A Popular History of The Great War/Volume 1/Chapter 3
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Edited by Sir John Alexander Hammerton
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BY a strange irony of fate the outbreak of the Great War came at the moment when the thoughts of many British people were concentrated upon the pleasures associated with summer weather. They had heard of the assassination of the Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand, and the duchess of Hohenberg at Serajevo with that degree of sympathy and horror which is evoked by such a crime in a distant land. They had read with a little uneasiness, but perhaps without fully realizing its significance, of Austria's ultimatum to Serbia. But the last public holiday of the year was approaching, a fortnight or a month at the seaside for the more fortunate, a day there or in the country for those whose means would run to no more, were the things that mattered. Storm clouds might be gathering over Europe, but they had gathered before and had been dispersed. At any rate, it seemed inconceivable that Britain should be involved in a dispute which, after all, was only one of those recrudescences of "trouble in the Balkans," which in the past had perhaps perturbed the Foreign Office, but had never concerned the man in the street.
Yet as the last week in July wore on it became evident that more than a local war was possible, even probable. In addition to Austria and Serbia, France, Germany and Russia might be involved. Still there appeared to be no reason why Great Britain should not maintain her neutrality without sacrificing her honour. It still seemed inconceivable that some way of avoiding a continental war would not be found. No one could believe that the resources of diplomacy had been exhausted. It would be foolish to cancel holiday plans because the chancelleries of Europe were for the moment at loggerheads. So Britain went on with her pleasure making. Trains from London and other great centres went off, north, south, east and west, carrying their usual crowds of passengers. The more optimistic started off gaily for the continent. The momentous news in the papers damped no one's spirits; it rather added to the general exuberance, for it gave everyone a topic of conversation. But by the middle of the last week of July excitement began to give place to anxiety. It became clear that even if Great Britain were not actually drawn into the fighting, war on the continent would have serious repercussions in this country. The first signs of the gravity of the situation were seen in the money markets. The stock exchanges of Europe began to face ruin. Everyone wanted to sell, none to buy. Prices fell to what a week before would have seemed impossible figures. On Wednesday, July 29, on the London Stock Exchange, seven firms, unable to meet their obligations, were hammered. Foreign houses, particularly German and Austrian, were pouring securities on London, and selling them for whatever they would fetch. On Friday, July 31, public confidence received a two-fold shock. The bank rate was raised from 4 per cent to 8 per cent, the highest figure recorded since 1873. The second shock concerned the stock exchange. At ten o'clock in the morning a notice was posted on the door of the house to the effect that the committee, acting upon representations from leading members, had decided upon closing until further notice. There followed within a few hours a conference of the leading bankers with the government, the result of which was officially intimated as follows:
- Interviews have taken place to-day between the prime minister, the chancellor of the exchequer, and representatives of the Bank of England and the leading joint-stock banks in regard to the financial situation. It is understood to have been decided that the situation is not at present such as to justify any emergency action in regard to the supply of legal tender currency, but in the event of further developments taking place necessitating government action, the treasury will be prepared to take such action immediately.
On Saturday, August 1, the bank rate was raised to 10 per cent. At the same time the banks began to guard their gold. The Bank of England took steps to protect itself, and banks generally met demands on them with bank notes in place of sterling. These notes were exchangeable into gold at the Bank of England on demand, and on Friday and Saturday that week London witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of people waiting outside the Bank of England to obtain gold for paper. The nation was face to face with the possibility of the entire overthrow of its credit system and of a general run upon its banks. Panic is not a fair word to describe the effect of these events on the vast numbers who understood little of their technical bearing, but there was acute anxiety. Men and women dimly understood that securities would be for a time unsaleable, that money would be scarce, and that the prices of the necessities of life might consequently rise. They had wider visions of a serious decline in trade and a consequent lack of employment. For the first time that week they ceased to ask: "What has Serbia to do with us?" They no longer shrugged their shoulders at the mention of war, but turned feverishly to the newspapers in the attempt to elicit from conflicting messages from foreign capitals what the issue was to be.
