The War of 1938
By Eugene P. Lyle, Jr.
[Everybody's Magazine, September 1918]
"If we had only seen the thing through in 1918!"
These are words that with inexorable certainty will be wrung from our agonized lips twenty years from now—if, in these tremendous moments of the world struggle, we falter, relax, and in weariness fall short of finishing our task now and for all time.
What is written here is not a prophecy; it is not a dream. It is a thought that even now sears the souls of fathers and mothers everywhere and steels them to the ultimate sacrifice NOW, that they and their grandchildren may not face in 1958 the death and downfall Mr. Lyle pictures in this article.
Being nearly fifty, I was too old to fight in the last war—the war, as we have always called it since—yet here I am in the trenches twenty years after, and already I have held home the trigger of an obsolete, rusted automatic rifle and blindly let the stream play on an incoming wave of massed gray human bodies. By my being here, is nothing worthy of note. The notable thing, and the significant thing, as gruesome as despair, is that among the million civilians in this sector trying to relieve Dover and save London—vain hope, and we know it!—are hundreds, thousands, who like myself were too old to fight in 1914-1918 and who like myself gave their sons instead.
Why, then, are we in it, we grandfathers of grown men, and this scourge of a new war not yet a month old?
That the trenches are dug in the soil of old England only partly answers the question, although the frantic rush to stem the invasion caught up all ages, even women and children and the stranger within the gates.
Nor is the ghastly thought that we failed to back those boys of ours in 1918, that we let their blood flow for naught, that their children must now face what they did, what they fought to save us from forever—not even is this grisly specter of remorse wholly the thing that hurried us here. It was enough, God knows, and I would to God it were all. But the real reason lies deeper yet. It lies like lead on the heart of mankind and may not be denied, yet the pain of dying is easier than the pain of acknowledging so hideous a certainty. So we are here to die, we old men and our children and their children, three generations of men bearing arms, or what antiquated weapons we can lay hand to.
We intend to die. We are resolved to. Men make this decision when life ceases to be endurable, and we know that life can not here after be endurable. Our cause is lost already. It was lost in 1918. The time has passed when we might have kept those things that we hold dearer than life. The hour of opportunity, when we might have secured them for all time, is gone. We can not, because the day is fading out now, so we have come to die with them.
Back in 1918 peace as an actual fact astounded the world hardly less than the outbreak of the war. But it happened simply enough. There had been a psychological moment, a wavering of Allied resolution; and the Germans had boiled through, as they would through a gap in the line. Then—peace!
In these dark days twenty years later, in this hopeless present agony of mankind, that capitulation on the eve of triumph seems the most monstrously incredible thing in history. We see clearly now. It was the forsaking—the betrayal of Humanity.
Still, we to-day of the passing generation were the generation of affairs then, and all had our part, our blame, in it. Twenty years is a short time. We have but to go back to our state of mind in that drear November of 1918 to understand how we lost heart at last and were duped by our crafty foe.
The 1918 campaign just closing had been the most terrible of the war. It marked on accelerated cost in lives and treasure compared to which all that had gone before was but preparation for this headlong suicide of the human race. Civilization was dumping into the Flaming Ditch a billion dollars a week of its possessions. And to quench the world on fire, men poured their life-blood, a quarter million here, a half million there, and it was but a skirmish, an episode. And still there had been no decision.
Most perilous to us, though, were times during that terrible summer-long battle when our hopes ran high, when we eagerly considered victory a logical certainty, practically in sight. Hope as a false stimulant is always perilous. Beware the reaction. Go back to that spring and summer for a moment. You recall the soothing balm of relief when the gap made in the British line by a hundred Hun divisions was stopped by the French. And when the shorter but no less dangerous thrust was blunted in Flanders. And after that, the gallant spurts from a stubborn defense to brilliant offensive strokes. Also the rumbling of revolution and dissatisfaction in Germany and Austria. That bloodiest of all campaigns was spotted with days, and sometimes weeks, when the fortunes of war seemed running our way full and strong. Looking back, we can almost name the hour when the tide reached its highest. On the battle-field we were winning. The enemy was exhausting himself in his weakening bloodbath. Our losses were staggering, too, but hope being with us, we did not think of them, not then. We though rather of the Americans filling our ranks anew, and of the final overwhelming stroke that we must inevitably deliver.
