Great Speeches of the War/Curzon


[Speech delivered at Harrow School, October 12, 1914, under the auspices of the Victoria League.]

I regard it as a great privilege to be permitted to come here and address the boys of this ancient and famous school. It is true that I happen myself to have been educated at another, but I hope not greatly inferior, institution. Of one thing, however, I am certain, that in the present crisis Eton will not be one whit behind Harrow, nor Harrow behind Eton, in the fight that we are waging for the honour of our country and the liberties of mankind.

The question may be asked why I or any one should be invited to come and address the boys of even the greatest of schools, who by virtue of their age and occupations are prevented, for the present at any rate, from taking an active part in the war. I cannot imagine any more fallacious reasoning than would be implied by such a remark. There is no place in England where it is more right and becoming that a healthy interest should be taken in the war than in places of education, and most of all in the great public schools, where the boys are being trained to be the men of the future. I look upon Harrow and Eton as being vitally interested in this war. The Head Master has told me that over 1,000 Harrovians are serving their country in a military capacity either inside or outside our shores. Already a dozen have given their lives. I hope that their names are inscribed on some roll of honour, either on the door of your chapel or on the gates of this great building. That they will be perpetuated in some lasting form I do not doubt. And there is not a boy here present who does not know that that dozen will be greatly increased before we come to the end of this war. Each one of them, in giving up his own life, has given something to the life of his country. Though his individual existence has been cut short, he has made his contribution to the glory of the race. Dead himself, he has become immortal in the rejuvenated life of his country. The Head Master has also told me that of your masters six have already been taken, in one service or another, for the war, one of whom has been wounded. And in regard to the boys before me, as I might judge from your appearance and uniform, practically the whole school, except those who are disqualified for some good reason, have joined the Officers' Training Corps. Therefore it appears that you are already closely concerned in the war, whether you wish it or not. And I would like to say to anybody who may think that for some reason or other, by youth or otherwise, he is precluded from taking an active part, that he, too, has a duty to perform. It is to keep himself fit, and encourage others to do the same, to be cheerful about his work, and to maintain a high standard of courage, discipline and honour, and so to prepare himself for the ordeal when his turn shall come.

I have been asked to address you this evening about the war, and particularly about the circumstances in which it broke out. But I may state at once that I do not propose to say much about the origin of the war. So much has been written and circulated about it that there is probably not a single educated man, woman or boy, in this country at any rate, but is satisfied that we entered upon it with clean hands, and that we were compelled to do so by the dictates of what we value more than life itself. Not only are we satisfied as to this, but I believe the whole civilized world is fairly well satisfied also. In the month of July last no nation in the world was less anxious for war than England, and I might almost say less prepared for war. No Government less wished for war or was less likely to be drawn into war than the present advisers of the King. I gladly say this, though I belong to the opposite side in politics.

You may ask, then, how it came about. At the beginning people may have inquired why they should be fighting about a distant country like Servia. But no one thinks of that now. Servia had apologized for her offence, if indeed she had ever been guilty of it. She was ready to accept any humiliation short of the sacrifice of her national independence. No, it was not the murder of the Crown Prince of Austria that caused the war. It came about because there was one country in Europe bent on having war—the evidence is irresistible on that point. All had been pre-arranged—Russia was believed not to be ready, after her fight with Japan; England, with only a "contemptible little army," with a Liberal Ministry in power, and with civil war impending in Ireland, was not likely to fight in any circumstances, still less to send an army abroad; Servia was exhausted by two recent campaigns; France, in the opinion of Germany, had long been a decadent nation, doomed to destruction at the first impact of the German forces; and as for little Belgium, she had merely to be threatened to give way. On the other hand, Germany, with her army augmented, and her navy at the highest pitch of proficiency, with artillery of a power that had never been dreamed of and was unknown to the foreigner, Germany was ready for the contest, and meant to have it. I have personal knowledge that among the leading statesmen in Europe were some who had foreseen and prophesied for years that in the autumn of 1914 Germany would strike. The whole of her internal preparations, the orders issued to her men in different parts of the world before war was declared, all show that it was in the summer of this year that the hour of destiny for Germany was expected to sound. It had even been predicted that Servia would provide the excuse for the war to begin.

