Great Speeches of the War/Chamberlain (2)


[Speech delivered in the Birmingham Town Hall, April 16, 1915, on his election to the Presidency of the Liberal Unionist Association in succession to his father, Mr. Joseph Chamberlain.]

My Lord, Ladies, and Gentlemen:— I accept gratefully the honour and the responsibility which you have entrusted to me. I have been reminded by those who have moved the resolution which you have just so kindly passed, if I needed a reminder, how intimately my father was associated with this city, how great the services which he rendered to this city, to his country, and the empire—[hear, hear]—how long and how able his conduct of the affairs of this association. [Applause.] I cannot hope to serve you with equal ability, but I accept the position in which you have placed me as a trust, and I will at least try to serve you with equal fidelity. [Applause.]

Now, if these were ordinary times there are many subjects which would in the usual course attract our attention. We are passing through great changes. We cannot foresee exactly how we shall emerge from the great crisis in which we are involved. Big things and little things will change, and it may be that the future of our association may be different from its past. It may be that when the war is over, and when our thoughts turn again to domestic controversy, we may find that we can better serve the great causes which we exist to promote by some closer union of all the Unionist forces in our city than we have hitherto established among us. But these are thoughts for another time. We cannot deal with that to-night.

Nothing is usual now—neither business nor play, nor, least of all, politics. At the very beginning of the crisis which preluded this colossal struggle of great nations, we on our side declared a truce on all subjects of party controversy and from that day to this we have maintained the truce—in letter and in spirit, in spite, yes, even in spite of the grievous, the incredible provocation that was offered to us—[applause]—in the passage after war began and when the whole energies of the country should have been centred on that struggle—the passage after that time of two great and profoundly controversial measures. Now we have passed through eight months of war, and he would be a bold man who would lead you to hope that the struggle will be over within another eight months. The outbreak of the war found our Government and our country unprepared for the great struggle into which they were suddenly thrown, and, even now, we may ask ourselves, each one of us, whether we realize all that is at stake, and how much it is incumbent upon each of us to do his share, be it big or little, in whatever way he can, to serve the nation which gave him birth, which finds a home for him and all that he holds dear. Every now and then some speaker or some writer draws attention to the fact—and it is a fact—that we have done more than we ever professed to be able to do. But that is not the question now.

We are in a struggle which for us, not less than for Belgium, not less than for France, not less than for any other Power engaged, is a struggle of life or death—and unless we carry it to a victorious conclusion, not merely would all our sacrifices have been in vain, not merely would the gallant and precious lives that have been lost have been sacrificed in vain; we ourselves should fall from our great estate; Great Britain would cease to count as a great nation in the counsels of the world. The question that we have to ask ourselves is not merely whether we have done as much as we professed to be able to do, it is whether there is anything more that we could do that is still undone. This is no time for a nice measurement of less or more, for an exact examination of the obligations we may have incurred, or of the means we have to meet them. It is a moment when if we leave anything undone which we might do to strengthen the cause of the Allies and to add to the power of our country, we have failed in our duty to our fathers who begat us, to our children who come after us, and for whom we are trustees, and we have failed in our duty to ourselves and in the execution of the responsibilities which are incumbent upon us. As long as this war lasts, nothing, I say, can be as usual. Everything must give way to military necessity—and from the highest to the lowest, in every rank and walk of life, we must submit ourselves to whatever restrictions, to whatever exertions are called for by the needs of our country and our Allies. [Applause.]

I do not think the Government can complain that they have not had the fullest support from their country. We have been engaged in many struggles in our long history. Never has a Government been so free from criticism; never has a Government had reposed in it such absolute confidence; never has any British Government enjoyed such free and unrestricted power. No request that they have made to the House of Commons or to Parliament has been refused—and I cannot conceive any request that they might make for the successful prosecution of this war which would not be granted to them, if it complied, as I doubt not it would comply, with the ordinary canons of fairness and of justice.

They are, in fact, autocrats, and the House of Commons exists but to aid and to support them. Criticism is almost silent, and criticism of a kind that might damage their authority, or that might lessen their power, has been absolutely unheard of in the House of Commons from the opening of the crisis down to the present day. But if we are content—all parties in the House of Commons, and the Opposition most of all—to forego all the ordinary rights of an ordinary Opposition, if we seek to take no advantage of the mistakes which this Government makes, if we are content to accept, as our leaders have to accept—and I speak with some knowledge—sneers from our own friends for not being sufficiently active and not exercising a sufficient criticism of the deeds, or the want of deeds, of the Government—if we are to adopt an attitude of this kind and surrender our right of criticism, and seek only to help and to aid the Government, then great is the responsibility of the Ministers to use the autocratic power placed in their hands to the uttermost, in order to secure a successful prosecution of the struggle in which we are engaged. [Hear, hear.] Yes, and something more. If we are ready to show such confidence in them, they owe some confidence to us; if we are ready to submit to restrictions on our customary and traditional freedom, such as a few short months ago would have been unthought of by any British audience, then at least, where military necessity does not impose secrecy, they should take us into their confidence. I cannot speak to my countrymen at this time without appealing through them to the Government for a little more light on what is passing. I read to-day in the daily press that some event of which we have heard nothing has happened in connection with the operations in the Dardanelles, which has been fully described in the Italian papers. The censorship refuses to allow that which is known to all the world outside the United Kingdom, to be published here. News may be good or bad, but no Government understands our people which thinks that they will do good work by keeping back bad news. We have gone through bad times before, and the worse the times were the higher the spirit of the people rose. The greater the necessity you show them for the exercise of patience the greater the exertion they will make. I plead that, where no military necessity exists, bad news should not be withheld, and I plead, too, that we may have greater and fuller knowledge of the gallant and historic deeds of the regiments with which our city and the surrounding counties are associated [Hear, hear.] What about the Warwicks? What about the Worcesters, of whom, in the simple and restrained language which is so characteristic of a great general, Sir John French says that if he is to single out one regiment in the fighting at Ypres it is the Worcesters he would name? I do plead that some person should record these events, so that our history, national and local, may be the richer for them, that the children may be stimulated to do their duty by the knowledge of the way in which our soldiers are doing theirs to-day.

I would not say these things for idle criticism, I would not say them to satisfy an idle curiosity, but I am profoundly convinced that secrecy has been, and is being, carried to an extent that is detrimental to the best interests of our nation. No one wants to give away secrets to the enemy, but if you tell the world at large only of the few men who shirk, or the few men who drink, if you conceal from them carefully what the great mass of the people are doing, if you hide from them the glorious actions which have illustrated the annals of the British Army and have added to its imperishable laurels, you not merely fail to impress your Allies with the efforts you are making to bring the whole force to bear upon this struggle, you not only give rise to surprise and sorrowful criticism among friendly nations abroad, but you discourage our own people, suppress their energy, damp their enthusiasm, and fail to get the best that they can give. [Hear, hear.] Any Government which tries to ride this country in Winkers will never get the best out of its mount.

I say, and I say with knowledge of what has been done, that, considering the little any man has said to prepare you for this struggle, considering how little has been told you ever since the struggle began, the wonder is not that our country and the Empire have not done more—the amazing thing is that they have acted with such unanimity and have already done so much. I said just now how little had been said to prepare you for this war. Why are we fighting, and what are we fighting about? We all know that on our part this is no war of aggression. I read in the papers that General Bernhardi, whose works are probably familiar to you now, is now bleating like a lamb and complaining that he and his country have been grossly misunderstood, and that never was a struggle, a great war, more unwelcome to any one than to them. It is worth while to remember that it is not the first time Germany has provoked a quarrel and sought to put the onus of the quarrel on other shoulders. It is not the first time she has tried to do it, but only the first time she has been unsuccessful. I read again this morning the pages of Bismarck's reminiscences in which he describes how he provoked France to war in 1870 by altering the whole tone and temper of a telegram from the Emperor, or King William of Prussia as he then was, how he deliberately provoked France into declaring war whilst giving her the appearance of being the wanton aggressor. We might attach more importance to these German protestations if history did not judge them out of the mouths of their own statesmen. We know this is a defensive war on our part, but do we know and realize all that is at stake? Almost up to the outbreak of war every utterance we had from responsible men in England was reassuring. It is not long ago that a Minister of the Crown told us that it was almost incredible that British troops should ever take part in a Continental war. And yet, surely, there were storm signals enough; there were warnings that those in authority could not have misunderstood. Was it right not to take the people at all into their confidence?

More than a year ago, at our Birmingham jewellers' dinner, I said that in my opinion the secrecy which enwrapped our foreign policy was carried too far, and in these days of democratic power and democratic control more confidence was needed between the governed and the governors. Think of the years that passed, think of the strain, again and again repeated, because at one moment Austria, and more often Germany rattled the sabre, and stood forth in their shining armour, to threaten and to bluff, and to bring the peace of Europe almost to breaking point. I think it would have been better if men in the Government—yes, and men outside the Government, myself included—had done a little more to awaken our people to the danger that was threatening, and to prepare them for the responsibilities which they have now to discharge. But although I knew enough to disquiet me, and enough to make me blame myself now for the measure of silence that I preserved, I did not know of everything. [A Voice: "Lord Roberts."] Yes, all honour to Lord Roberts. I did not know, as the Prime Minister revealed to us at Cardiff last autumn, that the Government had actually offered to the Government of Germany an assurance that nothing in any agreement we had signed pledged us to hostile action against them, and at the same time offered to enter into an agreement that we would never join in an aggressive war against them, and that the German Government rejected that offer as worthless because we would not promise to stand aside whatever quarrel they chose to pick with whatever nation.

They asked us—bear these words in mind—they asked us, said the Prime Minister, to put it quite plainly—for a free hand so far as we were concerned, if they selected the opportunity "to overbear and to dominate the European world." And yet, not very long ago, I saw another distinguished Minister offer an explanation of the war which, for a gentleman who prides himself on clear thinking, I can only describe as puerile. He said that he once had—I think it was—a collie dog, a most charming and delightful animal; but one day it worried twelve sheep. In fact, it had gone mad, and that was what happened to Germany. That is not clear thinking; it is not philosophy; it is not statesmanship; it is pure nonsense, and mischievous nonsense at that. [Applause.]

This struggle is not the affair of a moment; this war is not the outcome of a sudden fit of passion. It was prepared and premeditated, but all the consequences of it were not rightly calculated—the moral forces provoked by the disregard of solemn obligations, of treaty pledges, of the obligations of international law, of relations that ought to prevail between neighbouring states, and the moral indignation and moral effect of such disregard.

But the war was not the accident of a moment. It was a thing planned, prepared for, taught to the German people as inevitable, and to which the whole organizing powers of the German Government had been devoted for a generation. No man can understand the task we have before us; no man can judge the efforts that we may be called upon to make, who does not realize that, as a result of the teaching of—I said a generation, but of two generations—Germany stands united behind this policy as one man; and that for us to build on hopes of disunion, on thoughts that they may break up amongst themselves, is to cozen ourselves with false hopes.

We must win by our own right arm, and none other. [Cheers.] And let us understand for what we are fighting. The actual declaration of war was delivered because, in defiance of her pledged word, Germany broke the neutrality of Belgium, and invaded Belgian territory. We were guarantors with Germany of Belgian neutrality, and, as a nation of honour, we could do none other than make good the word we had pledged. [Applause.] That was the immediate occasion of war, and if it had been none other it would have been a sufficient cause of war, and would have justified the war to all our people here and across the seas. But we should little understand how much is at stake for us, if we thought we were merely embarked in a chivalrous crusade on behalf of another nation, without our interests being engaged. I saw the other day that a Minister had given an interview in which—I think it must have been by accident—he had used language which might lead any one to suppose that if the Germans had invaded France by another route than by the neutral territory of Luxemburg and Belgium they might have done so freely for all we should have cared. That is not so. [Cheers.] And in these days careless use of language of that kind is very mischievous. We are fighting because our word was pledged, but if our word had not been pledged to Belgium we should still be fighting—for our lives. Read our history; judge it as you will; with all its mistakes and all its glories there are two things that as long as we count in the world, we shall never submit to without a struggle. We shall never see the independence of the Low Countries threatened or invaded with indifference, or with inaction on our part. But neither shall we see an effort on the part of one Power, in Mr. Asquith's words, "to overbear and to dominate the European world." For those causes we fought against Philip of Spain; we fought against Louis XIV; and we fought against Napoleon; and when those causes are at stake we shall fight again as long as we have any life as a nation and any power as an Empire. [Applause.]

Putting Belgium altogether on one side, what would have happened if we had stood aloof in selfish isolation, and to think in that way we should have been safe? We should have reaped no honour; we should have covered our faces with shame and disgrace; and whoever was conqueror in this struggle, we should have been beaten, for we should not have had a friend left in Europe or an admirer in the world. We went to war for the honour of our signature on a scrap of paper as regards the independence of Belgium. There was no scrap of paper between us and France. But two nations would not have the close relationship that had existed between them and us, the close communication of naval and military ideas, the distribution for a common plan of naval forces, such as we have had with them since the entente developed, and then at a critical moment when all is at stake, one of those two nations should say: "All that means nothing; and we are unpledged and unconcerned." No Government holding office in this country which had sought so to betray our friendships and so to humiliate us, would have remained in power for a week. [Cheers.]

So I say that it is not for Belgium only we are fighting. It is not merely a crusade for right and for law against wrong and brute force—though it is all of that—but it is a struggle for the vital interests of this country; proved vital by history; more vital to-day perhaps than they have ever been before. How vital they are we can best judge by the bitter animosities of our German enemies. Men who cannot find the means to save a British sailor in distress, men who single out our officers and soldiers amongst all the captives for indignities and insults and hardships—what mercy would any of us have at their hands if they were free to fight us alone, and if the struggle was not being waged in the territory of our Allies? Our frontier is in France and Belgium. [Cheers.] See to it you keep it there until you drive it back over the frontiers of Germany. [Applause.] Before that there is much to be done; there are many sacrifices to be made. But there can be no peace until Belgium is free—until she has had such compensation as can be given for the bitter cruel wrongs that Belgian citizens have suffered. No peace can be made till France has once again brought liberty, the right to think, to speak, to smile for her own provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. [Applause.] No peace can be made until heroic Servia wins the just reward of her constancy and courage. No peace can be made until Russia finds satisfaction for her lands which have been ravaged, and her dignity which has been trampled under foot, and for the insults which have been heaped upon her. [Applause.] And no peace can be signed until in the outer world satisfaction is found for the legitimate aspirations of our own fellow citizens across the seas in Africa and in the Pacific. [Cheers.]

But, if we feel that, have we yet done everything we can do to forward that result? We want more men, and even more urgently than we want men we want munitions of war. And any man who shirks, who dallies at present with personal questions, of whatever class he may be, master or employee, at a time like this, should ever have before him the cry from the trenches, and should remember that for every delay here some man gives up his life in the trenches—that for every failure here some man in France or Belgium pays the penalty in blood. I know that in this city of Birmingham no such appeal is needed. And yet to you I cannot speak without urging that here is the greatest opportunity that has come, or will ever come to any of us in our lives, and that we should search our hearts and consciences to know if in our own spheres and our own way we are doing all we can do to advance the common cause. Never did nation go to war for a more righteous or a more glorious cause. We are here to pledge ourselves to-night to do all in our power to crown that cause with victory. [Cheers.]