The War and the Future (Masefield, 1918)/St. George and the Dragon
ST. GEORGE AND THE DRAGON
A SPEECH FOR ST. GEORGE'S DAY,
APRIL 23rd, 1918
THE WAR AND THE FUTURE
ST. GEORGE AND THE DRAGON
A Speech for St. George's Day,
April 23rd, 1918
Friends, for a long time I did not know what to say to you in this second speaking here. I could fill a speech with thanks and praise: thanks for the kindness and welcome which has met me up and down this land wherever I have gone, and praise for the great national effort which I have seen in so many places and felt everywhere. We, who, like you, have had to lay by our pleasant ways, and take up hard ones, and go up a bitter path to an end men cannot see, know how great your sacrifice and your effort are. But I could not thank you or praise you enough, and even if I could, the best praise and thanks are silent. If and when I return to England, I will speak your praise.
So, casting about for a theme, I thought, that today is St. George's Day, the day of the Patron Saint of England, and that today, in the far past, that great knight of God rode out, in the Eastern country, and killed a dragon which had been devouring women, and that Englishmen had thought that deed a holy, and most beautiful and manly thing, and had chosen St. George from among all saints to be their saint, and had taken his banner to be their banner, and called upon him, century after century, when they went into battle. For they felt that such a man lived on after death, and would surely help all holy and beautiful and manly men for ever and for ever.
And I thought, too, that on this day, 354 years ago, the child, William Shakespeare, was born, in that old house in Stratford which so many of you have gone to see. And that on this same day, after he had done his day's work, he passed out of this life, into that Kingdom of England which is in the kindling mind, in all its moments of beauty, and that there he, too, lives for ever, to give peace, even as St. George gives a sword, to all who call upon him.
So, thinking these things, all the more keenly, because I am far from England, in this sweet season of April, when the apple blossom is beginning, I felt that I would talk of England. Not of any England of commerce or of history, nor of any state called England, but of that idea of England for which men are dying, as I speak, along 5,000 miles of war.
I believe that the people of a country build up a spirit of that country, build up a soul, which never dies, but lingers about the land for ever. I believe that every manly and beautiful and generous and kindling act is eternal, and makes that soul still greater and more living, till in the land where manly and kindling souls have lived, there is everywhere about the earth, present like beauty, like inspiration, this living gift of the dead, this soul. And nations are only great when they are true to that soul. Men can only be great when they are true to the best they have imagined. And I believe that in times of stress, in national danger, in calamity, the soul behind a nation kindles and quickens and is alive and enters into men, and the men of the nation get strength and power from it.
I believe that that great soul, made by the courage and beauty and wisdom of the millions of the race, is the god of the race, to protect it and guide it and to lead it into safety. And men turning to it in time of trouble and calamity are helped and guarded by it, and brought out of the land of Egypt by it into their pleasant heritage.
Yet nations, like men, sometimes turn away from their true selves to follow false selves, and to serve false gods. All the old Bible is full of stories of a little nation sometimes true, sometimes false to its soul, and falling into calamity, and then being quickened and helped, and returning to the truth and coming to marvellous things, to the green pastures, where goodness and loving kindness follow men all the days of their life.
Understanding is the only thing worth while in this life. Art is nothing but complete understanding of something. All writers long to understand the spirit of their race.
Let me say now, that 25 years ago, it would have been difficult for an Englishman to speak here, about the spirit of England, and to claim that it is something of the spirit of St. George, a manly and beautiful spirit, ready to help some one weaker, and something of the spirit of Shakespeare, a just and tender spirit, fond of fun and kindness and of the rough and busy life of men. That delicate, shy, gentle, humorous and most manly soul is the soul of England. It is in Chaucer, in Shakespeare, in Dickens. It is in the old ballads and tales of Robin Hood, who stood up for the poor, and was merry walking in the green forest. It is in the little villages of the land, in the old homes, in the churches, in countless old carvings, in old bridges, in old tunes, and in the old acts of the English, a shy, gentle, humorous and most manly soul, that stood up for the poor and cared for beauty. No finer thing can be said of men than that, that they stood up for the poor and cared for beauty; that they cared to be just and wise.
Nearly 300 years ago, the life of England suffered a rude change in seven years of civil war. The ways of life which had been settled for five generations were suddenly and completely changed. There followed a turbulent and unsettled century, during which, for reasons of party, a foreign king, and line of kings, with foreign interests, and foreign methods, came into our land.
