Wednesday, 3 August 2016
Getting the Men
Part VI serial ‘England in Arms’
From The Canadian Magazine, October 1917.
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, August 2016.
Britain, the free! Britain, the democratic monarchy! Britain, the mistress of the seas! Britain, the unconquerable!
They were sweet-sounding tributes whose title and warranty were never honestly questioned in time of peace. And the British nation had so incorporated them into its creed that nothing within the range of the most imaginative pessimist had for generations cast doubt on their eternal appropriateness. Through one war Britain had struggled with but the superfluity of her energy. Through centuries of peace the world had bowed to Britain’s well-deserved reputation.
And then came war—war of the kind that recognizes no reputations, that develops along the ordinary channels of guns and strategy and men. And Britain was forced to revise her creed.
In that very revision came the real struggle. Britain, the free, had to reconstruct the meaning of the word. Britain, the democratic monarchy, had to acknowledge that democracy involved co-operative reality as a prime necessity for the maintenance of Britain as mistress of the seas. Britain ceased to be free. That was the bitter pill.
And yet Britain passed from freedom to bondage only in the interpretation of those who count nothing to a nation in its extremity. Bondage laid aside its ungrateful mask and became union, a great patriotic rally for the dominion of freedom. “United stand” was never so vividly demonstrated on the western side of the Atlantic. Freedom assumed its true meaning: the unassailable right to personal liberty so long as it does not infringe on the well-being of the state. Russia has tried the other kind of freedom for a few disastrous months and given the lie forever to the dreams of Socialism.
Born, bottled and bred on the freedom of the citizen, Britain entered the war as a Crusader. That first hundred thousand passed to France but as the vanguard of the millions that were clamouring to express their loyalty by force of arms against the enemy. The millions trooped to the recruiting offices, turning their backs on their occupations, their businesses, their comfort, their families. Voluntarism was to prove itself against every test. And for six or eight months it seemed to be succeeding. Faster than they could be trained and armed patriots rallied to the principles on trial. Great Britain was almost satisfied—the public part of it.
But there were military, and even political, experts who were not so credulous. Lord Kitchener had an inkling of what faced the nation. The Cabinet, shamed by its own unpreparedness, trembled. It handed over to the lion of the nation the task of affording voluntarism its greatest opportunity. What Lord Kitchener could not accomplish in the call to arms was beyond the power of any man in Great Britain. And Lord Kitchener’s millions are a tribute to him and to his country.
But still the sweeping spectacle of Germany’s might in those early months loomed high above Great Britain’s show of resistance. Kitchener appealed as only he could. Posters stared where bills never dared appear before. Huge red arrows on every London street pointed the way to the recruiting stations. The King beckoned. Women urged and cajoled. The newspapers filled their front pages with petitions to the people. Appeals turned to warnings, then to threats. And the people thought they were hurrying. They saw the long lines before the recruiting booths, the long trains leaving for the front, the vacancies at home. But the authorities knew that longer lines must form, longer trains start, more homes be manless. For Germany was still near Paris, was still threatening Calais; and Mesopotamia, Egypt, Gallipoli, Greece were clamouring for fresh aggressive battle-fronts.
The Derby scheme was introduced.
It was in this Great Britain received its first taste of compulsion. The pill was sugar-coated at first. It was not a remedy, but a test. Every young man of military age was asked to report to the nearest recruiting station, not for service at the front, but for the compilation of a national register of fighting power. The sugar coating was very thin. The labour unions saw through it the first day. The entire country understood without accusing the Cabinet of falsehood in its declaration of intentions. But Great Britain was patriotic. It was also impressed with the promise that certain favours would be accorded those who attested should necessity for conscription arise. In millions the young men signed their names and ages and answered intimate questions. Lord Derby became recruiting agent extraordinary.
It was because the scheme was put forward as his and superintended personally by him that what obloquy attaches to subsequent events clings unjustly to his name. Lord Derby carried through the idea. Mr. Asquith perverted its expressed aim. The men who walked the streets with the khaki arm-badge as an evidence of their willingness to fight upon necessity were called upon before many months to make good.
Conscription killed its reputation only by its name. Conscription meant force, and personal liberty was the Englishman’s religion. But Great Britain was strong behind the principle. Organizations sprang up in opposition, of course. There were the so-called pacifists whose hankering for publicity drowns every atom of their common-sense and reason. There were foreign outlaws seeking asylum in England, where they had fled to escape military rule and other pursuing evils. There were Socialists whose only tangible creed is resistance to authority. And there were cowards. The noise they all made in chorus was deafening. Those who accepted compulsion did so in silence; it was one of their virtues. Those who opposed it howled. And Asquith, impressed a little with his own breach of faith, and fully seized of the fate of his party in the event of an election, made every concession that could be made with any appearance of fairness and honesty. A Coalition Government was the first necessity. It was at that time indisputable that the party which attempted to enforce conscription might be on the road to hari-kari. And both parties in the new Cabinet lent themselves with remarkable unanimity to concessions. There were elections coming some day.
