England and the War
By Walter Raleigh
Public Domain Books
The War and the Press
A paper read to the Essay Society, Eton College, March 14, 1918. When you asked me to read or speak to you, I promised to speak about the War. What I have to say is wholly orthodox, but it is none the worse for that. Indeed, when I think how entirely the War possesses our thoughts and how entirely we are agreed concerning it, I seem to see a new meaning in the creeds of the religions. These creeds grew up by general consent, and no one who believed them grudged repeating them. In the face of an indifferent or hostile world the faithful found themselves obliged to define their belief, and to strengthen themselves by an unwearying and united profession of faith. It is the enemy who gives meaning to a religious creed: without our creed we cannot win. So I am willing to remind you of what you know, rather than to try to introduce you to novelties.
The strength of the enemy lies in his creed; not in the lands that he has ravished from his neighbours. If his creed does not prevail, his lands will not help him. Germany has taken lands from Belgium, Serbia, Roumania, Russia, and the rest, but unless her digestion is as strong as her appetite, she will fail to keep them. If she is to hold them in peace, the peoples who inhabit these lands must be either exterminated or converted to the German creed. Lands can be annexed by a successful campaign; they can be permanently conquered only by the operations of peace. The people who survive will be a weakness to the German Empire unless they accept what they are offered, a share in the German creed.
That creed has not many natural attractions for the peoples on whom it is imposed by force. It is an intensely patriotic creed; it insists on racial supremacy, and on unity to be achieved by violence. Pleading and persuasion have little part in it except as instruments of deceit. There is no use in listening to what the Germans say; they do not believe it themselves. What they say is for others; what they do is for themselves. While they are at war, language for them has only two uses–to conceal their thoughts, and to deceive their enemies.
The creed of Western civilization, for which they feel nothing but contempt, and on which they will be broken, is not a simple thing, like theirs. The words by which it is commonly expressed–democracy, parliamentarism, individual liberty, diversity, free development–are puzzling theoretic words, which make no instinctive appeal to the heart. Nevertheless, we stand for growth as against order; and for life as against death. If Germany wins this war, her system will have to be broken or to decay before growth can start again. Must we lose even a hundred years in shaking ourselves free from the paralysis of the German nightmare?
The Germans have shown themselves strong in their unity, and strong in their willingness to make great sacrifices to preserve that unity. No one can deny nobility to the sacrifice made by the simple-minded German soldier who dies fighting bravely for his people and his creed. His narrowness is his strength, and makes unselfishness easier by saving his mind from question. ’This one thing you shall do’, his country says to him, ’fight and die for your country, so that your country and your people shall have lordship over other countries and other peoples. You are nothing; Germany is everything.’
We who live in this island love our country with at least as deep a passion; but a creed so simple as the German creed will never do for us. We are patriotic, but our patriotism is often overlaid and confused by a wider thought and a wider sympathy than the Germans have ever known. Much extravagant praise has lately been given to the German power of thinking, which produces the elaborate marvels of German organization. But this thinking is slave-thinking, not master-thinking; it spends itself wholly on devising complicated means to achieve a very simple end. That is what makes the Germans so like the animals. Their wisdom is all cunning. I have had German friends, two or three, in the course of my life, but none of them ever understood a word that I said if I tried to say what I thought. You could talk to them about food, and they responded easily. It was all very restful and pleasant, like talking to an intelligent dog.
If each of the allied nations were devoted to the creed of nationalism, the alliance could not endure. We depend for our strength on what we hold in common. The weakness of this wider creed is that it makes no such immediate and strong appeal to the natural instincts as is made by the mother-country. It demands the habitual exercise of reason and imagination. Further, seeing that we are infinitely less tame and less docile than the Germans, we depend for our strength on informing and convincing our people, and on obtaining agreement among them. Questions which in Germany are discussed only in the gloomy Berlin head-quarters of the General Staff are discussed here in the newspapers. In the press, even under the censorship, we think aloud. It records our differences and debates our policy. You could not suppress these differences and these debates without damaging our cause. There is no freedom worth having which does not, sooner or later, include the freedom to say what you think.