It was fortunate that the first Monday in August is a Bank Holiday. This pause gave the authorities time to prepare to meet the unprecedented situation. Mr. Lloyd George, the chancellor of the exchequer, called the financial magnates into conference on that memorable first Sunday in August. He and Lord Rothschild sank their former enmity and with the heads of the great banks laid common plans to meet the crisis. The Bank Holiday was extended to August 7. A moratorium was proclaimed on Monday, August 3, and was subsequently extended to November 4, with an extension for a month for bills that fell due up to that date. To meet the shortage of gold, Treasury notes for £1 and 10/- were put into circulation. Steps were taken to prevent people from withdrawing their deposits from banks through panic and for the purpose of hoarding.
- Nobody should be so foolish and indeed wicked as to add to the difficulties of the financial and commercial situation by selfishly drawing out unnecessary amounts of money in groundless apprehension that it is advisable to hoard it during the crisis. If a man's credit is good there is no advantage to be gained by keeping more money in hand now than at any other time.
This quotation is typical of the exhortations that appeared in all the newspapers about this time. Under these conditions quite a number of people in Britain were faced with a real shortage of money. On the Saturday the banks had paid cheques in notes instead of in gold, and then they had closed for the longest bank holiday on record. Restaurants, shops, even clubs refused to cash these notes, declaring that they were stocked up with them. The result was that many usually affluent people could not find sufficient money to pay their current expenses. This, however, was a very temporary trouble. During the days of suspense people had thought over the
This map shows how the continent was divided into two hostile and warring groups after the Allies had been joined by Italy, Portugal, Rumania, and the Central Powers by Turkey and Bulgaria.
situation. Almost every man decided in his own mind that it would be not only a disloyal but an absurd thing to doubt the nation's financial stability. He would leave his money in the bank, and go on as usual.
Sunday, August 2, was a day of intense excitement. Weekday daily papers made an unusual Sabbath appearance, and in such London centres as Charing Cross and Piccadilly Circus were literally torn from the hands of shouting newsvendors. A meeting held in Trafalgar Square on Sunday to protest against war, resolved itself into another meeting under the Admiralty Arch, where a resolution to support the authorities in all circumstances was passed with acclamation. And later in the day, inspired in the hour of national danger by a realization of all that the crown stood for, a crowd of several thousands marched to Buckingham Palace singing the British and French national anthems. Out on to the balcony came the King and Queen, to be received with wildly enthusiastic cheers. And yet another symptom of the growing feeling was the letter of Bonar Law, the opposition leader, to the government, which, setting aside the bitter political feuds that had separated the two parties, assured the Liberal ministers of "our unhesitating support of the government in any measure they may consider necessary"—to assist France and Russia at the present juncture.
The world was making holiday when on Monday, August 3, members of parliament gathered at Westminster. With grave, set face, Sir Edward Grey advanced to the table and in slow and deliberate tones reviewed the history of the past few years. He showed how France had become involved in the conflict because of an obligation of honour under a definite alliance with Russia. We were not partners to that alliance, of which we did not even know the terms. Our friendship with France, however, arising out of the Entente Cordiale, had engendered a feeling of security in the republic. So he approached the first issue, which required the approval of the House.