That bright hour, though, was our worst. It was our fatal hour. It was when we should have been most wary of Fate, most suspicious of Teuton craft. We should have remembered a similar hour of promise in each preceding year of the war. Even in 1914 there was the hour after the Marne and after the blocking of the road to Calais. But, due to Russian defeat at Tennenberg (in its turn due to German corruption of the Russian staff) the invaders remained in possession of the industrial equipment of Belgium and most of that of France, without which Germany could not have gone on with the war. So we faced the first winter with that handicap to overcome.
In 1915, again, our joy over the entrance of Italy was blanketed by autumnal disaster, the same due again not primarily to German fighting but to German intrigue behind the lines. In the spring, Russia was put out of the war for that year because arms were purposely withheld from her troops at the Dunajec. Consequently, the western allies being hard-pressed, were unable to come in time to the aid of Servia, and we faced that winter with Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey linked up into a solid and compact phalanx.
But of all those years that passed and were so much alike, it was 1916 that should have been our text-book during that critical hour of promise and that later critical hour of wavering in 1918. What a year was 1916 for the Allies! German defeat at Verdun, Franco-British success at the Somme, Russia menacing Lemberg, the splendid Italian thrust at Gorizia, Austria on the brink of panic Roumania coming in, Hungary invaded! That fall every Allied front seemed pregnant with victory—the Western, the Italian, the Eastern, the Balkan, and in Mesopotamia. But—by Thanksgiving the Germans were closing in on Bucharest! Treacherously the Teuton-corrupted Russians had failed to keep faith with Roumania, By Christmas Attila of Potsdam was dangling peace before a disheartened world. The usual autumnal disaster had blackened the skies of summer for one more hard winter.
The next year, 1917, was startling identical. One glorious summer, and Then—the deluge of gloom. There was the German retreat on the Somme front, the Hindenburg line dented, the fall of Bagdad and practical certainty that British and Russian armies would put Turkey to a state of collapse, the victories before Ypres and Cambrai. But—at a blow (preceded by insidious propaganda)—the Germans changed all that. By only the slightest margin was invaded Italy saved to the allies. And so there was another winter—always a harder winter—to go through while tantalising suggestions of peace assailed the war-weary heart like hosts of whispering imps. And for the future—what? Germany on the offensive with numbers and equipment unprecedented, made possible by Russia, now definitely corrupted and wiped out.
THE WAR-WEARINESS OF 1918
The 1918 offensive, of course, was but another peace offensive, by the agency of appalling human slaughter. By 1918 the Germans had become experts in "enemy psychology." They now thoroughly understood the reactions of excessive optimism into a gloom entirely unwarranted by the true situation. Purposely they let reports of their own troubles sift through to hearten us, that our hopes might have the farther to drop when during that decisive summer of 1918, the prospects of victory and an early peace were brightest, then most of all should we have braced ourselves against the usual autumnal disaster, lest we become fit subjects to grasp at peace and let the victory go.
When by November it appeared that the war might go on into 1919, with victory not certain even then—or so we were told and endlessly told others, if you remember—then the Germans made their real drive, the one they had had in mind from the first. They hoisted again their puppet dove of peace, but this time it was feathered anew with what from a distance looked like the Allies' own terms.
These terms, however, should hare convinced we simplest of men that Germany was on her last legs—that it was either concessions or surrender. Even so, yet the old propaganda-nurtured myth that victory was impossible proved now to be a grisly fee-fa-fum that rousted reason. The soldiers in the trenches knew better, but we thought them only heroes, not oracles. And there was another thing: All in vain had America performed miracles of preparation for the certain knockout. War-weary and unnerved, we who waited behind the lines could not, would not, see America's sword unsheathed flashing and poised for the thrust to the vitals of the Beast. American promises seemed to have failed of adequate fulfilment in 1918. Would they of certainty be fulfilled in 1919? The Allied peoples could not be again persuaded that there was any certainty about it.
Certainty of winter, of horror, of accelerated slaughter—that was all. It was the moment that all German effort during three years had played for. And the German leaped at the bared white throat.
We know now that the peace offensive this time had to succeed. Even a Hindenburg will concede much rather than whimper ''Kamerad. Recall, therefore, the disarming simplicity of the Prussian maneuver. At Potsdam, the inner clique of thugs, Crown Prince and all, had been discredited. It was no Junker chancellor, not even a fence-straddler, that the Kaiser called to him in the crisis, but a Reichstag chancellor out and out. This new fellow's first act was to dig out of the scrap-heap those old Reichstag resolutions and piously dust them off. To the two crown jewels in that diadem of Democracy, the Reichstag added yet a third: "No annexations, no indemnities, and—no armaments." Truly, here was the voice of the German people speaking at last. It was the smashing of autocracy, the one essential for which America and the Allies had fought.