No doubt we could, if necessary, carry on for a time without the press; and I agree with those newspaper writers who have been saying recently that the importance of the press is monstrously exaggerated by some of its critics. The working-man, so far as I know him, does not depend for his patriotism on the leader-writers of the newspapers. He takes even the news with a very large grain of salt. ’So the papers say’, he remarks; ’it may be true or it may not.’ Yet the press has done good service, and might do better, in putting the meaning of the War before our people and in holding them together. Freedom means that we must love our diversity well enough to be willing to unite to protect it. We must die for our differences as cheerfully as the Germans die for their pattern. Or, if we can sketch a design of our cause, we must be as passionate in defence of that large vague design as the Germans are passionate in defence of their tight uniformity and their drill. If we were to fail to keep together, our cause, I believe, would still prevail, but at a cost that we dare not contemplate, by way of anarchy, and the dissolution of societies, by long tortures, and tears, and martyrdoms. If we refuse to die in the ranks against the German tyranny we can keep our faith by dying at the stake. There are those who think martyrdom the better way; and certainly that was how Christianity prevailed in Europe; you can read the story in Caxton’s translation of the Golden Legend. But these saints and martyrs were making a beginning; we are fighting to keep what we have won, and it would be a huge failure on our part if we could keep nothing of it, but had to begin all over again.
The business of the press, then, at this present crisis, is to keep the cause for which we are fighting clearly before us, and this it has done well; also, because we do not fight best in blinders, to tell us all that can be known of the facts of the situation, and this it has done not so well.
The power of the newspapers is that most people read them, and that many people read nothing else. Their weakness is that they have to sell or cease to be, so that by a natural instinct of self-preservation they fall back on the two sure methods whereby you can always capture the attention of the public. Any man who is trying to say what he thinks, making full allowance for all doubts and differences, runs the risk of losing his audience. He can regain their attention by flattering them or by frightening them. Flattery and fright, the one following the other from day to day, and often from paragraph to paragraph, is a very large part of the newspaper reader’s diet. If he is a sane and busy man, he is not too much impressed by either. He is not mercurial enough for the quick changes of an orator’s or journalist’s fancy, whereby he is called on, one day, to dig the German warships like rats out of their harbour, and, not many days later, to spend his last shilling on the purchase of the last bullet to shoot at the German invader. He knows that this is such stuff as dreams are made of. He knows also that the orator or journalist, after calling on him for these achievements, goes home to dinner. No great harm is done, just as no great harm is done by bad novels. But an opportunity is lost; the press and the platform might do more than they do to strengthen us and inform us, and help forward our cause.
I name the press and the platform together because they are essentially the same thing. Journalism is a kind of talk. The press, it is fair to say, is ourselves; and every people, it may truly be said, has the press that it deserves. But reading is a thing that we do chiefly for indulgence and pleasure in our idle time; and the press falls in with our mood, and supplies us with what we want in our weaker and lazier moments. No responsible man, with an eager and active mind, spends much of his time on the newspapers. Those who are excited to action by what they read in the papers are mostly content with the mild exercise of writing to these same papers to explain that some one else ought to do something and to do it at once. Their excitement worries themselves more than it hurts others. When the devil, with horns and hooves, appeared to Cuvier, the naturalist, and threatened to devour him, Cuvier, who was asleep at the time, opened his eyes and looked at the terrible apparition. ’Hm,’ he said, ’cloven-footed; graminivorous; needn’t be afraid of you;’ and he went to sleep again. A man who says that he has not time to read the morning papers carefully is commonly a man who counts; he knows what he has to do, and he goes on doing it. So far as I have observed, the cadets who are training for command in the army take very little interest in the exhortations of the newspapers. They even prefer the miserable trickle which is all that is left of football news.
One of the chief problems connected with the press is therefore this–how can it be prevented from producing hysteria in the feeble-minded? In time of war the censorship no doubt does something to prevent this; and I think it might do more. ’Scare-lines’, as they are called–that is, sensational headings in large capital letters–might be reduced by law to modest dimensions. More important, the censorship might insist that all who write shall sign their names to their articles. Why should journalists alone be relieved of responsibility to their country? Is it possible that the Government is afraid of the press? There is no need for fear. ’Beware of Aristophanes’, says Landor, ’he can cast your name as a byword to a thousand cities of Asia for a thousand years. But all that the press can do by its disfavour is to keep your name obscure in a hundred cities of England for a hundred days. Signed articles are robbed of their vague impressiveness, and are known for what they are–the opinions of one man. I would also recommend that a photograph of the author be placed at the head of every article. I have been saved from many bad novels by the helpful pictorial advertisements of modern publishers.
