting our battles and too little was demanded from those who remain behind. The position is better now. [Hear, hear.] Better allowances are being given; but even yet, in my belief at least, more ought to be done. The Government, I think, will do more, and they will do it with the whole-hearted approval of the country. [Cheers.] Patriotism and courage cannot be bought—can never be bought; but we must remember that the men who are risking their lives for us are making a big enough sacrifice. And as I said once before, we should recognize that our soldiers who are fighting our battles are the children of the nation, and that they have the first claim, not as an act of charity, but as a right, upon the resources of the State. [Cheers.] Well, gentlemen, this war is one of the greatest crimes, in my belief, which has ever been committed. The whole burden of responsibilty for that crime—the whole of it—rests upon one nation, and largely upon one man. [Hear, hear.] When peace or war was trembling in the balance, we knew that the final decision would rest with Berlin. We knew that the head of the German Government had but to issue the note of warning to Austria and there would have been peace. But we know more now. From the despatch of our Ambassador at Vienna, we know that even Austria was ready to accept mediation, and that Germany refused. She thought that the hour for which she had long waited had struck at last, and she declared for war. For a whole generation the whole German nation has been preparing in anticipation of this struggle—a struggle the ultimate aim of which was the destruction of the British Empire. [Hear, hear.] That is shown not only in their literature, but it is shown more clearly still from this, that not content with having the most powerful army in the world, they built a navy which could be directed against us, and us alone. [Hear, hear.]

Gentlemen, that lesson was taught to the German people not only by soldiers in their camps; it was burned into them in their schools and in their universities by their teachers and by their professors, and this is the result. Prussian militarism and the cruel gospel of blood and iron has altered the aims and has changed the whole character of the German people. [Hear, hear.] Until quite recently the Germans were as little materialistic as any nation—were perhaps the most idealistic of all, and so much so that it was once said of them, and with greater truth than generally applies to such generalization, that while Britain ruled the sea and France the land, Germany ruled the clouds—[laughter]—not with aeroplanes, but with the spirit. All that has changed. They have pulled down their old altars on which glowed the sacred fire which shed its spiritual radiance throughout the world. They have pulled down these altars, and they have erected instead a great temple to their new god, a god of naked force, which knows no blessedness except victory, which knows no right except the right of the sword. That is the spirit against which we are fighting to-day, and not for the first time. A hundred years ago our fathers waged the same battle, and they fought it successfully. [Cheers.] This is Napoleonism once again, but it is Napoleonism without the genius of Napoleon. [Cheers.] There are many resemblances between the two struggles. The part which is being played by our Navy to-day is the same part which was played by it a hundred years ago. Our sailors to-day are keeping a constant, a dangerous, and a wearing vigil on the North Sea, on which the life and very existence of the Empire depends. How unwearying it is and how dangerous was shown in the loss of the three cruisers the other day, which filled our hearts with sorrow not because they meant anything in the war, but because of the loss of life that they involved. But though they filled our hearts with sorrow, we had pride too, for we found that the old spirit still animated our seamen—[cheers]—that in that supreme hour officers and men, without selfishness and without panic, passed nobly to a noble death. [Cheers.] The same vigil was kept by our Fleet a hundred years ago. For something like three years Nelson watched the French ships outside Toulon. Again and again they were driven away by the storms, but they always came back. He had his reward, and at Trafalgar he destroyed for ever the power of Napoleon to touch these shores. But, gentlemen, the greatest analogy is moral. It was the aggression of Napoleon which slowly but surely roused against him the moral forces of the world, and those forces found expression in the war of liberation which overthrew him. The moral forces which were against Napoleon at the end of the war are against the German Emperor to-day, and will overthrow him. [Cheers.]

We have been taught to admire the perfection and the efficiency of German preparation. So far as their army is concerned that admiration is well deserved, but in every other sphere they have made every mistake which men could make, so much so that one has the feeling that the old Roman saying applies to them: "That whom the gods intend to destroy they first drive mad." [Cheers.] The mistakes have all been of one kind. They have so worshipped force that they not only did not acknowledge, but they could not understand, moral forces. They are struck with moral blindness. That is the secret of their mistakes. They have made it with Italy. They thought that Italy was bound to follow a captive at the German chariot wheels. They could not understand that they might refuse to take part in a war of naked aggression. They made the same mistake with Belgium. Their preparations for invading France had been made years ago. They always intended to go through Belgium, and they assumed that when the hour came they had only to send an ultimatum to Belgium, as they sent it, and that they would get their way. They could not understand that a small nation with an army which, compared with theirs, was so contemptible, should prefer honour to ease, should prefer freedom even to security. [Cheers.] They made the mistake, and they have paid for it. [Cheers.] And in revenge they have inflicted upon Belgium horrid cruelties which are crying aloud—and will not cry in vain—to Heaven for vengeance. [Cheers.]

