BRITAIN AT WAR
AN ADDRESS BY J. M. DENT, ESQ., OF LONDON, ENGLAND
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, April 15, 1915
MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN,--It is a great pleasure to speak to my fellow-countrymen in Canada. A very great privilege it has been to me to travel through the United States; but when I cross this border I come home, and here there is no need to be an apologist for England, as I might have had to be were I in some foreign country. I know your hearts beat as warmly as mine for that little Island, for it is the centre of our Empire, and not only the country of the British, and I know I shall meet with your sympathy when I try to give you some little picture of the Homeland at this time.
But indeed this is not very easy. I always envied Antony more than Brutus, for Antony told us that he could speak " straight on," while Brutus was an orator; but I could do without eloquence could I have Antony's gift of speaking " straight on," that is with proper sequence and lucidity. I am afraid, therefore, that you will perhaps find it difficult to listen to me, and I ask your patience.
I will not begin by reviling the Germans, though in my heart of hearts I condemn them, and put upon them and their rulers the responsibility for this terrible calamity. Nor need I go over the old ground, which I am quite sure you business men have followed as closely as I have myself; but I would like to point out one or two cases which have come to my own knowledge, and which may possibly have slipped your notice, which bear striking evidence to the long determination and preparation of Germany for the war in which they have involved the world. One incident I found in reading through the law news in the American courts, where a German ship was brought up for not delivering its cargo. It was sent over before the beginning of the war with specie for England from America, so many millions of gold. It turned back when war was declared and secured its cargo in an American port. For this dereliction of duty it has been condemned, I believe, in a very heavy fine. Why did it turn back? It was a German ship, and the captain confessed that he had had a sealed envelope containing instructions given to him when he went on his first vogage, which he was not to open until he received a wireless message with the word "Siegfried" in it; he was to understand when he received that, that he was to open the package and get the message interpreted. He did so, and he found it to be: "Germany at war with France, Russia, and England; turn back." Gentlemen, that letter was deposited with that ship in 1912, two years before the world ever thought or dreamed of war with Germany.
You know, too, that when the Italian papers were published in 19IJ, we discovered again that Germany and Austria had both approached Italy with the desire that she should join them in the compulsion of the Balkan States, and especially of Servia, so that the war dearly and distinctly had been planned, not only against France, not only against Russia, but against this country. I give you this evidence as absolutely unbiassed, and I think it will help you to see clearly that we in England can conscientiously say that not only the people, but the government, were entirely ignorant of the machinations of the German government. If we had not been so we should today have been criminally responsible if we had not made very different preparation from that which we had done for an event which we expected and which we felt sure would come when the war opened. Nor could we, knowing that, have stood still and not prepared Belgium, as well as ourselves, to save it from the most horrible and devilish cruelty which any nation has ever suffered since Christianity came into the world.
And now if I may talk a little about the inward life of England, I would like to go back to the beginning and tell you how it impressed us. You remember that the first Monday in August is a bank holiday in England; the banks are dosed and no business is done, in fact, it is the last great holiday before Christmas, and, therefore, an exodus takes place from all the great towns to the open country. There had appeared on the Friday morning in The Daily News an article by the editor, Mr. A. G. Gardiner (impressed as he was by the coming danger that England should be involved in the war which Germany had declared against Russia, and which of course included France), praying the government not to be drawn into the vortex. It was an article full of eloquence, and full of a great patriotism. The author had no special love for Germany; but he wanted to save this great Empire from something that was to leave with us infinite pain and suffering, besides burdens, for many years to come. Another paper also followed in a similar strain. Gloom and fear were upon the country. It was not craven fear; but what man thinks of a great war, and remembers its consequences, who has not fear at such a time? England wanted no war, it was busy with its social questions of great import-it was almost looking forward with dread to some kind of civil trouble with Ireland-and our last thought was of a great European war.
Like the rest of the great public, I went down to the sea for the week-end to meet my family, in great depression and fearing the worst. The people at the- sea, too, were under the shadow, and there was nothing like a crowd; nor were the visitors so numerous as on an ordinary bank holiday. Indeed the people were too intent upon getting the news by telegram or newspaper to spend much time upon the beach. On Saturday the suspense was still hanging over us; we could get no news that was satisfactory; we only knew as the hours went by that the country had not yet gone to war. And then Sunday followed, and all round the little seaside town people neither went to church, nor enjoyed the saunter on the beach; but seemed restless and stood about in groups discussing what was to come. It was a terrible day. Remember that we had no preparation for this sudden dread. We went to look at the telegrams, we could get no newspapers, and we watched and wondered what the decision of the government would be. Numbers of anxious women I found looking there, they knew and felt the coming times as we men do not, and they knew the costs. At last on Monday we found a late telegram, saying that war had been declared on behalf of England against Germany, and we blamed the government. Then on Tuesday morning we had the report of Sir Edward Grey's speech, and our hearts and our minds were entirely changed, we felt that England had only one way, and that was to keep its word and honour. On Tuesday morning Mr. A. G. Gardiner withdrew his article, and said that, in the light of Grey's speech, England had but one duty, and that was not to escape from the terror; but to do its best for righteousness' sake.
Well, the days passed like that; I never knew anything like the quiet unanimity in my time. I have lived through a good many wars with England, and of course the Boer War, when fully half the country was against it, and if the government that was in at that time had been changed I believe the war would have been stopped. You know there was in the House of Commons a strong disagreement on the government policy as to South Africa-the attempt to govern a colony against its will, and so on, was all against the sense of freedom in England-and in the Boer War there was constant contention between the government and the opposition and the people. But this time, in that great assembly, crowded to its uttermost, there was not a voice raised against the government's policy; not even a Quaker Friend rose up to say "No"--not one. Yes, there was one--one of the madmen, I am sorry to say, we still have in England--Mr. Keir Hardie. It would be a great relief if he and Bernard Shaw would leave their country for their country's good.
Well, gentlemen, I never saw a country whose resolution was so calmly made. There were no fireworks. We understood how big a task it was before we started, and we knew that we could not go into this war without it involving tremendous military preparations and a great increase in our army. There was no Mafeking, there was no shouting, there was no fuss; but I tell you that from every office, from every workshop, from every church I was going to say, there issued men ready to fight who had never thought of fighting in their lives. Quietly and seriously and earnestly they went about it, without any bumptiousness or any pretence of anything but doing their simple duty, and there was no doubt about their duty. I am a pacifist, and all my friends are so; we never dreamed that we should ever again be drawn into a great Continental war, in spite of all the warnings and all the fears we had. But there was not one of us who did not give quietly all we could. In my own office, where there were about sixty people employed, twenty of them--every one who was able to go--went. I am glad to say my two boys went. From the works some forty more went. I know of a man who was a married man with a family, he had a boy old enough to go to war; he disguised himself and got into the army when he was forty-two, representing himself to be thirty-five. But his boy went into the army at close on twenty, so that he must have been born very early in his father's career.
But there was one great question which we had not anticipated, and that was the difficulty of finance. No one, not even the great financiers, seemed to have realised what would happen when three great countries like Russia, France, and Germany were to be engaged in war. It seemed to bring the whole of the financial affairs of the different countries to a standstill. America owed England thousands of millions of dollars, which England wanted in gold, and the same occurred with every nation where they had been in the habit of exchanging their produce one with another, and when it came to war and gold was required instead, they could not at once pay their debts, so that monetary matters were paralysed for the moment. Fortunately we had in Mr. Lloyd George a man who--though he had never been a financier until he became Chancellor of the Exchequer--grasped the situation in the boldest and strongest manner, and with hardly a day's hesitation he stepped into the breach and gave us the Moratorium--gave us paper money quickly-and so relieved the tension and enabled us to tide over the time until things should settle down to something like a normal state again. In a week or two all the difficulties had disappeared, and trade went on in quite a normal way as you know it is now doing.