The real work of the Press, as I said, is to help to hold the people together. Nothing else that it can do is of any importance compared with this. We are at one in this War as we have never been at one before within living memory, as we were not at one against Napoleon or against Louis XIV. Our trial is on us; and if we cannot preserve our oneness, we fail. What would be left to us I do not know; but I am sure that an England which had accepted conditions of peace at Germany’s hands would not be the England that any of us know. There might still be a few Englishmen, but they would have to look about for somewhere to live. Serbia would be a good place; it has made no peace-treaty with Germany.
We are profoundly at one; and are divided only by illusions, which the press, in times past, has done much to keep alive. One of these illusions is the illusion of party. I have never been behind the scenes, among the creaking machinery, but my impression, as a spectator, is that parties in England are made very much as you pick up sides for a game. I have observed that they are all conservative. The affections are conservative; every one has a liking for his old habits and his old associates. There is something comic in a well-nourished rich man who believes that he is a bold reformer and a destructive thinker. For real clotted reactionary sentiment I know nothing to match the table-talk of any aged parliamentary Radical. When we get a Labour Government, it will be patriotic, prejudiced, opposed to all innovation, superstitiously reverential of the past, sticky and, probably, tyrannical.
The party illusion has been much weakened by the War, and those who still repeat the old catch-words are very near to lunacy. There is a deeper and more dangerous illusion which has not been killed–the class illusion. We are all very much alike; but we live in water-tight compartments called classes, and the inhabitants of each compartment tend to believe that they alone are patriotic. This illusion, to be just, is not fostered chiefly by the press, which wants to sell its work to all classes; but it has strong hold of the Government office. The Government does not know the people, except as an actor knows the audience; and therefore does not trust the people. It is pathetic to hear officials talking timidly of the people–will they endure hardships and sacrifices, will they carry through? Yet most of the successes we have won in the War have to be credited not so much to the skill of the management as to the amazing high courage of the ordinary soldier and sailor. Even soldiers are often subject to class illusion. I remember listening, in the first month of the War, to a retired colonel, who explained, with some heat, that the territorials could never be of any use. That illusion has gone. Then it was Kitchener’s army–well-meaning people, no doubt, but impossible for a European war. Kitchener’s army made good. Now it is the civil population, who, though they are the blood relatives of the soldiers, are distrusted, and believed to be likely to fail under a strain. Yet all the time, if you want to hear half-hearted, timid, pusillanimous talk, the place where you are most likely to hear it is in the public offices. Most of those who talk in this way would be brave enough in fight, but they are kept at desks, and worried with detailed business, and harassed by speculative dangers, and they lose perspective. Soon or late, we are going to win this War; and it is the people who are going to win it.
If the press (or perhaps the Government, which controls the press) is not afraid of the people, why does it tell them so little about our reverses, and the merits of our enemies? For information concerning these things we have to depend wholly on conversation with returned soldiers. For instance, the horrible stories that we hear of the brutal treatment of our prisoners are numerous, and are true, and make a heavy bill against Germany, which bill we mean to present. But are they fair examples of the average treatment? We cannot tell; the accounts published are almost exclusively confined to the worst happenings. Most of the officers with whom I have talked who had been in several German military prisons said that they had nothing serious to complain of. Prison is not a good place, and it is not pleasant to have your pea-soup and your coffee, one after the other, in the same tin dipper; but they were soldiers, and they agreed that it would be absurd to make a grievance of things like that. One private soldier was an even greater philosopher. ’No’, he said, ’I have nothing to complain of. Of course, they do spit at you a good deal.’ That man was unconquerable.
In shipping returns and the like we are given averages; why are we told nothing at all of the milder experiences of our soldier prisoners? It would not make us less resolved to do all that we can to better the lot of those who are suffering insult and torture, and to exact full retribution from the enemy. And it would bring some hope to those whose husbands or children or friends are in German military prisons, and who are racked every day by tales of what, in fact, are exceptional atrocities.