Then there came, as you know, the ultimatums to Russia and to France. But at this stage the German plan was thrown out of gear by the action first of Belgium and next of Great Britain. When Belgium, to her eternal credit, stood up against the great bully of Europe, what alternative had we but to come in? Is it conceivable that with our name affixed to the Treaty that guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium, and with the part that this country has played in the emancipation of the smaller nations, we should have taken any other course? I agree with the Prime Minister that had we done so our face would have been blackened before Europe. Even had we preserved peace it could only have been a passing peace, and eventually we should have had to face the world with not a friend in it to stand at our side.

I hope, too, that every boy here realizes that the blow which was aimed at our national honour was aimed also at our national existence. If by any chance Germany were to win, if the victory achieved at Antwerp is successfully followed up, and if conquered Belgium is to be made the base for an attack upon England, then our very fife will be threatened and our position as a Great Power will be at stake. Thus we are fighting—make no mistake about it—not only for our honour but also for our life.

This is what we are fighting for. But it is equally important to know what we are fighting against. We are not merely fighting the German Emperor, or the German Army, or the German people, united and indistinguishable in the present campaign as I believe all these to be. We are fighting the spirit that is behind the Emperor, the Army and the people. Believe me, if you are to understand the German action, you must understand the German mind. The psychology of the war is as important as its progress. The curious thing is—we know it now—that it is all in writing, written and published far and wide by German philosophers, generals and statesmen, written so that all who run may read. There is General Bernhardi's book, and there is the book by Count von Bülow. I would advise any Harrow boy who has a florin to spare to invest it in Bernhardi, Before another edition is called for it may have to be considerably rewritten! So you should buy it and read it while you can. You will hardly believe, if you do not know, what is the nature of the doctrine that has been instilled into the minds of the German people during the last ten or twenty years. Let me tell you.

In the first place, they teach that war, which we in England are so old-fashioned as to regard as a shocking calamity, and in some cases as a terrible crime, is a great and noble thing, the source of all moral good in the universe, the supreme factor in human improvement, and in the struggle towards perfection. It is the anvil upon which all nations, and pre-eminently the Prussian people and the German Empire, are welded into higher forms. I will not pause to discuss the horrible and perverted casuistry that underlies this reasoning. I merely state it as a fact, which we have to take into account.

This being the German conception of war, it is not surprising to learn in these books that the right method to wage it is to assume the aggressive, to have no scruples, but to take your opponent at a disadvantage if you can. The saying of Frederick the Great is accepted with enthusiasm that "he is a fool, and that nation is a fool, who, having power to strike his enemy unawares, does not strike and strike his deadliest." Accordingly no engagements need be kept—on the contrary, it may be a sacred duty to violate them—and honour or fidelity to your pledged word is blotted out of the code of nations. Does not this explain, perhaps better than anything else, that little remark about the "scrap of paper," which will be for ever immortal in the history of mankind?

The next proposition is that war cannot be expected to be humane. It is bound to be brutal and bloody, and the more brutal it is the speedier will be the end. Barbarities must be committed in order to strike terror into the invaded territories. In fact, massacres, murders, mutilation, arson and pillage—all the nameless horrors of which we have read but which I will not recapitulate—become the necessary and honourable instruments of war.

These are the general theories that underlie the German philosophy of war. Let us now see how they are to be translated into action.

