Tuesday, 12 July 2016
After Three Years
By Lacey Amy
XI. – After Three Years
From The Canadian Magazine, March 1918.
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, July 2016.
Since this series of articles began so much has happened within their scope that anything approaching a complete examination of the measures taken in the British Isles to cope with war conditions must include those adopted after the trying experiences of three years of war. It would be reasonable to expect that in such a period of unprecedented struggle for existence the problem of the nation would be solved in so far as organization and experience could solve them, that the difficulties still remaining would be not in effective planning or decision but solely in the strain and deprivations rendered necessary by a powerful foe. Yet only the blindest fatuity could assert that England has solved the simplest of her war problems only the most superficial student would declare that even the obviously wise and fair measures have been taken.
The status of the women has been growing stronger every day. More and more they have been offering themselves for the needs of the war and more and more they have proved themselves the real backbone of production. It is only due their earnest participation in munition making to admit that they perform their work more carefully and quickly than the same number of men. They have been set by the thousand at tasks hitherto considered beyond their capacity, in strength and brains, and in not one case that has come within my knowledge have they failed to exceed the production of the men in a very few weeks. The reason is not that they are more able, but that they throw more vim and enthusiasm into it. They are not too busy haggling over privileges to remember that the soldiers at the Front are looking to them for the shells and the guns. The women have saved the Empire, though there are hundreds of thousands of the better classes doing their utmost, by idling and extravagance, to depreciate the sum total. More than a million and a quarter women were engaged on the first of September, 1917, on work formerly done by men. In government factories and in the Civil Service they have released a quarter of a million men. In Government controlled factories half a million of them have found employment, and in commerce generally more than three hundred thousand more. In these two branches of service they have released three-quarters of a million men.
All told, there are more than four and a half million women and girls in classified employment, not including domestic servants, hospital workers, and those employed in small shops.
Their interests have been studied by the Ministry of Munitions, and after tests the standard number of hours of employment has been reduced to forty-eight a week with increase of output; and during the year two raises in wages have been officially declared. So important a part do they play in the necessary war production that a special committee has been appointed to deal with their wages, hours of labour, and conditions of employment.
The latest call for their services has come from the military organization in France. The first lot of ten thousand, for office and mess duties hitherto performed by men, was overwhelmingly supplied, and during the latter half of 1917 the demand was continuous. So insatiable was it, and so eager were girls to undertake this new work, that the drain on the munition factories in England was seriously felt, the type of worker finding favour in France being the same as that sought for the factories. Now the Admiralty has appealed for women to relieve naval ratings on shore duty. Were all England imbued with the spirit of its average woman the war would be further advanced towards victory than it is to-day.
The problem in the case of female labour is the after-war results. Certainly thousands of women, having tasted the pleasures of earning and of steady employment, will be unwilling to return to idleness. It is the knowledge of this that has interfered with their acceptance in the councils of labour. From the first, labour unions demanded that pre-war conditions be restored immediately with peace, and as a further block to the ingress of women into industrial competition, the same wage was demanded for both sexes. The women accepted the wage at first with eagerness, but a few of the leaders quickly discovered the reason end ere now insisting on an equality that is not absolute but based on the differences in strength, sex, and the requirements of physical well-being. For, while the women have a better record of production than the men, it is telling on their health end nerves, and without the incentive of war it is certain that their production will decrease.
The position of the farmer has steadily improved. But it cannot be said, unfortunately, that he has done much to warrant it. While the farmer in England was, for many years before the war, in the lowest plane of society and the least profitable, his rise to a deserved recognition as the solution of the food problem of an island kingdom has had a natural result. Filled with the idea of his unwonted importance to the country and to victory, and thrilled with his new power, he has ignored the demand for a common sacrifice and refuses to direct his efforts to production that does not bring him returns consistent with the level established by the needs of a country short of all food stuffs. He insists that his every acre be guaranteed by a Government driven to extremity for supplies, otherwise he reserves the right to confine his crops to the profitable grains and roots, or to leave it idle. If he is asked to grow potatoes he must be protected in a profit beyond his wildest dreams of former years. If the profits of barley, for instance, are eliminated by decreased liquor production, he must see the loss made up from another source or threats of lessened production are issued.
And therein the farmer is but requiting for the hardship of his lot before the war. Yet, great as are his profits to-day, he resists the extension of the higher returns to his workmen. Three dollars a week was the offer of a farmer for a man to work from 5.30 a.m., to 9.00 p.m., and from that the man must board and lodge himself. Even the Government established a rate of $1.50 a week above their billets for girl plum pickers on the farms, railway fares to be paid by the workers. Girls on the land were paid three dollars a week, supplying their own food.