On behalf of the opposition Mr. Bonar Law renewed his written promise to support the government in whatever steps they might think it necessary to take for the honour and security of the country. During the debate Mr. John Redmond made a remarkable declaration of Irish loyalty. On the day after Austria had shown her hand towards Serbia, a collision between Nationalist gun runners and the Dublin police had resulted in bloodshed. Coming as it did at the end of the abortive Buckingham Palace conference between the Ulster and Nationalist leaders, the foreign ill-wishers of Great Britain regarded this catastrophe as the outbreak of the long-promised civil war. Without a doubt Germany was counting on such a development. In her eyes, Great Britain, on the brink of armed conflict within her own islands, was a negligible quantity. Mr. Redmond's speech gave Berlin her answer. In words which at the time raised a hope, unfortunately not to be fulfilled, that the long quarrel between Ireland and Great Britain was at last to be ended, he declared:
- I say that the coasts of Ireland will be defended from foreign invasion by her armed sons, and for this purpose armed Nationalist Catholics in the south will be only too glad to join arms with the armed Protestant Ulstermen in the north. Is it too much to hope that out of this situation there may spring; a result which will be good, not merely for the empire, but good for the future welfare and integrity of the Irish nation? . . . If the dire necessity is forced upon this country, we offer to the government of the day that they may take their troops away, and that if it is allowed to us, in comradeship with our brethren in the north, we will ourselves defend the coasts of our country.
There seemed only one dissentient voice. Mr. Ramsay MacDonald maintained that the country was not in danger; that if it were, all parties and all classes would stand shoulder to shoulder behind the government. Immediately after he bad spoken, the sitting was suspended for two hours. Before the House assembled again news, vital alike to Great Britain's security and her honour, had reached the government. Once more going to the table the foreign secretary read a document: which decided Great Britain's participation in the world war. It was the message from the Belgian legation in London, stating that Belgium had refused to allow German troops a free passage through her territory and was resolved to repel aggression by all possible means. There was no mistaking the sentiments of the House, though two Quaker members urged a final effort for peace. There was no need for any Cabinet decisions. The first lord had on his own authority completed the mobilization of the fleet, feeling that the security of the state overrode all other considerations, and now the military defences were taken in hand. That strange Bank Holiday of August 3 came to an end. Tuesday, August 4, dawned. All through that long summer day the people waited as if holding their breath. The navy was ready, every ship at her station, warned and watchful. Only a final message, when Britain's ultimatum to Germany expired at eleven o'clock that night, was required to open, the thunder of their guns. The sun sank. The night came; a night that throbbed and pulsed with deep emotion. In the hearts of the waiting multitudes in the London streets there was no divided feeling, no shrinking from the tragic price to be paid by the blood of the nation's manhood. Eleven o'clock struck. Instantly to every ship and establishment under the white ensign all over the world, there was swept through the ether the message that meant "Commence hostilities against Germany." . . . Great Britain had taken the plunge into the World War.
The banks reopened on Friday, August 7, in order that wages might be paid. There was no fresh run upon them. Here and there super-nervous individuals tried to withdraw large sums, but the banks had now the power to refuse payment in such cases and they used it resolutely.
The threatened panic was stayed, but the financial and industrial situation in Britain during the first week in August was anything but promising. When the average merchant or manufacturer returned to his desk after the holiday he found himself face to face with very gloomy prospects. His investments were not now immediately available. He could not sell them even at a ruinous sacrifice, for the stock exchanges closed. He could not borrow on them, for the banks were chary in making loans. Foreign payments had ceased to arrive, and debts on the continent of Europe could not be collected. Business men who had been able a month before to command scores of thousands of pounds now found themselves hard pressed to raise enough money to pay their weekly wages. Debts owing by them could not, it is true, be enforced under the moratorium proclamation, but the British business man did not want to damage his own credit by pleading the moratorium.
Business was immediately curtailed. A large part of British trade had been with foreign countries. Most of this ceased immediately, especially so far as the continent of Europe was concerned. Home buying dropped. The wholesaler would not lay in further supplies which he might not be able to sell; the retailer would not accept extra stocks. Thus day by day during that first week in August the manufacturers found their mail composed of little more than letters cancelling orders. Articles of luxury, pictures, and the like became suddenly unsaleable. The fashionable dressmaker found that her best customers were no longer thinking of fresh stocks of costly and beautiful attire, but were absorbed in work for the sick or in preparations for the wounded. Entertaining ceased, and the army of caterers for the luxurious found themselves idle. This condition of things naturally told on employment. Thousands of young women, shorthand typists and general assistants, were thrown out of work by the closing down of offices. Some factories ran on half time, and some shut altogether. Here and there patriotic business men, possessed of unusual resources, did not permit their people to suffer. "You have stood by us in good times. We will stand by you in bad," they said; and they paid wages in full and kept their staffs unbroken.