And at the same time, something else came into our land. Industry and adventure had long been virtues of the English; but now the two together began to create competitive commercialism. And just as competitive commercialism began, a small clique of corrupt politicians, gathered under the foreign king, and by bribery and iniquity of every kind, seized the common lands of the villages of England and enclosed them. Until then, the country folk in England had shared large tracts of land, so that, though they were poor, they still had grazing for cows and sheep and geese, and woodland for firing. Now by various acts of legal robbery these lands were taken from them, and they were reduced to an extreme poverty. They were forced into a position very like slavery. They had no possessions except their right hands. There was no St. George to stand up for them, nor any Robin Hood, except that coarse and bitter truth-teller, William Cobbett. They had the choice to be the slaves of the landowners or of the factory-owners, and the great mass of the populace ceased to have any share of what life offers. The enclosing of the commons robbed them of leisure and independence, the coming of the factories took them from the fields and the old communities, and flung them into new ones, which were allowed to grow up anyhow, without art, without thought, without faith or hope or charity, till the face of the land was blackened, and the soul of the land under a cloud.
If you consider the thought and the voices of that time, you can see that the soul of the land was under a cloud. The thought and the voices of that time are things divorced from the body of the people. The thought is the possession of a few leisured men. It is not the joy of a great body of men. The voices are the voices of a few men crying in the wilderness that things are evil.
The thought of that time was the thought of Dr. Johnson's Club, and of Joshua Reynolds' patrons. The voices are the voices of Wm. Blake crying aloud that he would rebuild the city of God among those black Satanic mills, and of Wm. Wordsworth, who saw that poetry, which should be the delight of all, was become an unknown tongue to the multitude. And later the voices become more passionate and wilder and bitterer. They are the voices of Byron, who saw the foreign king, that royal lunatic, and his drunken but jovial son, and the bought-and-sold politicians who ran the country, for what they were, and mocked them. And the voice of Shelley, who cried to the men of England to shake themselves free, and the voice of Carlyle, who saw no hope anywhere but in the drill sergeant, and the voice of Ruskin, who saw no hope anywhere but in the coming back of St. George.
There was only one question to those men, the-condition-of-England question. Thinking men might justly be proud of certain achievements in those years, many things were invented, many things were thought out, great books were written, and the world was charted and navigated and exploited, but there was no peace in that England for the men with souls to be saved.
The machine worked, it did great things, men could point to its results, but the great men, the seeing men, were unanimous that England was not a merry England for rich or poor. It was still a land where there was kindness and manliness and a love of life and sport and country. But with this, there was an apathy to things which were vital and kindling. The nation was drunken, and that was looked on with apathy, the nation had ceased to care, as it once had cared, with a most noble, intense, and passionate pride, for things of beauty and of style, in life, and art and music and the means of living. And this deadness and apathy and stupidity were become even matters of pride to some. Then the nation, with all its wealth, was an ill-taught, an ill-fed, and an ill-clad nation, so that in every city in the land a vast number of souls were ignorant, and a vast number of bodies had not enough to eat nor enough to put on. And the rich, who owned the wealth, had lost the old English sense of splendour of life. They watched the beggary and the drunkenness with apathy. They watched the waste and the degradation of genius without lifting a finger. One of the most delicate silversmiths of our time died of consumption as a seller of cat's meat. One of our most delicate lyric poets died of consumption as a seller of matches in the street. Not all the efforts of all the writers of England could get a theatre for the fit and frequent playing of Shakespeare. Not all the wealth nor all the industry could reduce the paupers of England, the men and women who could not make a living, to less than a million in the year.
So that, early in 1914, England was a troubled and yet an apathetic country, with small minorities breaking their hearts and sometimes people's windows in an effort to bring about a change, and with a vast, powerful, unthinking selfish weight of prejudice and privilege keeping things in the old ruts and the old grooves laid down by the foreign king a century and a half before.
And yet, with it all, there was immense virtue in the land. Work was well done. English goods were well made. And we were not afraid to let any nation compete with us in the open market. The nations could sell their goods in our markets on equal terms. We had no quarrel with any one. We wished to show that we had no quarrel with any one. During the years before the war, we increased our Navy, so that no enemy should attack us with impunity, but we reduced our tiny army by some divisions, and our auxiliary army by an army corps.
People say now that we were wrong. We may have been. At any rate, we did the generous thing, and I don't know that the generous thing is ever wrong. And in any case, we have paid the price.
In the first week of July, 1914, I was in an old house in Berkshire, a house built eight centuries before by the monks, as a place of rest and contemplation and beauty. I had never seen England so beautiful as then, and a little company of lovely friends was there. Rupert Brooke was one of them, and we read poems in that old haunt of beauty, and wandered on the Downs. I remember saying that the Austro-Serbian business might cause a European war, in which we might be involved, but the others did not think this likely; they laughed.
Then came more anxious days, and then a week of terror, and then good-bye to that old life, and my old home in Berkshire was a billet for cavalry, and their chargers drank at the moat. I saw them there. And the next time I saw them they were in Gallipoli, lying in rank in the sand under Chocolate Hill, and Rupert was in his grave in Skyros.