Ministers of the Gospel were exempted from service, some attempt at control being exercised by the stipulation that the sect must be recognized. There are enough religions in England to reform the universe in this generation—or wreck it. And with exaggerated British respect for conscience conscientious objectors were, freed with the Government’s blessing.
The ministers presented only a small difficulty. But, since a man’s conscience is a more private possession than his garters, there was none on this earth to decide with authority whether the conscience was for temporary use or was of that unfortunate stripe that becomes a habit, like drink, or cigarettes. Over the conscientious objector more strife has arisen than had he been forced to assume his share of national defence—his nation, his safeguard against coercion of conscience. His exemption was a political dodge, not British fair play. That is proved by the refusal of the House to deprive him of the vote he will not assist in making valuable.
And to prevent the conscription of others whose claims to exemption might be as real if not as spiritual, local tribunals were set up to pass judgment.
Two conspicuously egregious follies have characterized the conduct of the Government in securing the men for the front. One is the brief for these tribunals, the other the recent efforts of the authorities to squirm around the question of trade exemptions. And of the two the refusal farce is the most complete exhibition of official folly.
The idea at the back of this consideration for special claims was beyond criticism. There must be thousands of cases where compulsion would work unpardonable injustice and disaster. Local tribunals seemed to offer the most available court and the least expensive. But the good judgment of such bodies could not have been considered. These tribunals were made up of local representatives of all classes. There were titled men, country squires, merchants, and labourers. Theoretically there was no favouritism in the personnel. However, it developed that every class of citizen had his advocate on the bench. And that was about all it did mean. Every claimant was personally known to one or all of his judges. The merchant resisted the conscription of his customers, the manufacturer of his employees, the workman of his fellow workmen, the farmer of his hands. Many of the applicants were in debt to one or more of the judges, and to send them to the trenches meant practically the cancellation of the debts. The tribunals as a body were prejudiced at the start against a duty that meant interfering with the business of the community. Indeed, many of them frankly contended that their chief duty was to protect local industry. The employees of members of the tribunals came before them and pleaded their cases, and while the employer usually retired for the decision, he knew he could trust his fellows as they would trust him when their turns came. Sometimes the members themselves were applicants for exemption. If it was an agricultural district, a farmer’s helper was certain of favourable consideration. If it was a manufacturing town manufacturing became a national necessity. The applicant who had not a keen supporter on tribunal was rare.
Of course, the War Office attempted to exercise some restraint on decisions. The military representative might appeal, but if he succeeded the tribunal was likely to go on strike in protest. When Sir William Robertson was clamouring for more men there were tribunals who “downed tools” for a month at a time; and all that time the cases of hundreds of men hung fire.
Many of the exemptions were laughable, had they not been so serious. No occupation or profession escaped the leniency of these personal friends in the seats of the mighty. Pugilists, professional sportsmen, entertainers, labouring men whose only concern was to make enough to spend it in the pubs; clerks, workmen engaged on luxuries, men with nothing more to back their claims than a ready smile, were freely exempted. From hundreds of applicants for exemption only one or two would be turned down. A man would he exempted because his brothers were at the front, although he and his brothers had no financial or business connection; and lengthy eulogies would be showered on him for his family’s patriotism. Weeping mothers and importunate fathers drew answering tears—and exemption for their boys. Even in July of this year a father secured exemption for six of his seven sons and one assistant, the other son refusing to share the family shame. There is even evidence that the members of a certain secret society were favoured.
Sometimes, aware of the weakness of their conduct, the tribunals retired into privacy to consider the claims before them.
It was a riot of favouritism, of blindness to the needs of the army, of selfishness. But the tribunals were no worse than the Government—not nearly so bad. Premier Asquith thought to lay the foundation to future political power, as well as to allay organized opposition to conscription, by exempting the members of twenty-eight unions. To give face to the act the trades were declared as essential to the war, but others, obviously more closely connected with the struggle, were ignored. And no restrictions were laid on this exemption through certificated occupations. If a man were a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers—even if he were making nothing remotely connected with warfare—he was exempted from service. The unions thus favoured openly advertised for members on the ground that membership meant exemption. Millions of young men flocked to the munition factories and other “essential” trades, were forced to join the unions, and were immediately exempt. It did not matter that their work a week ago was clerking, or following the races, or systematic loafing. An engineer was simply a member of the union and therefore immune from military service.
