England, Silent and Determined
By Sidney Brooks
(London Representative of The Independent)
[The Independent, September 7, 1914]
We in England have entered upon this war with the greatest of all military assets on our side—a cause we believe to be just and a conscience we know to be clear. We did not provoke it; we did not want it; there is the unanswerable evidence of the White Paper to show how far Sir Edward Grey went to avert it. I venture to say that no American is competent to pass judgment on the origin of this appalling struggle who has not read and pondered every line of the State papers published by the British Foreign Office on August 5. They contain a full account of the attitude of Downing Street toward all the other Governments during the grim days when the fate of Europe hung in the balance; and it is a record in which Englishmen, and I hope I may add Americans too, may well take pride. Official documents are not as a rule dramatic, but these are. In them we see Sir Edward Grey struggling against the powers of darkness to the last minute of the twelfth hour, cool and persuasive, trying one dove after another, offering even to wash his hands of the consequences if France and Russia refused any reasonable accommodation that Germany might put forward, but all the time clear in his own mind as to the point beyond which Great Britain could not go, and finally rejecting with a splendid scorn Germany's unutterable proposal that we should bargain away the neutrality of Belgium and the French oversea empire—in return for what? In return for an assurance that Belgian territory would be respected at the end of the war if in the meantime she had not sided with Germany, and for a further assurance that a conquered France would only be required by her German victors to surrender all her colonies and that her European soil would be restored to her intact.
Such was the bait held out to us to abstain from taking part in the war! Such was the inducement to tear up our treaty pledges and betray our friends! That proposal, far more than Germany's refusal to second a single one of Sir Edward Grey's efforts for peace, made every Englishman hot. Only a Government with a profound misunderstanding of the British character, of British policy and of the sort of considerations that appeal to the British people could ever have suggested it. It was humiliating even to receive and to be at the trouble of rejecting. But I hope the time will come when the great mass of decent, honorable Germans will see that it was ten times more humiliating that such an offer should have been made in their name. Nothing could have shown more clearly the immersion of the ruling caste in Germany in the doctrines of a crude materialism, its opaque vision, its insensitiveness to any argument but that of force and self-interest. That ruling caste, I trust and believe, has misrepresented the German people for the last time.
If there is one thing clear in this cataclysmic welter it is that Germany, 'and Germany alone, brought it on; that the Kaiser could have spoken the word that would have insured peace and yet remained silent; that he was entreated by Sir Edward Grey to act and would not move a finger. What motives, calculations or urgencies influenced him we do not know and may never know. But this at least is certain—the guilt lies at his door. So far as one man can be said to be responsible for plunging Europe into the hell of this agonizing strife that will leave its mark on every human being in the Old World and on many distant and innocent millions in the New, that man is the Kaiser. If I insist, on this it is not to anticipate the justice of the doom that awaits him; it is to emphasize the complete freedom from any thought or taint of aggression with which the British people have taken up arms. Their soul is tranquil; their consciences are at peace. And to say that, for any one who really knows them, is to say all. It is to explain the whole atmosphere in which, so far as we are concerned, this war is to be waged. Fifteen years ago, when we went to war with the Transvaal Republic, the national conscience was not at peace. Even those who never wavered in their belief in the justice of the British cause had to admit that it required a deal of proving, and there was a, large minority that from the start hated the war, publicly denounced it and did what they could to thwart its prosecution, But the mass of the nation tried to swamp their doubts and shout down the small inner voice by a pandemonium of noise and bombast. The suspicion that they were in the wrong was never really downed; the consciousness that the best feeling of the civilized world was against them.
There is nothing of all that now. The spirit of the people is one of grim and silent serenity. Fatuous exaltation is just as absent as irrational depression. It is nearly three weeks as I write since we declared war. But I have seen little or nothing of the insensate demonstrations, the frothy flag-waving madness, that filled the streets and the very air fifteen years ago. Go about London to-day and you will hardly see a flag flying unless it be a French one. The feeling is that this is much too serious a business for any such antics. People are going about their normal affairs as much as possible. The grave, tense faces tell of the strain, but show no sign of weakening under it. The panic that in the first few days made some well-to-do weaklings hoard food and gold was over in a week. On the whole we have borne the shock of it all with an inspiriting self-command. Everybody is affected by the war, nobody can talk or think of anything else; but there is no war-fever, a good deal of anti-Kaiserism but very little anti-Germanism, no meretricious enthusiasm but a dogged shouldering of the burden imposed by duty and necessity.
It is a war of silences. I have watched regiments match through London to entrain for the front amid crowds that hardly so much as cheered them. In silence the fleet was mobilized, prepared, and sent away to its unknown posts in and around the North Sea. In silence and swiftness the expeditionary force was got together and transported across the English Channel. Not a word of either movement appeared in the British press. The French Government had officially announced the disembarkation of the British troops in France ten days before any English paper was allowed to mention it. And a like silence hangs over the whole nation, it is not the silence of apathy or impassiveness and still less of apprehension. It is the silence of a people caught up and somewhat dazed by an overwhelming emergency but with its mind made up and its purpose steeled.