But think of the strain of this kind of thing. Remember that the best army we could raise was something like 100,000 men, ready and free at any rate to go abroad. It was a voluntary army, a free army, men who had taken up soldiering as a profession because they liked it-what the Germans have called a "mercenary army "; indeed they call all our army a mercenary one. We have laid down all that we care for because of love for our country, and because we know something of honour and something of duty. Men who had never thought of soldiering in their lives immediately began to prepare for the fight. You in Canada and in America evidently thought that we were taking things too quietly, and doing nothing; but it was not our business to put up a notice declaring how many were recruited each week, and so letting the Germans know how we stood. But if you could have taken a car and gone from town to town, you would have seen the men standing at the recruiting stations in long queues waiting for hours to be made soldiers of their country. I remember seeing in London even at the corner of Charing Cross, near St. Martin's church, a long stream of men waiting patiently all day to be made soldiers, and really it was as much as ever you could do to keep the lump down in your throat when you saw it all. How many mothers' sons were going to their death? How many lads had given up their whole career? Remember there was no great showy panoply of war, no shining metal helmet and showy uniforms, no flags or bands, never one of them, not a band, not a coloured uniform. Even the recruiting sergeant put on his khaki, which meant business, and men went to the wax because there was nothing else to do. Many an instance could I give you of all this. I remember one young doctor, an intimate friend of mine, who had joined another doctor in practice, hoping to take over the practice when the senior had installed him properly, as he intended to do in a year or two. When the war came he simply threw it all up, giving up all the money he had paid for the practice, and walked quietly into the recruiting station and was made a lieutenant in the R.A.M.C. Another lad-one of the brightest I have known-I hope he is still alive l He was in the thick of the fighting the other day. Nineteen he was, the only son of his father. He had had a wonderful career at school, taken a fine exhibition at Oxford for four years, and was preparing for a scholar's career. Without asking his father he threw it all up and went straight to be recruited. When I asked him why he had been so rash he answered: "I cannot shame the dear old Dad" his father would have been shamed if he had not gone. Many and many an instance of this kind could I tell you of, you have had them in Canada, and you have done well. The same thing has happened in almost every household; but it is well to be reminded that it is the same thing the whole empire through. Why, I know one man who came all the way from Australia that he might be re-recruited in his old regimen--all the way from Australia to fight for the Old Country, at forty years of age.
But what is the use of piling up these things, you are as familiar with them as I am, and I am glad to say that the spirit grows stronger and stronger day by day in England. You do not see much of it in London, you see it in the quiet country towns where the government has sent the men for exercise and drill. A little quiet place like Bury St. Edmunds, in ordinary times as dead-and-alive a little town as you could find in all the Eastern Counties, is full of soldiers now, the women taking the men in and looking after them keenly and eagerly. In one of our towns were 60,000 soldiers, and now the army which began at 80,000--was sent over so successfully at the very moment of the outbreak of the war and which no doubt saved the situation has grown to something like 2,200,000.
