Monday, 7 July 2014

Countdown to War, Day 10. 7 July: trouble again in Mexico, as ever in Ireland, stirred up by an army figure in England

One hundred years ago today, on Tuesday 7 July 1914, Martin our Mancunian railwayman discovered that problems didn’t always go away, not even when they’d apparently been solved. The troubles in Mexico had seemed over, but here they were, back again with redoubled intensity. 

“BRITISH VICE CONSUL ARRESTED IN MEXICO.” proclaimed the headline. The British and US authorities were trying to help “Mr. Albert St. Clair Douglas, the British Vice Consul at Zacatecas, who has been arrested by the Constitutionalists on the vague charge of ‘complicity with the Federals’.”

There was fear in Britain that Douglas might share “the fear of Mr. Benton, who was murdered by [Pancho] Villa on a trumped-up charge” so the government had been seeking, and had obtained, “assurances that Mr. Douglas will be treated with every consideration”, but clearly the situation was far from under control.

Pancho Villa: figure of legend
But apparently not good for the health of British consular officials
In the House of Commons, meanwhile, normal business seemed to have been suspended the previous day in deference to the death of Joseph Chamberlain. Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, former Prime Minister and previous leader of the Conservative Party, and Andrew Bonar Law, the current leader, had all paid tributes, describing Chamberlain respectively as “the pioneer of a new generation, a builder of Empire, and ‘a great statesman, a great orator, a great friend, and a great idealist’.”

The Lords were less effusive, moving straight from their own tributes to resumed conflict, inevitably over Ireland and the Home Rule measures. Field Marshal Lord Roberts, one of Britain’s most senior military men, gave the House “a quite irrelevant yet extremely interesting deliverance, in which the excuses so ingeniously elaborated by apologists for the heroes of the Curragh incident were almost contemptuously swept aside”. The Curragh was the main base of the British Army in Ireland and, less than three months earlier, officers there had made it clear that they would resign rather than act against the Ulster Volunteers, who were arming to resist Home Rule.

As Lord Roberts pointed out, “it was obvious that when those officers made the choice they did they showed to the whole world that a considerable part of the Army would not undertake operations against Ulster.” It seems that they had been following the dictates of conscience, as Roberts had foretold.

The Manchester Guardian continued:

While the distinguished Field Marshal was thus expounding the doctrine of optional obedience and enforcing it by again predicting without a word of disapproval that in certain circumstances Ulster would “break and ruin the army,” he had as auditors in front of the throne the Attorney General, Mr. Churchill, and Sir Edward Carson. Like everybody else those visitors showed themselves profoundly interested in the convenient theory that since this was no mere political crisis but “a clash of principles which raises the subject far beyond the realm of ordinary politics,” therefore it must be a calumny to suggest that the Army had any political bias, still more to accuse its officers of being engaged in a conspiracy with either one set of politicians or another.

“Very interesting,” said the Cynic. “Does the ‘doctrine of optional obedience’ apply to working men too? Would Mr Winston Churchill kindly indulge us as well? When he was Home Secretary, he didn’t show much kindness to strikers, did he? And does he take the same attitude to sailors in the Navy, how he’s First Sea Lord.”

Even so, it hadn’t all been bad news the day before. Although the county cricket side, Lancashire, had suffered humiliating punishment at the hands of Surrey, at least the city team had notched up a victory, when Manchester ignominiously trounced Southport, from further up the coast.

A small mercy in the general stream of things. But better than nothing.


Anonymous said...

I can't understand the "irrelevant but interesting" bit.


David Beeson said...

I guess that, though relevant to the question of Ireland, it wasn't strictly relevant in a debate about the specific provisions of the Home Rule Bill.