They are making the same mistake to-day in the way they are trying to influence the opinion of neutral countries. They have an Embassy in America to propagate sympathy for Germany. They cannot understand that any statements, however plausible, that any inventions, however false, must be worse than useless when they are followed instantly by the knowledge of the facts, when the American people learn—as we are told—that for every Belgian soldier who has fallen three non-combatants have been killed—[Shame]—when they learn that Germany has, in sacking Louvain, in the destruction of the cathedral at Rheims, adopted methods which have not been heard of in civilized warfare for hundreds of years. That is their mistake. And they have made the same mistake with us. I do not mean that they made the mistake of supposing that you people here in Ulster would prevent Great Britain from defending her position. That would have been too stupid. One could have understood it if you had taken up arms in order to separate yourselves from England—[Hear, hear]—but you took them up in order that you might remain with England. [Cheers.] The cause for which we are fighting is not one whit more the cause of London than it is the cause of Belfast. But they thought it would be possible for us to turn a deaf ear to the cry of Belgium when she besought us to fulfil the pledge of honour which bound us, and come to her aid in her hour of need. They thought that we would prefer ease and profit to the ultimate interests even of our own country. They were mistaken. And they have made other mistakes. They believed that the outbreak of war would be the signal for the falling away from the Empire of the self-governing dominions. They have got their answer. [Cheers.] We have no power, and if we had the power we have not got the will to force any one of these dominions to give us their help. It is not needed. They are not helping us. It is more than that. They feel that it is their cause as much as ours. [Hear, hear, and cheers.]

And this very war which was to disintegrate us is welding the Empire more closely together. [Cheers.] They made the same mistake about India. They thought that the outbreak of war would be the singal for a new Indian mutiny, and because they have been mistaken that has not prevented them from circulating a lie as if it were the truth in many neutral countries of the world. They were mistaken. The outbreak of war was not the signal for a mutiny. It was a signal for a spontaneous and enthusiastic outburst on the part of the princes and the people of India of loyalty to their Emperor and of patriotism to the Empire of which we have more reason to be proud than of the conquest of India itself. [Cheers.] It is no wonder that it is against us, as we know, the German enmity is strongest now. It is right that it should be so. The force which binds our Empire together is the very antithesis of the force on which they alone rely. It is a moral force on which we rely. [Cheers.] Well, gentlemen, it is not for us who are putting on our armour and are urging you to put on yours to boast as those who are taking it off. This is no time for boasting. It is a time to seriously recognize that we are fighting brave men, and men, who as the sober despatch from our own Army in the field tells us, are fighting for victory without regarding the means by which they will get it. It is no time to boast, but after all we have already every reason to be proud of what, as a nation, we have done. We have every reason to feel that at this stage the war has gone from our point of view better than at the outset we had a right to expect. And we can say now with confidence that, whether it be long or short, of the result there can and will be no doubt. [Cheers.]

It is still less a time to talk of peace, but I see that people already are saying that Germany must not be humiliated. We have no desire to humiliate the German people. I have it as little as any man. Even now, in the midst of the war, I am not ashamed to say that I have always been fond of German literature, and I have loved the old German spirit of which that literature is the expression. Only this year, at the beginning of it, I took one of my sons to Germany to learn their language and their literature, and he got back in time, but only in time. We have no desire to humiliate the German people, but we are determined that this war, with all the cruel suffering that it has entailed and will entail, shall not be fought in vain. [Cheers.] We are determined that in our time and that of our children never again shall that dread spectre which has haunted us as a nightmare have the power to frighten us. We have put our hands to the plough, and we shall not turn back until we have made sure that the law not of might, but of right, that the law not of force, but of humanity and justice, is the law which must govern the world. [Loud and prolonged cheers.]