[Transcriber's notes: Original spelling retained, original copyright information retained, italics are indicated by underscores.]
Letters To An American Friend
The War On All Fronts
Letters To An American Friend
By Mrs. Humphry Ward
With A Preface By Joseph H. Choate
New York Charles Scribner's Sons 1918
Copyright, 1916, BY CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
HAS ENGLAND DONE ALL SHE COULD?
That is the question which Mrs. Ward, replying to some doubts and queries of an American friend, has undertaken to answer in this series of letters, and every one who reads them will admit that her answer is as complete and triumphant as it is thrilling. Nobody but a woman, an Englishwoman of warm heart, strong brain, and vivid power of observation, could possibly have written these letters which reflect the very soul of England since this wicked and cruel war began. She has unfolded and interpreted to us, as no one else, I think, has even attempted to do, the development and absolute transformation of English men and women, which, has enabled them, living and dying, to secure for their proud nation under God that "new birth of freedom" which Lincoln at Gettysburg prophesied for his own countrymen. Really the cause is the same, to secure the selfsame thing, "that government of the people, by the people, and for the people may not perish from the earth";—and if any American wishes to know how this has been accomplished, he must read these letters, which were written expressly for our enlightenment.
Mrs. Ward had marvellous qualifications for this patriotic task. The granddaughter of Doctor Arnold and the niece of Matthew Arnold, from childhood up she has been as deeply interested in politics and in public affairs as she has been in literature, by which she has attained such world-wide fame, and next to English politics, in American politics and American opinion. She has been a staunch believer in the greatness of America's future, and has maintained close friendship with leaders of public thought on both sides of the water. Her only son is a member of Parliament, and is fighting in the war, just as all the able-bodied men she knows are doing.
She has received from the English government special opportunities of seeing what England has been doing in the war, and has been allowed to go with her daughter where few English men and no other women have been allowed to go, to see the very heart of England's preparedness. She has visited, since the war began, the British fleet, the very key of the whole situation, without whose unmatched power and ever-increasing strength the Allies at the outset must have succumbed. She has watched, always under the protection and guidance of that wonderful new Minister of Munitions, Lloyd George, the vast activity of that ministry throughout the country, and finally in a motor tour of five hundred miles, through the zone of the English armies in France, she has seen with her own eyes, that marvellous organization of everything that goes to make and support a great army, which England has built up in the course of eighteen months behind her fighting line. She has witnessed within three-quarters of a mile of the fighting line, with a gas helmet at hand, ready to put on, a German counter attack after a successful English advance something which no other woman, except herself and her daughter, who accompanied her, has ever had the opportunity to see.
Mrs. Ward admits that at the beginning England was unprepared, which itself demonstrated that as a Nation she never wished for war with Germany, and never expected it. Her countrymen had no faith in Lord Roberts's ten-year-long agitation for universal national service, based on the portentous growth of the German army and navy. She never knew of any hatred of Germany in the country. On the contrary, she realized what England and all the rest of the world owed to Germany in so many ways.
England was not absolutely unprepared in the sense that the United States is unprepared, even for self-defence from external attack, but except for the fleet and her little expeditionary force, England had neither men nor equipment equal to the fighting of a great Continental war.
The wholly unexpected news of the invasion of Belgium aroused the whole country to realize that war on a scale never known before had come, and, as the firing upon Fort Sumter awakened America, convinced England that she must fight to the death for her liberties, unready as she was;—but Mr. Balfour, the First Lord of the Admiralty, says that, since the war began, she has added one million to the tonnage of her navy, and has doubled its personnel, and is adding more every day.
In the matter of munitions the story that Mrs. Ward tells is wonderful, almost beyond belief. Much had been done in the first eight months of the war, in the building of munition shops, and the ordering of vast quantities from abroad, before the second battle of Ypres, in April, 1915, which led to the formation of the new Coalition Ministry, including a wholly new department, the Ministry of Munitions, with Mr. Lloyd George at its head.
From that time to this the work has been colossal, and almost incredible, and without serious collision with the working classes. Vast new buildings have been erected all over England, and a huge staff, running into thousands, set in action. The new Minister has set out with determination to get the thing done at whatever cost, and to remove all obstacles that he found in his way. The Government has absolutely taken control of the whole work of the creation of munitions and the regulation of workmen, employed in it by whatever employers, and everything and everybody has had to submit to his imperious will, and the greatest change of all has been the employment of women on a vast scale to do the work that only men had ever done before. France had set about it immediately after the battle of the Marne, and allowed no Frenchman to remain idle who could do such work.
Mrs. Ward does not fail to do full justice to the working men of Great Britain, and shows that besides the hundreds of thousands that they have sent to the fighting line, a million and a half remained at work in the shops, creating munitions with the aid of skilled experts and the astonishing help of the women, who never before had expected to have anything to do with guns and shells, with bombs, rifles, and machine-guns. The old ways were laid aside, old distinctions of class and sex forgotten, and all worked with a common and indomitable will for the saving of the country.
To give a single instance, what was a few months ago a smiling pasture is now found covered with vast buildings, in which these manufactures are carried on by thirty-five hundred working people, of whom a large proportion are women. I love to quote a single sentence from the utterance of her companion on a visit to this establishment: "As to the women, they are saving the country. They don't mind what they do. Hours? They work ten and a half, or, with overtime, twelve hours a day, seven days a week. The Government are insisting on one Sunday, or two Sundays a month off. I don't say they aren't right, but the women resent it. 'We're not tired,' they say. And look at them! They are not tired."
This unheard-of spectacle of great engineering establishments filled with women, all hard at work, is a sure proof of the undying purpose of the whole English race. They are mostly young and comely, and their beauty of form and feature is only enhanced by their enthusiasm for their labors, and at the same time it has increased the ardor and intensity of their fellow workmen. Mrs. Ward found four thousand women to five thousand men engaged in this nation-saving labor, in a single establishment. They know that they are setting the skilled laborers free for work which women cannot do, and the unskilled in large numbers free for the army.
Every building, as well as every man and woman, that could be put to the work, has been availed of, and the results have been incredible. Another instance she gives of special interest: "An old warehouse, bought, so to speak, overnight, and equipped next morning, has been turned into a small workshop for shell production, employing between three and four hundred girls with the number of skilled men necessary to keep the new unskilled labor going. These girls are working on the eight-hours' shift system; working so well that a not uncommon wage among them, on piece-work, of course, runs to somewhere between two and three pounds a week," and all the time they are at work they remember that they are doing common service with their husbands, and sweethearts, and sons, and brothers, who are perilling their lives in the trenches.
None of this distinguished writer's romances compare in vivid description and heart-inspiring eloquence with these accounts that she gives of what she has seen with her own eyes of the resurrection of England.
It is not for me to anticipate her startling and thrilling narratives on this subject. She takes for her text what Mr. Lloyd George said in his speech in the House of Commons on reviewing his new department: "Unless we quicken our movements, damnation will fall on the sacred cause for which so much gallant blood has flowed," and Mr. Asquith's serious words in December: "We cannot go on," said he, "depending upon foreign countries for our munitions. We haven't the ships to spare to bring them home, and the cost is too great. We must make them ourselves."
Mrs. Ward dwells with keen insight upon the difficulties met with among the trade-unions and labor people, and successfully overcome, and explains in full what they call over there the work of the Dilution Commissioners, which is a wholly new phrase for us, and she gives this clear definition: "Dilution means, of course, that under the sharp analysis of necessity, much engineering work, generally reckoned as 'skilled' work, and reserved to 'skilled' workmen by a number of union regulations, is seen to be capable of solution into various processes, some of which can be sorted out from the others, as within the capacity of the unskilled, or semiskilled worker. By so dividing them up and using superior labor with economy, only where it is really necessary, it can be made to go infinitely further, and the inferior, or untrained, labor can then be brought into work where nobody supposed it could be used; where, in fact, it never has been used." This novel experiment, together with the equally novel employment of women in such work, soon proved a triumphant success, and the women proved themselves able to do the work of men, some of it even better. There were, of course, difficulties at first, but the mischief, whatever it was, was quickly cured, and in one factory that Mrs. Ward names, "men and women soon began to do their best. The output of the factory, which had been planned for four thousand shells a week, ran up to twenty thousand, and everything has gone smoothly since."