Employers in some cases met their men and discussed the situation with them. Here and there the workers took the initiative. "We recognize that there is not enough business coming in to keep all of us employed," the workers in one large house wrote to their chief. "We know that some readjustment must be made. We should be glad if, in place of discharging part of the staff, you would allow us to keep together, to share the loss in common, and to have wages reduced all round rather than some be discharged and others kept on at full wages."
Holiday makers returned home as soon as war was declared, and the thousands of lodging-house keepers and hotel keepers at the seaside and in the country found their living gone. The plight of those people who had gone abroad and had deferred their return too long was serious. Many of them underwent extreme hardships and a considerable number only managed to get home after long delay and after overcoming many difficulties. In those days passports were not necessary for travel on the continent and in many cases people had difficulty in proving their nationality; they had still greater difficulty in obtaining money.
As soon as it became apparent that Germany would pass through Belgium by force of arms if necessary, a great change came over Great Britain. Plans for home defence, which had been carefully worked out by the War Office, came into effect. Railway stations, bridges, and water and lighting works were placed under military guard. A large number of special constables was enrolled to assist the regular police in the many new duties thrust upon them. News came up from a hundred points around the coast of the digging of trenches, and the like. At first people refused to take these measures seriously, and laughingly declared that it might be imagined the authorities thought the Germans would invade us. The note of good-humoured banter soon changed to a more serious tone. A number of Germans suspected of espionage were suddenly arrested, and it is said that a very carefully planned German scheme was thus crushed. A bill enabling the authorities to move or restrain the movements of undesirable aliens was passed through the Commons on the day war was announced. The navigation of aircraft of every kind, over the whole of the United Kingdom, was prohibited. Shipping was placed at the disposal of the authorities, who were given power to commandeer what boats they required for the service of the government. Two of the most important measures carried out in the first week for the nationalisation of the country's resources were the taking over of the railways by the state and the establishment of a government scheme for the insurance of shipping against war risks.
The state control of railways was announced on Tuesday night, August 4, and it at once came into force. Under an Act of Parliament passed in 1871 the government possessed power to assume supreme control over the railways of the United Kingdom, in order that the lines, locomotives, rolling stock and staff might be used as one complete unit in the service of the state for the movement of troops, stores, and food supplies. The order-in-council, announcing that this power was to be used, stated:
- It is expedient that the government should have control over the railroads of Great Britain. . . Although the railway facilities for other than naval and military purposes may for a time be somewhat restricted, the effect of the use of the powers under this Act will be to coordinate the demands on the railways of the civil community with those necessary to meet the special requirements of the naval and military authorities. More normal conditions will in due course be restored, and it is hoped the public will recognize the necessity for the special conditions, and will in the general interest accommodate themselves to the inconvenience involved.
Unsuspected by the country at large, this step had been fully prepared for long before war began. For this we have to thank the War Office. A war railway council was in existence, under the direction of the army, and included representatives of the Admiralty and the Board of Trade. The work of this council was to lay down general schemes of what the railways were required to do in the way of moving troops and supplies. The actual executive administration of the lines was placed in the hands of the railway executive committee, a board composed of the general managers of the railways. Behind it was an organization, the engineer and railway staff corps, consisting of the very pick of the railway world, whose members were at once placed in high administrative transportation posts, not only at home but on the continent. The government guaranteed that during the time of official control the receipts of the railways should equal those they had recently been earning. The result of this guarantee was far-reaching. From now on it was no longer the aim of the railways to attract traffic by special means to their lines, but to meet the government needs.