Furthermore, everything within the bounds of democratic reason was conceded—or seemed to be. First Belgium was to be restored, And last, and most astounding, Germany would "negotiate" the question of Alsace-Lorraine. The German people, remember, were doing this—offering the olive-branch in a pathetic wistfulness for fellowship again in the common brotherhood of man.
With the realisation that peace was possible, on possible terms, the tidal wave of yearning for it that arose among the Allied peoples—in your neighborhood and mine; everywhere—swept over all obstacles and all who dared oppose. So that once the Allies were inveigled to the green table, the rest was a foregone conclusion. Not for the sake of the wording of a clause or two would a sickened humanity go down again into the valley of the shadow of death. At last Junkerthum had humanity where Junkerthum wanted humanity.
The Germans, nevertheless, played always within the margin of safety. They took care not to goad the Allies into breaking off the negotiations. Adroitly they played the war-weary Allied peoples against the Allied peace commissioners. And the Allied governments, lest they might not have the support of their peoples in a renewal of the war, admitted perforce one brute n—— after another into the Prussian wood-pile. They dared not let the negotiations fail.
THE GAME AT THE GREEN TABLE
On the face of things, it did seem to most of us that everybody ought to be satisfied, or almost. Only let there be peace—blessed peace. That, unhappily had come to be the main thing; that, and relief from the invader. So from day to day as the peace bickerers bickered, we read that Italy was satisfied with a thin slice of her unredeemed Trentino; Servia with a narrow window on the Adriatic, though she had to leave a gate open from Hungary into Bulgaria, the same being between herself and Roumania; and that Roumania might almost be called lucky to get Bessarabia at the deserved expense of Russia, though she gave up the Dobrudja and the mouth of the Danube.
As for Russia, or what had been Russia, here was a running sore certain to infect the world. Yet to go on fighting solely for the Russians was, at this juncture, too much to expect of the Allies they had deserted. Accordingly, the Russians in their various disintegrations were left to enjoy the "boob freedom" to the utmost.
For Poland, of course, there was real regret, since she was given but the mockery of independence within constructed boundaries that at no point touched salt water. Hers, however, was only the common fate, because, as a matter of cold, practical fact, all Europe east and southeast of Germany was "negotiated" by the peace conference into a state of actual or imminent vassalage to Prussian might.
Even in the case of Alsace-Lorraine once the allied peoples were lulled into the narcotic calm of the armistice, it became apparent that if Alsace-Lorraine were the only obstacle to peace then Alsace-Lorraine could stay with Germany for another twenty years. For such was the German offer; after twenty years the lost provinces were to be restored to France, and as guarantee France was to hold the German colonies in Africa that she had conquered. Twenty years of peace looked better than another year of fighting, and the offer was accepted.
These whittling-down negotiations struck a nail, however, when they struck Belgium. One thing the world could not stomach was a second treachery to Belgium. Yet, in the end, Germans argument—that she offered the Belgians as much as she would do by her own people prevailed. Besides, the Belgians themselves accepted it, so eager were they to be back once again in their own country .
Moreover, if considered as an offer made in good faith by a bankrupt who needed time to pay up, we had to admit that German's offer to Belgium was as generous as could be expected. She freely acknowledged the debt owing Belgium, not only the estimated $3,300,000,000 for levies exacted and material stolen, but almost as much again for destruction wrought, or a grand total of six billions. But she was owing her own people more than thirty-five billions on war bonds , and nearly five billions for issues and unsecured paper currency. She refused to prefer the Belgians as creditors above her own people, but she would pay the Belgians in bonds and put them on exactly the same basis, to wit: a moratorium for twenty years, interest accruing but non-payable during this time.
It was the policy Germany had decided upon for her own people. Until they could recover economically, at least in some degree, from the war, she would refrain from taxing them to pay for the war. German beholders, therefore, must wait for their money, but the Belgians could place their bonds among their friends, the allies, and proceed at once with the restoration of their homes and industries. More African colonies were proffered as security; and, rather that renew the war over a question of cash down, the arrangement was accepted.
Germany kept none of her colonies, indeed. She could not have developed them if she had. With her crushing problem of rehabilitation at home, she was quite content to let others take over the burden of her herd of black elephants, at least until the ivory crop should be ready to harvest.