We were at war. We were at war with the greatest military power in the world. We had an army of about 180,000 men, scattered all over the world, to pit against an army of five or six millions of men, already concentrated. We had, suddenly, at a day's notice, with the knife at our throats, to make an army of six or seven million of men, and we had perhaps trained officers enough for an army of 300,000. We had to enlist, house, tent, train and officer that army. We had to buy its horses and mules, build its cars and wagons and travelling kitchens. We had to make its uniforms and straps, blankets, boots and knapsacks; and, worst of all, we had to make its weapons.
We had the plant for making (I suppose) 50 big guns and 500 machine guns and 50,000 rifles in the year, with proportionate ammunition. Suddenly we wanted 50,000 big guns, and 500,000 machine guns and 10,000,000 rifles with unlimited ammunition, more ammunition than men could dream of, with all sorts of new kinds of ammunition, bombs, handgrenades, aerial torpedoes, or flying pigs, flying pineapples, egg-bombs, hairbrush-bombs, Mills bombs, trench mortar bombs, such as men had never used. And those things were wanted in a desperate hurry and we had the plant for not one-fiftieth part of them, nor the workmen to use the plant when made, nor the workmen to make the plant.
It is said that it takes one year to make the plant for the making of the modern big gun, and to train the workmen to make the countless delicate machines with which men kill each other in modern war. That was the proposition we were up against, and meanwhile, just across the water, well within earshot of our eastern counties, the enemy, like an armed burglar, was breaking into our neighbours' house, and killing our neighbours' children, taking his goods, abusing his women and burning the house over the victims.
In the first eight days of the war we sent two-thirds of our little army to France (about 120,000 men all told). They marched up to take position, singing, "It's a long, long way to Tipperary." It was not to be a long way to those brave men, for half of them were gone within eight weeks. They were not too well-equipped with guns, nor had they many machine guns, but every man in the army was a very carefully trained rifle-shot. Against them came enemy armies numbering nearly half a million of men.
They came into touch on August 23rd, near Mons, against odds of five or six to one. They were driven back, of course. That little line was turned and almost enveloped. There has been little fighting in this war to equal that first fighting. But one man cannot fight six men: so our army fell back, fighting desperately, in hot weather, for nine days.
Often in that blazing weather, divisions were so footsore that they could go no farther. Then they would take position and lie down and fight. The only rest they had was when they could lie down to fight. And at night, when they got to their bleeding feet again and plodded on in the dark, a sort of refrain passed from rank to rank, "We're the bloody rearguard, and bloody rearguards don't eat and bloody rearguards don't sleep, but we're up, we're up, we're up the blooming spout."
They fell back for nine days and nights, till the enemy was at the gates of Paris, and the Allied cause seemed lost. You know how the enemy swept into Belgium and into Northern France, with his myriads of picked men, his aeroplanes and overwhelming numbers of guns. They marched singing and they came on like a tide, supping up cities, Liége, Namur, Mons, Cambrai, as though they were the sea itself. They beat back everything. The French were not ready, the Belgians were only a handful, we were only a handful. And then, when they were at the gates of Paris, the miracle happened. That great army outran its supplies. It advanced so swiftly that the heavy loads of shells could not keep pace with it. Then in September, 1914, that great calm soldier Marshal Joffre wrote those words which will be remembered as long as this war is remembered: "The time has come for going back no further, but to die where you stand if you cannot advance." Then came the battle of the Marne, and people knew that whatever happened there would be no overwhelming victory for the enemy. He was beaten and had to fall back to gather strength for another effort, and all his dreams of sudden conquest collapsed.
But though our armies won at the Marne, it was only by miracle; and the essence of miracles is that they are not repeated. Our side was not ready for war. We were weaker than the enemy in guns, men and equipment. Our task was still to hold the line somehow, without guns, and almost without men, but by bluff and barbed wire, while guns could be forged and men trained. The enemy was ready for a second spring long before we were ready to resist him, and this second spring was not to fail, as the Marne had failed, through want of munitions.
This second spring took place at the end of October, 1914, when we had lost about half our original army and had altogether about 100,000 men in the line, many of them drafts who had not had one month's training. This 100,000 were outgunned and outnumbered. All are agreed that the enemy brought against that 100,000 not less than six times its strength, and the battle that followed (the first battle of Ypres) lasted for twenty-seven days and nights of continuous and bloody fighting. To this day no soldier can understand why the enemy didn't break through. Our line was so thinly held that in many places there were no supports and no reliefs of any kind, and the men stayed in the trenches till they were killed or wounded. That little and weary army underwent a test such as no other army has had to stand. The enemy shelled our line, with a great concentration of guns, and attacked with a great concentration of men, and broke the line at Gheluvelt, near Ypres. It has been thought by some that the enemy had only to advance to crumple the whole army; and destroy the Allied Cause. And then two men (according to the story) saved the issue. Two English soldiers, named Pugh and Black, gathered up small parties of men, regimental cooks and servants, stretcher bearers, and walking wounded, and held the enemy in check, till what was left of the Worcester Battalion, about four hundred men, could be put in to retake the village. Those four hundred men saved the line and prevented a defeat. Our generals were writing an order for retreat when a staff officer came galloping up to them, in wild excitement, and without a hat, to shout out that the Worcesters had restored the line.