But the Government did not stop there. It added thousands of single young men to its departmental staffs and refused to release them for female or more aged substitutes. As with the unions, the fact that an able-bodied young man was performing some trivial duty in a Government office was his guarantee against khaki. More, the departments reached out and laid a fondling hand on hundreds of pugilists, and football players, and sportsmen, put them in khaki, and kept them in England, where they were permitted to fight (with their fists), or kick a football, for the honour of the unit with which they were connected. And each department head was his own tribunal.
Of course, there were departments, like the Postal, with a finer record, but all the attempts of the House to enforce respect for their country and its danger failed of complete satisfaction.
The Government defeated its own regulation in ways more open to criticism. Tribunals were ordered by department heads to exempt certain applicants without giving even a reason except that they were necessary to the country. They took men whose applications had been refused and placed them in easy Government positions. They opened their doors to the sons of friends without any qualification save their pull.
So glaring were these inconsistencies that even the tribunals sometimes went on strike against them. While married men approaching the age limit, with large families for the country to keep, classed in the lowest medical category open to the army, and owning large businesses which would be forced to close without their heads—while these men were heartily raked into the army hundreds of thousands of young, single, A1 men were posing as indispensables at a job they had picked up. It was even the case that Government factories were engaging these young men in the place of the older, married men while the tribunals were sitting on their cases.
Some of the newspapers took the matter up, especially the Northcliffe Press. Such a cry was raised in the House that certain departments were forced to release a few of these youthful slackers. But every month the fight has to be revived. Most of these young men loudly declare their inability to follow their inclinations, but they stand up under the restrictions with admirable fortitude and cheerfulness.
Not long after the start of the war Lloyd George’s personal wishes on the matter were demonstrated in his contentions for dilution of labour, a task for which he was set apart by his leader. It is one of his greatest accomplishments that he was able to secure the consent of the labour unions, even at the payment of exemption. Women were introduced, and to-day they are entering factory shops where none but man ever worked before. The relief it gave to a situation whose seriousness will not be told until after the war was more immediate than even its most optimistic supporters expected. Indeed, the effectiveness of female labour, its versatility, its energy and trustworthiness, are partially the cause of the strikes that disgraced England during early May. The English workingman is having it brought home to him that his future is one of real work—with real pay—for the women have, in many instances within my personal knowledge, exceeded after a couple of weeks the output of the men who have been specializing on such work for years.
Dilution freed hundreds of thousands of men for the fighting line. And several minor measures affected the same result directly or indirectly. For instance, the jury system was suspended in some cases.
But against such saving of labour and freeing of men stands the multiplicity of officials. Work that might more honestly be done by boys and girls is in charge of uniformed officers and privates. A private firm would be scandalized by the duplication of work and inspection. It demands the services of three officials to measure the floor of a Government office to determine what to pay the scrub-woman. The streets of London are full of khaki-clad officials, exempt from fighting, but performing nothing that is beyond the capacity of boys or girls. And for some unadvertised reason certain men, like actors, are permitted to don khaki and continue their usual occupations.
Winston Churchill has stated in the House that there were three and a half men behind the lines for every one in the trenches. And in this Canadian military service, in London or France, is said to be little better.
When Lloyd George rode to power on a platform of aggressiveness, he organized immediately the National Service Department. It was a fine scheme, under an experienced business man and backed by a thoroughly roused public. It opened a whirlwind campaign of publicity that carried the nation off its feet. It called for a half million men hitherto exempt from age or physical condition or otherwise, as substitutes for ablebodied workmen in essential occupations. Sir William Robertson had publicly demanded a half million more men by July lst. Hundreds of thousands responded—and but one from every hundred was placed. As a department fiasco National Service stands alone. It died an unnatural death of violence at the hands of a disgusted people whose ardour has been cooled by this one act of official folly.
Then came the persistent necessity for something of real productive value. The men had to be secured. Thousands might have been combed out of the Government offices, but out in the munition factories were many times the needed number without a claim to exemption except the technical one of membership in specified unions. They were not essential to the output, because it had been proved that women could do better than many of them, and men graded B3 and C3 as well, and those who had gone into the factories since the war were openly exulting in their cleverness in thus escaping service.
There was encouragement to the Government to take them, because the union officials, finding their authority scorned by this huge new membership, longed for a way to free the organization of them. So the Cabinet announced a new dilution bill whereby those under thirty-one might be taken for the army. But the new union members defeated the measure in a simple manner. Without the acknowledged backing of one union official they organized a strike under their shop stewards. It is history that the Government at first counselled, then threatened, and finally yielded, as everyone knew it would. Politics was never more in the centre of the stage than to-day, with the Liberal party split into two factions and the Unionists watching their opportunity. (And yet coalition has been the salvation of the country.)