Germany, we are asked to believe, has a great historical mission to be the World-Power of the future. We, the British, with some pardonable vanity, but not, I hope, with indecent pride, have been apt to congratulate ourselves on being such a Power. That is a distinction which Germany conceives to be reserved for herself. The part that was filled by Rome in the ancient world, and for a short period in the Middle Ages by Islam, belongs henceforward to Germany, and it is for the Hohenzollern dynasty on earth, and the Almighty on high—because they work, according to the German theory, in active and constant co-operation—to consummate this divine destiny. Theirs it is to impose German culture, German civilization, and German morality upon a humbled world. Thus will they attain to the spiritual and material dominion of the universe. I say spiritual as well as material because, though we should not be surprised, in view of what has happened, if the German professors were to preach the gospel of secular domination or physical force, it is the spiritual and moral aspect of the gift which they are empowered to bestow that excites their warmest outbursts of self-satisfaction. Now let us see where we come in. I have often propounded the view that the British Empire is an organization, due partly to accident, partly to opportunity, but partly also to the qualities and virtues of our race, which has been charged, as we believe, by a Higher Power, with a mission to mankind, and that mission, I have contended, has been carried out, on the whole, with no small measure of justice, righteousness, and success. But apparently I was all wrong. For I take up these German books and I learn that England is the arch-enemy of humanity. She is the pirate State who has seized one-fifth of the universe by robbery, and only holds it by hypocrisy and fraud; while as regards our own people, they are so decadent, so sunk in sloth and selfishness as hardly to be worthy of consideration. In these circumstances it is the duty and high calling of Germany to step forward and strike us down.

Further, the methods by which this operation is to be carried out are clearly defined. Russia need not necessarily be subdued; she must be isolated, for her real interests lie elsewhere, and her face should be turned towards the East. Belgium, Holland and Denmark must be captured or cowed; France is to be crushed. These are the preliminary steps, and when they have been accomplished the final blow is to be levelled at the head of the arch-enemy—namely, ourselves. These are the teachings of the German books. But even if we had never read or studied them, we might have been warned by events. Look at the history of Prussia during the last fifty years. She began by robbing Denmark of Schleswig-Holstein in 1864, she smashed Austria in 1866, she fought France in 1870, and filched from her Alsace and Lorraine. Ever since she has been the restless world-intriguer, bullying the weak and seeking to cajole the strong. The telegram to Kruger, the "mailed fist" in China, the visit of the Emperor to Tangier, the "shining armour" in Bosnia, the "Panther" at Agadir—all of these have been links in the chain, direct steps to the finale which we are now witnessing.

Meanwhile we have gone on in our innocence offering to the Germans "naval holidays," "reduction of armaments," and so forth. But to them we are not so stupid as we are perfidious. They take our overtures as a proof not so much of our folly as of our duplicity. In their eyes we are merely the successful burglar who has retired from business, glutted with spoil, and who, in the evening of his days, seeks the protection of the police.

A few of our countrymen have had their eyes opened to the truth, and have preached it to deaf ears. Let us honour them for having done it. Let us honour Lord Roberts in particular, and let us see to it that his warnings are not again thrown away. There is nothing of which I am more proud than this, that during the past five years, although it is not thought wise for a politician to associate himself too closely with the movement for compulsory military training in this country, I have never hesitated in Parliament or out of Parliament to stand by Lord Roberts's side and preach his creed. Had it been accepted, I am convinced that this war would not have taken its present shape. Had the British possessed the forces to throw into the field at the outbreak of hostilities, Belgium might have been spared half her suffering. Had our recruits been trained already, we should not have to wait till next spring before they will be prepared. I hope I am not unduly intruding upon politics if I say that when this war is over, and if I am spared, no effort of mine will be wanting to make my countrymen, as they have had to pay the price of neglect, pay the price also to obtain the security which it will be necessary for us ever afterwards to maintain. But Lord Roberts has not been the only one; there have been a few others equally prescient in their utterances—Mr. Frederic Harrison, an old Radical, but a man of great intelligence and indomitable courage; Mr. Hyndman, a Socialist of whom I have never previously spoken one admiring word; Mr. Robert Blatchford, and others—all honour to these men who foretold the danger, though they could not persuade their countrymen to listen.

And now I turn to the practical application of the German theories in the present war. What has happened in Belgium is only the logical outcome. Consider the case of Belgium—a small country, inhabited before the war broke out by a peaceful and industrious people, only 7½ millions in number—the same population as is included in the Metropolitan Police District of London—and ruled by a patriotic and constitutional King. They were protected by treaty from fear of invasion; they cherished no military ambitions; they were innocent of offence, the friends of all, and the enemies of none. Suddenly, on August 2 last, they were confronted with the ultimatum from Germany which compelled them to decide. You remember the lines of the American poet:—

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side.