All the advertising campaigns, canvassing for passengers, and the like, were cut off in a day. Trains were held up or lines closed whenever necessary. In the following months excursion facilities gradually lessened until it was announced that on account of the military requirements cheap fares and excursion rates would be cancelled altogether. The private traveller suffered to some extent, although not so much as might have been expected. But the work for the army was done with splendid efficiency. The way in which the first Expeditionary Force was carried to the south coast ports and embarked secretly will go down in history among the greatest of railway feats.
Still more important, if anything, than the conveyance of the Expeditionary Force southwards was the constant preparation to keep the lines ready day and night so that at any moment a defence army of, maybe, 200,000 men, drawn from many centres, could be concentrated on one spot to resist an attempt at invasion. When it is borne in mind that the railways were very short-handed, a large number of their men being in the army, that they had lost some of their chief organizers for administrative work on the continent, and that they were primarily, from August onwards, working for the government, it will be realized that the way in which they still catered for the civilian element stands to their great credit.
The scheme for insuring British shipping against war risks was necessary if the shipping was to continue its work freely. Every one assumed before war began that Germany would have a large number of armed cruisers scattered over the seas, and that, before these could be hunted, they would destroy an appreciable percentage of British ships. The Germans, it turned out, were not so well prepared with their cruisers as had been expected. But the fear of them alone was enough to force insurance to an impossible figure, so a state insurance office was started in London, and the state announced that it was prepared to insure 80 per cent of the risks on ships and to insure cargoes at moderate fixed rates.
The result of this state guarantee, and of the protection afforded to shipping by the fleet, was soon made manifest. A number of merchant vessels were taken over by the govern-ment for transport work. The others were insufficient for the work awaiting them. The great German mercantile fleets had been driven from the seas by the British navy. France had no ships to spare. Japan, with her growing shipping, gained enormously. But the main benefit fell to the British shipowners. There came the greatest boom shipping had ever known. Rates doubled, trebled, and quadrupled in a very short time. Old ships almost derelict, which a few week's before had been unsaleable, now fetched more than they had cost when new. Shipowners who had struggled along with small fleets of tramp boats now found that every boat left to them by the government was a little gold mine. Sailors and officers demanded much higher wages, and got them. This represented a very small share of the gains. Many men made fortunes from their ships in the early months of the war.
The steadily growing activities of the state revealed themselves in another direction. Immediately war became probable, a number of people began hastily to buy large supplies of food stuffs. In some cases they laid in fantastic quantities of preserved foods, more than they would consume in a year in the normal course of things. Some shopkeepers tried to meet this rush by refusing to supply anyone except their regular customers, only selling them their usual quantities. Others, including some great wholesale houses, quickly raised prices. This rise fell most heavily on small and struggling retailers in poor districts, who could not afford to keep large stocks. As a result they had to increase prices for their customers, and the poorer classes were made to pay. The Cabinet formed a committee on food supplies, which met the representatives of the multiple grocery firms and of the Grocers' Federation, and it was decided to set up a maximum retail figure announced by the government for certain staple foods, such as sugar, butter, cheese, lard, bacon, and margarine. The government went farther. The price of sugar had been forced up to, in some instances, as much as 7d. a pound. The state purchased an immense quantity of sugar, sufficient for the national supply for many months, and arranged its distribution through the wholesale trade at a much more reasonable price.
The problem of the anticipated winter distress and unemployment among the working classes engaged widespread attention during August and September. The Prince of Wales' Fund was established to meet the distress — a fund that within nine months was to exceed £5,000,000. The Board of Trade established a new department for the promotion of fresh industrial enterprises, and this brought all manner of fresh enterprises to the attention of manufacturers. The chairmakers of Luton were lacking work; a Board of Trade official showed them how to make bentwood furniture so as to capture the Austrian trade. Nottingham factories were given samples of fresh lines wanted abroad. Dundee was put in touch with new continental buyers. The little master in the east end of London was shown how to make fasteners or bag frames, and where to sell them when made.
There was much talk of a business war against Germany. While our soldiers were fighting the German armies in the field, our merchants and manufacturers were to establish British trade in localities where Germans had hitherto been dominant. Britain was to reconquer the South American market, to make an end of German manufactures in Canada, to do the business formerly done by Germany in China, and to have Australian trade once more. This talk was very popular for a time. Then it died away, as people came to realize that there was something very much more important to do than to make fresh trade conquests. The business in hand was to beat Germany in the field of war. People felt that there was something a little paltry in so much talk of trade benefits at this crisis. Hence various campaigns, such as the "business as usual" campaign, faded out of sight as the serious purpose of the war loomed larger and larger.
When arrangements began to be made for the arming, clothing, and equipping of Lord Kitchener's New Army of a million men, it was found that it was hardly possible for the Yorkshire mills to turn out all the khaki, for Sheffield to produce all the guns required, or for Birmingham to find all the small arms. Every firm which catered for the soldier in any way was quickly overwhelmed with orders. Firms that had never done military work before transformed their plant. The Birmingham steel pen maker turned to the manufacture of buttons by the million, and cartridge cases by the ten million. The Hawick manufacturer of fine tartans began to make khaki. At first traders sought for government work. After a time the government came to them, with directions that they were to turn out certain amounts in a given time, and with the stern intimation that if they did not do so they might expect military representatives to take control of their mills. This threat was rendered possible by a remarkable measure, passed in the early days of the war, the Defence of the Realm Act.
The Defence of the Realm Act was in many ways one of the most extraordinary legislative measures ever passed by the British Parliament. It specified a number of acts for which civilians could be tried by court martial. These included communicating with the enemy, spreading false reports or reports likely to cause disaffection, giving assistance to the enemy or endangering the successful prosecution of the war. The person deemed by the military authorities guilty of any of these offences could be arrested and tried just as if subject to military law, and as if he or she had, on active service, committed an offence under the Army Act. In other words, the military authorities could arrest any persons they pleased and, after court martial, inflict any sentence on them short of death. In addition, the military authorities were allowed to demand the whole or part of the output of any factory or workshop dealing with military supplies, and to take possession of any factory or workshop they required. They were also allowed to take any land they needed. This, in effect, made the civil administration of the country entirely subservient to the military administration.
The Act created surprise, and while the majority of people were willing to accept it, believing that the powers under it would not be abused, a number of eminent peers, including several famous judges, among them such men as Lord Halsbury, Lord Parmoor, Lord Loreburn, and Lord Bryce, objected. Lord Halsbury declared that he saw no necessity to get rid of the fabric of personal liberty that had been built up for many generations "I do not think that the liberty of the subject is so trifling matter that it can be swept away in a moment because some of us are in a panic."
The Act, nevertheless, passed into law, and the military authorities, as expected, used their great powers prudently. But the feeling grew that it was not right that all the ancient limitations on the supreme authority should go, and when the House of Lords met on January 7, 1915, Lord Parmoor introduced an amending Bill, to restore to citizens their right to be tried by the ordinary courts. The government promised, if this was withdrawn, to bring in a similar measure itself. It did so, and a new law was passed, giving any accused civilian the right to choose whether he should be tried by civil court or court martial. It was provided, however, that in case of special emergency, such as invasion, this choice would be withdrawn. The effect of this law, however, even as amended, was to vest in the government such powers as it had never enjoyed before. The civilian was no longer free to go where he pleased, should the military authorities desire to stop him. The task of leaving or entering a country was made one of great difficulty by severe passport regulations. The visitor to a strange place had to fill up a form declaring his identity, hotel guests had to be registered in the same way as had long prevailed on the continent. Great Britain was fighting for her life, and her people knew that, faced with this supreme issue, the rights and privileges of ordinary times must of necessity go.