Or take the question of the conduct of German officers. We know that the Prussian military Government, in its approved handbooks, teaches its officers the use of brutality and terror as military weapons. The German philosophy of war, of which this is a part, is not really a philosophy of war; it is a philosophy of victory. For a long time now the Germans have been accustomed to victory, and have studied the arts of breaking the spirit and torturing the mind of the peoples whom they invade. Their philosophy of war will have to be rewritten when the time comes for them to accommodate their doctrine to their own defeat. In the meantime they teach frightfulness to their officers, and most of their officers prove ready pupils. There must be some, one would think, here and there, if only a sprinkling, who fall short of the Prussian doctrine, and are betrayed by human feeling into what we should recognize as decent and honourable conduct. And so there are; only we do not hear of them through the press. I should like to tell two stories which come to me from personal sources. The first may be called the story of the Christmas truce and the German captain. In the lull which fell on the fighting at the time of the first Christmas of the War, a British officer was disquieted to notice that his men were fraternizing with the Germans, who were standing about with them in No-man’s land, laughing and talking. He went out to them at once, to bring them back to their own trenches. When he came up to his men, he met a German captain who had arrived on the same errand. The two officers, British and German, fell into talk, and while they were standing together, in not unfriendly fashion, one of the men took a snapshot photograph of them, copies of which were afterwards circulated in the trenches. Then the men were recalled to their duty, on the one side and the other, and, after an interval of some days, the war began again. A little time after this the British officer was in charge of a patrol, and, having lost his way, found himself in the German trenches, where he and his men were surrounded and captured. As they were being marched off along the trenches, they met the German captain, who ordered the men to be taken to the rear, and then, addressing the officer without any sign of recognition, said in a loud voice, ’You, follow me!’ He led him by complicated ways along a whole series of trenches and up a sap, at the end of which he stopped, saluted, and, pointing with his hand, said ’Your trenches are there. Good day.’
My second story, the story of the British lieutenant in No-man’s land, is briefer. I was with a friend of mine, a young officer back from the front, wounded, and the conduct of German officers was being discussed. He said, ’You can’t expect me to be very hard on German officers, for one of them saved my life’. He then told how he and a companion crept out into No-man’s land to bring in some of our wounded who were lying there. When they had reached the wounded, and were preparing to bring them in, they were discovered by the Germans opposite, who at once whipped up a machine-gun and turned it on them. Their lives were not worth half a minute’s purchase, when suddenly a German officer leapt up on to the parapet, and, angrily waving back the machine-gunners, called out, in English, ’That’s all right. You may take them in.’
These are no doubt exceptional cases; the rule is very different. But a good many of such cases are known to soldiers, and I have seen none of them in the press. Soldiers are silent by law, and journalists either do not hear these things, or, believing that hate is a valuable asset, suppress all mention of them. If England could ever be disgraced by a mishap, she would be disgraced by having given birth to those Englishmen, few and wretched, who, when an enemy behaves generously, conceal or deny the fact. And consider the effect of this silence on the Germans. There are some German officers, as I said, who are better than the German military handbooks, and better than their monstrous chiefs. Which of them will pay the smallest attention to what our papers say when he finds that they collect only atrocities, and are blind to humanity if they see it in an enemy? He will regard our press accounts of the German army as the work of malicious cripples; and our perfectly true narrative of the unspeakable brutality and filthiness of the German army’s doings will lose credit with him.
If I had my way, I would staff the newspaper offices, as far as possible, with wounded soldiers, and I would give some of the present staff a holiday as stretcher-bearers. Then we should hear more of the truth.
Is it feared that we should have no heart for the War if once we are convinced that among the Germans there are some human beings? Is it believed that our people can be heroic on one condition only, that they shall be asked to fight no one but orangoutangs? Our airmen fight as well as any one, in this world or above it, has ever fought; and we owe them a great debt of thanks for maintaining, and, by their example, actually teaching the Germans to maintain, a high standard of decency.
This War has shown, what we might have gathered from our history, that we fight best up hill. From our history also we may learn that it does not relax our sinews to be told that our enemy has some good qualities. We should like him better as an enemy if he had more. We know what we have believed; and we are not going to fail in resolve or perseverance because we find that our task is difficult, and that we have not a monopoly of all the virtues.
Most of us will not live to see it, for our recovery from this disease will be long and troublesome, but the War will do great things for us. It will make a reality of the British Commonwealth, which until now has been only an aspiration and a dream. It will lay the sure foundation of a League of Nations in the affection and understanding which it has promoted among all English-speaking peoples, and in the relations of mutual respect and mutual service which it has established between the English-speaking peoples and the Latin races. Our united Rolls of Honour make the most magnificent list of benefactors that the world has ever seen. In the end, the War may perhaps even save the soul of the main criminal, awaken him from his bloody dream, and lead him back by degrees to the possibility of innocence and goodwill.