Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Countdown to War, Day 32. 29 July: War. But Britain can stay out. And we're still torturing women.

One hundred years ago today, on Wednesday 29 July 1914, there was really only one news item Martin and his friends had to absorb: war had started.

The group of railwaymen would have discovered from the Manchester Guardian that Austria-Hungary had taken the fatal step the day before, a month to the day since the Sarajevo murders, and declared war on Serbia.

There was still a possibility that war could be contained to just those two nations. But no one was taking any chances. Not even the British. The First Fleet, still assembled at Weymouth and Portland, had given its men some leave. But then at 8:00 all leave had been cancelled.

The masters-at-arms of the various ships were sent to both Weymouth and Portland for the purpose of recalling the men to their ships, and the assistance of the police was also sought in searching all places of amusement and all haunts of the sailors to acquaint them with order.

It wasn’t like him, but the Cynic smiled.

“Can’t you just picture the scene?” he asked, “In those ‘places of amusement’? Not hard to guess what what the sailors thought of their leave being cancelled. No wonder they needed the local bobbies with them.”

The might of the Royal Navy,  protecting Britain's shores
But was it time for an army too?
Not everyone felt Britain should rely so entirely on the navy, anyway. Take Field Marshall Lord Roberts, a star of the British military scene and a champion of introducing conscription in Britain.

“That old fart?” the cynic exclaimed, “made his name beating up the Boers. Now he’s become the king of the bores. No worse windbag than a retired general.”

Well, retired general and windbag he might be, but what he was saying wasn’t all nonsense.

He believed we had the best ships and the finest seamen in the world, but as regarded modern sea fighting we were in a state of transition and of inexperience, and ... it would be the height of madness to trust the defence of these shores to the navy alone...

Is it not in consequence of our not feeling absolutely certain of naval supremacy that we have been compelled to seek foreign alliances of ententes, which have drawn us more intimately than we perhaps like to to admit into the minor issues of world politics...?

“Damn right,” said another of Martin’s mates, “we need to keep our distance from Europe. Britain for the British I say.”

Martin wasn’t so sure about that – we needed allies on the Continent because we had enemies there, though he wasn’t still quite sure which were which. But he was interested in what Roberts had to say about the need for an army to defend the country, and not just a navy, and concerned at the idea that it wasn’t “at the present time in a condition to carry out the duties for which it was intended and which it may at any moment be called upon to perform.”

Well, he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. But it would be useful to have it there, just in case. Though maybe a few alliances wouldn’t be such a bad plan either, even if they did have to be on the Continent.

Certainly, it was best to be prepared. Especially now that war was under way. Though that was apparently not quite as grim as one might have thought:

Austria has declared war on Servia. It was expected, and the invasion of Servia is just as likely to improve as to worsen the relations between the Great Powers. If, as they say, Austria is chiefly anxious to humiliate Servia publicly, and seeks no territory, the occupation of is capital ought to satisfy her, and fortunately Belgrade lies just over the River Danube, and its occupation ought not to give much trouble.

The question is what Russia’s reaction might be. So far, it had been limited:

... to partial mobilisation against Austria and to the threat... of complete mobilisation if Belgrade is occupied.

The worry had to be that the paper’s suggestion of what might satisfy Austria, the occupation of Belgrade, could trigger the reaction from Russia everyone most feared. Meanwhile, the Germans had turned down Sir Edward Grey’s suggestion of a mediation conference.

What was most frightening was the sheer scale of the forces in play. The paper asked what would happen if Russia went to war: “what is her military strength?”

[The Russian Army] is the most gigantic military machine in the world, and no one really knows its fighting value. On its peace strength it disposes of a million of men between the German and Austrian frontiers in Europe and the seaboard of Vladivostock in Manchuria. If mobilised in its entirety it would quadruple the astounding numbers of its peace strength... The European army corps of Russia from the point of view of numbers are considerable enough to give pause to both Germany and Austria if their efficiency is equal to their ponderous numbers.

Unfortunately, the efficiency of that army is far from proved, something the “war correspondent” who wrote the article put down to the “Slav mind” and “congenital” issues.

The main asset of the Russian Army is “Ivan Ivanoff,” the Russian soldier. Unimaginative, uneducated, docile by the circumstances of his lot, he is the best material for the manufacture of the soldier that has to die in heaps in the world.

Officers of the Russian Tsar
An army impressive in its numbers, but how about its military value?
Dying in heaps. Martin was far from unimaginative but he couldn’t imagine anything particularly attractive about that picture. If that was what the Russian Army was good at, then a war precipitated by the Tsar was one to avoid at practically any cost. He hoped the government was clear on that point.

Oddly enough, ordinary life still went on despite these momentous events abroad. There was a brutal reminder:

The Church League for Women’s Suffrage, of which the Bishop of Lincoln is president, has addressed a letter to the Home Secretary protesting against forcible feeding.

So women were still demanding the right to vote. And why not? Having the vote would at least allow one to vote against war. Meanwhile, the government was still torturing them. And why would they stop? Martin was sure that it was as hard to break with violence as with anything else, once it had become a habit.


Anonymous said...



David Beeson said...

You've been peeking, haven't you , San?