The Education Bill, introduced by the President of the Board of Education as a remedy for the glaring evils in the education system of Great Britain, has been received by the people with the loudest acclaim—and quietly shelved by the authorities. There was too much innovation in it for those with power to accept it without serious misgivings. Oxford University has led the fight against it, not openly but none the less effectively. For Oxford University represents education as it has been for centuries in England. It eschews science, clings to classics as the soul of England, and resents the claim of anyone else to criticize or advise on education.
The result is that the Bill, to the middle of December, 1917, has not even been considered in the House. Public bodies have protested. The new papers have made demands. But those subtle muscles which wield the power of Great Britain from behind the scenes have intervened. The Bill was at first refused consideration in the last session of 1917. It was soberly contended by Bonar Law three months before the end of the session, that there would be no time for discussing the Bill, although time was always found readily enough for inconsequential subjects, and hours every day were wasted on questions and answers which should have been deleted for the good of the country. It was obvious that the majority of the Government were against the Bill of the Minister. But the demand grew so insistent that finally the hope was expressed of completing one reading, leaving the final stages to another session. At the time of writing, there it stands, the end depending upon whether the balance of power rests with the people or with the forces for conservatism. It takes more than three years of war to break the grip of tradition in England.
The liquor question has resolved itself into a typical capitulation on the part of the Government. That started as an apparent effort to conserve food stuffs for a more or less suffering country by directing grains from beer to bread. has become merely another official failure to live up to promises— or threats. After announcing drastic curtailment of the consumption of food stuffs in the manufacture of beer, the Government yielded to pressure, largely artificial and concentrated, and increased the quantity one-third at the middle of 1917. During the year ending September, 1916, there were 65,000,000 bushels of grain and 160,000 tons of sugar used for the manufacture of liquor. During 1917 the quantity permitted was more than half that amount. When it is considered that sugar is absolutely unobtainable by a great part of the people of England, and the ration is set at half a pound a week, this amount assumes considerable importance. The Government's excuse that the sugar thus consumed is largely unfit for human consumption is misleading, for not only is much of it exactly what is used on the table, but its importation into England takes the same space in the limited shipping as the same quantity of edible sugar for general distribution.
The cause of the Government’s surrender was a well-organized campaign by the newspapers and brewers. One or two of the largest London papers published each day reports of serious disturbances throughout the country through the shortage of beer, and although some of these were entirely without foundation, the workers of England were convinced that beer was a vital necessity and that strikes were expected of them.
To meet the demand with the least expenditure of foodstuffs the Government authorized a weaker quality, termed government beer, and to it thereafter was accredited by every “drunk” the cause of his downfall. Being a government brand, the magistrates could scarcely convict. But the main result of the new liquor restrictions was an increased profit for brewer and retailer. The annual returns of the breweries show that they never made such profits; and the retailer, working less than half the prewar hours, asked what he wished for his stock. So independent did he become that there were saloons in London showing signs prohibiting the entrance of women, an unusual sex distinction. At last the Government was forced to intervene and establish prices. But the Government scale of prices, in the experience of this war, protects the merchants in a percentage of profit on which he can afford to smile benevolently.
In the meantime government purchase has advanced no further. The report of the Commission appointed to investigate is against purchase, and everyone seems content to leave it at that as a plan too radical to adopt without several years of deliberation.
The fondest admirers of the war government of Great Britain must admit that the methods of handling labour, man-power, food, and the enemy alien have savored little of real war. Great Britain labours under a number of special disqualifications. These might be summed up as excessive deliberation and delay, class distinctions, unpardonable tolerance, and conventionalism. And the last includes all the others. Somewhere in this short list might be found the foundation of every obstacle to victory. Lack of decision and firmness, of organizing ability, and excess of pride are other descriptions of the country’s deficiencies.
Inexperience in organization, where a country has succeeded fairly well on the plan laid down by former generations, has exhibited itself in almost every move since the war began. Today it is evident in the internecine strife among the Government departments. It is plain in the food muddle, which is to-day in a more chaotic state than ever. It is to be seen in the labour troubles, the record of the navy, the shortage of man-power at the Front, and of production in England.
The position of labour offers the most serious trouble. Asquith’s foolish promise of exemption to twenty-nine unions is an instance of the weakness of a war government in the national extremity. Irrespective of any crisis, these unions insist on adherence to the promise, and the blame is not so much with them as with the Cabinet that had a country on its shoulders. Union labour has not changed its opinion noticeably since it lent itself to conscription under certain conditions, but union labour, as governed by its main executives, is almost a negligible power now, partly from its own thoughtlessness, partly from governmental weakness. The Engineers’ disloyal strike in May, 1917, brought to the fore a power that has been robbing the executives of their authority. The Engineers struck for nothing but fear of being taken into the army. Whatever other excuse may have been given, determination not to serve with the colours was the real one. They had no complaint, but new orders for obtaining the necessary additional soldiers by extending the dilution of labour gave them a pretext for calling a strike. And they won. The Government rescinded everything, although it had the country behind it and could have taught a much needed lesson in patriotism that would have solved for the duration of the war every difficulty of man-power. Were the workers convinced that the penalty of loafing was fighting in France two-thirds their number would produce what they are now producing, and there would be no thought of strikes.