The Disarmament Bait
In the matter of armament she proved as tractable, and for as good a reason. Disarmed, she had naught to fear from democracies disarmed in the same proportion. And for ten years at least she did not want the burden of keeping up armaments. Her people would have revolted, or in any case could never have recovered economically. Like an exhausted prize-fighter, the bully of Europe asked nothing better than to break training in order to build up a shattered constitution. So the world was reassured. I remember personally the deep breath of relief I drew. At last Militarism had come to its senses. And we turned away when certain men of clear vision exclaimed that the safety of the world would be better served by imposing on Germany the necessity of maintaining vast armies and navies. But instead we gave her every facility to recover strength, since we agreed to the principles of no discriminatory tariff and no embargoes.
And so Peace came. And when our soldiers, climbing out of the trenches, Said: "God help you if you haven't let us finish our work!" we told them that their work was finished—that they had saved Civilization.
The world, indeed, did feel safe; and all the evidence went to justify our comforting sense of security. Yet I recall the flare of impotent anger that swept over the Allied people when the curtain was lifted from interior Germany and we beheld the nation of palsied, starving, stinking scarecrows on the verge of bloody revolution to whom we had submitted in a negotiated peace . How much more just, and to these wretched victims most of all, had we let the war go on to a finish! Then, in honest reality we could have had the voice of the German people in the matter and our hand would have been held out to them to help and lift them up.
But, to ease our chagrin for the manner in which we had been tricked, we said to ourselves that these noisome cadavers that still breathed would dream no more dreams of supermen and Kultur and Deutschland über Alles. The reasoning was plausible and did console us.
And then we said, too, that it was better that the war should end in a tie. Had there been a victory, we said, no matter by which side, the world would remember that a victory was possible, and be about the hideous business again some time.
During those first years after the war, while the Allied nations bound up Their wounds, and, with the hope of lasting peace that was itself a healing balm, looked forward to an early convalescence. Germany did most to fortify that hope. The grim cauterizing, to all appearances, had done its work, and the work was clean. Much there was to admire in the way the German people set bravely and patiently to work to make once again, homes and shops and farms out of what had become a vast desolation, with their apparently repentant government rendering loyal aid.
It is a story of marvels, that rehabilitation of the German people . It had to be rehabilitation in every way, from dish-rags to faith in destiny. Measured by the national debt alone, about one-half of the capital values of the empire had been shot away. Stocks of all kinds were exhausted. Idle machinery in factories had been scrapped to turn into howitzers,, It's hard to realize as we read the daily papers today, that the starting-point of the newer Prussian World-Dominion was almost stark destitution, and that, only a short twenty years ago. We know now, when it is too late, that the German way, out and up, was over the economic bars that our peace commissioners let down to them. How they surged through, that famine-mad pack, pouncing ravenously on the world's depleted stocks of raw material.
The man who supplies our grocer with truck ran into this fact when he complained that guano was costing him more than in war times, whereupon he learned from his fertilizerman that the Germans had about corralled the output of Chilean nitrates. Probably that little fact, along with others from the same incubator, accounts for much of the mystery as to why the H. C. of L. hasn't tobogganed noticeably. We reconciled ourselves to high prices while we were trying to beat the Germans, but for twenty years we have continued paying them, still on account of the Germans, yet without the satisfaction of beating them.
As a matter of fact, while the war was yet raging, agents of this or that German government bureau had been drumming up commercial relations in neutral countries, competing and contracting for available stocks of raw materials; and shipments began with the lifting of the Allied blockade. Germany had begun the war by pressing a button. She entered on peace by pressing another. Her machinery for reorganization was perfected already. Her bottled-up merchant fleets steamed forth. By aid of immense imperial subsidies their tonnage was speedily doubled . The race was for raw materials—raw materials—raw materials.
The monstrous thing was true. Before the one war was done, the masters of Germany had been at work in preparation for the next. They began while the causes of defeat—women crying for bread; soldiers muttering for a heavier barrage—yet rang in their ears. That must not happen another time. Raw material was the answer. Raw material—surplus piled on surplus—was the answer. Before, they had stupidly calculated on a one-year war. Now they calculated on a five—a ten year war. Material and men, fodder and cannon-fodder, were the two essentials; and the certainty of these the peace treaty had given them, in obliging abundance.
