Great Speeches of the War/Asquith (3)

RT. HON. H. H. ASQUITH


[Speech at a great recruiting meeting held in Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on Friday, September 18, 1914.]


My Lord Provost, My Lords and Gentlemen:—A fortnight ago to-day in the Guildhall of the City of London I endeavoured to present to the nation and to the world the reasons which have compelled us, the people of all others which have the greatest interest in the maintenance of peace, to engage in the hazards and the horrors of war. I do not wish to repeat to-night in any detail what I then said. The war has arisen immediately and ostensibly, as every one knows, out of a dispute between Austria and Servia, in which we in this country had no direct concern.

The diplomatic history of those critical weeks, the last fortnight in July and the first few days of August, is now accessible to all the world. It has been supplemented during the last few days by the admirable and exhaustive dispatch of our late Ambassador at Vienna, Sir Maurice de Bunsen, a dispatch which, I trust, everybody will read; and no one who reads it can doubt that largely through the efforts of my right honourable friend and colleague, Sir Edward Grey—[loud cheers]—the conditions of a peaceful settlement of the actual controversy were already within sight, when, on July 31, Germany, by her own deliberate act, made war a certainty. The facts are incontrovertible.

They are not sought to be controverted, except, indeed, by the invention and circulation of such wanton falsehoods as that France was contemplating, and even commencing, a violation of Belgian territory as the first step on her road to Germany. The result is, my Lord Provost, we are at war, and we are at war, as I have already shown elsewhere, and as I repeat here to-night—we are at war for three reasons.

In the first place, to vindicate the sanctity of treaty obligations—[cheers]—and of what is properly called the public law of Europe—[cheers]—in the second place to assert and to enforce the independence of free States, relatively small and weak, against the encroachments and the violence of the strong—[cheers]—and in the third place, to withstand what we believe, in the best interests not only of our own Empire, but of civilization at large, the arrogant claim of a single Power to dominate the development and the destinies of Europe. [Cheers.]

My Lord Provost, since I last spoke, some faint attempts have been made in Germany to dispute the accuracy and the sincerity of this statement of our attitude and aims. It has been suggested, for instance, that our professed zeal for treaty rights and for the interests of small States is a new-born and a simulated passion. What, we are asked, has Britain cared in the past for treaties or for the smaller nationalities except when she had some ulterior and selfish purpose of her own to serve? I am quite ready to meet that challenge—[hear, hear, and cheers]—and to meet it in the only way in which it can be met—by reference to history.

And, out of many illustrations which I might take, I will content myself here to-night with two, widely removed in point of time, but both, as it happens, very apposite to the present case. I will go back first to the war carried on at first against the revolutionary Government of France, and then against Napoleon, which broke out in 1793, and which lasted for more than twenty years. We had then at the head of the Government of this country one of the most peace-loving Ministers who has ever presided over our fortunes, Mr. Pitt. [Cheers.] For three years, from 1789 to 1792, he resolutely refused to interfere in any way with the revolutionary proceedings in France, or with the wars that sprang out of them, and as lately, I think, as February in 1792, in a memorable speech in the House of Commons, which shows amongst other things the shortness of human foresight, he declared that there never was a time when we in this country could more reasonably expect fifteen years of peace. And what was it, gentlemen, within a few months of the declaration, led this pacific Minister to war? It was the invasion of the treaty rights guaranteed by ourselves to a small European State—that is the States General of Holland. [Cheers.] For nearly 200 years the Great Powers of Europe had guaranteed to Holland the exclusive navigation of the River Scheldt. The French Revolutionary Government invaded what is now Belgium, and as a first act of hostility to Holland declared the navigation of the Scheldt to be open. Our interest in that matter then, as now, was relatively small and insignificant. But what was Mr. Pitt's reply? I quote you the exact words he used in the House of Commons—they are so applicable to the circumstances of the present moment. This is in 1793. "England will never consent that another country shall arrogate the power of annulling at her pleasure the political system of Europe established by solemn treaties, and guaranteed by the consent of the Powers." [Cheers.] He went on to say, "that this House (the House of Commons), in substantial good faith to its engagements, if it retains a just sense of the solemn faith of treaties, it must show a determination to support them." [Cheers.]

Yes; and it was in consequence of that stubborn and unyielding determination to maintain treaties, to defend small States, to resist the aggressive domination of a single Power, that we were involved in a war which we had done everything to avoid, which was carried on upon a scale both as to area and as to duration up till then unexampled in the history of mankind. That is one precedent. But let me give you one more. I come down to 1870, when this very Treaty, to which we are parties no less than Germany, and which guarantees the neutrality and independence of Belgium, was threatened. Mr. Gladstone was then Prime Minister of this country—[cheers]—if possible a stronger and a more ardent advocate of peace even than Mr. Pitt himself—Mr. Gladstone, pacific as he was, felt so strongly the sanctity of our obligations that, though here again, we had no direct interest of any kind at stake, he made agreements with France and with Prussia to co-operate with either of the belligerents if the other violated Belgian territory. And I should like, gentlemen, to read a passage from a speech ten years later, delivered in 1880, by Mr. Gladstone himself in this city of Edinburgh—[cheers]—in which he reviewed that transaction, and explained his reasons for it. After narrating the facts which I have summarized, he said this: "If we had gone to war (which he was prepared to do), we should have gone to war for freedom; we should have gone to war for public right; we should have gone to war to save human happiness from being invaded by a tyrannous and lawless Power. That," Mr. Gladstone said, "that is what I call a good cause, gentlemen, and though I detest war, and there are no epithets too strong, if you could supply me with them, I will not endeavour to heap upon its head, in such a war as that while the breath in my body is continued to me I am ready to engage." [Loud cheers.]