Perhaps you would like me to read you a few extracts from a letter I have received from my boy who is now in France, about one of the great battles in which we have lost some two thousand, I mean the battle of Neuve Chapelle:
"The night our company went out a maxim was turned on us and swept back and forward, but without any result. We were too quick. You should have seen how the men all fell where they stood; no getting in clear places, but any old puddle was good enough. The first day we were in the third line; the second day in the second line, and the third in the firing line. Some time during the morning a most infernal bombardment started from our guns. This lasted about an hour and a half, then there was a sudden stop and an attempt was made by our fifth battalion to carry the trench of the Germans before them and sweep on up to the edge of the wood. As soon as they had started advancing we had to follow them. We took up our position in the first line of trenches and had the pleasure of receiving German shells intended for our own artillery. We lay there for some time while troops were brought up, until at length, feeling so cold, and there being no sign of moving for some time, I started to dig myself in. I passed the time very well and got it finished just when we started a second charge on the German entrenchments in the wood. We got only a desultory reply until we finished our fusilade. The shells were something awful, and I still feel them whistling and whirling over my head. It seems hardly credible that anybody could live through such a shower of projectiles. For a whole afternoon it was hell, lying in the little holes we had made and wondering where the next shell would burst. Jack Johnsons, double and triple shells all came over. There were some wonderful escapes. One Jack Johnson blew one man from one trench to another and he was unharmed, while others near me were all knocked over. A piece of shrapnel killed an Indian, passed through one of our men's packs on his back, and killed another Indian on his other side, while he stood unharmed. A Jack Johnson fell within three feet of another man and myself and nobody was hurt. Jack Johnsons have a wide explosion when they fall. I feel the heat of the beastly thing on my face now; when it exploded I was rocked in my cradle of clay. We lay there all day and came out at nine o'clock at night when the relief troops came up to take our places. One day a piece of shell knocked the top off my trench and passed over my head-I had only just stooped down. Another man had a lucky shave; a piece of shell struck his musket and cut a piece of his lip, and a piece of the wood, but he was safe."
Then he tells how he went on with this thing for five days, lips all parched with sulphur from the shot, his eyes half blinded, and then had to walk back some considerable distance and get their first sleep from Monday night up to Saturday. That is just the experience of one battle.
The return was fearful; the roads were filled with debris and ammunition wagons, and so on, and it took them five hours to do five miles. What more can I say, or what more can I tell you? How can I more assure you that the heart of the country is determined to carry through this great war to its final conclusion? That we shall never lay down the sword until Belgium has become again the flourishing nation it was when Germany destroyed it, and never again shall we allow this terror to come to Europe. As Mr. Winston Churchill has declared, if France failed us, or Russia failed us, it is Britain's task to fight it out to the end.
You know the Germans have a great Hymn of Hate against this land of ours. They can forgive Russia and France; but never can they forget or forgive a country which came in to change all their plans, and which stands in this matter simply for righteousness and honour. That Hymn of Hate has been copied into all the school books, and is sowing the seed of hate for the coming generation; but it has been replied to by an American, and I want you all to know it, and if you can put it to music, to sing it. It is called " A Chant of Love for England ":
A song of hate is a song of Hell;
Some there be that sing it well.
Let them sing it loud and long,
We lift our hearts in a loftier song:
We lift our hearts to Heaven above,
Singing the glory of her we love--
Glory of thought and glory of deed,
Glory of Hampden and Runnymede;
Glory of ships that sought far goals,
Glory of swords and glory of souls!
Glory of songs mounting as birds,
Glory immortal of magic words;
Glory of Milton, glory of Nelson,
Tragical glory of Gordon and Scott;
Glory of Shelley, glory of Sidney,
Glory transcendent that perishes not;
Hers is the glory, hers be the glory
Shatter her beauteous breast ye may;
The spirit of England none can stay!
Dash the bomb on the dome of St. Paul's--
Deem ye the game of the Admiral falls?
Pry the stone from the chancel floor
Dream ye that Shakespeare shall live no more ?
Where is the giant shot that kills
Wordsworth walking the old green hills?
Trample the red rose on the ground
Keats is Beauty while earth spins round
Bind her, grind her, burn her with fire,
Cast her ashes into the sea
She shall escape, she shall aspire,
She shall arise to make men free;
She shall arise in a sacred scorn,
Lighting the lives that are yet unborn;
Sprit supernal, splendour eternal
But there is another poet whom the Germans have lately claimed as their own, they say that Shakespeare is far more German than he is English. Somehow, though they know him well, they have overlooked a few things he has said which we English people remember, and as Shakespeare spoke for England then he speaks for England today when he says:
This England never did and never shall lie at the proud feet of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms
And we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue
If England to herself do rest but true."
Yes, and that is not only the voice of Shakespeare's England it is the stern voice of the British Empire, round which the seas for ever roll and upon which the sun never sets.