In that most bloody battle of "First Ypres," one English battalion was obliterated, another was remade two and a half times between October and Christmas, a third, which went in 987 strong, came out 70 strong; in a fourth, an officer who returned to duty after two months in hospital, found only one man left who had been in the battalion two months before; all the rest had gone.
After that battle, the mud set in, and stopped all great movements of men and guns. Both sides dug and fortified the lines they were holding, and the war became an affair of siege, until the spring.
Then the enemy launched a third attack against us, which was by much the most dangerous attack of the early months of the war. He began this attack by an intense bombardment of the English and French lines near Ypres. Then, at nightfall, in the April evening, while this bombardment was at its height, he let loose a great green cloud of chlorine gas, which floated across the No Man's Land to our lines. Wherever this gas reached the lines it choked the men dead, by a death which is unspeakably terrible, even for this war.
The men watched the gas coming. They thought that it was a smoke-screen or barrage, designed to hide the advance of enemy infantry. Suddenly they found the green cloud upon them, and their comrades choking and retching their lives away in every kind of agony. For a while there was a panic. The men in the front lines were either killed or put out of action. The communication trenches were filled with choking and gasping men, flying from the terror and dropping as they fled. Night was falling. It was nearly dark, and the whole area was under an intense enemy shell-fire. The line was broken on a front of four and a half miles; and for the time it seemed as though the whole front would go.
The gas had come just at the point where the French and the English armies joined each other; at a point, that is, where all words of command had to be given in several languages, and where any confusion was certain to be intensified tenfold; there were many Colonial and native troops there, Turcos, Indians, Senegalese, Moroccans, as well as Canadians, French and English. All the troops there were shaken by this unexpected and terrible death, against which they had no guard.
Then a few officers, whose names, perhaps, we may never know, gathered together the stragglers and the panic-stricken, and called to them to put handkerchiefs and caps and rags of blankets and strips of shirt in front of their faces, and with these as respirators they marched the men back into that cloud of death, and though many were killed in the attempt, enough survived to hold the line, and so we were saved for the third time.
All nations use gas now, but that was the first time it was used. It is a very terrible thing. I have seen many men dying of it. It rots the lungs and the victims gasp away their lives. There is a saying, "If you sell your soul to the Devil, be sure you get a good price." The use of that gas was a selling of the soul, and yet the price gotten in exchange was nothing. They had our line broken with it and for weeks they could have beaten us by it. It was weeks before our men had proper respirators in any number. I do not know why they didn't beat us then; nobody knows. Some think that it was because their General Staff did not trust their chemists.
Just at the time when the gas attack was preparing outside Ypres, a little army of the Allies was landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula, "to assist the passage of the fleets through the Dardanelles."
I have been asked about the Gallipoli campaign. People have complained to me that it was a blunder. I don't agree. It had to be undertaken; to keep Bulgaria quiet, to keep Greece from coming in against us, to protect Egypt and to draw the Turkish Army from the Caucasus, where Russia was hard pressed. People say, "Well, at least it was a blunder to attack in the way you did." I say that when we did attack, we attacked with the only men and the only weapons we had, and in the only possible places.
In war one has to attempt many things, not because they are wise or likely to succeed, but because they have to be done. In this war, we had to attempt them with insufficient means, because we were unprepared for war.
Consider what that attempt meant.
In the original scheme, the Russians were to co-operate with us, by landing 40,000 men on the shores of the Bosphorus, so as to divert from us a large force of enemy soldiers. We brought our men 3,000 miles across the sea, and we said to them, in effect, "There are the Turks, entrenched, with machine guns and guns and shells. You have only rifles. We have no guns nor shells to give you. Now land on those mined beaches, and take those trenches. The Russians will help to some extent; it will not be so hard." So the men went ashore and took those trenches. Nine days after they were ashore, we learned that the Russians could not land any men on the Bosphorus, and that we were alone in the venture. And then we said to our survivors, "The Russians can't come to help you, after all. We have no guns nor shells to give you. We are so hard pressed in France that we can't send you any reinforcements. The enemy is entrenched with plenty of guns, and lots of shells, but you've got rifles, so go and take those trenches, too." So the men went and took them. Then we said, in effect, "Men and guns are needed in France, we can't send you any more just yet." So everything was delayed, till the men and guns were ready, and then, when they were ready, the enemy was ready, too, and dysentery was raging and it was very hot, and there was little to drink, and it is a God forgotten land to fight in, so we did not win the Peninsula, nor anything else, except honor from thinking men.