Since then the policy of the authorities has been one of unmitigated submission to a force they fear more than seems to a Canadian to be warranted. And to save its official face, as well as to introduce some sense of loyalty into the young shirkers in munition factories who are watching every official move, no public mention of the cowardliness and disloyalty of these young men was breathed in the consideration of the recognized labour unrest until six weeks after the strike was over. Then a couple of indignant members arose in the House and told the truth that was already known to everyone in touch with conditions in the factories.
Defeated once more in its efforts to raise the new army where the opportunities were greatest, the Government turned to other sources. The original minimum age had already been reduced, first to eighteen years and seven months, then to eighteen. Towards the middle of 1917 the other end of the age scale was tackled and men up to fifty were appealed for. To give the move some appearance of justice, it was announced that these older men would probably be required only for substitution, but in case they were needed at the Front notice would be given. But there was no exemption loophole provided. The tribunal folly was eliminated. Also it had been long suspected that fraudulent exemption on the alleged ground of physical unfitness was rife, and the men thus freed were ordered for re-examination. In one district it was discovered that one in every four exemptions was dishonest. Legal action was taken against dishonest medical examiners. As was suspected, the numbers of seemingly strong men wearing the badge of discharged soldiers were large enough to merit investigation. These, too, were ordered up for re-examination.
It was obvious that the Government was attempting to solve the problem by following the smoothest channel. The older men with expensive families for the country, the discharged and unfit—everyone who was not organized for opposition—was on the way to service, while millions of the very youths for military life were flaunting their immunity. Whereupon the discharged soldiers organized. First of all there was a spontaneous and natural protest against forcing re-examination on the obviously unfit, on the nervous wrecks.
And there the Government bowed to popular opinion. And when the case of the discharged soldiers was re-considered a compromise was made exempting those who had already served overseas, even though they had once again been passed by the doctors. But still the young men in the munition factories calmly issued their demands on threat of strike or decreased production.
Other unions proved their loyalty. There were demands from some of them to clean out their own young men. The South Wales miners, whose record of loyalty follows a fluctuating line, spoke through one of their representatives in the House. They held indignation meetings, at which they called upon the Government to take the 205,000 unmarried miners under the age of thirty-one.
At the same time London was swarming with aliens, subjects of allied countries or of none, who were replacing Englishmen in their jobs. It was estimated that in England were 200,000 friendly foreigners of military age. When the spectacle became unbearable and the public anger dangerous, legislation was introduced to force them into the armies of this or their own countries. Of course, the so-called Pacifists and those others whose only meeting-ground is their pro-Germanism, fought in the House of Commons to exempt these people; but the feeling of the House was overwhelmingly against them.
It was at this time was held the notorious Leeds Convention, in early June, an aggregation of Labour and Socialist anti-war, peace-at-any-price advocates who posed as representatives of British labour. It has been estimated that thirty-three per cent. of the delegates were Russian Jews, thirty per cent. conscientious objectors, and twelve per cent. acknowledged pacifists. As their object was solely to end the war to save their own skins or Germany’s they received scant respect from the country. The experiences of Ramsay Macdonald and his friend Jowett will have done more than all the thousands of lectures and mobbings they have received to show them that there is a limit to human patience.
That is where the man-power problem rests to-day. What will be the solution is not at the moment apparent. Some say that the Government prefers to struggle along with what it has until the millions of the United States are available. At any rate, it seems certain that the present Government will not coerce the shirkers who have defeated it so easily at every move. It would be hard to blame Great Britain for leaving some of the fighting to the newest ally, and no one would be less likely to protest than the United States, which entered the war after the worst of the strain was over and can never, in any event, suffer as have those who took up the cudgels earlier.
That there should be a problem in a democratic country of finding the men for a war like this is not surprising. It is no contemptuous comment on the loyalty of the British. No other country would have gone so far on voluntarism, no country have given such proof of its patriotism without coercion. But there comes a limit to voluntarism in a war where every man and woman has work to do; and the shirkers stand out more prominently than their numbers warrant. Where Great Britain failed was in the loopholes she provided to the shirkers. Without preparation she found the men to block the armies of a country trained and fitted to the last movement and gun. It was only in the last pound of her strength that her manhood failed her. She secured the men for the worst days of the war. And even without the entry of later allies she would have found the men for victory when her back was against the wall.
Freedom is a misnomer in a nation’s crisis.
The next article of this series is entitled “The Food Problem”.
- ▼ August (10)
- ► 2015 (35)
- ► 2014 (55)
- ► 2013 (41)
- ► 2012 (88)
- ► 2011 (104)
- ► 2010 (43)
- ► 2009 (40)
- ► 2008 (48)
- 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.