Belgium made her choice. All alone, unaided, without allies to help her in the field, she threw herself across the path of the tyrant. She might so easily have yielded and have saved her territory, her treasures and her homes. No one could fairly have blamed her for the surrender. But no, she loved liberty more; she preferred death to slavery, she would not yield to brute force. And what has been her fate? I remember that on Speech Days at Eton the boys would sometimes declaim the famous passage in Burke's speech on the Nabob of Arcot's Debts, in which that great orator drew the tears of his audience at Westminster by the passage in which he described the descent of Hyder Ali upon the Carnatic, bursting like a thunder-cloud of destruction upon that unhappy land. I daresay it has sometimes been recited in this hall. But the invasion of Hyder Ali was nothing to the invasion of the Emperor William. A country devastated, its towns sacked, its cathedrals and universities destroyed, its people slaughtered like sheep or driven into exile, its national life extinguished—I say deliberately that this is the greatest crime in history. Supposing that all the atrocities we hear of are false, and that the Germans have been guilty of none of these deeds—though the evidence against them appears to be overwhelming—I should still say that Germany, in invading Belgium, whose freedom she had guaranteed by a signed treaty, had committed the greatest crime in history. And when the German Emperor makes his daily appeal to the Almighty, one really wonders what the Divine Power can think of His self-constituted ally. In civilized countries we award the penalty of death to him who takes innocent life. What is to be the punishment of one who destroys a nation, who has taken the life not of tens of thousands, but of hundreds of thousands? I can imagine no retribution too great for such a crime, and whatever punishment may befall the criminal at the hands of man or of One greater than man, of this I am certain, that the execration of all ages will for ever be attached to that man, and that his name will go down to history as William the Bloodstained, William the Assassin.

But you may say, Was it worth while for little Belgium to make the stand, and to suffer the consequences? I hope there is no one in this room who has the slightest doubt as to the answer. Oh, yes! it was worth while; a million times was it worth while for her to do as she did. For her the path of suffering has also been the path of glory. She stands forth as a light and beacon to the world for all time. And though the crown of thorns has been pressed down by her own hand upon her temples, a halo of imperishable glory will always surround her brow.

As to our duty to Belgium. I am glad that our men were in at Antwerp at the end. Although they were too few and too late to turn the scale, I rejoice that we made the effort. And now it is for us to bind up her wounds, to care for her after her great sufferings, to receive her exiles pouring by the thousand into this country, to recover her cities, to restore her treasures of art, and to give her a start once more in the world. All of these are obligations on us, just as binding as to defend our own honour or to fight for our own national existence.

I go further, and say that with the fall of Antwerp the obligation is even stronger than it has been at any time before. We see a good deal in the papers about the Germans having bombarded and taken Antwerp in order to cover their own line of retreat from Belgium. I believe it to be much more than that. I regard it as a deliberate movement with reference to this country. Germany has taken Antwerp to keep it, to fortify, and turn it into a naval port, which she may use as a jumping-off place for future attacks upon us. You may say that it is merely a temporary occupation which she will presently relinquish. In my view she means to retain her grip upon it, if she can, and to make herself master of the surrounding country. She will compel Holland to obey her will, even if she does not destroy her independence. She will push down the coast to Dunkirk and Calais, and then, unless we can stop it, the great campaign for the destruction of England will begin.

I want you therefore to realize that we are not in for any light or soon-to-be-terminated war. I am shocked when I hear people talking airily about the war being over by Christmas, and of our soldiers being welcomed back to their homes. In my judgment more than one Christmas will pass before this war is over. We are fighting an enemy of desperate courage, of great tenacity, of overwhelming forces, with a power, especially in artillery, greater than anything dreamed of in the world before, and imbued with a national spirit quite as keen as our own. The whole German people seem to be inoculated with the poison which has been poured into their veins by the German philosophers. We in this country must not flatter ourselves that there will be division between the German Emperor and the German people, or between the war party and the peace party. Germany is united, and we must realize that we have to fight the whole nation. Then look at the task that lies before us. We have first to turn the Germans out of France, an operation we have been engaged upon for some weeks, not without success. And when we have done that we have to turn them out of Belgium. We have to recapture the great cities of Brussels, Antwerp, etc.; and then, when we have done that, we have to force the Rhine, and, step by step, to make our way to Berlin. Finally, we have to punish the enemy for his crime, to extirpate the curse of a false militarism that overhangs the Continent like a cloud, and to build up a new Europe that shall once again be free.

Thank God, we have certain advantages on our side. We are fighting under conditions more favourable than we had any right to expect. Our Navy is intact; we have loyal, valiant and capable allies. The spirit of our country is sound, and the courage of our soldiers incontestable. When the Kaiser issued his famous proclamation about the "contemptible little army" of Sir John French, which the Germans were so easily to "walk over," I was reminded of an anecdote that was told at Balliol in my time. The Master of the College before Jowett was Dr. Jenkins, who also had a reputation for quiet humour and incisive speech. One day an undergraduate who had been guilty of some offence was sent for by the Master to be rebuked. On leaving the house, he met a friend outside, who asked him what had happened. "Oh," he said, "that little ugly devil has given me the usual rowing." Just at that moment a dulcet voice was heard to murmur from the open window above: "Little I am, ugly I may be, devil I am not." May not the British Army, in the same way, retort to the Kaiser: "An army we are, little we may be, contemptible we are not!" But we have not our own spirit or our army only to count upon. The whole Empire is for us; it has rallied to our defence. You may defeat the British Army, but you cannot defeat the British Empire. And the British Empire has behind it in this war the sympathy of the civilized world.

In conclusion, may I give you some words of advice? I shall not tell you what to do, because you know it as well as I. I will tell you what not to do. When I went out to India as Viceroy an English paper published a long series of "Don'ts" for my edification. I put it in my pocket, and from time to time I would take it out in India and see how I was obeying my secret instructions. I will give you twelve similar "Don'ts" to-night:—

1. Don't think that the war does not affect you individually; it touches every one of us; it touches every man, woman and child in this country.

2. Don't be overjoyed at victory; don't be downhearted at defeat.

3. Don't be unnerved by personal or family bereavements.

4. Don't be frightened at the casualty list, so long and sometimes so distressing, that you see in the newspapers.

5. Don't think that you know how to wage the campaign and that the War Office or Admiralty does not; accordingly, don't write to the papers telling the Generals and Admirals what they ought to do; but if you have an opinion that you could do it much better, keep that opinion for your own fireside, and tell it to as few people as possible.

6. Don't get nervous because the progress of the war is slow; it can only be slow in these stages.

7. Don't believe all you read in the newspapers, particularly when it comes from Berlin.

8. Don't underrate the enemy.

9. Don't waste breath in attempting to ascertain what is to happen to the German Emperor in this world or the next. We will endeavour to dispose of him in this world, and we will leave his ulterior destiny to others.

10. Don't begin to divide the German Empire before you have got hold of it.

11. Don't listen to any one who cries "Halt" before we have carried out the full purpose for which we are fighting.

12. When the war is over don't throw away its lessons.

In connection with my eleventh piece of advice let me add this. As I drove out from London just now I saw a placard announcing that a famous divine will preach next Sunday on "The Terms of Peace." I am afraid that divine is going to waste his labours. I, at any rate, shall not be in his church to listen to his advice. It will be time to discuss terms of peace when peace can be obtained with honour; but it is premature, it is impertinent, even in the pulpit, to talk about terms of peace now.

And now, how am I to end in a manner appropriate to this audience? I suppose that I ought to give you a quotation in a language which you will all understand—I need hardly say that I refer to Greek! Perhaps, however, for my own sake, you will allow me to translate it into a tongue with which I am now more familiar, and to repeat to you in English what Demosthenes said on a similar occasion to his fellow citizens in Athens, when his country was threatened by a like danger to ours:—

"Yet, O Athenians, yet is there time! And there is one manner in which you can recover your greatness, or, dying, fall worthy of your past at Marathon and Salamis. Yet, O Athenians, you have it in your power; and the manner of it is this. Cease to hire your armies. Go yourselves, every man of you, and stand in the ranks; and either a victory beyond all victories in its glory awaits you or, falling, you shall fall greatly and worthy of your past!"