By no means did the colossal economic strategy stop with the importations—with Chilean nitrates, Argentine hides, Mexican copper, American cotton, Spanish coal and iron developed by German capital, nickel, tin, rubber, wool, and on through the long list. For immediate reconstruction, importations were imperative, but in the ultimate plan they could only be supplementary, even those that would not be shut off by blockage, such as iron ore and wood pulp from Sweden, food-stuffs from Holland and Denmark, or atmospheric acid produced by a German electrical trust from Swiss Water power. In the end the war must be won by Germany—by Mitteleuropa—out of her own resources.
The old Teuton shibboleth had been "Efficiency." Not there was another on the lips of the worshipers—"Self-Sufficiency!" It was the cure, the preventive, of defeat.
Until 1914 the common type of German, in fact and fancy, was a fat German. But that picture would be lost upon my grandchildren today, for there are no more fat Germans—not in Germany. Fat and waste and lost motion are not within the purview of the German state. The people had been kept on rations; not starvation rations, but war rations, nevertheless. They had gotten the habit, and the habit was made a huge national asset. Unbolted wheat meal was used in wheat bread. Close scientific tab was kept on every garbage-pail. War substitutes, when of real economy, were continued and under this treatment the German people were as children being nursed back to health. Gradually they emerged a hardy people, all to the betterment of the race. If the record might stop here, if one might forget State encouragement of man-breeding in ways not pleasant to think of, then German reconstruction would go down in history as a noble achievement of despotism—almost as an atonement.
One may not cease to marvel or ever finish the story. Super-intensity in speeding up, digging down, spreading out, was applied to every industry, occupation, individual, in every state and province of Mitteleuropa. A customer of mine from Schiedam, whose business takes him over the Central Empires, told me that no arable acre is left untilled, or pasture left ungrazed; and land not fit for food production or flax and hemp has gone by the million acres into the scheme of national afforestation, one item alone that after ten years guaranteed a five-year timber supply for all military purposes, including fiber as a cotton substitute in the manufacture of explosives.
He told me that tremendous resources hitherto scarcely touched have fallen under the Prussian goad: mineral deposits, subterranean lakes of oil, forested hills, hills and plains to be stocked with sheep and goats and cattle; the Balkans, Turkey, and—Russia.
Russia alone—the old Russia was the planet in miniature. She could supply all things requisite to man's sustenance that the planet supplied elsewhere—even cotton—even platinum. The one thing lacking to this exhaustless treasure-house had been German organisation, and now it has that. Muzhiks who hungered are not adverse to having empty stomachs filled from their own pantry. The Ukraine is but an Imperial Germanic granary, ever overflowing anew.
So, we today confront this fact, namely, that not again will the Teuton despoiler stop short of the victory because of a blockade. He can defy navies and he does not need them. In the peaceful pursuits of agriculture, mining and the manufactures, he has been arming as effectively and actually as though he had been building dread-noughts by the score . And when he does need them, after all of Europe and Africa and Asia are his, he can build them at his leisure, in whatever overwhelming proportion may be required to finish the world job.
But while calking the leaks in their pirate ship for another tempestuous And blood venture, the masters of Germany did not forget certain rocks on which they had blundered disastrously during the former cruise. The war had been one long floundering in miscalculations as to how other peoples would react . There had been a lack of accurate data. So all the data must be gathered and it was gathered; not gathered, by spies, however Germany's old spy system had been a blunder of itself. So we have not been hearing much of German spies any more. They have not been needed—not while purely military information was not needed.
But for some weeks past we have been in an era of revelation—astounding revelation. We learn, for example, that as to matters political and social, better mirrored in newspapers, in magazines, in motion pictures, than by nests of cheap spies writing their fingers off. And subscriptions cost less than spies. Nearly everybody in Germany subscribed to something outside of Germany. And each periodical was pasted on to its respective bureau in Wilhelmstrasse. Here the Niagara of white paper was boiled down to summaries, which then went to the subtlest brains in the empire for analysis and deductions. The masters of Germany have made no serious mistakes in the reaction of the German people. All mankind, presumably, is but a collection of various insect species under the microscope of these ultra-supermen.
Consider how unerringly to the psychology of the Belgians and the French they have played. It was the considerate and crafty policy of non-contact. Rarely, has a German entered Belgium or France, for pleasure or business, whose features were German, whose manners were German, whose accent had the German taint. Belgians and Frenchmen have lived through almost two decades as if the Germans were a distant people and the peril extinct. But they have been selling into Germany and buying German goods, without the need of knowing that they did. On their books were firms in Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and Spain--German brokers, every one.