The adaptation of firms and factories, already existing, the control of which was taken by the Government, was wonderful, but the national shell-factories, founded, financed, and run by the Ministry of Munitions, are more wonderful still, and give us many new ideas about government ownership in an emergency, which we may sometimes have to think of more seriously. The speed, the efficiency, the success of the new system have been marvellous, so that in the short space of a year the demands of Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Asquith have been satisfied, and England will depend no more upon foreign contracts and foreign supplies for her ammunition, but will be able not only to manufacture all she can use herself, but to help to supply her Allies.
In one department of labor, it is a very startling thing to learn that "in a single fuse factory, what they call the danger buildings, mostly women are employed. About five hundred women are found at work in one of these factories on different processes connected with the delicate mechanism and filling of the fuse and gaine, some of which is really dangerous, like detonator work." It is the insertion in the shell of the little pellet which gives it its death-dealing power, that is so risky, but the women do not shrink from even this. In the largest fuse shop known, quite new, fourteen hundred girls, in one shift, are at work.
"An endless spectacle of gun-carriages, naval turrets, torpedo-tubes, army railway-carriages, small Hotchkiss guns for merchant ships, tool-making shops, gauge shops, seems to be going on forever, and in the tool-making shops the output has risen from forty-four thousand to three million a year." The vastness of the work, and the incessant and enormous multiplication of all the products for war must be as overwhelming as it is monotonous. And then there were the huge shipyards, which before the war were capable of the berth of twenty ships at once, from the largest battleship downward, and which, as we have already had Mr. Balfour's word for it, have since the beginning of the war added a million tons to the navy, but Mrs. Ward in her rapid journeys had not time to stop and inspect these, to our very great regret, for her description of them would have been most instructive.
She declares from actual observation that in the Clyde district, in whose populous centre some threats of disquiet have existed, the work done by thousands and tens of thousands of workmen since the beginning of the war, especially in the great shipyards, and done with the heartiest and most self-sacrificing good-will, has been simply invaluable to the nation, and will never be forgotten, and the invasion of women there has, perhaps, been more startling to the workmen than anywhere else. Where not a single woman was employed in the works and factories before the war, except in textiles, "there will soon be fifteen thousand of them in the munition workshops alone, and that will not be the end."
Wherever she goes, Mrs. Ward's eyes are wide open. From her own home, which is in the midst of one of the most patriotic regions of the realm, she can witness the perpetual activity which has come about in preparation for the war in all its varied phases and branches; everything and everybody is in vigorous motion, both there and in all the counties of England which she has visited. Great camps in every direction for the shelter and training of recruits, all coming and going, all marching and countermarching, training and drilling everywhere, and as fast as the citizen is converted into a soldier, he is bound for the seat of war with all the equipments that war requires, tramping everywhere, tramp, tramp, along the land; tramp, tramp, along the sea, until the new supports, all ready for vital service, reach their destination on French soil.
Mrs. Ward has made a careful study of the effect of the novel introduction of women into all these works of men, especially in the munition factories, and dwells with great significance upon the rapidity of the women's piece-work and the mingling of classes, where educated and refined girls work side by side and very happily with those of an humbler type. What Mrs. Ward well calls "the common spirit" inspires them all, and holds them all in just and equal relations. At every step she is startled by the vastness of the work and the immense hand that women have in it, finding one shop turning out about four thousand shrapnel and four thousand high-explosive shells per week, heavy shell work all, which they thought at first they must furnish men to lift in and out of the machines, but "the women thrust the men aside in five minutes." Surely this new education of women, of these girls and women who are to become the mothers of the next generation, must have a most inspiring and exalting effect upon the days to come. War may be postponed for whole generations, but England will never fail to be ready for it as a necessary part of the education of the race.
It is quite evident that this war is breaking down the barriers that have heretofore been impassable, not only between men and women, but between the various classes of society, and that it cannot possibly end without bringing these more closely together, all working to the same end in a more perfect harmony, and that the result of it must be that England will hereafter be an even more perfect democracy than it has been up to this time.
France! Glorious France! The conduct of whose government and people in the war seems to have been absolutely perfect, has at last reached a wonderful result after her hundred years of agonies and revolutions. We hear from France no complaints, no internal dissensions, but all the people, mankind and womankind, working together, each in its proper sphere, to the one common end, the salvation of the State. I trust that we shall never forget all that the world and we, especially, owe to France. She is adding to our obligations now by fighting our battles for us.
And now with her daughter under the special protection and guidance of the war office, this distinguished woman followed the khaki-clad soldiers of England, now numbered by millions, across the channel, and everything was thrown freely open to her. She soon found out what the great supply bases, on which the British army in France rests, really mean, made up of the Army Ordnance, Army Service, Army Medical, Railroad, Motor, and Transport, and she found it a deeply interesting study, "whose work has involved the labor of some of the best brains in the army," and she learned the organizing power that has gone to make the career of the English army in France possible.
There was the immense dock, and its vast storehouse, the largest in the world, "built three years before the war, partly, it is said, by German money, to house the growing cotton trade of the port, but now it houses a large proportion of the food of the British army," a building half a mile long, bounded on one side by the docks, where the ships discharge the stores and the men, and on the other by the railway lines where the trains are perpetually loading for the front. On the quays ships of all nations, except Germany, are pouring out their stores, and on the other side the trucks that are going to the front are loading with the supplies that are wanted for every regiment in the service. Her eyes light upon one wired in space, labelled "Medical Comforts," and generally known as "The Cage," where, while medical necessaries are housed elsewhere, are "the dainties, the special foods, the easing appliances of all kinds," which are to make life bearable to the wounded men, and she stops to think how the shade of Florence Nightingale would have paused at this spot.
The huge sheds of Army Ordnance are filled with everything that a soldier does not eat, all metal stores, whatever, and the men who work in them are housed in one of the longest sheds in tiers of bunks from floor to ceiling, and then there are the repairing sheds and workshops, established near by, and that is the most wonderful thing of the whole to my mind—never done before in connection with an army in the field. Trainsful of articles to be repaired come down from the front every day, and almost every imaginable article that the men at the front can use, from guns to boots, comes here to be repaired, or if found beyond repair, to be sent to Yorkshire for shoddy. The marvellous thing is that, as soon as they are received, they are repaired and made nearly as good as new and returned to their owners at the front, a vast work in itself. The boot and uniform sheds alone, where again she finds five hundred French women and girls, and the harness-making room are doing an enormous work. The Colonel in charge began work with one hundred and forty men, and is now employing more than a thousand, and his repairing sheds are saving thousands of pounds a week to the British government.
Recreation and amusement are supplied in near locality for the waiting soldiers and, although the snow is more than ankle-deep, they visit such places as recreation rooms and cinema theaters, and on a neighboring hill great troops of men are going through some of the last refinements of drill before they start for the front. Here are trenches of all kinds and patterns, in which the men may practise, planned according to the latest experience brought from the front. "The instructors are all men returned from the front, and the new recruits, trained up to this last point, would not be patient of any other teachers."
Having thus seen all that one day could afford them at the very base of the great army, our visitors make their way in closed motors through the snow, passing scores of motor lorries, and other wagons, stuck in the snow-drifts. They stop for the night at a pleasant hotel full of officers, mostly English, belonging to the Lines of Communication, and a few of the mothers and sisters of the poor wounded in the neighboring hospitals, who have come over to nurse them.
Every gun, every particle of munition, clothing, and equipment, and whatever else is necessary, including the food of the armies, every horse, every vehicle, has to be brought across the British channel, to maintain and reinforce the ever-growing British army, and the ever-daily increasing congestion at all the ports makes it more and more difficult every day to receive, disembark, accommodate, and forward the multitude of men and the masses of material, and all the time there are thousands of troops passing through, thousands in the hospitals, and thousands at work on the docks and storehouses. Everything tending to Tommy Atkins's comfort is supplied, including again palatial cinemas and concerts, all of which results in excellent behavior and the best of relations between the British soldier and the French inhabitants. At the docks armies of laborers and lines of ships discharging men, horses, timber, rations, fodder, coal, coke, petrol, and the same at the storehouses and depots.
The visitors spend a long Sunday morning in the motor transport depot, and it gave a good illustration of the complete system of discipline and organization that prevailed everywhere. This depot began, said the Colonel in charge, on the 13th of August, 1914, "with a few balls of string and a bag of nails." Its present staff is about five hundred. All the drivers of twenty thousand motor vehicles are tested here, and the depot exhibits three hundred and fifty different types of vehicles, and in round figures, one hundred thousand separate parts are now dealt with, stored, and arranged in this same depot. The Sunday morning began with a simple service in the Young Men's Christian Association hut, at which five hundred motor-drivers attended, about half of the whole number in the station.
The same day they explored endless camps and the wards of a Red Cross hospital. It was impossible to take in everything at once, and our ladies retired at night, bewildered by mingled impressions of "human energy, human intelligence, human suffering," but full of pride and exultation at the efficiency of their country and of the good relations of their soldiers with the French. They carried with them as a last impression of the day the picture of a canteen worked day and night in three shifts by a heroic band of women close by the railway station, full of soldiers just departing for the front, young, gay and full of spirits; then came the train to take the soldiers off for the fighting line, and the women, left behind, set up the song, already familiar in the Midlands, "Keep the home fires burning till the boys come home."
In the village where they stopped, some forty miles from the actual front, a special messenger from the general headquarters brings the amazing news that General Headquarters invites Mrs. Ward and her daughter for two days, and will send a motor for them, if they accept, which, of course, they did upon the instant, looking forward with eagerness to the great mysteries of the front, its camps, its men, and its hospitals, that they were to see with their own eyes to-morrow.
The remainder of the day before they are to start for the front suffices for the visit to a camp set down in one of the pleasantest spots in France, a favorite haunt of French artists before the war, now occupied by a British reinforcement camp, the trees having all been cut away, by long lines of hospitals, by a convalescent depot, and by the training grounds, to which we have already referred.
I must copy the bare catalogue of what this vast camp contained: "Sleeping and mess quarters for those belonging to the new armies; sixteen hospitals with twenty-one thousand beds" (and this shows now what it was to be near the front); "rifle ranges; training camps; a vast laundry, worked by French women under British organization, which washes for all the hospitals thirty thousand pieces a day; recreation huts of every possible kind; a cinema theatre seating eight hundred men, with performances twice a day; nurses clubs; officers clubs; a supply depot for food; an ordnance depot for everything that is not food; railroad sidings on which every kind of man and thing can go out and come in without interruption; a convalescents' depot of two thousand patients; and a convalescent horse depot of two thousand horses; all this in one camp, established since last April."
Ah! But the deepest impression left on the minds of our ladies is of the terrible sufferings in the hospitals, of the smiling endurance with which they were borne, of the timely skill, pity, and devotion of the doctors and nurses, taking care of the twenty thousand wounded. Realizing the sympathy of America with all these scenes and sufferings, they do not fail to note the hospitals organized by the Universities of Chicago and of Harvard, staffed by American sisters and doctors, each providing thirty-four doctors and eighty nurses, and dealing with a thousand patients, and a convalescent depot of two thousand beds. Every day the ambulance train comes in, and splendid hospital ships are taking the brave wounded back to England for home and rest.
And now came the day in which they were to motor forty miles to be the guests of the G.H.Q. Soon they seemed to be in the midst of the battle, "our own guns were thundering away behind us, and the road was more and more broken up by shell holes." The British lines are just beyond, cottages close by, and the German lines just in front of a wood near them, three-quarters of a mile away. Already they had been nearer than any woman, even a nurse, had been in this war, to the actual fighting on the English line, and the cup of impressions was full. They actually saw the brave boys whom they had passed an hour before, sitting in the fields waiting for orders, now marching into the trenches to take their turn there—they knew that they were marching into the jaws of death, but they walked as quietly and as cheerfully as if they were going to a parade, the guns crashing close by them all the time. The firing being too hot for the women, the captain in charge of them was relieved when they elected to turn back.
The next day, their second as guests of G.H.Q., as they came down from breakfast, our ladies were surprised to find the motor at the door, a simple lunch being packed up, and gas-helmets got ready for them to use, for the captain greeted them in the best of spirits with the news that a very successful action had been fought that morning, "we had taken back some trenches on the Ypres-Comines Canal that we lost, a little while ago, and captured about two hundred prisoners; and if we go off at once we shall be in time to see the German counter attack." The one impossible thing for any woman ever to have hoped to see!
Somehow or other they very quickly got to the very post of danger. Soon they got close to the Tower of Ypres, which Mrs. Ward well describes as "mute witness of a crime that beyond the reparation of our own day, history will revenge through years to come." Then the English guns spoke, and they watched and saw the columns of white smoke rising from the German lines as the shells burst. The German lines are right in sight, and soon their shells begin to burst on the English trenches. The German counter attack is on. All the famous sites of the early part of the war are then in sight, but all they can fully see is the bursting German shells, as from moment to moment they explode.
In her final letter Mrs. Ward shows other great efforts which Great Britain has made since the war began; that the taxes imposed for the support of the war and cheerfully borne demand a fourth part of his income from every well-to-do citizen; that five hundred million sterling, or twenty-five hundred million dollars have been already lent by Britain to her allies, a colossal portion of her income; that she has spent at the yearly rate of three thousand million dollars on the army, a thousand million dollars on the navy, while the munition department is costing about four hundred million sterling, and is employing close upon two million workers, one-tenth, I think, women; that the export trade of the country, in spite of submarines and lack of tonnage, is at this moment greater than it was in the corresponding months of 1913; she has raised an army of four millions of men, and will get all she wants.
What is more precious than all the rest, besides the vast amount of treasure that she has lavished upon the war, besides the rich mansions in all parts of the land that she has devoted to the uses of the sick and the wounded, she has given thousands, tens and hundreds of thousands of her choicest youth, who have willingly surrendered their lives for the great cause; young men of the noblest pedigree, without number, by their lives and deaths have attested their right to be regarded as the flower of the British youth; the professional classes and the universities have emptied their halls so that the men of Oxford and Cambridge might take their places with the rest, and offer up their lives as willing sacrifices, and all the men of England of every degree have joined with them and been welcomed as brothers in the ranks for the great sacrifice. The rank and file, who are fighting and dying for England, are fighting in the same spirit as their leaders and falling by the hundred thousand for the nation's salvation. How exactly Emerson's noble verse fits them:
"So nigh is grandeur to our dust, So near is God to man, When Duty whispers low, 'Thou must,' The youth replies, 'I can!'"
No one who reads this book can doubt for a moment, I think, that ENGLAND HAS DONE ALL SHE COULD, has put forth efforts worthy of her history and of her great traditions, that her national spirit is invincible, her national resources inexhaustible, and that her irresistible will to conquer and to rescue freedom and civilization for all the world from this terrible contest, is absolutely sure to win.
All America is vastly indebted to Mrs. Ward for her triumphant success in proving that England has done her best and for making this great story so clear.
In this introduction, too hastily prepared for want of time, which is really little better than a synopsis of the book itself, I have not hesitated to use her own language from beginning to end, as the clearest by which to express and condense her narrative, and with occasional indications by quotation marks.
I still believe absolutely that nine-tenths of my countrymen are in earnest sympathy with the Allies and are confident of their final and complete success.
JOSEPH H. CHOATE.
NEW YORK, May 19th, 1916.
This little book was the outcome of an urgent call from America sent by various friends whose whole sympathy is with the Allies. I have done my best to meet it, in four strenuous months, during which the British Government has given me every possible facility. But such work has to be done rapidly, and despatched rapidly. I beg my friends, and England's friends, beyond the Atlantic, to excuse its defects. I can honestly say, however, that I have done my best to get at the facts, and that everything which is here put forward rests upon independent enquiry, so far as the limit of time allowed.
The title has caused me much trouble! Will any son of gallant Scotland, or loyalist Ireland, or of those great Dominions, whose share in the war has knit them closer than ever to the Mother Country—should he come across this little book—forgive me that I have finally chosen "England" to stand for us all? "Gott strafe England!" has been the German cry of hate. I have given what I conceive to be "England's" reply. "Britain"—"Great Britain" are words that for all their profound political significance have still to be steeped a good deal longer in life and literature before they stir the same fibres in us as the old national names. And "England" as the seat of British Government has, it is admitted, a representative and inclusive force. Perhaps my real reason is still simpler. Let any one try the alternatives which suggest themselves, and see how they roll—or do not roll—from the tongue. He or she will, I think, soon be reconciled to "England's Effort"!
MARY A. WARD.
* * * * *
NOTE TO THE FOURTH EDITION
There has been added to this edition an epilogue in the shape of a seventh letter, bringing the story up to August 16, including munitions, finance, the battle of Jutland, and the Somme offensive.
Spring-time in the North Sea—Snow on a British Battleship Frontispiece
Marines drilling on the quarterdeck of a British Battleship 24
Fifteen-inch guns on a British Battleship 25
A forest of shells in a corner of one of England's great shell filling factories 86
A light railway bringing up ammunition 87
One of the wards of a base hospital, visited by the King 132
A Howitzer in the act of firing 133
Your letter has found me in the midst of work quite unconnected with this hideous war in which for the last eighteen months we in England have lived and moved and had our being. My literary profession, indeed, has been to me, as to others, since August 4th, 1914, something to be interposed for a short time, day by day, between a mind tormented and obsessed by the spectacle of war and the terrible reality it could not otherwise forget. To take up one's pen and lose oneself for a while in memories of life as it was long, long before the war—there was refreshment and renewal in that! Once—last spring—I tried to base a novel on a striking war incident which had come my way. Impossible! The zest and pleasure which for any story-teller goes with the first shaping of a story died away at the very beginning. For the day's respite had gone. The little "wind-warm" space had disappeared. Life and thought were all given up, without mercy or relief, to the fever and nightmare of the war. I fell back upon my early recollections of Oxford thirty, forty years ago—and it was like rain in the desert. So that, in the course of months it had become a habit with me never to write about the war; and outside the hours of writing to think and talk of nothing else.
But your letter suddenly roused in me a desire to write about the war. It was partly I think because what you wrote summed up and drove home other criticisms and appeals of the same kind. I had been putting them mechanically aside as not having any special reference to me; but in reality they had haunted me. And now you make a personal appeal. You say that England at the present moment is misunderstood, and even hardly judged in America, and that even those great newspapers of yours that are most friendly to the Allies are often melancholy reading for those with English sympathies. Our mistakes—real and supposed—loom so large. We are thought to be not taking the war seriously—even now. Drunkenness, strikes, difficulties in recruiting the new armies, the losses of the Dardanelles expedition, the failure to save Serbia and Montenegro, tales of luxurious expenditure in the private life of rich and poor, and of waste or incompetence in military administration—these are made much of, even by our friends, who grieve, while our enemies mock. You say the French case has been on the whole much better presented in America than the English case; and you compare the international situation with those months in 1863 when it was necessary for the Lincoln Government to make strenuous efforts to influence and affect English opinion, which in the case of our upper classes and too many of our leading men was unfavourable or sceptical towards the North. You who know something of the vastness of the English effort—you urge upon me that English writers whose work and names are familiar to the American public are bound to speak for their country, bound to try and make Americans feel what we here feel through every nerve—that cumulative force of a great nation, which has been slow to rouse, and is now immovably—irrevocably—set upon its purpose. "Tell me," you say in effect, "what in your belief is the real spirit of your people—of your men in the field and at sea, of your workmen and employers at home, your women, your factory workers, your soldiers' wives, your women of the richer and educated classes, your landowners and politicians. Are you yet fully awake—yet fully in earnest, in this crisis of England's fate? 'Weary Titan' that she is, with her age-long history behind her, and her vast responsibilities by sea and land, is she shouldering her load in this incredible war, as she must shoulder it; as her friends—the friends of liberty throughout the world—pray that she may shoulder it?"
Yes!—I must answer your questions—to the best of my power. I am no practised journalist—the days of my last articles for The Pall Mall under the "John Morley" of those days are thirty odd years behind me! But I have some qualifications. Ever since—more than half a century ago—I paid my first childish visit to the House of Commons, and heard Mr. Roebuck, the "Tear 'em" of Punch's cartoon, make his violent appeal to the English Government to recognise the belligerency of the South, it would be almost true to say that politics and affairs have been no less interesting to me than literature; and next to English politics, American politics and American opinion; partly because of my early association with men like W.E. Forster, stanch believers, even when Gladstone and John Russell wavered, in the greatness of the American future and the justice of the Northern cause—and partly because of the warm and deep impression left upon me and mine by your successive Ambassadors in London, by Mr. Lowell above all, by Mr. and Mrs. Phelps, by the John Hays, the Choates and the Bayards—no less than by the many intimate friendships with Americans from different worlds which my books have brought me since 1888. During the last thirty years, also, I have had many friends—and some kinsmen—among the leaders of English politics, and in both political parties. At the present moment my only son is a member of the English House of Commons, and a soldier fighting in the war. All my younger kinsfolk are fighting; the sons of all my friends are fighting; and their daughters are nursing as members of Voluntary Aid Detachments—(marvellous what the girl V.A.D.'s, as England affectionately calls them, have done since the beginning of the war!)—or working week-end shifts to relieve munition workers, or replacing men of military age in the public offices and banks. I live in one of the Home Counties, within five miles of one of the military camps. The small towns near us are crowded with soldiers; the roads are full of marching infantry, of artillery-trains and supply-wagons. Our village has sent practically all its able-bodied men of military age to the front; the few that remain are "attested" and only waiting to be called up. A great movement, in which this household is engaged, is now beginning to put women on the land, and so replace the agricultural labourers who have gone either into the armies or the munition factories. And meanwhile all the elderly men and women of the countryside are sitting on War Committees, or working for the Red Cross. Our lives are penetrated by the war; our thoughts are never free from it.
But in trying to answer your questions I have gone far beyond my own normal experience. I asked the English Government to give me some special opportunities of seeing what Great Britain is doing in the war, and in matters connected with the war, and they have given them ungrudgingly. I have been allowed to go, through the snow-storms of this bitter winter, to the far north and visit the Fleet, in those distant waters where it keeps guard night and day over England. I have spent some weeks in the Midlands and the north watching the vast new activity of the Ministry of Munitions throughout the country; and finally in a motor tour of some five hundred miles through the zone of the English armies in France, I have been a spectator not only of that marvellous organisation in northwestern France, of supplies, reinforcements, training camps and hospitals, which England has built up in the course of eighteen months behind her fighting line, but I have been—on the first of two days—within less than a mile of the fighting line itself, and on a second day, from a Flemish hill—with a gas helmet close at hand! I have been able to watch a German counter attack, after a successful English advance, and have seen the guns flashing from the English lines, and the shell-bursts on the German trenches along the Messines ridge; while in the far distance, a black and jagged ghost, the tower of the Cloth Hall of Ypres broke fitfully through the mists—bearing mute witness before God and man.
For a woman—a marvellous experience! I hope later on in these letters to describe some of its details, and some of the thoughts awakened by them in a woman's mind. But let me here keep to the main point raised by your question—the effort of England. During these two months of strenuous looking and thinking, of conversation with soldiers and sailors and munition workers, of long days spent in the great supply bases across the Channel, or of motoring through the snowy roads of Normandy and Picardy, I have naturally realised that effort far more vividly than ever before. It seems to me—it must seem to any one who has seriously attempted to gauge it—amazing, colossal. "What country has ever raised over sixty per cent of its total recruitable strength, for service beyond the seas in a few months?" asks one of our younger historians; and that a country not invaded, protected by the sea, and by a supreme fleet; a country, moreover, without any form of compulsory military service, in which soldiering and the soldier have been rather unpopular than popular, a country in love with peace, and with no intention or expectation of going to war with any one?
For there we come to the root of everything—the unpreparedness of England—and what it meant. It meant simply that as a nation we never wished for war with Germany, and, as a nation, we never expected it. Our Governments, of course, contained men who saw more or less plainly the dangers ahead, and had spent years of effort in trying to avoid them. On several occasions, during the last twenty years, as we all remember, a wave of sudden anxiety as to German aims and intentions had spread through the thinking portion of the nation—in connection with South Africa, with Morocco, with the Balkans. But it had always died away again. We know now that Germany was not yet ready! Meanwhile fruitless efforts were made by successive English Governments to limit armaments, to promote arbitration, and extend the scope of the Hague Tribunal. In vain. Germany would have none of them. Year by year, in a world of peace her battle-navy grew. "For what can it be intended but to attack England?" said the alarmist. But how few of us believed them! Our Tariff Reformers protested against the encroachments of German trade; but, outside a handful of persons who seemed to most of us fanatics, the emphasis lay always on care for our own people, and not on hostility to Germany. Those who warned us passionately that Germany meant to provoke a struggle, that the struggle must come, were very little heeded. Nobody slept the worse at night for their harangues. Lord Roberts's agitation for National Service, based on the portentous growth of the German Army and Navy, made comparatively little way. I speak from personal experience of a large Parliamentary division. "Did you foresee it?" I said to one of the ablest and most rising men in the Navy a fortnight ago. He thought a little. "I always felt there might be a clash over some colonial question—a quarrel about black men. But a war between the white nations over a European question—that Germany would force such a war—no, that I never believed!" Nor did any of us—except those few—those very few persons, who Cassandra-like, saw the coming horror plainly, and spoke to a deaf country.
"There was no hatred of Germany in this country"—I quote a Cabinet Minister. "Even in those parts of the country which had most reason to feel the trade rivalry of Germany, there was no thought of war, no wish for war!" It came upon England like one of those sudden spates through mountain clefts in spring, that fall with havoc on the plains beneath. After such days of wrestling for European peace as have left their indelible mark upon every member of the English Cabinet which declared war on August 4th, 1914, we fought because we must, because, in Luther's words, we "could no other."
What is the proof of this—the proof which history will accept as final—against the vain and lying pleas of Germany?
Nothing less than the whole history of the past eighteen months!—beginning with that initial lack of realisation, and those harassing difficulties of organisation with which we are now so often and so ignorantly reproached. At the word "Belgium" on August 4th, practically the whole English nation fell into line. We felt no doubts—we knew what we had to do. But the problem was how to do it. Outside the Navy and the Expeditionary Force, both of them ready to the last gun and button, we had neither men nor equipment equal to the fighting of a Continental war, and we knew it. The fact is more than our justification—it is our glory. If we had meant war, as Germany still hoarsely but more faintly says, week after week, to a world that listens no longer, could any nation of sane men have behaved as we did in the years before the war?—233,000 men on active service—and 263,000 Territorials, against Germany's millions!—with arsenals and equipment to match. Is it any wonder that the country—our untouched, uninvaded country—safe as it believed itself to be under the protection of its invincible Navy, was, in some sections of our population at any rate, slow to realise the enormous task to which—for the faith of treaties' sake, for self-defence's sake—it was committed?
And yet—was it after all so slow? The day after war was declared the Prime Minister asked Parliament to authorise the addition of half a million of men to the Army, and a first war credit of a hundred millions of money (five hundred million dollars). The first hundred thousand men came rolling up into the great military centres within a few days. By September 4th nearly three hundred thousand fresh men had enlisted—by Christmas half a million. By May, a million men had been added to the new Armies; by September, 1915, Sir John French alone had under his command close on a million men on the lines in France and Flanders, and in December, 1915, the addition of another million men to the Army was voted by Parliament, bringing up the British military strength to approximately four millions, excluding Colonials. And what of the Dominions? By November, 1915, Canada and Australia alone had sent us forces more than equal to the whole of that original Expeditionary Force, that "contemptible little army" which, broken and strained as it was by the sheer weight and fierceness of the German advance, yet held the gates of the Channel till England could fling her fresh troops into the field, and France—admirable France!—had recovered from the first onslaught of her terrible and ruthless enemy.
In one of my later letters I hope to give some particulars of this first rush of men, gathered from those who witnessed it and took part in it. One remarkable point in connection with it is that those districts most heavily employed in munition-making and coal-mining, the two industries absolutely indispensable to our Army and Navy, have also sent the largest supply of men to the fighting line—take, for instance, Newcastle and the Clyde. There have been anxious episodes, of course, in the great development. Was your own vast levy in the Civil War without them? And for the last half million men, we have had to resort, as Lincoln resorted, to a modified form of compulsion. There was, no doubt, a good deal of unnecessary waste and overlapping in the first camp and billeting organization of the enormous forces raised. But when all is said, did we not, in the language of a French observer "improvise the impossible"?—and have we not good reason to be proud?—not with any foolish vainglory, but with the sober and resolute pride of a great nation, conscious of its past, determined to correct its mistakes, and looking open-eyed and fearless towards the future?
Then as to munitions: in many ways, as you will perhaps say, and as I agree, a tragic story. If we had possessed last spring the ammunition—both for ourselves and our allies we now possess, the war would have gone differently. Drunkenness, trade-union difficulties, a small—very small—revolutionary element among our work people—all these have made trouble. But the real cause of our shortage lay in the fact that no one, outside Germany, realised till far into the war, what the ammunition needs—the absolutely unprecedented needs—of this struggle were going to be. It was the second Battle of Ypres at the end of April last year which burnt them into the English mind. We paid for the grim knowledge in thousands of our noblest lives. But since then?
In a later letter I propose to draw some picture in detail of the really marvellous movement which since last July, under the impulse given by Mr. Lloyd George, has covered England with new munition factories and added enormously to the producing power of the old and famous firms, has drawn in an army of women—now reckoned at something over a quarter of a million—and is at this moment not only providing amply for our own armies, but is helping those of the Allies against those final days of settlement with Germany which we believe to be now steadily approaching. American industry and enterprise have helped us substantially in this field of munitions. We are gratefully conscious of it. But England is now fast overtaking her own needs.
More of this presently. Meanwhile to the military and equipment effort of the country, you have to add the financial effort—something like $7,500,000,000, already expended on the war; the organising effort, exemplified in the wonderful "back of the army" in France, which I hope to describe to you; and the vast hospital system, with all its scientific adjuncts, and its constantly advancing efficiency.
And at the foundation of it all—the human and personal effort!—the lives given for England, the blood so generously shed for her, the homes that have sacrificed their all, our "golden lads" from all quarters and classes, whose young bodies lie mingled with an alien dust that "is for ever England," since they sleep there and hallow it; our mothers who mourn the death or the wreck of the splendid sons they reared; our widowed wives and fatherless children. And this, in a quarrel which only very slowly our people have come to feel as in very deed their own. At first we thought most often and most vividly of Belgium, of the broken treaty, and of France, so wantonly attacked, whose people no English man or woman could ever have looked in the face again, had we forsaken her. Then came the hammer blows that forged our will—Louvain, Aerschot, Rheims, the air-raids on our defenceless towns, the senseless murder of our women and children, the Bryce report, the Lusitania, the execution of Edith Cavell—the whole stupefying revelation of the German hatred and greed towards this country, and of the qualities latent in the German character. Now we know—that it is they, or we—since they willed it so. And this old, illogical, unready country is only just arriving at its full strength, only just fully conscious of the sternness of its own resolve, only just putting out its full powers, as the German power is weakening, and the omens are changing—both in East and West.
No!—the effort of England during the past eighteen months in spite of all temporary ebbs and difficulties, in spite of that chorus of self-blame in which the English nation delights, has been one of the great things in the history of our country. We have "improvised the impossible" in every direction—but one.
In one point, indeed, there has been no improvisation. Nothing was trusted to chance. What is it that alone has secured us the time to make the effort we have made?
It is now about a month ago that, by permission of the Admiralty, I found myself driving towards a certain pier in a harbour opening on the North Sea. The Commodore of a Cruiser Squadron was to send his boat for me, and I was to lunch with him on board his Flag-ship. I duly passed the distrustful sentry on the road leading to the pier, arrived at the pier-head and descended from the motor which had brought me. The morning was mistily sunny, and the pier strangely deserted. Where was the boat? Where was my friend who had hoped to come for me himself? No signs of either. The few old sailors employed about the pier looked at me in astonishment, and shook their heads when I inquired. Commodore ——'s boat was not there; no boat had been in that morning from the ships. I took the Commodore's letter from my hand-bag, to assure myself I had not been dreaming, and reread it in perplexity. No dates could be clearer—no directions more precise. Suddenly I perceive one tall naval officer on the pier. "Can you help me, sir?" And I hand him the Commodore's letter. He looks at me—and at the letter. His face twinkles with repressed laughter; and I laugh, too, beginning to understand. "Very sorry," says the charming young man, "but I think I can assure you there will be no boat, and it is no use your waiting. Commodore —— went to sea last night."
I thanked him, and we laughed together. Then I walked up the pier a little way, seeing a movement in the mist. A sailor came up to me. "They all went to sea last night," he said in my ear—"and there are the slow ones coming back!" And out of the mist came the black shapes of war-ships, moving majestically up the harbour—one might have fancied, with a kind of injured dignity, because their unreasonable fellows had been faster and had gone farther afield than they.
I walked back to my motor, disappointed indeed, and yet exulting. It was good to realise personally through this small incident, the mobility and ever-readiness of the Fleet—the absolute insignificance—non-existence even—of any civilian or shore interest, for the Navy at its work. It was not till a week later that I received an amusing and mysterious line from Commodore ——, the most courteous of men.
By the time it reached me, however, I was on the shores of a harbour in the far north "visiting the Fleet," indeed, and on the invitation of England's most famous sailor. Let me be quite modest about it. Not for me the rough waters, or the thunderous gun-practice—
"Breaking the silence of the seas Among the farthest Hebrides"—
which I see described in the letters of the Russian or American journalists who have been allowed to visit the Grand Fleet. There had been some talk, I understand, of sending me out in a destroyer; it was mercifully abandoned. All the same, I must firmly put on record that mine was "a visit to the Fleet," by Admiralty permission, for the purpose of these letters to you, and through you to the American public, and that I seem to have been so far the only woman who, for newspaper ends, has been allowed to penetrate those mysterious northern limits where I spent two wonderful days.
It was, indeed, a wintry visit. The whole land was covered with snow. The train could hardly drag itself through the choked Highland defiles; and it was hours behind its time when we arrived at a long-expected station, and a Vice-Admiral looking at me with friendly, keen eyes came to the carriage to greet me. "My boat shall meet you at the pier with my Flag-Lieutenant to-morrow morning. You will pick me up at the Flag-ship, and I will take you round the Fleet. You will lunch with me, I hope, afterwards." I tried to show my grateful sense both of the interest and the humour of the situation. My kind visitor disappeared, and the train carried me on a few miles farther to my destination for the night.
And here I take a few words from a journal written at the time:
It is nearly dawn. A red light in the northeast is coming up over the snowy hills. The water, steely grey—the tide rising. What strange moving bodies are those, scudding along over the dim surface, like the ghosts of sea planes? Dense flocks of duck apparently, rising and falling along the shallows of the shore. Now they are gone. Nothing moves. The morning is calm, and the water still. And on it lie, first a cruiser squadron, and then a line of Dreadnoughts stretching out of sight. No lights anywhere, except the green lights on a hospital ship far away. The great ships lie dark and silent, and I sit and watch them, in the cold dawn, thinking that but for them, and the multitude of their comrades that guard these seas and shores, England would be as Belgium or as Northern France, ravaged and destroyed by a barbarian enemy. My heart goes out to you, great ships, and you, gallant unwearied men, who keep your watch upon them! That watch has been kept for generations. Never has there been such need for it as now....
But the day has risen, and the sun with it. As I leave the shore in the Vice-Admiral's boat, the sunlight comes dancing over a low line of hill, lighting up the harbour, the mighty ships, with their guns, and, scattered out to sea along the distance, the destroyers, the trawlers, the mine-sweepers, the small auxiliary craft of all kinds—those "fringes of the fleet"—which Kipling has caught and photographed as none but he can.
The barge stops beside the Flag-ship, and the Admiral descends into it. What is the stamp, the peculiar stamp that these naval men bear?—as of a force trained and disciplined to its utmost capacity, and then held lightly in check—till wanted. You see it in so many of their faces, even in eyes hollow for want of sleep. It is always there—the same strength, the same self-control, the same humanity. Is it produced by the testing weight of responsibility, the silent sense of ever-present danger, both from the forces of nature and the enmity of man, the high, scientific training, and last but not least, that marvellous comradeship of the Navy, whether between officer and officer, or between officers and men, which is constantly present indeed in the Army, but is necessarily closer and more intimate here, in the confined world of the ship, where all live together day after day, and week after week, and where—if disaster comes—all may perish together?
But on this bright winter morning, as we pass under and round the ships, and the Admiral points out what a landswoman can understand, in the equipment and the power of these famous monsters with their pointing guns, there was for the moment no thought of the perils of the Navy, but only of the glory of it. And afterwards in the Admiral's pleasant drawing-room on board the Flag-ship, with its gathering of naval officers, Admirals, Captains, Commanders, how good the talk was! Not a shade of boasting—no mere abuse of Germany—rather a quiet regret for the days when German and English naval men were friends throughout the harbours of the world. "Von Spee was a very good fellow—I knew him well—and his two sons who went down with him," says an Admiral gently. "I was at Kiel the month before the war. I know that many of their men must loathe the work they are set to do." "The point is," says a younger man, broad—shouldered, with the strong face of a leader, "that they are always fouling the seas, and we are always cleaning them up. Let the neutrals understand that! It is not we who strew the open waters with mines for the slaughter of any passing ship, and then call it 'maintaining the freedom of the seas.' And as to their general strategy, their Higher Command—" he throws back his head with a quiet laugh—and I listen to a rapid sketch of what the Germans might have done, have never done, and what it is now much too late to do, which I will not repeat.
Type after type comes back to me:—the courteous Flag-Lieutenant, who is always looking after his Admiral, whether in these brief harbour rests, or in the clash and darkness of the high seas—the Lieutenant-Commanders whose destroyers are the watch-dogs, the ceaseless protectors, no less than the eyes and ears of the Fleet—the Flag-Captain, who takes me through the great ship, with his vigilant, spare face, and his understanding, kindly talk about his men; many of whom on this Thursday afternoon—the quasi half-holiday of the Fleet when in harbour—are snatching an hour's sleep when and where they can. That sleep-abstinence of the Navy—sleep, controlled, measured out, reduced to a bare minimum, among thousands of men, that we on shore may sleep our fill—look at the signs of it, in the eyes both of these officers, and of the sailors crowding the "liberty" boats, which are just bringing them back from their short two hours' leave on shore!
Another gathering, in the Captain's room, for tea. The talk turns on a certain popular play dealing with naval life, and a Commander describes how the manuscript of it had been brought to him, and how he had revelled in the cutting out of all the sentimentalisms. Two men in the play—friends—going into action—shake hands with each other "with tears in their eyes." A shout of derisive laughter goes up from the tea-table. But they admit "talking shop" off duty. "That's the difference between us and the Army." And what shop it is! I listen to two young officers, both commanding destroyers, describing—one, his adventures in dirty weather the night before, on patrol duty. "My hat, I thought one moment the ship was on the rocks! You couldn't see a yard for the snow—and the sea—beastly!" The other had been on one of Admiral Hood's monitors, when they suddenly loomed out of the mist on the Belgian coast, and the German army marching along the coast road to Dunkirk and Calais marched no more, but lay in broken fragments behind the dunes, or any shelter available, till the flooding of the dikes farther south completed the hopeless defeat which Admiral Hood's guns had begun.
Then the talk ranges round the blockade, the difficulties and dangers of patrol work, the complaints of neutrals. "America should understand us. Their blockade hit us hard enough in the Civil War. And we are fighting for their ideals no less than our own. When has our naval supremacy ever hurt them? Mayn't they be glad of it some day? What about a fellow called Monroe!"—so it runs. Then its tone changes insensibly. From a few words dropped I realise with a start where these pleasantly chatting men had probably been only two or three days before, where they would probably be again on the morrow. Some one opens a map, and I listen to talk which, in spite of its official reticence, throws many a light on the vast range of England's naval power, and the number of her ships. "Will they come out? When will they come out?" The question runs round the group. Some one tells a story of a German naval prisoner taken not long ago in the North Sea, and of his remark to his captors: "Yes, we're beaten—we know that—but we'll make it hell for you before we give in!"
For that final clash—that Armageddon that all think must come, our sailors wait, not despising their enemy, knowing very well that they—the Fleet—are the pivot of the situation, that without the British Navy, not all the valour of the Allies in France or Russia could win the war, and that with it, Germany's hope of victory is vain. While the Navy lives, England lives, and Germany's vision of a world governed by the ruthless will of the scientific soldier is doomed.
