by Clare Dorning
(Authoress of “Annals of a Lancashire Village, etc.)
“Where are our boys to-night?” My friend the photographer asked me the question, as he showed me a picture with it as a title. I repeated it after him musingly, then answered, “God knows; I don’t.” The faces of both were grave and thoughts were busy.
Disraeli in 1867 said, “I think England is safe in the race of men who inhabit her: that she is safe is something much more precious than her accumulated capital – her accumulated experience; she is safe in her national character, in her fame, in the traditions of a thousand years, and in that glorious future which I believe awaits her.”
The Kaiser, addressing his troops at Aix la Chapelle on the 19th August, 1914, said, “It is my royal and imperial command that you concentrate your energies for the immediate present upon one single purpose, and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English, and to walk over General French’s contemptible little army.”
Prince Von Buelow said, “How grand appear the German people as against their opponents! How wonderful appear the virtues of our people to-day. Look at how the German armies drive everything before them, in the east as well as in the west.”
Yet the “Berlin Tageblatt” said on October 1st “The influence of the British reinforcements makes itself more and more known. They are effective to impede us.”
Mr. Lloyd George: “We could not conduct war and still allow business to be conducted as usual. Instead of ‘business as usual’ we want ‘victory as usual,’ and that could not be done unless everybody in the community was prepared to suffer all kinds of inconvenience, discomfort, and, if necessary, sacrifice.”
Have our boys not shown us Disraeli was right? Didn’t the “contemptible little army” prove that it was made of more solid stuff than the Kaiser thought, even the Berliners being forced to admit it so soon? And the grandeur and virtues of which Von Buelow boasts, are they not rather opprobrium represented by such names as Von Bissing, “Little Willie,” Bethmann Hollweg, Von Tirpitz, and the like-names to be hissed out with scorn and derision down the ages? Was it grandeur, or virtue, which impelled them to drive captives, even women, in their van to act as “cannon fodder?” Have our boys not shown themselves ready for anything, ready for sacrifice unto death, as instanced by a little incident reported by a “Times” correspondent? A Frenchman noticing blood-stains on the left side of the tunic of a British officer in the trenches, said, “You have been wounded, comrade.”
“It is nothing. The Germans sought my heart, but they have not found it: I have given it to France.”
Where were our boys then? Gathering round the colours, cut at training camps, off with the army or Territorials wherever duty called, east or west, north or south.
August 23rd, 1914, proved to be “the day” (Der Tag) which the Germans had pledged for years, and our own men had drunk to times without number. The four days baptism of fire began at Mons, and the retreat to the Marne commenced. In September, French’s contemptible little army gave the Kaiser a most unpleasant surprise, for at Montmirail on the 8th, during the great battle of the Marne (Sept. 6th to 10th) the tide turned in favour of the French, who repaid the acts of “grandeur and virtue” wrought in Belgium and Northern France by the application of cold steel. The German commander begged an armistice on the 9th to bury his dead – the majority of his White Cuirassiers and Bavarians – and the Kaiser and Crown prince became fugitives from the “contemptible little army.” Where were our boys then? Some were wounded, some missing, while others had offered up the greatest sacrifice of all, and hearts at home were breaking, but still proud.
Antwerp was busy using inferior German-made guns, paid for with hard-won Belgian money, against the superior more modern German-made guns directed by Germans who had been friends and neighbours, and “of the Belgians” for years. Will Belgium forget the grandeur and virtue as practised there?
On October 3rd came succour – a week too late. Our British Brigade and Naval Reservists did what they could to stem the tide of the German hordes, the latter taking the final stand while the gallant little Belgian army got into safety, then retreated across the frontier themselves. Any of our boys among them? Aye, surely! for we English had a debt to pay, have it yet, for what would have become of England but for brave little Belgium, Calais, and Paris once taken? Russia did her part nobly, too, in relieving the pressure on the West by operations in East Prussia.
And then the affair of the Dardanelles which began on the 3rd of November. Were our boys not in that as well as the superb Anzacs? Were they not among those who carried out the Lancashire Landing, who helped, gave their strength and young manhood, their very blood, in an almost hopeless endeavour till the wonderful, incredibly successful evacuation at Suvla Bay?
Ypres the Beautiful, now a mere wreck, tells a silent, heart-rending story, speaks it in a thousand tongues. From April to November subject to vindictive attack, thenceforward never free, the gas horror surmounting it all, bringing quick death for many.
Neuve Chapelle, La Bassee, Loos, Verdun, and hundreds of others have all their stories, as have Mesopotamia, Egypt, Salonika, Africa, further away. Will France ever forget Verdun, or the Germans either – a holocaust for both nations, with its gas and liquid fire, and projected flames – a “flaming, thundering, ninety-mile front?”
Then think of the naval battles – Heligoland, Falkland, Jutland – and the daily, hourly struggle and stress against mines and submarines. Our boys must have been in all of them.
And these were only the beginning, for there was the Big Push of July, 1916, and the Big Push of 1917 – has it not already started? What lies beyond? God knows, but be assured our boys will be “there,” keeping up the “traditions of a thousand years.”
. . .
A mother in New Zealand writes me that her boy, with whom I had ridden and tramped, done manifold things, and revelled in the clear, pure air, deep blue sky, golden sunshine, and all-pervading peace of their home in the wilds, was in hospital in France when she last heard from him – a boy who had never seen snow before, but had gone through trench warfare in this last awful winter of 1916. Another mother at home writes that her two elder boys are away – she doesn’t know where – and the last and youngest goes soon. Another’s son offered to join others in the R.A.M.C. when volunteers were called for to go to some sorely stricken district away from Salonika, from whence messages could not be sent for an uncertain period. Where are these now?
On the eve of battle on the 1st July, 1916, my nephew and a school chum said good-bye to each other and agreed that if either fell the other should write to the home people. They had come unscathed through the Battle of Loos, but one was wounded twice on 1st July, while the other fell, the news reaching the chum in a London hospital some time later. Another nephew was wounded later while bandaging a stricken comrade and they lay for hours in a shell-hole before being able to seek relief.
The first nephew is now “somewhere away East” – we don’t know where as yet – and the other recuperating, having had to return to hospital on the very day on which he anticipated moving off to an unknown destination. Both were off to do their part in Kitchener’s army at the beginning of August, 1914.
A few miles away there’s a home from which four sons have migrated – fine, strapping, vigorous fellows. One was reported killed, another missing, after a battle in January, 1915. The others have not come off unscathed. On the other side of me there’s a vicarage over whose threshold three sons will never step more. Doesn’t national characer count for something in the mothers as well as the boys – worthy mothers of worthy sons, whom they send away with breaking hearts and smiling faces?
Ah, where are our boys to-night? Some are missing, some wounded, some utterly broken; some we thought lost we shall hear of and see again,the cemeteries and white crosses scattered world-wide answer for others. French friends of my own are scattering flowers over mounds under which lie “nos bons amis les soldat anglaises,” who fought and bled for “La Belle France,” as well as for England’s honour.
These boys have done so much. Shall not we at home do our part more hopefully, bravely, and faithfully because of them, and see to it that the maimed, nerve-shattered, and blinded shall not have to travel hopelessly along the rest of life’s pathway? Surely, if helpless, they have won the right to comfort and freedom from care for the remainder of their lives. Shame on England and her statesmen if a single individual has to suffer after and because of putting King and country and honour before self.