- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 1 Feb 1917, p. 406-416
- Willison, W.A., Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- First, a word on censorship of official secrets during wartime. Learning something in a two-and-a-half year stay in London. The generous praise of the Canadians in England. The speaker's position as representative of his paper in London. Finding the whole nation straining to expedite its war mobilization. London, personifying the spirit of the race; Glasgow, looking down upon London with an easy, if unexpressed, assumption of superiority and racing for a higher enlistment; little Wales creating its own Guards; Ireland turning from civil strife to maintaining its regiments of old and glorious tradition. The greatest voluntary response to public duty in the history of all time. An estimate of the probable military strength of Great Britain, made in 1914. Great Britain still marching from strength to strength. Five million men enlisted in Great Britain today. Ways in which the British Navy has protected her against Germany's naval power. The contribution of British labour. The British working man as the backbone of the army, the backbone of the navy, the foundation of the nation and of Empire. What this recent industrial revolution has meant in the United Kingdom in terms of production of munitions and military equipment. Political changes that have been as great as industrial changes. The unparalleled war mobilization of the United Kingdom accompanied by a marked change in the thought of Great Britain, with illustration. The cost to Britain and the Dominions from unpreparedness. The war work of the women. A few words on the Irish question.
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- 1 Feb 1917
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- THE WAR MOBILIZATION OF GREAT BRITAIN
AN ADDRESS BY W. A. WILLISON, ESQ.
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto
February 1, 1917
MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN,--You have said so many generous things about me, Sir, that I am afraid I am very much confused. As a matter of fact, while I appreciate very greatly the privilege that has been extended to me of--addressing the Empire Club, I am literally scared to death. I do not pretend to speak with authority on the war mobilization of Great Britain. The censor is a very determined censor, and official secrets are exceedingly well kept, but we cannot stay two and a half years in London without learning something.
In England there is generous praise of the Canadians. In Canada, it seems to me that we hear too much of British blunders and British slowness. I wonder if the magnitude of British achievements is fully appreciated. No nation of ancient or modern times has equalled her war record. She has done colossal things. They told us before the war that she was grey and tired and old. One frequently heard the claim that the wings of the Empire were strong, but the centre was weak. We were given to understand that the Island race was wanting a little in application, in initiative and in ability. Gentlemen, I do not know how much of that criticism remains, but if there are any still who suffer under such delusions, let them study the war history of Great Britain. Let them visit the Grand Fleet and the Cruiser Squadron. Let them see the army on the Somme and in the blood-stained salient of Ypres. Let them go to the Clyde and Tyneside, to Barrow-in-Furness, to Vickers and Armstrongs and the other great shipbuilding, armament and munition establishments of the United Kingdom. Let them do these things and they will return marvelling and thanking God that Britain is the Mother of Empire.
Two and a half years ago, Mr. Chairman, I went to London as the representative of my paper. I found the whole nation straining to expedite its war mobilization. "Old and effete" Britain was in its shirt sleeves in the public parks, creating volunteer battalions at a rate undreamed of in history. In the great parks of London-Hyde Park, Regent's Park, St. James's Park--men marched and counter-marched all day long, and were steadily and expertly cursed by old and experienced sergeants for the benefit of their warlike souls, and the greater glory of the Empire. Those men were the first of Kitchener's armies. It was a privilege to be in London then. Mr. Lloyd George, seldom unhappy in his eloquence, employed the phrase "Through Terror to Triumph," in writing of the war recovery of the country from the conditions of that early period. There was no terror. Rather, the London--and so the England--of the war months of 1914 was a London of great spirit and high courage, a London whose heart and soul and mind were concentrated on the mighty and imperative work to be done. It was a proud city--a city that typified a nation and a past, and saw in vital challenge only the more urgent necessity for aggressive measures. London personified the spirit of the race.
And Glasgow looked down upon London with an easy, if unexpressed, assumption of superiority and raced for a higher enlistment. Little Wales created its own Guards. Irelandwithin a few hours of civil war-turned from civil strife to maintain its regiments of old and glorious tradition. In thousands upon thousands, men surged to the Colours. Companies gave place to battalions, battalions to divisions, divisions to armies. The world was witnessing the greatest voluntary response to public duty in the history of all time, a response which thrilled our friends as it dumfounded our enemies.