Meanwhile, what has Germany been doing in her shipyards all this time? No one knows, but my hosts are well aware that we shall know some day.
As to England—here is Mr. Balfour moving the Naval Estimates in the House of Commons—the "token votes" which tell nothing that should not be told. But since the war began, says the First Lord, we have added "one million" to the tonnage of the Navy, and we have doubled its personnel. We are adding more every day; for the Admiralty are always "wanting more." We are quite conscious of our defects—in the Air Service first and foremost. But they will be supplied. There is a mighty movement afoot in the workshops of England—an effort which, when all drawbacks are allowed for, has behind it a free people's will.
In my next letter I propose to take you through some of these workshops. "We get the most extraordinary letters from America," writes one of my correspondents, a steel manufacturer in the Midlands. "What do they think we are about?" An American letter is quoted. "So you are still, in England, taking the war lying down?"
Are we? Let us see.
In this second letter I am to try and prove to you that England is not taking the war "lying down."
Let me then give you some account—an eye-witness's account—of what there is now to be seen by the ordinary intelligent observer in the "Munition Areas," as the public has learned to call them, of England and Scotland. That great spectacle, as it exists to-day—so inspiring in what it immediately suggests of human energy and human ingenuity, so appalling in its wider implications—testifies, in the first instance, to the fierce stiffening of England's resolve to win the war, and to win it at a lessened cost in life and suffering to our men in the field, which ran through the nation, after the second Battle of Ypres, towards the close of April, 1915. That battle, together with the disagreement between Mr. Winston Churchill and Lord Fisher at the Admiralty, had, as we all know, momentous consequences. The two events brought the national dissatisfaction and disappointment with the general course of the spring fighting to a head. By May 19th the Ministry which had declared the war and so far conducted it, had disappeared; a National or Coalition Ministry, drawn from the leading men of both parties, reigned in its stead. The statement made by Mr. Asquith, as late, alack, as April 20, 1915, that there was "no truth in the statement" that our efforts at the front "were being crippled or at any rate hampered" by want of ammunition, was seen almost immediately, in the bitter light of events, to be due to some fatal misconceptions, or misjudgments, on the part of those informing the Prime Minister, which the nation in its own interests and those of its allies, could only peremptorily sweep away. A new Ministry was created—the Ministry of Munitions, and Mr. Lloyd George was placed at its head.
The work that Mr. Lloyd George and his Ministry—now employing vast new buildings, and a staff running into thousands—have done since June, 1915, is nothing less than colossal. Much no doubt had been done earlier for which the new Ministry has perhaps unjustly got the credit, and not all has been smooth sailing since. One hears, of course, criticism and complaints. What vast and effective stir, for a great end, was ever made in the world without them?
Mr. Lloyd George has incurred a certain amount of unpopularity among the working classes, who formerly adored him. In my belief he has incurred it for the country's sake, and those sections of the working class who have smarted under his criticisms most bitterly will forgive him when the time comes. In his passionate determination to get the thing done, he has sometimes let his theme—of the national need, and the insignificance of all things else in comparison with it—carry him into a vehemence which the workmen have resented, and which foreign or neutral countries have misunderstood.
He found in his path, which was also the nation's path, three great foes—drunkenness, the old envenomed quarrel between employer and employed, and that deep-rooted industrial conservatism of England, which shows itself on the one hand in the trade-union customs and restrictions of the working class, built up, as they hold, through long years, for the protection of their own standards of life, and, on the other, in the slowness of many of the smaller English employers (I am astonished, however, at the notable exceptions everywhere!) to realise new needs and processes, and to adapt themselves to them. Could any one have made such an omelet without breaking a great many eggs? Is it wonderful that the employers have sometimes felt themselves unbearably hustled, sometimes misunderstood, and at other times annoyed, or worried by what seems to them the red tape of the new Ministry, and its apparent multiplicity of forms and inquiries?
Men accustomed to conduct their own businesses with the usual independence of regulation have been obliged to submit to regulation. Workmen accustomed to defend certain methods of work and certain customs of their trade as matters of life and death have had to see them jeopardised or swept away. The restoration of these methods and customs is solemnly promised them after the war; but meanwhile they become the servants of a public department almost as much under orders as the soldier himself. They are asked to admit unskilled men to the skilled processes over which they have long kept so jealous a guard; above all, they are asked to assent wholesale to the employment of women in trades where women have never been employed before, where it is obvious that their introduction taps an immense reservoir of new labour, and equally obvious that, once let in, they are not going to be easily or wholly dislodged.
Of course, there has been friction and difficulty; nor is it all yet at an end. In the few danger-spots of the country, where heads are hottest, where thousands of the men of most natural weight and influence are away fighting, and where among a small minority hatred of the capitalist deadens national feeling and obscures the national danger, there have been anxious moments during the winter; there may possibly be some anxious moments again.
But, after all, how little it amounts to in comparison with the enormous achievement! It took us nine months to realise what France—which, remember, is a Continental nation under conscription—had realised after the Battle of the Marne, when she set every hand in the country to work at munitions that could be set to work. With us, whose villages were unravaged, whose normal life was untouched, realisation was inevitably slower. Again we were unprepared, and again, as in the case of the Army itself, we may plead that we have "improvised the impossible." "No nation," says Mr. Buchan, "can be adequately prepared, unless, like Germany, it intends war; and Britain, like France paid the penalty of her honest desire for peace!"
Moreover, we had our Navy to work for, without which the cause of the Allies would have gone under, must have gone under, at the first shock of Germany. What the workmen of England did in the first year of the war in her docks and shipyards, history will tell some day.
"What's wrong with the men!" cried a Glasgow employer indignantly to me, one evening as, quite unknown the one to the other, we were nearing one of the towns on the Clyde. "What was done on the Clyde, in the first months of the war, should never be forgotten by this country. Working from six to nine every day till they dropped with fatigue—and Sundays, too—drinking just to keep themselves going—too tired to eat or sleep—that's what it was—I saw it!"
I, too, have seen that utter fatigue stamped on a certain percentage of faces through the Midlands, or the districts of the Tyne and the Clyde—fatigue which is yet indomitable, which never gives way. How fresh, beside that look, are the faces of the women, for whom workshop life is new! In its presence one forgets all hostile criticism, all talk of strikes and drink, of trade-union difficulties, and the endless worries of the employers.
The English workman is not tractable material—far from it—and he is not imaginative; except in the persons of some of his chosen leaders, he has never seen a ruined French or Flemish village, and he was slow to realise the bitterness of that silence of the guns on the front, when ammunition runs short, and lives must pay. But he has sent his hundreds of thousands to the fighting line; there are a million and a half of him now working at munitions, and it is he, in a comradeship with the brain workers, the scientific intelligence of the nation, closer than any he has yet known, and lately, with the new and astonishing help of women—it is he, after all, who is "delivering the goods," he who is now piling the great arsenals and private works with guns and shells, with bombs, rifles, and machine-guns, he who is working night and day in the shipyards, he who is teaching the rising army of women their work, and making new and firm friends, through the national emergency, whether in the trenches or the workshops, with other classes and types in the nation, hitherto little known to him, to whom he, too, is perhaps a revelation.
There will be a new wind blowing through England when this war is done. Not only will the scientific intelligence, the general education, and the industrial plant of the nation have gained enormously from this huge impetus of war; but men and women, employers and employed, shaken perforce out of their old grooves, will look at each other surely with new eyes, in a world which has not been steeped for nothing in effort and sacrifice, in common griefs and a common passion of will.
All over England, then, the same quadruple process has now been going on for months:
The steady enlargement of existing armament and munition works, national or private.
The transformation of a host of other engineering businesses into munition works.
The co-ordination of a vast number of small workshops dealing with the innumerable metal industries of ordinary commerce, so as to make them feed the larger engineering works, with all those minor parts of the gun or shell, which such shops had the power to make.
The putting up of entirely new workshops—National Workshops—directly controlled by the new Ministry, under the Munitions Acts.
Let me take you through a few typical scenes.