I know that every man who was in Gallipoli, is and will be prouder of having been there, than of anything in his life, past, present, or to come. Our men kept a flag flying there to which the beaten men of all time will turn in trial.
As you know, in 1915, the war settled down into a struggle between opposing lines of trenches, with daily shelling and sniping and occasional raiding, mining and bombing. The next great attack was the attack on Verdun, when the enemy launched an army of specially fed, trained and rested soldiers, under a hail of shells, to break through the French lines. That attack lasted with little intermission for four months, and it did not break the line. It very nearly broke it, but not quite. Perhaps nothing can break the line of a free people sworn to hold the gates for freedom. Often in that fight, little bodies of French and German soldiers were shut off for days together by shellfire, men died from hunger and thirst in the wreck of the forts, and those parties of French and Germans would count heads to see which side had won.
And while the attack was at its height, and while Verdun was still in danger, the English and French together counter-attacked in force on a line of 25 miles, further to the north, in the Department of the Somme, and beat the enemy out of his main position there. That put an end to the attack on Verdun. The battle of the Somme gave another use for the enemy's men and guns. The city was saved. And a great deal more than the city; for the battle of the Somme beat the enemy out of a strip of France 65 miles long by from 12 to 20 deep, where today the great battle of this war is being fought.
This Battle of the Somme was an attack upon some of the most elaborate field fortifications ever made. On the right of the attack, where the French attacked, much of the ground is flat, and without good defensive position, but on the left, where the English attacked, the ground is a succession of rolling chalk downland, rising some hundreds of feet above little valleys. On this rolling downland, the enemy had dug himself in, when he was strong and we were weak. He had made himself so strong there, that he openly boasted that his position was impregnable. He had all the good positions there. His line was so placed, that it was almost always a little above us, and he worked to improve these positions night and day for nearly two years.
Perhaps not many here have seen a first rate enemy field fortification. I'll try to explain what the Somme position was like.
As you know, the main defence in a modern line is the front line system of trenches. In front of his front line, the enemy had a very elaborate strong tangle of wire, about 4 feet high and 40 yards across, each wire as thick as a double rope yarn and with 16 barbs to the foot.
Hidden in this wire, under the ground, in converted shell holes, or in very cunningly contrived little pits, were stations for machine gunners. Some of these stations were connected with the enemy trenches by tunnels, so that the gunners could crawl to them under cover.
In some places, the ground of the wire entanglement was strewn with trip wire, so near the ground as to be invisible, yet high enough to catch the feet. In the trip wire were spikes to transfix the men who caught in the trip wire and fell.
Behind the wire tangle were the enemy first line trenches.
These were immense works, designed as permanent field fortresses. They were always well made and well sited. In many important points of the line they were twelve feet deep, and strongly revetted with plank and wicker. At intervals of about 50 yards, in some parts of the line, were little concrete forts for observers and machine guns. These forts were so well concealed that they could not be seen from without. The slit for the observer or for the machine gun to fire through is very tiny, and well hidden in the mud of the trench parapet.
These forts were immensely strong, and very small. A man inside one could only be destroyed by the direct hit of a big shell or by the lucky chance of a bullet coming through the narrow slit. You must remember that one cool soldier with a machine gun has in his hands the concentrated destructive power of 40 or 50 rifle men.
In the wall of the trench parapets on this front line, at intervals of 30 to 40 yards, were shafts of stairs leading down 20 or 30 feet into the earth. At the bottom of the shafts were great underground living rooms, each big enough to hold 50 or 100 men. In some places shafts led down another 20 feet below these living rooms to a second level or storey of dugouts.
These places were fairly safe in normal times, though apt to be foul and ill smelling. In bombardments the men kept below in the dugouts, out of danger from the shells, till the instant of the attack, when they could race up the stairs in time to man the fire step, and to get their machine guns into action. During the intense bombardments, the shafts and stairs were blown in, and a good many of the enemy were buried alive in these dugouts. Our men, when they had captured these trenches, usually preferred to sleep in the trenches, not in the dugouts, as they said that they would rather be killed outright than buried alive.