In the winter of 1914, one of the best informed men in London made an estimate for me of the probable military strength of Great Britain. After a study of census returns, he said: "There are roughly 8,000,000 men of military age, 2 5 percent will be required in essential industries, another 25 per cent. will be physically unfit, Britain should raise and equip 4,000,000 men." Mr. Chairman, practically that whole force was raised under the voluntary system. Such an achievement is without parallel. There is a legend of one who sowed dragons' teeth and armed men sprang up from the ground, ready equipped. These men did not spring from the ground. They were not ready equipped. A nation strained, and a man called and worked with a mighty brain, and other men followed until Derby's armies succeeded Kitchener's and conscription finally closed the net on the few who remained. Today, over 5,000,000 men have enlisted in Great Britain. Five million men--legion upon legion--a giant host, the equivalent under an infantry calculation of 4,250 battalions--five battalions a day for every day of the war--practically 6,000 men a day for 840 days. Failure? Blunder? Slowness? It is colossal. And Britain is only reaching the height of her military power. She wants 62 more divisions on the firing line. For two years and a half she has marched from strength to strength. She is still marching.
And as she has marched the British Navy has protected her. It rides the seas today as it has since Drake smashed the Armada-invincible--the supreme arbiter in human affairs. Let us not forget this in over-anxiety about submarine campaigns or in undue emphasis upon channel raids. A thousand years of strain, a thousand years of thought, a thousand years of challenge found Britain facing the war with the most perfect fighting machine of all time. That was 30 months ago. Gentlemen, never since Britain trusted the future of her peoples and the destiny of her Empire to aggressive steel on the waters has her fleet been so great, so powerful as it is today. It is the Central Empires who are under siege. It is the German navy that is blocked in Kiel. It is German commerce that is destroyed. It is Germany that has lost her colonies. No foreign forces have landed on English soil. Not that such a landing would be a matter of real concern. It is conceivable that the enemy might succeed in crossing the channel. He might land 50,000 or 100,000 men. To do so would be to murder every man for a political effect, which would be of no value outside of his own country. Britain is prepared for any such extreme measure-and has long been prepared. But there have been no such landings. If they were ever to have had real value, they must have been carried out in the early months of the war. Today, only desperation would even suggest the attempt.
Much stress is laid upon German naval construction behind Kiel, and upon the great submarines threatening the high seas. The history of British shipbuilding yards has yet to be written. But this we know--there was British naval activity before the war, but never such activity as today. Tremendous things are being done. When the war broke out, the necessity for the construction of a gigantic naval repair base was imperative. Contractors, declaring it impossible to complete the Admiralty plans before the fall of 1917, completed them by July, 1916, and huge dry-docks, wharves and workshops stand now where the sea held dominion in August, 1914. Germany has not been able to keep pace with the output of British yards. Submarines, torpedo-boats, light cruisers, battle cruisers, dreadnaughts, super-dreadnaughts-these are their products. The submarine of today is not the submarine of yesterday. The cruiser and the dreadnaught are changed in type. Turrets hide secrets of great guns. Mystery shrouds all the mystery of the mystery ships. For generations nations have sought to combine armour, armament and speed. They have had armour and armament. They have combined armament and speed. The nation that combines the three will revolutionize naval warfare. The censor would permit me to go no further than to mention mystery ships in my reports on a visit to the Fleet with an Imperial press party. He will permit me to say nothing more today. But remember that Britain leads the naval world and is never content. Do you know Kipling's "Mary Gloucester" and the old owner of many freighters, dying? Many and bitter rivals he had. But, Dickie, he told his son "They copied all they could follow, but they couldn't copy my mind! And I left 'em sweating and stealing, a year and a half behind." So it is today with the minds of the Admiralty and the naval genius of a people.
What of British labour? Do not judge it by the extremists of the Clyde or of South Wales, and even if you are tempted to do so, remember that capital, too, is a partner to strikes. Gentlemen, industrial Britain has submitted to industrial revolution. The British working man is the backbone of the army, the backbone of the navy, the foundation of the nation and of Empire. He bears the brunt of this struggle. He has repudiated international socialism. He has consented to the abrogation of privileges for which he fought and suffered during years of industrial strife with capital. He has submitted to conscription and quietly obeyed the will of the nation. He has consented to the dilution of labour. Before the war it was unthinkable that the working man of Britain would submit to the competition of women, as unthinkable as that he would accept universal military service. He has never faltered. When strikers in South Wales were being bitterly condemned in the early months of the war, the miners of Durham and Northumberland were recruiting one in ten. So many went that they had to be brought back from France. So it was in other trades. Too many--many too many--expert men enlisted. South Wales was almost a thing accursed-for a time. Then came an extraordinary bye-election--Merthyr Tydvil. The Government candidate had the united support of the great political parties. In addition, he was backed by official labour, the Independent Labour Party and the Union of Democratic Control. Every extremist and fanatical element in the country was behind him. His opponent had nothing but one plank-more vigorous prosecution of the war. He won. He won in South Wales. He won because he represented the true spirit of labour, the labour that today has promised support to a new Government pledged to introduce still more revolutionary measures. We can thank God for the working man of Britain, as we do for British armies and the British navy.