It was on February 1st, the day after the Zeppelin raid of January 31st, that I left a house in the north where I had been seeing one of the country-house convalescent hospitals, to which Englishwomen and English wealth are giving themselves everywhere without stint, and made my way by train, through a dark and murky afternoon, towards a Midland town. The news of the raid was so far vague. The newspapers of the morning gave no names or details. I was not aware that I was passing through towns where women and children in back streets had been cruelly and wantonly killed the night before, where a brewery had been bombed, and the windows of a train broken, in order that the German public might be fed on ridiculous lies about the destruction of Liverpool docks and the wrecking of "English industry." "English industry lies in ruins," said the Hamburger Nachrichten complacently. Marvellous paper! Just after reading its remarks, I was driving down the streets of the great industrial centre I had come to see—a town which the murderers of the night before would have been glad indeed to hit. As it was, "English industry" seemed tolerably active amid its "ruins." The clumsy falsehoods of the German official reports and the German newspapers affect me strangely! It is not so much their lack of truth as their lack of the ironic, the satiric sense, which is a certain protection, after all, even amid the tragedy of war. We have a tolerable British conceit of ourselves, no doubt, and in war we make foolish or boasting statements about the future, because, in spite of all our grumbling, we are at bottom a nation of optimists, and apt to see things as we wish. But this sturdy or fatuous lying about the past—the "sinking" of the Lion, the "capture" of Fort Vaux, or the "bombardment" of Liverpool docks—is really beyond us. Our sense of ridicule, if nothing else, forbids—the instinct of an old people with an old and humourous literature. These leading articles of the Hamburger Nachrichten, the sermons of German pastors, and those amazing manifestoes of German professors, flying straight in the face of historic documents—"scraps of paper"—which are there, none the less, to all time—for us, these things are only not comic because, to the spiritual eye, they are written in blood. But to return to the "ruins," and this "English industry" which during the last six months has taken on so grim an aspect for Germany.
My guide, an official of the Ministry, stops the motor, and we turn down a newly made road, leading towards a mass of spreading building on the left.
"A year ago," says my companion—"this was all green fields. Now the company is employing, instead of 3,500 work-people, about three times the number, of whom a large proportion are women. Its output has been quadrupled, and the experiment of introducing women has been a complete success."
We pass up a fine oak staircase to the new offices, and I am soon listening to the report of the works superintendent. A spare, powerful man with the eyes of one in whom life burns fast, he leans, his hands in his pockets, against the wall of his office, talking easily and well. He himself has not had a day's holiday for ten months, never sleeping more than five and a half hours, with the telephone at his bedhead, and waking to instant work when the moment for waking comes. His view of his workmen is critical. It is the view of one consumed with "realisation," face to face with those who don't "realise." "But the raid will do a deal of good," he says cheerfully.
"As to the women!"—he throws up his hands—"they're saving the country. They don't mind what they do. Hours? They work ten and a half or, with overtime, twelve hours a day, seven days a week. At least, that's what they'd like to do. The Government are insisting on one Sunday—or two Sundays—a month off. I don't say they're not right. But the women resent it. 'We're not tired!' they say. And you look at them!—they're not tired.
"If I go down to the shed and say: 'Girls!—there's a bit of work the Government are pushing for—they say they must have—can you get it done?' Why, they'll stay and get it done, and then pour out of the works, laughing and singing. I can tell you of a surgical-dressing factory near here, where for nearly a year the women never had a holiday. They simply wouldn't take one. 'And what'll our men at the front do, if we go holiday-making?'
"Last night" (the night of the Zeppelin raid) "the warning came to put out lights. We daren't send them home. They sat in the dark among the machines, singing, 'Keep the home fires burning,' 'Tipperary,' and the like. I tell you, it made one a bit choky to hear them. They were thinking of their sweethearts and husbands I'll be bound!—not of themselves."
In another minute or two we were walking through the new workshops. Often as I have now seen this sight, so new to England, of a great engineering workshop filled with women, it stirs me at the twentieth time little less than it did at first. These girls and women of the Midlands and the north, are a young and comely race. Their slight or rounded figures among the forest of machines, the fair or golden hair of so many of them, their grace of movement, bring a strange touch of beauty into a scene which has already its own spell.
Muirhead Bone and Joseph Pennell have shown us what can be done in art with these high workshops, with their intricate distances and the endless crisscross of their belting, and their ranged machines. But the coming in of the girls, in their close khaki caps and overalls, showing the many pretty heads and slender necks, and the rows of light bending forms, spaced in order beside their furnaces or lathes as far as the eye can reach, has added a new element—something flower-like, to all this flash of fire and steel, and to the grimness of war underlying it.
For the final meaning of it all is neither soft nor feminine! These girls—at hot haste—are making fuses and cartridge-cases by the hundred thousand, casting, pressing, drawing, and, in the special danger-buildings, filling certain parts of the fuse with explosive. There were about 4,000 of them to 5,000 men, when I saw the shop, and their number has no doubt increased since; for the latest figures show that about 15,000 fresh women workers are going into the munition works every week. The men are steadily training them, and without the teaching and co-operation of the men—without, that is, the surrender by the men of some of their most cherished trade customs—the whole movement would have been impossible.
As it is, by the sheer body of work the women have brought in, by the deftness, energy, and enthusiasm they throw into the simpler but quite indispensable processes, thereby setting the unskilled man free for the Army, and the skilled man for work which women cannot do, Great Britain has become possessed of new and vast resources of which she scarcely dreamed a year ago; and so far as this war is a war of machinery—and we all know what Germany's arsenals have done to make it so—its whole aspect is now changing for us. The "eternal feminine" has made one more startling incursion upon the normal web of things!
But on the "dilution" of labour, the burning question of the hour, I shall have something to say in my next letter. Let me record another visit of the same day to a small-arms factory of importance. Not many women here so far, though the number is increasing, but look at the expansion figures since last summer! A large, new factory added, on a bare field; 40,000 tons of excavation removed, two miles of new shops, sixty feet wide and four floors high, the output in rifles quadrupled, and so on.
We climbed to the top floor of the new buildings and looked far and wide over the town. Dotted over the tall roofs rose the national flags, marking "controlled" factories, i.e., factories still given over a year ago to one or other of the miscellaneous metal trades of the Midlands, and now making fuse or shell for England's Armies, and under the control of the British Government. One had a sudden sharp sense of the town's corporate life, and of the spirit working in it everywhere for England's victory. Before we descended, we watched the testing of a particular gun. I was to hear its note on the actual battle-field a month later.
An afternoon train takes me on to another great town, with some very ancient institutions, which have done very modern service in the war. I spent my evening in talking with my host, a steel manufacturer identified with the life of the city, but serving also on one of the central committees of the Ministry in London. Labour and politics, the chances of the war, America and American feeling towards us, the task of the new Minister of Munitions, the temper of English and Scotch workmen, the flux into which all manufacturing conditions have been thrown by the war, and how far old landmarks can be restored after it—we talked hard on these and many other topics, till I must break it off—unwillingly!—to get some sleep and write some notes.
Next day took me deep into the very central current of "England's Effort"—so far as this great phase of it at any rate is concerned. In this town, even more than in the city I had just left, one felt the throb of the nation's rising power, concentrated, orderly, determined. Every single engineering business in a town of engineers was working for the war. Every manufacturer of any importance was doing his best for the Government, some in connection with the new Ministry, some with the Admiralty, some with the War Office. As for the leading firms of the city, the record of growth, of a mounting energy by day and night, was nothing short of bewildering. Take these few impressions of a long day, as they come back to me.
First, a great steel warehouse, full of raw steel of many sorts and kinds, bayonet steel, rifle steel, shell steel, stacked in every available corner and against every possible wall—all sold, every bit of it, and ready to be shipped—some to the Colonies, some to our Allies, with peremptory orders coming in as to which the harassed head of the firm could only shake his head with a despairing "impossible!"
Then some hours in a famous works, under the guidance of the managing director, one of those men, shrewd, indefatigable, humane, in whose company one learns what it is, in spite of all our supposed deficiencies, that makes the secret of England's industrial tenacity. An elderly Scotchman, very plainly marked by the labour and strain of the preceding eighteen months, but still steadily keeping his head and his temper, showing the signs of an Evangelical tradition in his strong dislike for Sunday work, his evident care for his work-people—men and women—and his just and sympathetic tone towards the labour with which he has to deal—such is my companion.