In some parts of the battlefield of the Somme, the ground is channelled with deep, steep-sided, narrow gullies in the chalk, sometimes 40 feet deep and only 40 feet across, like great natural trenches. Three of these gullies were made into enemy arsenals and barracks of immense strength and capacity. These were, the tunnel at St. Pierre Divion, dug into the chalk, so that some thousands of men could live under ground within one-quarter mile of the front line, in perfect safety; the barracks at the Y Ravine, about a mile further north, and the barracks in Quarry Gulley, near the Y Ravine. In all these immense underground works, the enemy had elaborate homes, lit with electricity, hung with cretonne and panelled with wood. Little stairs led from these dwellings to neat machine gun posts overlooking the front line. In one of these elaborate underground dwellings there were cots for children and children's toys, and some lady's clothes. It was thought that the artillery general who lived there had had his family there for the week end.
Behind all these works, were support and reserve trenches of equal strength, often fully wired in, but with fewer dugouts. Then about a mile or two miles behind the front line, on a great crest or table of high chalk downland, was the second line, stronger than the front line, on even more difficult ground, where you cannot walk a yard without treading on dust of English blood.
Words cannot describe the strength of that old fortified line. It was done with the greatest technical skill. If you went along it, you would notice here and there some little irregularity or strangeness, and then you would look about, till you could see what devilish purpose that little strangeness served. And there was always one. The little irregularity gave some little advantage, which might make all the difference in a battle. The little thing in war alters the destinies of nations. A grain of sand in the body of Napoleon altered the campaign of 1812. I know of one great and tragical battle in this war which was lost mainly through a sprained ankle.
Our old lines faced these great fortresses at a distance of about 200 yards. Our lines are nothing like the enemy lines. There were no deep dugouts. The wire was comparatively slight. The trenches were inferior. It looked as though the work of amateurs was pitted against the work of professionals. Yet the amateurs held the professionals.
When Lord Kitchener went to Gallipoli, he visited Anzac. At that time, life in Gallipoli was becoming anxious, because some 17-inch Skoda guns had been brought down by the Turks and were shelling the position. Our men had dug some dugouts 10 or 15 feet deep to protect them from these shells. They showed them to Kitchener with pride. Kitchener said, "Of course, they may do for Gallipoli, but they aren't nearly deep enough for France. We never go down less than 30 feet in France."
So, when the Peninsula men came to France, they came with the modest feeling that they knew nothing about modern war, nor about digging dugouts, and they went into the trenches expecting to see dugouts like Egyptian catacombs. They found that the only dugouts were pieces of corrugated iron with a few sand bags on the top and some shovelsful of mud over all.
In places where the two lines approached each other at a crest, there had been a two years' struggle for the possession of the crest; for modern war is mainly a struggle for the post from which one can see. In all these places the space between the lines was a vast and ghastly succession of mine pits, fifty or a hundred feet deep, marked with the wrecks of old dugouts, and heads and hands and bodies, and sometimes half full of evil water.
Within the 16 mile limit of the English sector of the Somme field, there were in the enemy front line 8 strongholds which the enemy boasted were impregnable.
The Battle of the Somme was the first real measuring of strength between the enemy and the English. In the early battles, the picked men of our race had met their picked men and held them. But the picked men were now dead, and the armies which fought on the Somme were the average mass of the race.
I must describe the Battle of the Somme. On the right, where the ground is flat and there is no real defensive position, the French caught the enemy by surprise, officers shaving in their dugouts, men at breakfast, gun teams going down to water. The French made a royal and victorious advance at once.
Our men attacking the strongholds where the enemy expected us, lost 50,000 men in the first day's fighting and took in that day, the first of the 8 impregnable forts.
I don't think you realize what the Battle of the Somme became. It went on for 81⁄2 months of intense, bloody and bitter battles for small pieces of hill, for the sites of vanished villages, for the stumps of blasted woods and the cellars of obliterated farms.
We got the second of the 8 impregnable forts on the fourth day, the third on the seventeenth day, the fourth and fifth on the seventy-sixth day, the sixth and strongest on the one hundred and twenty-eighth day, and the last two at the end.
I cannot tell you how bitter and bloody the fighting in that battle was. The fight for Delville Wood lasted for nearly two months, and in those two months, 400 shells fell every minute on Delville Wood, and not less than 300,000 men were killed and wounded there. That wood during the battle was a scene of death, bloodshed and smash such as cannot be imagined. You walked in the mud on the bones and the flesh of men and on fresh blood dripping out of stretchers. By the side of the track was a poor starved cat eating the brain of a man.
In High Wood they fought till the rags and bones of dead men hung from the wrecks of the trees. In Pozières, men lived for days and nights under a never ceasing barrage designed to blow them off the ridge which they had won. They were buried and unburied and reburied by shells. There were 20,000 casualties on that ghastly table, and the shell-shock cases leaped and shook and twittered in every clearing station.
Twenty-thousand men were killed and wounded in the taking of the nest of machine guns in the subterranean fort of Mouquet Farm. Our men went down into the shafts of that fort and fought in the darkness under ground there, till the passages were all seamed with bullets.
We lost half a million men in that great battle, and we had our reward. For in the winter of 1917, in the winter night a great and shattering barrage raged up along the front. It was the barrage which covered the attack on Miraumont and drove the enemy from the Ancre Valley. The next day came the news that Serre had fallen, and we went up and stood in Serre. And Gommecourt fell, and the rain of shells ceased upon Loupart and La Barque, and the news ran along like wildfire, that the enemy was going back.
It was a soaking thaw after frost, and the roads, such roads as remained, were over ankle deep in mud, and our muddy army got up from the mud and went forward through it.
All the roads leading to the front were thronged by our army, battalion on battalion, division on division, guns and transport columns, camp kitchens, and artillery transport, going up in the mud after the enemy.
You could see them bringing the railway forward under fire, under heavy fire, along the Ancre Valley. They made the railway and the road side by side, with shells falling on them and the stink of gas blowing over them. And not a man died there, but died in exultation, knowing that over his death the army was passing to victory.
Today, as you know, the greatest battle of this war is being fought on that ground. And so far, as you know, our men have been hard pressed and driven back.
It is not easy to stand here, while there, over the sea, those men are standing in the mud, waiting for death to come to them.
It is no light thing to face death in a modern battle, to have been living in the mud, on scanty food, with no rest, in all the terror and filth, among the blood, the rags of flesh, the half buried bodies half eaten with rats, the crashing and screaming of shells, all the confusion of a stunt, and the cries for stretcher bearers. Only two things are any help in the battlefield, courage and the comrade beside you.
And I know that there is no man in the French and English armies today, standing-to in the mud, waiting for death, who does not stand the steadier from the knowledge that this country stands behind him, and that the men of this country are in the line at his side.
We here are not helping in the fight; but we can help in the fight. We can build up behind those men a great wall of love and admiration and courage, so that they can feel it, and rest their backs against it when they are hard pressed.
It is as well to face the facts of the battle. We have lost a tract of France, and our old graveyards of the Somme, our huts and waterpipes, some guns and dumps of stores and a great many men.
Fortune is like that in war. When Cortes had burnt his ships, and was marching into Mexico, his men growled that they had a hard time, with little food and no rest and bloody fighting. And Cortes told them that they didn't come there to eat cakes of Utrera, but to take their luck as it came and their medicine as it tasted. We came into this war on those terms; so did you.
I've no news to tell you and no comfort to give you. The enemy had more aeroplanes than we had, and hid his preparations from us. He made a big concentration of men and guns, and when the weather favoured him he put them in, with skill and courage, against that part of the line where there are no good natural defensive positions. He took the 5th army by surprise and drove it back. As it fell back, it uncovered the right of the 3rd army, which held the good defensive positions. The 3rd army had to bend back in conformity, till the two armies together reached some sort of a line which could be held. Then the enemy switched his divisions north, and put in his attack on Ypres.
He was able to do this, because his lateral communications, behind his lines, are better than ours. People may ask, in some surprise, "Why are they better?" They are better because the enemy has at his disposal a great body of slave labour which we have not. He has the enslaved populations of Belgium, North France and Poland to work for him.
Then, in all this fighting, our armies have been outnumbered by the enemy. We have had concentrated against us not less than two millions of the enemy. People have asked, in some surprise, "How comes it, that you have been outnumbered?"
We have been outnumbered, presumably because the Allied High Command has judged, that this is not the time for the fighting of the decisive battle of this war, and that the line must be held with comparatively few troops so that the reserves for the decisive battle may be as large as possible.
We must be patient, and wait for the counter, trusting the goodness of our cause.
But in thinking of British man-power you must remember that though all the belligerent countries have to reckon with three big armies, we have to reckon with seven. All belligerent countries have to reckon with their army of the living, their army of the wounded, and their army of the dead. We have to reckon all these, and our armies of the dead and wounded would alone mount up to nearly 21⁄2 millions of men. But we have also to maintain four armies which the other belligerent countries do not have to have.
First, an army of defence, against invasion. This is a small army consisting mainly of elderly men and of lads in training. We have to maintain it; it may be necessary; and "it is better to be sure than sorry."
Then we have armies abroad in distant parts of this war, the army in Italy, the army in Salonika, and the big garrisons in India and Egypt which feed the armies in Mesopotamia and in Palestine. All of these armies and garrisons melt away continually in the fire of war, and everywhere on the roads to those armies, are the reinforcements and the drafts swallowing up more and yet more men.
In Gibraltar, and Malta and Alexandria and Port Said, you will see, every day, some ship filled with our men going out to death in those far fields, and you will see the men standing on the deck and cheering, as the ship draws away and leaves home and sweetness and pleasant life behind, for ever.