Even war has its compensations and not the least of them is its virtue as a purgative of self. The whole country, the whole Empire, and the individuals of all classes have come visibly closer together in the past three weeks. We are one people in a sense we have never been in my life time. The political slate was wiped clean at a stroke of all animosities and contentions; Home Rule and Ulster issues that seemed a month ago to threaten civil war, and over which passions had been wrought up to little, if at all, below boiling point, are now remembered only as an incomprehensible nightmare. Something deadlier and more real has come since they held the field; and at its first touch the antagonisms, the comparatively artificial antagonisms, of Irish Nationalists and Irish Unionists shrivelled up, There is a united Britain; more wonderful still, there is a united Ireland, with not a single British soldier on its soil, but defended by the combined forces of its own sons. Even amid the anxieties and preoccupations of a struggle that, for Great Britain, is a struggle not for dominion but for life itself, statesmanship, I feel very sanguine, will find the ways and means of turning the revolution in the Irish situation to happy and permanent account. And that is merely a sample of the spirit of appeasement that has descended on all political activities. Parties have ceased to exist; the militant Suffragettes have suspended hostilities and are devoting their fire and self-sacrifice and their organising talents to the national cause; and the Government, by its prompt and cool efficiency in meeting all the exigencies of the crisis—not merely the naval and military exigencies, but those connected with the equally vital problems of credit, of food supply, and of the relief of unemployment and distress—has won for itself the unanimous confidence and admiration of the entire Kingdom. There is not a Tory in the land who would not be proud at this moment to join in cheering Mr. Asquith, Mr. Churchill, Mr. Lloyd George and Sir Edward Grey. It is no small part of the national calm that the Ministry should have made a universal impression of thoroly knowing its business.
But Great Britain under the stress of war has been a political unit before, tho never, so far as I can recall my history to quite the extent it is now. What, however, is really novel and far more moving is the spirit that has been evoked of genuine fraternity. It is not only parties but classes that have ceased for the time to exist. Rich and poor beneath the compulsion of a common affliction have realized that they are alike Britons and bound as such to stand together and help one another and the nation thru the storm. The result is a great outpouring not merely of money but of the impulse to succor and to understand. We shall need everything we can get both of cash and of intelligent sympathy in the spending of it; for while these islands, if all goes well or even moderately well, are destined to be spared the desolating experiences that have ravaged Belgium, the misery must inevitably be very great, and starving and maddened multitudes of men and women thrown out of work and clamorous for peace might break down the national steadfastness and weaken the only means by which peace can now be secured. All Englishmen and Englishwomen see the danger and are preparing to fight it. Side by side with the war upon the enemy abroad there is being prosecuted a war upon poverty, unemployment and distress at home; and the latter war is all pure gain to the nation that wages it, as we in Great Britain mean to wage it, in a boundless spirit of compassion, benevolence, unity and good sense.
So far, of course, the pinch of the struggle has hardly made itself felt. There is universal retrenchment, a severe stringency of credit, and many factories that sell their products to, or draw their raw material from, the warring countries have been forced to close. But there is nothing as yet that foreshadows anything like a general paralysis of trade in the near future. On the contrary, the Industrial machine, taken as a whole, has borne the shock surprizingly well and the most rational efforts will assuredly be put forth to keep it working. Compared with Paris, London is at this moment a normal city; compared with any of the Continental nations Great Britain is busy and prospering.
That, I need hardly say, is the supreme advantage of our insular position. So long as we are not invaded and so long as we are still enabled to keep a large proportion of the workers at home instead of sending them to the front, our fundamental strength is being preserved while that of our foes and allies is being wasted. Therefore, it would be utterly discreditable to us if, with industry far from stagnant and with all the vital trade routes open for the transmission of our food supply, we did not face the struggle with a tranquil resolution. The Belgians know what war means, but we may never know. Our towns and villages are not burning, our women and children are not being indiscriminately shot, no foreign soldier is on British soil, no alien aeroplane or airship has yet dropt a bomb upon us. These things may come and then the temper of the people will be tested indeed. At present between us and the havoc and butchery, the social chaos and utter commercial stagnation that prevail on the Continent, there floats—as thruout our annals there has always floated—the British navy. We trust in it. But even if the fortune of events turns against us and the terrible discipline of invasion is imposed upon us, the nation, I believe, will meet the greater ordeal with the same expressionless tenacity and sober competence as it is displaying today.
That belief is groun ded on the fact that our people have a clear perception of the causes of the present conflict, of the reasons why Great Britain has been impelled to take part in it, and of the ends we seek. They are firmly convinced that German arrogance and aggression, and nothing else, brought on the war. They are persuaded that it was sudden only in the manner and the moment of its coming and that in every other aspect it was the culmination of a long and carefully meditated plot for the domination of Europe, the humbling of British sea-power, and the building up by force of a Greater Germany overseas at our expense. Let Germany win and all Europe lies under the jackboot of Prussian militarism, the Independence of the small northern kingdoms is gone forever, and the larger states, ourselves among them, live by German sufferance alone, their colonies wrested from them, their wealth forced into German coffers, their whole civilization twisted to conform with German ideas.
We have taken up arms to resist this ascendency and destroy it. We have met and defeated similar attempts to set up an overlordship in Europe in the past, and we shall meet and defeat this one. Everything we have and are and may be is at stake. Defeat means the disruption of the empire, the blotting out of Great Britain from the role of the powers that count, and the servitude of British policy to the dictates of Berlin.
We are fighting to defend the sanctity of treaties and pledges that Germany has violated with cynical insolence. We are fighting to ward off the intolerable menace of a Germany installed in Dutch, French and Belgian forts and disputing with us the very freedom of the English Channel. We are fighting to preserve what we already have, our standing in the world, our empire, our trade and the free exercize of all those ideals of society and of government that are dear to us because they are British.
We are fighting, finally, to ensure the inviolability of our island home and to reinforce our friends whose interests in this supreme crisis' run parallel to our own, and whose triumph will be not only our triumph but the triumph of Liberty thruout Western Europe. These are great causes. They will nerve our people to suffer and dare all things till victory and salvation are assured.
London, August 20.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald