Great Speeches of the War/Asquith

RT. HON. H. H. ASQUITH

[Speech at a great patriotic meeting of the Citizens of London held in the Guildhall on September 4, 1914. The Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, Mr. Balfour, and Mr. Bonar Law, the leader of the Opposition, were the principal speakers.]

My Lord Mayor and Citizens of London:—It is three years and a half since I last had the honour of addressing in this hall a gathering of the citizens. We were then met under the presidency, my Lord Mayor, of one of your predecessors—men of all creeds and parties—to celebrate and approve the joint declaration of the two great English-speaking States that for the future any differences between them should be settled, if not by agreement, at least by judicial inquiry and arbitration, and never in any circumstances by war. [Cheers.]

Those of us who hailed that eirenicon between the United States and ourselves as a landmark on the road of progress were not sanguine enough to think or even to hope that the era of war was drawing to a close—still less were we prepared to anticipate the terrible spectacle which now confronts us—a contest which for the number and importance of the Powers engaged, the scale of their armaments and arms, the width of the theatre of conflict, the outpouring of blood and the loss of life, the incalculable toll of suffering levied upon non-combatants, the material and moral loss accumulating day by day to the higher interests of civilized mankind—a contest which in every one of these aspects is without precedent in the annals of the world.

We were very confident three years ago in the rightness of our position when we welcomed the new securities for peace. We are equally confident in it to-day, when reluctantly and against our will, but with a clear judgment and a clean conscience [cheers], we find ourselves involved with the whole strength of this Empire in a bloody arbitrament between might and right. [Cheers.] The issue has passed out of the domain of argument into another field.

But let me ask you, and through you the world outside, what would have been our condition as a nation to-day if we had been base enough, through timidity or through a perverted calculation of self-interest, or through a paralysis of the sense of honour and duty [cheers], to be false to our word and faithless to our friends? [Cheers.] Our eyes would have been turned at this moment with those of the whole civilized world to Belgium—a small State which has lived for more than seventy years under a special and collective guarantee, to which we, in common with Prussia and Austria, were parties—and we should have seen, at the instance and by the action of two of these guaranteeing Powers, her neutrality violated, her independence strangled, her territory made use of as affording the easiest and most convenient road to a war of unprovoked aggression against France. [Cheers.] We, the British people, should at this moment have been standing by with folded arms and with such countenance as we could command, while this small and unprotected State, in defence of her vital liberties, made a heroic stand against overweening and overwhelming force. We should have been watching as detached spectators the siege of Liège, the steady and manful resistance of a small Army, the occupation of the capital, with its splendid traditions and memories, the gradual forcing back of the patriotic defenders of their native land to the ramparts of Antwerp, countless outrages suffered by, and buccaneering levies exacted from, the unoffending civil population, and finally the greatest crime committed against civilization and culture since the Thirty Years' War—the sack of Louvain. [Cries of "Shame."] With its buildings, its pictures, its unique library, its unrivalled associations, a shameless holocaust of irreparable treasures lit up by blind barbarian vengeance. [Cheers.]

What account should we, the Government and the people of this country, have been able to render to the tribunal of our national conscience and sense of honour if, in defiance of our plighted and solemn obligations, we had not done our best to prevent, yes, and to avenge, these intolerable wrongs? [Cheers.]

For my part, I say that sooner than be a silent witness, which means in effect a willing accomplice of this tragic triumph of force over law and of brutality over freedom, I would see this country of ours blotted out of the page of history. [Prolonged cheers.]

That is only a phase, a lurid and illuminating phase, in the contest to which we have been called by the mandate of duty and of honour to bear our part. The cynical violation of the neutrality of Belgium was after all but a step, the first step, in a deliberate policy of which, if not the immediate, the ultimate and not far distant aim was to crush the independence and the autonomy of the free States of Europe. First Belgium, then Holland and Switzerland—countries like our own imbued and sustained with the spirit of liberty—we were one after the other to be bent to the yoke, and these ambitions were fed and fostered by a body of new doctrines and new philosophy preached by professors and learned men. The free and full self-development which to these small States, to ourselves, to our great and growing Dominions over the seas, to our kinsmen across the Atlantic, is the well-spring and life-breath of national existence; that free self-development is the one capital offence in the code of those who have made force their supreme divinity and upon its altars are prepared to sacrifice both the gathered fruits and potential germs of the unfettered human spirit. I use this language advisedly. This is not merely a material, it is also a spiritual conflict. [Cheers.] Upon this issue everything that contains the promise and hope that leads to emancipation and fuller liberty for the millions who make up the masses of mankind will be found sooner or later to depend.

Let me now turn to the actual situation in Europe. How do we stand? For the last ten years, by what I believe to be happy and well-considered diplomatic arrangements, we have established friendly and increasingly intimate relations with two Powers—France and Russia—with whom in days gone by we have had in various parts of the world occasions for friction, and now and again for possible conflict. These new and better relations, based in the first instance upon business principles of give and take, matured into a settled temper of confidence and good will. They were never in any sense or at any time, as I have frequently said in this hall, directed against other Powers. [Cheers.] No man in the history of the world has ever laboured more strenuously or more successfully than my right hon. friend Sir Edward Grey [cheers] for that which is the supreme interest of the modern world—a general and abiding peace. It is a very superficial criticism which suggests that under his guidance the policy of this country has ignored, still less that it has counteracted and hampered, the Concert of Europe. It is little more than a year ago that, under his presidency, in the stress and strain of the Balkan crisis, the Ambassadors of all the Great Powers met here day after day curtailing the area of possible differences, reconciling warring ambitions and aims, and preserving against almost incalculable odds the general harmony; and it was in the same spirit and with the same purpose, when, a few weeks ago, Austria delivered her ultimatum to Servia, that the Foreign Secretary, for it was he, put forward a proposal for a mediating Conference between the four Powers who were not directly concerned—Germany, France, Italy, and ourselves. If that proposal had been accepted actual controversy would have been settled with honour to everybody, and the whole of this terrible welter would have been avoided.

And with whom does the responsibility rest? [Cries of "The Kaiser."] For its refusal and for all the illimitable sufferings which now confront the world? One Power and one Power only, and that Power is Germany. [Cheers and hisses.] That is the fountain and origin of this world-wide catastrophe. We persevered to the end. No one who has not been confronted as we were with the responsibility which, unless you have been face to face with it, you cannot possibly measure—the responsibility of determining the issues of peace and war—no one who has not been in that position can realize the strength, the energy, the persistence with which we laboured for peace. We persevered by every expedient that diplomacy can suggest, straining to almost the breaking point our most cherished friendships and obligations, even to the last making effort upon effort and hoping against hope. Then, and only then, when we were at last compelled to realize that the choice lay between honour and dishonour, between treachery and good faith, and that we had at last reached the dividing line which makes or mars a nation worthy of the name, it was then, and then only, that we declared for war. [Cheers.] Is there any one in this hall or in this United Kingdom or in the vast Empire of which we here stand in the capital and centre who blames or repents our decision? [Shouts of "No."] If, as I believe, there is not, we must steel ourselves to the task, and in the spirit which animated our forefathers in their struggle against the domination of Napoleon we must and we shall persevere to the end. [Cheers.]

It would be a criminal mistake to under-estimate either the magnitude or fighting quality or the staying power of the forces which are arrayed against us; but it would be equally foolish and equally indefensible to belittle our own resources, whether for resistance or attack. Belgium has shown us—by a memorable and glorious example [cheers]—what can be done by a relatively small State when its citizens are animated and fired by the spirit of patriotism. In France and Russia we have as allies two of the greatest Powers in the world, engaged with us in a common cause, who do not mean to separate themselves from us any more than we mean to separate ourselves from them. [Cheers.] We have upon the seas the strongest and most magnificent Fleet which has ever been seen. The Expeditionary Force which left our shores less than a month ago has never been surpassed [cheers], as its glorious achievements in the field have already made clear [renewed cheers], not only in material equipment, but in the physical and moral quality of its constituent parts.

As regards the Navy, I am assured by my right hon. friend Mr. Churchill, whom we are glad to see here [cheers], that there is happily little more to be done. I do not flatter it when I say that its superiority is equally marked in every department and sphere of its activity. We rely upon it with the most absolute confidence, not only to guard our shores against the possibility of invasion, not only to seal up the gigantic battleships of the enemy in the inglorious seclusion of their own ports [laughter and cheers], whence from time to time he furtively steals forth to sow the sea with the murderous snares which are more full of menace to neutral shipping than to the British Fleet—our Navy does all this, and while it is thirsting, I do not doubt, for a trial of strength in a fair and open fight, which is so far prudently denied it, it does a great deal more. It has hunted the German mercantile marine from the high seas. [Cheers.] It has kept open our own sources of food supplies and largely curtailed those of the enemy; and when the few German cruisers which still infest the more distant ocean routes have been disposed of, as they will be very soon [cheers], it will have achieved for British and neutral commerce, passing backwards and forwards from and to every part of our Empire, a security as complete as it has ever enjoyed in the days of unbroken peace. [Cheers.] Let us honour the memory of the gallant seamen who, in the pursuit of one or other of these varied and responsible duties, have already laid down their lives for their country. [Cheers.]

In regard to the Army, there is call for a new, a continuous, and a determined and united effort, for as the war goes on we shall have not merely to replace the wastage caused by casualties, not merely to maintain our military power at its original level, we must, if we are to play a worthy part, enlarge its scale, increase its numbers, and multiply many times its effectiveness as a fighting instrument. The object of the appeal which I have made to you, my Lord Mayor, and the other chief magistrates of our capital cities, is to impress upon the people of the United Kingdom the imperious urgency of this supreme duty. Our self-governing Dominions throughout the Empire, without any solicitation on our part, demonstrated with a spontaneousness and unanimity unparalleled in history their determination to affirm their brotherhood with us and to make our cause their own. Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Newfoundland, children of the Empire, assert, not as an obligation but as a privilege, their right and their willingness to contribute money and material, and, what is better than all, the strength and sinews, the fortunes and the lives of their best men.

India [cheers], with no less alacrity, has claimed her share in the common task. Every class and creed, British and native, princes and people, Hindus and Mohammedans, vie with one another in a noble and emulous rivalry. Two divisions of our magnificent Army are already on their way. [Cheers.] We welcome with appreciation and affection their proffered aid, and in an Empire which knows no distinction of race or caste, where all alike, as subjects of the King-Emperor, are joint and equal custodians of our common interests and fortunes, we here hail with profound and heartfelt gratitude their association, side by side and shoulder to shoulder with our home and Dominion troops, under the flag which is the symbol to all of a unity that the world in arms cannot dissever or dissolve. [Cheers.] With these inspiring appeals and examples from our fellow-subjects all over the world, what are we doing and what ought we to do here at home? Mobilization was ordered on August 4. Immediately afterwards Lord Kitchener [cheers] issued his call for 100,000 recruits for the Regular Army. It has been followed by a second call for another 100,000. The response up till to-day gives us between 250,000 and 300,000 [cries of "Bravo" and cheers], and I am glad to say that London has done its share. The total number of Londoners accepted is not less than 42,000, [Cheers.]

I need hardly say that that appeal involves no disparagement or discouragement to the Territorial Force. The number of units in that force who have volunteered for foreign service is most satisfactory, and grows every day.

We look to them with confidence to increase their numbers, to perfect their organization and training, and to play efficiently the part which has always been assigned to them, both offensive and defensive, in the military system of the Empire.

But to go back to the expansion of the Regular Army. We want more men—[cheers]—men of the best fighting quality, and if for a moment the number who offer and are accepted should prove to be in excess of those who can at once be adequately trained and equipped, do not let them doubt that prompt provision will be made for the incorporation of all willing and able men in the fighting forces of the King. [Cheers.] We want, first of all, men, and we shall endeavour to secure that men desiring to serve together shall, wherever possible, be allotted to the same regiment or corps. [Cheers.] The raising of battalions by counties and municipalities with this object will be in every way encouraged. But we want not less urgently a larger supply of ex-non-commissioned officers, and the pick of the men with whom in past days they have served, and therefore whom in most cases we shall be asking to give up regular employment and to return to the work of the State which they alone are competent to do. The appeal we make is addressed quite as much to their employers as to the men themselves. [Cheers.] The men ought surely to be assured of reinstatement to their positions at the end of the war.

And, finally, there are numbers of commissioned officers now in retirement who have had large experience in handling troops, who have served their country in the past. Let them come forward too, and show their willingness, if need be, to train bodies of men for whom for the moment no regular cadre or unit can be found.

Of the actual progress of the war I will say nothing except that in my judgment, in whatever direction we look, there is abundant ground for pride and comfort. [Cheers.] I say nothing more, because I think we should bear in mind, all of us, that we are at present watching the fluctuations of fortune only in the early stages of what is going to be a protracted struggle. We must learn to take long views and to cultivate above all other faculties those of patience, endurance, and steadfastness. Meanwhile, let us go, each of us, to do his or her appropriate part in the great common task. Never had a people, as you have most truly said, my Lord Mayor, more or richer sources of encouragement and inspiration. Let us realize, first of all, that we are lighting as a united Empire in a cause worthy of the highest traditions of our race. [Cheers.] Let us keep in mind the patient and indomitable seamen who never relax for a moment, night or day, their stern vigil on the lonely seas. Let us keep in mind our gallant troops who, to-day, after a fortnight's continuous fighting under conditions which would try the mettle of the best army that ever took the field, maintain not only an undefeated, but an unbroken front. [Cheers.]

And, finally, let us recall the memories of the great men and the great deeds of the past, commemorated, some of them, as you have reminded us, in the monuments which we see around us on these walls, not forgetting the dying message of the younger Pitt, his last public utterance made at the table of your predecessor, my Lord Mayor, in this very hall:—"England has saved herself by her exertions and will, as I trust, save. Europe by her example." [Cheers.] England in those days gave a noble answer to his appeal, and did not sheathe the sword until, after nearly twenty years of fighting, the freedom of Europe was secured. Let us go and do likewise. [Cries of "Bravo" and cheers.]