Then, besides these, we have the army of the sick. The great epidemical scourges of ancient armies have been nearly eliminated from this war; but we have been forced to maintain armies in distant outposts of this war, in Gallipoli, in Salonika, and in Mesopotamia where the men have suffered much from tropical diseases, dysentery and malarial fever. We have some hundreds of thousands of men who have been weakened by these complaints; not wrecked by them, but so weakened that they cannot stand the life in the trenches.
And besides all those armies, we have a vast army of the very flower of our race, both men and women. It may consist of four or five millions of men and women who work in treble shifts, day and night, as they have worked for the last three years, making the things of war, not only for ourselves but for our Allies. Our Allies are not manufacturing people. Russia made few things, France's coal and steel are in the hands of the enemy, Italy makes few things. We have had to supply these people not only with equipment of all kinds, guns, clothing and shells, but with ships and coal. Not less than half a million men have done nothing in England since the war began but get and ship coal for the Allies. They have sent not less than 60 million tons of coal to the Allies since the war began.
Then a part of that army builds ships, and ever more ships, and yet never enough ships for the needs of this great war and for the supply of our friends.
The enemy spreads abroad lies concerning us. I am not going to answer them. Lies do not last long.
There is no need to lie about a people. Still less is there any need to lay claim to this or that glory. No nation is so bad that it has not something very good in it; and none so glorious that it has not some taint of self.
And I'm not here to sing my country's praises. No one will do that. Patriotism, as I see it, is not a fine drawing of the sword, behind some winged and glittering Victory. It is nothing at all of all that. It is a very sad thing and a very deep thing and a very stern thing.
St. George did not go out against the dragon like that divine calm youth in Carpaccio's picture, nor like that divine calm man in Donatello's statue. He went out, I think, after some taste of defeat, knowing that it was going to be bad, and that the dragon would breathe fire and that very likely his spear would break and that he wouldn't see his children again and people would call him a fool. He went out, I think, as the battalions of our men went out, a little trembling and a little sick and not knowing much about it, except that it had to be done, and then stood up to the dragon in the mud of that far land, and waited for him to come on.
I know what England was, before the war. She was a nation which had outgrown her machine, a nation which had forgotten her soul, a nation which had destroyed Jerusalem among her dark Satanic mills.
And then, at a day's notice, at the blowing of a horn, at the cry from a little people in distress, all that was changed, and she re-made her machine, and she remembered her soul, which was the soul of St. George who fought the dragon, and she cried, "I will rebuild Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land or die in the attempt."
Don't think that this was due to this or that man, to Kitchener, or to another, or to another. It was due to something kindling and alive in the nation's soul.
When I first went to the Somme, it was on the day we took Martinpuich and Flers. And on my way up, I passed a battalion going in. They were being played up by the band, to the tune of "It's a long, long trail awinding to the land of my dreams." It wasn't a long trail, nor a winding trail to most of those men, but only a few miles of a quite straight road to le Sars, where I found their graves afterwards.
That tune is perhaps the favourite tune of the army today. The army knows that it is a long, long trail, and a winding one, to the land of our dreams.
And if in this war it has seemed, that we have done little, if it has seemed, that we retreated at Mons, and only just held at Ypres, and withdrew from Gallipoli, and stood still at Salonika, and were driven back at St. Quentin and are hard pressed on the Ridge, I think you somehow feel, that with it all, no matter how long the trail is, nor how winding, nor how bitter nor how bloody, we'll stick it, as long as we've a light to go by, even if we're not so clever as some, nor so attractive.
And what is the land of our dreams? We must think of that.
In the Bible there is the story of King David, who was a very generous and very bloody yet very noble man. And David, besieging a city in the summer, was faint from thirst, and he said, "I wish I had some of the water from that pool by the city gate." And three men heard him and they took bottles and broke through the enemy pickets and filled their bottles and brought the water to David. But David would not drink water brought to him at such risk. He said, it would be like drinking blood; so he poured it out to his God.
The men of those armies in the mud are bringing us water at the risk of their lives, the living water of peace, that peace which I think will be the peace that passes all understanding, peace to have our lives again and do our work again and be with our loves again. But if we go back to the world of before the war, that peace won't serve us, it will be a drinking of the blood of all those millions of young men.
I said some time ago, that the only things which matter in war are courage and the love of your comrades. When this war ends, we shall need all our courage and all our comrades, in that re-making of the world, which will follow this destruction. And I hope that when that time comes, you will not think of us again, as cold, or contemptuous, or oppressive, but as a race of men who went down to the death for a friend in trouble, as St. George did, on this day, so many centuries ago.
And in the light of that adventure I hope that we may stand together to remake this broken world, a little nearer to the heart's desire.