And, if thus the ravagers could deal with unrecognized Belgium and France, it stood to reason that they could and did adjust themselves to the less difficult conditions elsewhere.
With Russia—or what was Russia—they went back to the old policy of Bismarck. Departing from that policy had been their first mistake. Friendship with Russia had been the keystone of the old policy; it was also of the new and easy of attainment. For the great bear lay a carcass; and there were only cubs, easily cowed and coddled and beguiled. Unlike the old bear, these cubs did not hunger for Turkey. The Kaiser was welcome to the bird, for all they cared. There was not a bone of contention. But there was much Germanizing, Prussianising, in the upbringing of the untutored litter of young nondescripts. Japan, just over the eastern horizon, stirred with growing alarm, but Japan was bidden by a world at peace to mind her own p's and q's and to start nothing—nothing whatever. So the German Self-Sufficiency, beside its own solid block of 170,000,000 souls or slaves in Mitteleuropa, could count on as many more in the Russias as a reservoir of sustenance during the scheduled years of manslaughter, whereas in the last war these had been the first of Germans' foes.
For a decade and a half after the close of the war, these things went on with scarcely a ripple on the serene surface of world affairs. There was naught in it betokening storm, nothing ominous. With our hard problems of reconstruction, we had a latent sympathy for any people, even the old enemy confronting the same problems in a harsher degree. Let the Germans qualify for friendship, then in time, perhaps, we might forget, and trust. Be were lulled—drugged, I might say, by adroit suggestion—into just this state of complacent inertia.
Behind the Curtain
The Prussian mask fell slowly—very, very slowly. Only the few could guess what that wrinkled front portended, and their warning fell on deaf or impatient ears. Peoples at peace are slow to take a passionate interest in foreign affairs. And now years of peace had made what once had seemed impossible again.
The truth was not exactly apparent, as, to be sure. There was no conscription in Germany, no standing armies, no stupendous naval program--nothing of the old order of armaments.
As to submarines, however, we were not so sure. If the parts were already manufactured—and such was the rumor—they could be quickly assembled after a declaration of hostilities. We read, too, of unauthenticated stories of submarine crews being trained, one after another, in a score or more of the old U-boats which were still used as surface revenue patrols. Likewise we read of vast underground arsenals being steadily stocked with arms and munitions of every description, and of new and terrible agencies of destruction being perfected by German science .
At our down-town Lunch Club we jeered our Fire-Alarm Member who stood sponsor for these wild tales, but deep down the stuff was beginning to make us nervous. It was getting harder, too, to laugh away the look in my wife's eyes on an evening when she needed to be convinced all over again that the persistent tales were sheer tommyrot. She was thinking of our grandchildren, of course, and—God help us! I was, too. Yes, and we all were, we grandparents who had known the agony of sending our boys down into that unspeakable hell on earth. And just here a question, corrosive as remorse, bitter as despair, first began to haunt our rest. Had we, perhaps, we asked ourselves, done wrong in not 'letting those boys of 1918 finish the job according to their own idea of a finish? We were beginning to realize, as we did not at the time, our sacred responsibility back in 1918, and we were seeing that the stewardship of our children's children, of posterity, of civilization itself, lay upon our souls in 1918, and we were beginning to sense the call to an accounting—and accounting dreadful beyond the conceptions of finite mind.
What most disturbed our unhonored prophets so long as five years ago was the wild-fire spread in popularity of the Pan-German gun clubs. Rifle clubs they should have been called, because these were no groups of stout gentlemen popping away at clay pigeons, but lean young fellows cracking down on a steel manikin at a hundred yards. Excepting only aeronautics, marksmanship had become the one national sport from the Baltic to the Bosporus. Contests, patterned after the canton shooting tournaments in Switzerland, were the big annual event for every state or province of Middle Europe, until these encampments began to take on proportions almost of a mobilization and the ''incidental sports" to resemble annual maneuvers.
In a word—need we recall the awakening and the shock of it?—Mitteleuropa was ready with a standing army—equipped and trained and eager—that could not number less than twenty million men.
It was the biological phenomenon of pests over again, like the recurrence of the seven-year locusts. The swarms appear and blanket the fields, devouring every leaf and twig; and men wonder whence they come. But beneath the rotted vegetation, life had been fermenting into myriads, and here were the myriads—the Scourge! The filthy grayback pests—the lice crawling over the fair body of Europe—had not been exterminated that last time. And here they were again!
But not all of them crawled. Among them evolution had produced a winged species that filled the air. These were a higher breed, a prouder and a deadlier Lucifer's bats out of the caverns of hell.