So much as to our own action in the past in regard to treaties and small States. But, my Lord Provost, faint as is the denial of this part of our case, it becomes fainter still; it dissolves into the thinnest of thin air when it has to deal with our contention that we and our Allies are withstanding a Power whose aim is nothing less than the domination of Europe. It is, indeed, the avowed belief of the leaders of German thought—I will not say of the German people—of those who, for many years past, have controlled German policy, that such a domination, carrying with it the supremacy of what they call German culture—[laughter]—and the German spirit was the best thing that could happen to the world.

Let me, then, ask for a moment what is this German culture—what is this German spirit of which the Emperor's Armies are at present the missionaries in Belgium and France? [Laughter.] Mankind owes much to Germany—a very great debt—for the contributions she has made to philosophy, to science, and to the arts; but, gentlemen, that which is specifically German in the movement of the world in the last thirty years has been, on the intellectual side, the development of the doctrine of the supreme and ultimate prerogative in human affairs of material force, and on the practical side the taking of the foremost place in the fabrication and the multiplication of the machinery of destruction. To the men who have adopted this gospel—who believe as Treitschke and his school do, that power is the be-all and the end-all of the State—naturally a treaty is nothing more than a piece of parchment, and all the old-world talk about the rights of the weak and the obligation of the strong is only so much threadbare and nauseating cant. For one very remarkable feature about this new school of doctrine is, whatever be its intellectual or its ethical merits, that it has turned out as an actual guide to life to be a very purblind philosophy.

German culture and German spirit did not save the Emperor and his people from delusions and miscalculations—as dangerous as they were absurd—in regard to the British Empire. [Cheers.] We were believed by those cultivated observers—[laughter]—to be the decadent descendants of a people who, by a combination of luck and of fraud, had managed to obtain dominion over a vast quantity of the surface and the populations of the globe. This fortuitous aggregation—[laughter]— which goes by the name of the British Empire—[laughter]—was supposed to be so insecurely founded, and so loosely knit together, that at the first touch of serious menace from without it would fall to pieces and tumble to the ground. [Laughter.] Our great Dominions were getting heartily tired of the Imperial connection. India—[loud cheers]—it was notorious to every German traveller—[laughter]—was on the verge of open revolt, and here at home we, the people of this United Kingdom, were riven by dissensions so deep and so fierce that our energies, whether for resistance or for attack, would be completely paralysed. Gentlemen, what a fantastic dream! [Laughter and cheers.] And what a rude awakening! [Renewed cheers.] And in this vast and grotesque and yet tragic miscalculation is to be found one of the roots—perhaps the main root—of the present war.

But let us go one step more. It has been said "by their fruits ye shall know them"—[cheers]—and history will record that when the die was cast and the struggle began it was the disciples of this same creed who revived methods of warfare which have for centuries past been condemned by the common-sense as well as by the humanity of the great masses of the civilized world. [Cheers.] Louvain, Malines, Termonde—these are names which will henceforward be branded on the brow of German culture. [Hear, hear, and cheers]. The ruthless sacking of ancient and famous towns of Belgium is fitly supplemented by the story which reaches us only to-day from our own head quarters in France of the Proclamation issued less than a week ago by the German authorities, who were for a moment unhappily, for little more than a moment, in occupation of the venerable city of Reims. Gentlemen, it ought to be put on record. Let me read a very short, the concluding, paragraph of that Proclamation:

"With a view to securing adequately the safety of the troops and to instil calm into the population of Reims, the persons named below (eighty-one in number and including all the leading citizens of the town) have been seized as hostages by the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army. These hostages will be hanged at the slightest attempt at disorder. Also, the town will be totally or partly burnt, and the inhabitants will be hanged for any infraction of the above.
"By order of the German authorities."

[Hisses.]

My Lord Provost, do not let it be forgotten that it is from a Power whose intellectual leaders are imbued with the ideas which I have described, and whose generals in the field sanction, and even direct, these practices—it is from that Power that the claim proceeds to impose its culture, its spirit, which means its domination, upon the rest of Europe. [Cheers.] That claim, I say to you and to my fellow-countrymen and to every citizen and subject of the British Empire, whose ears or eyes my words can reach—that is a claim everything that is great in our past and everything that promises hope or progress in our future summons us to resist to the end. [Loud and continued cheers.]

