World at War - M. B. Synge




The World at War

"What of the faith and fire within us

Men who march away,

Ere the barn-cocks say

Night is growing grey,

To hazards whence no tears can win us,

What of the faith and fire within us

Men who march away!"

—T. HARDY (1914).

"We draw the sword with a clean conscience and clean hands," proclaimed the Kaiser on 4th August.

There was not a country involved in the War that did not feel precisely the same.

Ranged against one another now on that summer day were the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand, Belgium, Russia, France, and Great Britain on the other.

The Germans had every reason to expect an easy and overwhelming victory over their opponents. They had the largest number of perfectly trained soldiers in the world, the best brains in Europe had worked at their military organisation, their war material was first-rate and inexhaustible. Their allies—at present their only allies—had an army organised on the German system of universal military service—now obedient to the German High Command.

Their opponent, Russia, had vast numbers of soldiers, but they were ill-equipped and only half-armed. What wonder their collapse came early in the war when the Russians had but one rifle among three soldiers to Germany's three rifles to every soldier! Nevertheless national enthusiasm ran strong, and all classes seemed to unite in a marvellous wave of patriotism despite internal troubles. The Grand Duke Nicholas, the Tsar's uncle, was made General of the Forces, with orders to "force his way to Berlin at the earliest possible moment and at any cost."

"Germany is the bitterest enemy of Russia," said the people. A great ceremonial took place at the Kremlin Palace at Moscow, and amid a dense throng of their subjects the Tsar and Tsarina, together with their four daughters and the little Tsarevitch (carried in the arms of a Cossack), made their State entry.

"From this place, the very heart of Russia, I send my soul's greeting to my valiant troops and my noble allies. God is with us."

The Tsar's words, spoken with great emotion, were answered by a great burst of cheering. It was one of the last times that the ill-fated Russian Imperial family were seen and cheered by their Russian subjects.

The story of Russia's part in the war will be told later.

Monsieur Poincaré did not reach Paris after his visit to Russia till 29th July. On the eve of possible war, France found herself ready for every effort and every sacrifice. M. Poincaré drove through Paris amid vast multitudes of people who had but one cry, "Vive la France."

The fighting machine which France set in motion on the outbreak of war ranked second among the world forces. In numbers she was inferior to Germany—her strength lay rather in the quality of her soldiers than in their equipment. Among officers and men was a spirit of comradeship which made for strength.

The strength of Great Britain lay more on the sea than on land.

"The fleet of England is her all-in-all,

And in her fleet her Fate."

Only on 18th July had King George reviewed his fleet off Portsmouth. It was the most powerful fleet ever assembled, numbering some 200 ships, drawn up in eight lines—no less than twenty-two miles of ships manned by 70,000 officers and men. For the first time the forces afloat were supplemented by seaplanes, aeroplanes, and airships. These would naturally have dispersed when the Review was over—but the war cloud was hanging over Europe, and the fleet was held together in case of emergency. As events rushed forward, and efforts for peace seemed growing fainter, the British Grand Fleet received orders to leave Portland, and in the evening of 29th July they put to sea.

"We may picture this great Fleet with its flotillas and cruisers, steaming slowly out of Portland Harbour, squadron by squadron, scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty shining sea, like giants bowed in anxious thought. We may picture them again as darkness fell—eighteen miles of warships running at full speed and in absolute blackness through the narrow Straits into the broad waters of the North Sea."

Before war was actually declared, the First Fleet had vanished into the mists of the unknown. The efficiency of the Fleet alone made possible the transport of the British Expeditionary Force to France within a few days of the declaration of war.

"Come over and help us" was the cry of the French, for the Germans were already thundering at their gates.

On Sunday morning, 9th August, the first two transports landed the first British soldiers at Boulogne amid wild enthusiasm. At the time complete silence reigned, but we know now something of the 360 trains a day that carried our troops away to France—indeed no less than 1800 special trains ran in five days while embarkation was at its height, until by 25th August some 100,000 British stood on French soil.

"A finer fighting unit never entered the field."

Every kind of ship was used for crossing the Channel, from the ordinary cross-channel steamer carrying some 300 passengers to the giant Atlantic liner carrying thousands. From Southampton, Dover, Folkestone, Newhaven a constant stream of men, horses, food, and equipment passed ceaselessly for nearly a fortnight, while aeroplanes kept watch above and two little submarines crept into the Bight of Heligoland to ensure the safety of the soldiers. Not one accident occurred.

"Not for passion or for power,

Clean of hands and calm of soul,

England, at this awful hour

Bids her battle-thunders roll."

Had the Expeditionary Force together with the armies for Home Defence been all that Great Britain could offer as her contribution to the Great War, it would indeed have been disastrous. But during these opening days of the war, the whole British Empire rose to a loyalty and patriotism unsurpassed in the world's history.

"No man," it has well been said, "can read without emotion the tale of those early days in August, when from every quarter of the globe there poured in appeals for the right to share in our struggle."

If the Germans had thought of the British Commonwealth as a "weak alliance of independent nations," loosely knit together, so loosely that, at the first touch of serious danger from outside, it would fall to pieces and crumble away, if they considered that the Empire was getting heartily sick of the Imperial connection, they knew now that it consisted of a true union of hearts bound together in a common cause—a newly revealed Brotherhood.

They were—

"Children of Britain's island breed

To whom the mother in her need

Perchance may one day call."

Canada flung her resources open in the cause of the Allies. Men of the western plains, the best shots and the hardest riders on earth, journeyed ' great distances to offer their services. Large sums of money were ungrudgingly given, and Canadian steamships were offered for transport. "Every public man in Canada played his part."

Australia and New Zealand with their system of national service were not behind Canada in loyalty. They gave freely of their sons, and nowhere on the battlefields of Europe could a finer set of fighting men be found.

British and Dutch in South Africa heard the war cry, old officers of the Boer commandos hurried to London to enlist with young men from Rhodesia, and amid immense enthusiasm General Botha placed himself at the head of South African troops for a campaign against German South-west Africa.

But perhaps the most wonderful sacrifice was that of India, which "took the world by surprise and thrilled every British heart."

"What orders has my King for me?" asked one Maharaja after giving his troops, his money, and his private, jewels.

When on 4th August news that England must fight reached India, a resolution was instantly passed of "unswerving loyalty and enthusiastic devotion to the King-Emperor." Rulers and Princes gave unflinching support, and a number were selected for personal service in the field. The veteran Sir Pertab Singh would not be denied his right to serve the King-Emperor of India, and although seventy years of age he rode forth to the Great War, his nephew—the Maharaja of sixteen—accompanying him with other Rajputs and Chiefs. Never in India's history had such a muster been known.

But they hardly realised at this moment of enthusiasm what suffering their service would entail. For many of them the voyage was terrible; they had never seen the sea, and the great English ships filled them with alarm. They came to a country where climate, language, people, customs were all new. They had never been under heavy shell fire, they had no experience of high explosives, and the exposure to all the latest scientific developments in the art of destruction added indescribable suffering.

The Dalai Lama of far-off Tibet—the "Roof of the World"—offered a thousand Tibetan troops, with a message to the King that throughout the length and breadth of the land, Lamas were praying for the success of the British arms.

Well might King George exclaim, "Nothing has moved me more than the passionate devotion to my throne expressed by my Indian subjects, and their prodigal offers of their lives and resources of the Realm."

"Never King of England

Had nobles richer and more loyal subjects."