Do you know what this industrial revolution has meant? Six months ago I visited the great industrial and munition centres of the United Kingdom. In one room of one large works I saw a brigade and a half of 5-inch 6o pounders. Another firm was turning out five 6-inch howitzers a week, and six 18-pounder field guns. A score of anti-aircraft guns were to be found in another chamber. In giant foundries all manner of guns were in course of construction from great 15, 13.5 and 12-inch naval guns and giant howitzers superior to anything yet produced in Britain, to small 4-inch and mountain guns. One firm had an entire factory devoted to howitzer production. That was six months ago. What is being done today? The artillery output of these shops is guarded with every precaution. We do not know what it is. But there was a time on the Western front when the enemy dominated us in weight of artillery. He does not do so today.. And British shops have supplied Russia, Serbia and other Allies, as well as filling British needs. Also--there are mystery guns as well as mystery ships.
So with shells. Millions and millions and millions of shells are produced today. It is said that the munitions output in a4 hours is as great as it was in a year when the war broke out. There are controlled establishments all over England where 3o months ago there was nothing but waste land. At-----, for instance, in eleven months a great field was transformed into a great factory employing 6,000 hands, 60 percent women. In the initial six months of operation that factory turned out 100,000 shells. Its output has steadily risen. In the first year of the war British troops, and later, Canadian infantry sat far hours in their trenches under persistent enemy bombardments while our guns were almost silent-perhaps the most trying of all war ordeals. When I visited the salient and the Somme six months ago, our artillery was firing one, two and often three and four shells to the enemy's one. This year German forces on the Western front will be subjected to an intensity of shelling which will surpass anything in the history of the war, and which will exceed what human imagination thought possible 30 months ago.
Political changes have been as great as industrial changes. It is very difficult to determine the value of coalitions. It is almost impossible to say how much of genius there was in the Asquith policy of compromise and conciliation. We know that the original Liberal Government of 1914 was not a war government. In its ranks were represented the fanatics and extremists, the pacifists and the unworldly idealists, who were responsible for the nation's failure in preparedness, and the nation's ignorance of the terrible menace which had threatened the existence of the British Empire for years. That is a fact. It is equally a fact that the British Navy was ready and efficient, and that the first British Expeditionary Force was the best trained and best equipped army that ever left British shores. It is finally a fact that pledges to the Allies were kept. But the people had no confidence in the Government. Lord Kitchener was the great figure of that time. Men trusted him. Many believe that his word would have upset governments, and his spoken desire have introduced conscription months before it was finally adopted. Whatever the truth, whatever the value of compromise and conciliation, whatever the genius of Mr. Asquith for maintaining harmonious relations between men of different temper and different thought, the Liberal Government did not lead, and the people forced it to accept coalition. The services of coalition were very great. The Munitions Ministry was established. There was decentralization at the War Office. National Registration was carried through. Labour dilution was adopted. Conscription was introduced. The blockade was tightened. These are tremendous facts. But coalition, too, waited upon the people. Leadership was largely supplied by the "Forward" press-The Times, The Morning Post, The Daily Mail, The Evening News, The Saturday Review, and other members of the progressive group. First of all these papers I would put The Times. It anticipated the future, instructed the people, and drove the Government. Day in and day out,--it hammered for progressive war mobilization, and every issue of magnitude which it supported was eventually adopted. The public service of The Times in the Crimean War wins universal admiration and recognition today. Its services in this war have been even more valuable. Liberalism and coalition failed in leadership, though coalition was a great advance upon Liberalism. It is only today that we see in power under Mr. Lloyd George a Government that is absolutely a war government and that is destined to give leadership.
The unparalleled war mobilization of the United Kingdom has been accompanied by a marked change in the thought of Great Britain. There has been a mental revolution as great as the industrial one. Think of the change in the temper of a people which not only desired but demanded conscription-a measure opposed to the whole traditions of the British race., Think of the dilution of labour and then go back with me to Manchester and Cobden! and Free Trade. The Manchester Chamber of Commerce today is a protectionist chamber. Manchester has repudiated Free Trade and deserted Cobden. The attitude of Manchester has been followed by the Associated Chambers of Commerce. Britain was represented at the Allied Economic Conference in Paris, and the Government promised action upon its decisions. It will have to give action. The people demand it. They know that trade is a weapon as well as steel. They will not be sacrificed again to economic theories.
In a memorable speech at Ladybank in the early months of last year Mr. Asquith acknowledged the need for reconsideration of the Imperial relationship. Mr. Lloyd George has summoned an Imperial War Conference. Official Britain is obeying the will of the nation. I do not mean that any definite plan of reconstruction is in the public mind. I mean that the people are determined that the leaders of Empire shall meet to consider the Imperial problem. Some of you may say I go too far. Gentlemen, unpreparedness lias cost Britain and the Dominions hundreds and thousands of lives and billions and billions of dollars. It is inconceivable that slothful minds, laissez faire principles, academic economic theories, fanatical pacific ideals and denial of thought and investigation should again place this Empire in the position it held at the outbreak of war.
Free Trade is dead in England. The whole delusion of Hague internationalism has been established. Had the United States protested against the violation of Belgian neutrality, and gone to war for the integrity of its own treaties and the protection of little nations, Hague conventions would have been live things, and the United States would have stood before the world as the democracy that established a new international morality, and brought much of the Divine into world affairs. It did not do so. And so there will be no confidence in, and no worth in, the babble of pacifists until their honour is established and the dignity of their treaties maintained. In this world, the freedom of the individual and the protection of the state is dependent upon policemen and armed men. As civil peace is maintained by law and a police system, so must international peace be maintained. Men who are too proud to fight are too weak to protect civilization. The great illusion is the illusion of the pacifist. If Norman Angell returns to England he will discover that fact. Not until pacificism admits the necessity for force will it be a vital factor for world peace.
No review of British war mobilization could be anything like complete without a reference to the war work of the women. No reference could do them justice. They have given all that is dearest to them. They have been very wonderful, so wonderful that admiration and tribute seem almost presumptuous. Theirs is the real tragedy of the war; theirs is the highest courage. We can but glory in them; and acknowledge their practical services in hospitals, in Red Cross work of all kinds, in refreshment and recreation activities, in munitions and in many other departments of national service. It is a fact that dilution of labour has proved their industrial capacity. In my hasty trip to the munition and industrial centres of the United Kingdom, I heard warm appreciation of their ability. Just before closing, may I be permitted to say a few words on the Irish question. I do not wish to deal with the rebellion, but the period following the rebellion. There is in some quarters a disposition to blame the British Government unduly for the failure to settle the Irish Question. There is a famous political cartoon of the period which shows Father Ireland at the foot of a flight of stairs calling to Miss Irish Government on an upper landing to come down. "There's a friend here to see you, me darlin'." In a corner Sinn Fein is waiting with a tremendous club. Gentlemen, that club smashed the settlement. Mr. Redmond knew the temper of Nationalist Ireland. He knew that never before had Sinn Fein been so popular and so formidable. He knew 'an election for an Irish Government might result in the defeat of his party and the election of a Sinn Fein administration. May I recall, also, that Ulster armed before the war to prevent its sacrifice to a majority antagonistic to Great Britain, and that elements in that majority rebelled during the most critical struggle in British history. Finally, may I say that Irish settlement, without coercion, is a matter for Irish leaders and that it is not a question to be decided by British or Dominion statesmen, in or out of conference.
I have endeavoured to give some indication of the war temper and the war record of Great Britain. No nation has ever been more rapidly or more greatly mobilized for a vital purpose. I have touched upon the growth of the army. Battalions have been raised in a night. Naval construction has been on a greater scale than ever before in the history of the Empire. Conscription has been introduced. There has been an industrial revolution and a vigorous and progressive change in the thought of the people. Liberal Government has given place to Coalition Government, and Coalition Government to War Government. The War Office, beginning with the creation of the Ministry of Munitions, has been decentralized and reorganized. The General Staff has been remodelled. Defenceless from the air in August, 1914, Britain has now an air protective system which largely defies enemy Zeppelin activity. In thirty months she has developed flying services equal, if not superior, to any in the world--certainly superior to those of her enemy. The whole history of the British war is one of rapid and progressive development in all vital departments. The world has never known such vigorous, such astounding war mobilization.
A hearty vote of thanks was passed.