The task, my Lord Provost—do not let us deceive ourselves—the task will not be a light one. Its full accomplishment, and nothing short of full accomplishment—[prolonged cheers]—is worthy of our traditions, or will satisfy our resolve. It will certainly take months, it may even take years. I have come here to-night, not to ask you to count the cost, for no price can be too high to pay when honour and freedom are at stake—[cheers]—but to put before you the magnitude of the issue and the supreme necessity that lies upon us as a nation, nay, as a brotherhood and family of nations, to rise to its height, and acquit ourselves of our duty. The war has now lasted more than six weeks. Our supremacy at sea—[cheers]—has not been seriously questioned. [Cheers.]

Full supplies of food and of raw materials are making their way to our shores from every quarter of the globe. [Cheers.] Our industries, with one or two exceptions, maintain their activity. Unemployment is so far not seriously in excess of the average. The monetary situation improves, and every effort that the zeal and skill of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—[cheers]—with the co-operation and expert advice that the bankers, and the business men of the country can devise, every effort is being made to achieve what is most essential—the complete reestablishment of the foreign exchanges. Meanwhile, the merchant shipping of the enemy has been hunted from the seas—[cheers]—and our seamen are still patiently—or impatiently—[laughter and cheers]—awaiting a chance of conclusions with the opposing fleet. Great and incalculable is the debt which we have owed during these weeks, and which in increasing measure we shall continue to owe, to our Navy. [Cheers.] The Navy needs no help. As the months roll on—thanks to a far-sighted policy in the past—its proportionate strength will grow. [Cheers.] If we turn to our Army—[cheers]—we can say with equal justice and pride that during these weeks it has rivalled the most glorious records of its past. [Cheers.] Sir John French—[cheers]—and his gallant officers and men live in our hearts, as they will live in the memories of those who come after us. [Cheers.]

But splendid achievements—[cheers]—such as these—equally splendid in retirement and in advance—[cheers]—cannot be won without a heavy expenditure of life and limb and of equipment and supply. Even now at this early stage I suppose there is hardly a person here who is not suffering from anxiety and suspense. Some of us are plunged in sorrow for the loss of those we love, cut off, some of them, in the spring-time of their young lives. We will not mourn for them over much. "One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name." [Cheers.] But these gaps have to be filled. The wastage of modern war is relentless and almost inconceivable.

We have—I mean His Majesty's Government have—since the war began, dispatched to the front already considerably over 200,000 men—[cheers]—and the amplest provision has been made for keeping them supplied with all that is necessary in food, in stores, and in equipment. They will very soon be reinforced by Regular troops from India—[cheers]—from Egypt, and the Mediterranean, and in due time by the contingents, which our Dominions are furnishing with such magnificent patriotism and loyalty—[cheers]—and our own gallant Territorials, becoming every day a fitter and a finer force, and eager and anxious to respond to any call, either at home or abroad, that may be made upon them. [Cheers.] But, gentlemen, this is not enough. We must do still more. Already in little more than a month we have half a million recruits for the four new armies which as Lord Kitchener—[cheers]—told the country he means to have ready to bring into the field.

Enlisting as we were last week in a single day as many men as we have been accustomed to enlist in the course of a whole year, it is not, I think, surprising that the machinery has been over-strained, and that there have been many cases of temporary inconvenience and hardship and discomfort. With time and patience and good organization these things will be set right, and the new scale of allowances—[cheers]—which was announced in Parliament yesterday, will do much to mitigate the lot of the wives and children and dependents who are left behind. [Cheers.] We want more men, and, perhaps most of all, the help for training them of every one in the whole of this kingdom who has in days gone by, as officer or as non-commissioned officer, served his country. He never had a greater or more fruitful opportunity of service than is presented to him to-day.

We appeal to the manhood of all the three kingdoms, and to such an appeal I know well, as now your senior representative in the House of Commons, that Scotland will not turn a deaf ear. [Cheers.] Scotland is doing well, and indeed more than well—and no part of Scotland, I believe, better in proportion than Edinburgh—and I cannot say with what pleasure I heard the figures given by the Lord Provost and those which have been supplied to me by by the gallant General who has the Scottish Command—[loud cheers]—which show us, indeed, as was to be expected, that Scotland is more than holding her own. Let me add in that connection—let me repeat what I said two weeks ago in London—we think it of the highest importance that, as far as possible and subject to the exigencies of war, people belonging to the same place, breathing the same atmosphere, having the same associations should, as far as possible, be kept together for the purpose of war. [Cheers.] Now, my Lord Provost, I have only one more word to say. What is it that we can offer to our recruits? They come to us spontaneously under no kind of compulsion—of their own free will—[cheers]—to meet a national and an Imperial need.

We present to them no material inducement in the shape of bounty or bribe. They have to face the prospect of a spell of hard training, from which most of the comforts and all the luxuries that any of them have been accustomed to are rigorously banished. But then, when they are fully equipped for their patriotic task, they will have the opportunity of striking a blow—it may be, even, of laying down their lives—not to serve the cause of ambition or aggression, but to maintain the honour and the good faith of our country, to shield the independence of free States, to protest against brute force—[hear, hear]—the principles of civilization and the liberties of Europe.