The world might have foreseen, but airplanes everywhere were commoner than horse carriages. They were the couriers of the sky. Fast mail and hurried Passengers went by star routes. The young blood had his cloud-skimmer, the plutocrat his enclosed aerolite de luxe, the salesman his brisk little wagonette, common as house-flies, they were, and nobody noticed them in Germany particularly. Nobody except the jingo croakers—wise old frogs!—noticed that throughout Middle Europe airplanes were being developed as a direct legacy of the war, as hawks, as vultures, as plague-sowing buzzards. To skill in flying was added sham combat governed by rules and regulations to make for proficiency in the real thing. And there was even keener zest in bomb-dropping, so that to score an acre bull's eye—at five thousand feet and a hundred miles an hour as no more than entry qualification for an Imperial Tourney.
Those thins we know now, since the last few weeks, and we know of the hundreds of thousands of planes in commission, each a multiple-death-carrier-pigeon. (to use the long German word) manned by champions. But of the latest devices that assuredly await us—the new explosives, gas capsules, bacteria dust to spawn destruction, epidemics, crop-blighting fungi—we have had as yet only a foretaste.
This, however, is to anticipate, and bring us all too quickly into the endless night of the present hour. Our real awakening to the peril was of slow growth. The big middle slice of Europe had become the world's insatiable Market. It kept up prices. And, potash, largely from Alsace, was the cornerstone of every granary in the land. We waxed mirthful when warned that we were literally filling Prussian arsenals with deadly weapons, even when we shipped there our rags and junk. Here were profits, and we smelled no blood on the coin. And as to an embargo, cutting off a bully good customer—certainly not!
But the wise old frogs induced a certain wakefulness at last, and when enough folks began to lose sleep, berthless politicians saw psychological utility in it—a new political issue, a new arrangement of mouth-filling words. Middle Europe was an armory, a training camp! The biggest gang of thugs known to all history were making ready to loot the world! Now was the time to vote right! Vote right, vote right, while were still free men!
And the professional patriots began to get the votes. Whole peoples got into a chronic state of fidgets. As in France before 1914, the most effective cry against a government was to declare that somebody had sold out to Germany. We worked ourselves into a perpetual spy scare.
But all this was far, far from toeing the scratch for actual preparedness. We were still grinding ourselves to curtail the biggest war bill in history—greater than all other war bills rolled into one. We were adverse to a new crushing taxation, and that reluctance helped us to feel that maybe all this war talk was only bosh, anyway.
But deep down within us we knew that the thing was coming. It was the time when a father's casual caress often changed strangely into a tense straining of the child to his heart as he gazed queerly over the child's head, pain and trouble in his eyes. We knew, we knew! This time the thing would not be denied. We could not hope even for a stalemate. Prussian braggarts mocked us. Democracy had not stood ready before, even when victory was within its grasp, and it would not again.
We questioned if the fabric of a united front to the idolaters of Moloch could again be woven. Or if the tissues would hold. Free peoples had broken down in the last war; and the recollection sapped the reliance of mankind on itself. And none of the peoples could count on loyalty of class to class within its own boundaries. The last war had demonstrated a nation's utter dependency on Labor, and could we be sure that Labor would stand impregnable against the shock? Doubt lay heavy on men's hearts, on the workers themselves. But in Germany Labor was still a beast of burden, and at the same time, a boarhound held on leash—a servile beast, its fangs slavering to bring down easy meat. Democracy had failed in the last war, but autocracy had justified itself. Only autocracy was fit to control the world—and would!
Even frightfulness was paying dividends, a sound investment. For mark the governments who have scurried under the aegis of Kultur for immunity. They remember Belgium.
Then the time came when, in cold blood, the Imperial German Government set about manufacturing provocation for the attack. The reason was clear to even ordinary discernment. The twenty-year-moratorium was drawing to a close. A date was at hand that might prove inconvenient, or worse—the date when payments on the German war bonds and the Belgian restoration bonds were to begin; when Alsace and Lorraine were to be given back to France.
But anything of the sort meant a staggering additional taxation of the German people. The abrupt imposition of such a burden might well start revolt, especially since the German people had tacitly understood from the first that it would never be imposed. Their very hardships from the war, which according to all calculations should have driven them to revolution, had been artfully employed to bind them closer to the autocracy. For by militarism they should be repaid a thousandfold. The huge indemnities promised in 1914 were merely deferred. Only by a military autocracy would they have reward and revenge for their past sufferings. With the moneyed classes, the German bondholders, the case was the same. They could get their money back, not from taxation at home but from levies on conquered enemies. Imperial legions would do their collecting for them.