The government at the outbreak of the war was called upon to decide what should be done with the very large number of enemy subjects in Britain. For years Germans had come and settled there in growing hosts. German financiers were among the leaders in the banking world; German stockbrokers formed a section of their own on the stock exchange; German importers and exporters dominated branch after branch of commerce in London and in great provincial cities. It was notorious that the young German clerk, speaking three languages and requiring little wage, had ousted young Britons from thousands of offices. Most of the great hotels were run by Germans or Austrians, while as waiters the only serious competitors of the Germans were the Italians and the Swiss. Germans had captured the greater part of the baking trade of London, and their food stores were scattered over the city and the west end. Many people with German names and of German descent were naturalised; very many more were not.
What was to be done with these people? The problem was admittedly not easy. Among the German and Austrian subjects were some, like the Czechs, who hated Germanism, and who had fled to Britain as a refuge against its tyrannous rule. There were others who had lived in the country for many years, had married English wives, and had sons serving in the British army and navy, and who were passionately English in sentiment. But these were the exceptions. The vast majority of the Germans here were, as might be expected, devoted to the fatherland. Tens of thousands of the young men were army reservists, eager to return to their regiments.
The government hesitated to employ its authority against these people. Even when it was seen that British subjects caught in Germany at the beginning of the war were to be treated in the harshest possible fashion, they still held their hand. Known spies were arrested, and some 200 suspected spies were kept under watch. A few hours after war broke out the home secretary issued a notice allowing Germans to leave this country during the subsequent six days. Thanks to this extraordinary permission, young German reservists, amounting in numbers to a division of the army, were enabled to return home, rejoin their colours, and fight. Some precautions were taken, but they were inadequate. German financial undertakings were placed under special supervision, and a series of minor checks on alien enemies were instituted. Espionage was made a military offence, punishable with death. Alien enemies were not allowed to keep carrier pigeons, photographic apparatus, or arms. The houses of Germans and Austrians were searched. Later on a certain number of Germans and Austrians of military age — at first 9,000, rising afterwards to 19,000 — were arrested and confined in detention camps as prisoners of war. A number of Germans and Austrians attempted to change their names in order to pass as British. This was forbidden by a special order-in-council. Germans and Austrians remaining in Britain were ordered to register, and to submit to certain regulations which were intended to limit their right to travel over the country.
It soon became evident, however, that these measures were utterly insufficient to counteract the activity of German secret agents. There was a certain number of outrages, particularly in government works, unexplainable except as the deliberate work of active enemies. Some of these—as, for example, the series of fires that took place in Portsmouth dockyard—were not allowed to be reported at the time. Cases that came before the courts increased the public uneasiness. Two of the most noted cases were that of Carl Hans Lody, a German naval lieutenant, who was shot after trial at the Tower of London for espionage, and of Karl Ernst, a naturalised British subject, a hairdresser in North London, who was sentenced to seven years' penal servitude for acting as distributor of letters for one of the German spy organizers.
Germans settled on the east coast, a number of them at possible invasion points. Some were found in possession of, wireless apparatus. It was quite evident after the war broke out that German agents were succeeding, by some means or another, in communicating valuable information to Britain's enemies. The authorities tried to check such leakages by making it more difficult for people to leave the country and by subjecting travellers to minute search and investigation. But every official step against the Germans themselves in Britain was taken with evident reluctance, and many of the aliens who were first interned were gradually released. Attacks on this leniency met with the reply that everything was done with the approval, if not at the direction of, the military authorities.
The country was very willing at this time to believe the most absurd rumours. The most remarkable was the one that a large Russian army had been seen passing through Great Britain on its way to the Western Front. Others concerned mysterious lights seen on the coast, bases and fuel for submarines, emplacements for heavy guns in private gardens, and there were many others.