Having obtained almost all they wished, the engineers resumed work; and for a time there was comparative peace. But during the last two months of 1917 the labour situation was a boiling disturbance. The South Wales miners frankly took a vote to decide whether they would resist the Government in combing out the new men introduced into the mines since the war began. The Coventry aeroplane makers, engaged in the most vital of munition production, walked out and remained idle a week until they, too won all they asked. All over England were demands for higher wages, shorter hours, greater privileges, and the reinstatement of employees dismissed for the most outrageous offences.
The reason for the ferment was easy to find. The Government lacked back bone—simply that. The submission to the engineers, although the whole country was so strong against them that at the end they were but looking for an excuse to return to the shops and feared to wear their union badges, paved the way to every strike that has occurred since. Winston Churchill, already convicted of incapacity by an official commission, was appointed Minister of Munitions purely as a political expedient. And Churchill’s first few months in office seemed to justify his selection. Never had there been so few strikes. But suddenly they blazed forth all over the country, so seriously as to jeopardize the war in 1918. And the secret was out when, without consulting those directly affected, he declared a general increase of pay for the engineers. Immediately other unions struck for increases and other advantages. It was found that railwaymen had long suffered from a ridiculous discrepancy between their wages and those of even the unskilled in other trades which had ignored the war and thought only of self. It was found, too, that the increase so lightly granted affected a score of trades not contemplated.
The temporary immunity from strikes had been because every demand had been met. The unpardonable extent to which this weakness went may be illustrated by one example. When a shop steward was caught making tools for himself from Government material (it was a government controlled factory) in government time and promptly dismissed, a strike was declared for his reinstatement. And the Government forced the firm to submit. Besides the principle involved, it is natural that ever since then the reinstated employee has been a cause of constant trouble and agitation. Such folly was rampant all over England. The natural result was that strikes were called on the flimsiest pretexts. The men jeeringly declaring that the Government was afraid of them.
But this was not union labour as constituted before the war. Every strike has been engineered by the shop-stewards, a new force that has crept in since the factories were filled with able-bodied young men whose only concern is to escape service in France. The regular union executives and power of unionism to-day is in the hands of those young shirkers who do not hesitate to declare their reasons for working on munitions. Unionism thought to protect itself by forcing all workers to join. In reality it lost every shred of power by the act. To-day every local union is a law unto itself. The Coventry strike was called by the shop stewards against the union leaders’ instructions, just as the engineers’ had been. And the only bone of contention was the recognition of the shop stewards.
Wrapped in this question of labour is the other of obtaining men for the trenches. Anyone who knows conditions in the factories of England is aware that hundreds of thousands of fit young men could be cleared out with profit to production, even though they were not put in khaki. The majority of these are doing as little as possible, they are always on the watch for grounds for striking, they interfere with those who would produce to their utmost, they refuse to permit the women to be taught certain operations well within their capacity, and they are almost all recruits to this kind of work since 1914. Yet the only apparent concern of the Government seems to be to assure them of exemption. And since more soldiers are an absolute essential, raising the age to 45 is being seriously considered while these young slackers loaf in security. It is a fact that experienced factory hands discharged from the army have been called up again from the munition factories while these young fellows look on from the next benches and laugh. It is also a fact that married men with large families, men too old for the hard life of the Front, others whose businesses will close with their conscription, are relentlessly put into khaki to fight for these strong youths without dependants or extra bills of expense to present to the Government.
Every government department seems to delight in refusing to release its youthful clerks for service. Each being king in its own realm and jealously guarding its power, there is none with authority to comb them out, although battalions could be replaced by girls and older men. It continues, too, to be a department habit to order tribunals to exempt applicants for no reasonable excuse. And England is teeming with non-combatant young men wearing the red tab of headquarters or the khaki of soft jobs far from the sound of war. It is not lack of men that keeps the army in want.
The food problem is too wide to be more than touched here. There is no daylight showing, even after almost a year of submarine war. Hundreds of orders have been issued by the Food Controller, thousands of appeals. But they have affected little save to establish prices at an unjustifiable level, force the poor to stand in queues hours of every day, and reserve to the merchant an exhorbitant profit. The House of Commons is made up of men interested in trade—one would know it without acquaintance with the members. It may safely be said that not a single law observes the good of the people at the expense to the merchant. Merchants are making more money than they ever dreamed of. The country is bringing in the food stuffs and handing them over to the stores for extreme profits. And when a law threatens to interfere, the merchants ignore it with impunity. Laws that appear every few days in public print are openly flouted, and to protest is to be denied supplies. Every time a maximum price is established by regulation it instantly becomes the minimum price as well. Now and then a merchant in some distant village or in the East End of London is proceeded against, and the papers are so filled with threats that few read them.
The attempt to regulate prices and supplies have demonstrated the inability of the authorities to organize and devise reasonable methods. Only those of the lower classes who have time to stand in queues can obtain supplies. Thus the hard-working munition makers find themselves short half the week. England’s short stocks seem to be reserved for the idle, and no attempt has yet been made to change it. Take sugar as an example of muddling. Although the rationing of sugar was determined on more than six months before it was put into force, the plan had to be completely altered during that six months, after the first scheme had been issued and everyone had done his part in the registration, and for reasons that were obviously insuperable defects from the start. It is also an instance of the wasted and misdirected zeal of officialdom that the postal customs filched two pounds of sugar from a small gift sent from Canada to a Canadian war worker in England, and at the same time, on the Government’s own figures, 8,000 tons a week were being issued above the rations without any effort to trace them.
A half dozen food commodities have been short, not so much because they were not in the stores but from unfair and unequal distribution. In every commodity in which the demand seems to exceed the supply there has been a riot of mismanagement and unfairness. The last month of 1917 saw an insistent demand for rationing all round, to prevent queues and to ensure something resembling even distribution. If there was one thing in the situation that was threatening unrest it was the manner in which the food question was handled.
The shortage of other commodities has been equally mismanaged. Petrol affords an illuminating example. Given over finally into the hands of a pool formed of the importers themselves, it travelled upwards in price until a government investigation was demanded, when it immediately dropped several cents a gallon. The Government’s later efforts to control its use have driven many cars from the streets, but more by threat than by force. Petrol may still be used for domestic business, for business purposes, for going to and from the station, and for everything connected with war work. The loopholes were innumerable. So long as a man is in khaki no questions are asked. Business men have their cars for running to the office, actors have licences at their pleasure, but, worst of all, the taxi is practically unrestricted. For the Lord Mayor’s banquet orders were given that anyone might use his car.
Now and then the law bestirs itself in a characteristic manner. A taxi driver was fined $250 for carrying a government official and his wife many miles into the country to bury their pet dog in a dog cemetery—but nothing was done to the official. A poor street match vendor was fined for overcharging for a box of matches— but a hundred stores were at the same time openly doing the same, and other laws were being broken. A Canadian General’s mother was summoned for using petrol to attend church—but she might have hired a taxi to take her to a restaurant and have kept its engine running during the meal. Two women were fined for engaging a car that was not a taxi to take them to the theatre—but had the garage keeper sent a taxi nothing could have been done to them.
It is such inconsistencies that bring the authorities and their methods into disrepute, until one wonders how much it takes at home to discount the country’s best efforts in the field.
A similar indecision and fatuousness exists in the treatment of alien enemies. There is no reason why Germany should not be kept informed of all that England contemplates, if freedom of German-born means espionage and all the world knows by this time that it does. Scores of influential Germans continue to be granted freedom and other favours, each backed by prominent politicians or titled people. When Laszlo, a popular Austrian painter, proved by a letter three years ago to be an Austrian at heart—when he was brought before a court of inquiry for internment, several of England’s most prominent men protested against locking him away; and because they were of the upper classes the Government refused to divulge their names. There is a large fund collected in England for the dependants of interned Germans, Cadburys, of cocoa fame, being the main supporters. And the wives of these interned Germans are already granted an allowance higher than the wives of the British soldiers used to get. The interned ones, too, were given more liberal allowances of food than are prescribed for the British people. The brother of the German Governor who murdered Nurse Cavell, interned in England, was allowed to enter a nursing home on the plea of ill-health. An army officer, once Krupp’s agent in London, ordered out of France as a suspicious person, although with the British forces, was immediately taken on the British Intelligence Department where military secrets are the only commodity dealt in. These instances of extreme tolerance and folly might be multiplied over and over again.
For almost two years I have studied Britain’s methods at home for making war. I have made every allowance for tradition, for excusable conditions. I have looked through the eyes of an Imperialist. But in the end I can see an early end to the war only by more aggressive and sensible methods. England does not make war with both fists—that is the trouble.
- The Amphibious Suburb of St. John’s
- Literary History of Nova Scotia
- A British Eskimo
- The Bombers and Snipers
- The Life Savers
- Hell at Hooge
- Dumb Talkies
- Introduction to The Fourth Dagger
- Salvage—A Canadian Idea
- The Women of The Magdalens
- The Credit System in the West
- The Perfect Ending
- Education and the War
- The Timber Wolf at Home
- Treating That Chilly Feeling
- Earmarks of Genius
- The Farmer and the War
- Labour and the War
- The Non-Combatants
- Woman and the War
- After Three Years
- My New Gardening Gloves
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.