As to the Belgian obligations, a more reptilian jest had never been made in Germany. Thus far those six billions for reparation had not cost Germany more than the printer's bill, for the bonds had been largely placed among the peoples eternally grateful to Belgium, and thousands of investors had been waiting those twenty years for even the first interest payment. Meantime real billions in actual capital had gone into the restoration of Belgium, so that Belgium was now rebuilt; and now, as in 1914, she awaited the Prussian, a sheep of golden fleece again ready for the shears.
One wonders, though, why German statesmanship should have bothered to find a pretext. Yet suddenly, the world was asked to believe that we were war-mad aggressors want only attacking an unprepared and peace-loving Fatherland in our insensate appetite of conquest. The truth, of course, is as obvious as Andromeda in the coils of the monster.
First there was the total lowering of the mask. What we could not bring ourselves to see, the Prussian forced us to see; and we saw the cruel, greedy eyes, hard with contempt; the twitching nostrils, scenting blood about to run hot; and the sneer on the lips baring wolfish fangs. The cloak fell away, too the cloak or peaceful industry and economic development and we saw the huge torso beneath, fully armed, and in the mailed fist a butcher's cleaver. We saw, when Prussia took pains to make us see, Attila's hordes. We saw a standing army of twenty million men, half as many more in reserve.
That was but a few weeks ago, and France, Belgium, Italy, and Great Britain began frantically to arm, converting citizens into raw armies, peace-time factories into munition plants, merchant ships into cruisers. Then—the German ultimatum!
The German Imperial Government would be lacking in candor, etc., etc., if it did not acquaint the said governments with its pained surprise at activities clearly in contravention of the treaty of peace of 1919 (reference here being made to the clause limiting armaments), and after calling the attention of said governments to the loyalty of the Imperial German Government to all its obligations under that treaty, and to the said clause particularly, the German Imperial Government felt itself regretfully constrained to regard said activity as unfriendly acts directed at itself if same did not cease by noon of the third day from date—
We know the rest. For three weeks we have had it in black type across every daily of the world . Each day has been freighted with ominous history. At noon of that third day the biological phenomenon began. The graybacks began crawling, the winged ones swarming. With the ferocity of baffled wolves now certain of their prey they came. Millions ravaged Belgium and France. Other millions obliterated Servia and Roumania. Where before the closed door had been Belgrade, it was now Bagdad. The Ukraine proved to be a secret Teutonic ally; thirty million allies. From Odessa came the Cossacks and, with the Turks, poured into Mesopotamia. The Suez Canal was theirs.
Over England night-flying air-fleets, circling and darting in the silence of the new engines, rained abominations from Harwich to Birmingham. Dawn of the second day found thousands of transport planes landing the graybacks near Dover. Already they had a footing on the cliffs.
The end of the third week, when this is written, finds Dover besieged; finds the remnant of the French citizen armies being crowded down into Spain; where interment awaits them; finds the Italians being smothered in the leg of their boot; finds America and the British oversea dominions despatching fleets hastily crowded with armed civilians, to Egypt and India, the only possible fronts, which must be manned and munitioned from a distance of thousands of miles, and already a score of troop-ships have been intercepted in the Mediterranean, by submarines and torpedoed; and it finds America stunned, rubbing her eyes and wondering—wondering.
It is the Night—the Prussian Night—the Consummation!
Can the blow be parried? No one thinks so; no one may hope so. The Thing was decided back in 1918, with the war that failed of a decision. But there will be a decision this time, and a decisive war decides a thing for centuries. The Turks waged a decisive war, and for centuries superior white races were their slaves, and some of these are their slaves to this day.
Now the Germans are waging their decisive war. Centuries and centuries we, with a clear-visioned consciousness that they are an inferior breed, will be their slaves. After centuries, we may, perhaps, creep back into the light of day. But no brave man will consent to live the first year of these centuries in prospect, nor leave behind him his children to do so. When these shall have chosen their manner of death, those left by the awful elimination will be only those of slave stuff, and deserving to become slaves.
In all the wretched lexicon of regret there is no word more futile than the ghastly word "if." It avails nothing, ever, and yet to-night the word is branded deep on the aching heart of humanity—
"If we had only seen the thing through in 1918!"
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald