Great Speeches of the War/Rosebery (2)

EARL OF ROSEBERY

[Speech at a great patriotic meeting held at Broxburn, Linlithgow, on Saturday, September 5, 1914. The delivering of this speech created a profound impression, being marked by passionate emphasis and dramatic gesture.]

Colonel Chalmers:— When you telegraphed to me yesterday to ask me to come here to-day I telegraphed back at once to say I would, and come gladly—not to make a long speech, not to dilate on any of the current topics to which in times of peace you are so accustomed, but to talk for a moment about this terrible war, and the causes which have led up to it. We meet at a very solemn moment in the history of our country—more solemn, I think, than any that has occurred in the history of the world. And yet a month ago—let us say on the first of August—we were all at peace. There was scarcely a thought of war. And within a month our armies have been hewing their way through desperate odds. We have had two lists of casualties, and may soon have a third or a fourth. Our Fleet has been in action, and the whole face of Europe is convulsed, as by an earthquake, with the march of millions of armed men. What a change, and in so short a time! And how did this change come about? We shall not know for some years to come the secret history of what brought about this war. But we know the simple outside facts, the simple surface facts, that Austria declared war against Servia, that Russia declared she must stand by Servia, that Germany said she must stand by Austria, and that France said she must stand by Russia.

It was really a spark in the midst of this great powder magazine which the nations of Europe have been building up for the past twenty or thirty years—a spark alighting in that tremendous powder magazine, which, with infinite toil—misapplied toil, I think—the nations of Europe have been constructing. When you go on building up armaments against each other there comes a time when either the guns go off by themselves, or else the people say: "We can no longer bear this burden of suspense; we had better make an end of it, and come to blows at once." Well, these are the surface facts of the war; I do not propose to take you further, because I really do not know. I do not know if some great organizer deliberately planned this war. Without evidence I should be loth to lay such a burden on the soul of any man, because, whoever he be, the curse of humanity will pursue him to the end. [Cheers.] Where did we come in? I have been telling you about Austria, Russia, and the rest, but where do we come in? We first came in for peace, and all through the correspondence that led up to the declaration of war you will see that our Government, and, of course, its mouthpiece and skilful agent, Sir Edward Grey, was skilful and energetic and untiring in trying to suggest modes by which peace might be preserved. I do not think that he had a fair chance, because the time was too short, and all the time the armies were being mobilized, and when armies are being mobilized war becomes almost inevitable, but at any rate that was our part in the general contention of Europe—Peace. Our second was this—Honour. [Cheers.] We were parties to a Treaty to which France and the Kingdom of Prussia were also parties, guaranteeing the independence and the integrity of Belgium. [Cheers.] We determined rightly or wrongly, wisely or unwisely, but I think rightly and wisely—[cheers]—that so long as any power remained in the arm of Great Britain she was bound not to go back upon her pledged word to Belgium—[cheers]—and so she determined that if Germany were determined to violate her word Great Britain would not violate hers. Peace and Honour, that was what we stood for. [Cheers.]

Now, suppose it had been possible for us—and I am sure every Government in Britain must always wish for peace—suppose that it had been possible for us to stand aside, at any rate for a moment, and to say that, as Germany does not respect her word, we will not respect ours—suppose we had been able to maintain peace at the price of that degradation, how long should we have been able to maintain it? [Hear, hear.] Even if we had allowed Germany unopposed to violate the Treaty of Belgium, and had stood on one side, how long should we have endured to see the oppression and slaughter of a small but gallant people—[loud cheers]—in defence of their territory, which we had guaranteed to them? Belgium is at this moment a welter of fire and blood and destruction—all wrought by one of the Powers that had sworn to guarantee her. [Cries of "Shame."] How long would the British people have endured such a spectacle at their doors as that? We should have gone in at once, gone in too late; we should only have had the remorse of our first hesitation. [Cheers.]

And now I shall not detain you long. [Cries of "Go on."] I want now to say a word as to how this crisis comes home to ourselves. This is the greatest war that the world has ever seen; beyond all comparison the greatest war that the world has ever seen. The Battle of Leipzig, in which Russia, Austria, and Prussia fought against the Emperor Napoleon and crushed him was called "The Battle of the Nations." But it was not the battle of the nations; it was the battle of great armies. It was reserved for this war to be the battle of the nations. Every man on the Continent of Europe who can bear arms is under arms at this moment—[cheers]—excepting Spain, and Portugal, and Italy, and the Balkan Peninsula, though there are a good many under arms there. Among all the Great Powers of Europe, except Italy, every man at this moment is under arms. We are not in that position. We have never gone in for conscription; we have never demanded that every man should bear arms for his country, though, remember this, that, by the common law of Great Britain, every man, valid and capable of bearing arms, is bound at the call of his country to do so. [Hear, hear, and cheers]. You may say: "It is all very well; you are an elderly gentleman; you will not be called out; you will sleep in your bed at night; you will have your meals. It is easy for you to come and exhort us, who are younger and are able to fight, to go out to the war." But I do not think, after all, the position of us, the elderly ones, who have to dwell among the sheepfolds and listen to the bleating of the flock, while you go out to war, is so much preferable to your position. It is an indication, at any rate, that we are in the decline of vigour, and in the sere and yellow leaf; and do you suppose there is one single man of my age who would not gladly exchange for one of yours and go out to the front? [Cheers.]

It is a war of nations; and our nation, if it is to uphold itself, will not be able to remain aloof. We are fighting on the Continent, it is true, but we are fighting in defence of Great Britain. [Cheers.] There is one thing that is perfectly clear in all this matter, which is that those who go out to fight, fight in a righteous cause. We are fighting for the independence of Belgium against a Power which guaranteed it and has destroyed it. We are fighting for the freedom of France, a friendly Power, which is allied with ourselves. But we are also fighting for the sanctity of the public law of Europe, which, if our enemies be the conquerors, is torn up and destroyed for ever. [Cheers.] When the German Foreign Secretary was asked if he was really going to infringe the neutrality of Belgium he said, "You are not going to war for that—going to war for a scrap of paper?" A great Power which treats scraps of paper like that is not unlikely to be scrapped itself. [Cheers.] The German Chancellor, when he vindicated this policy in Parliament, said, "We knew we were doing wrong in invading the neutrality of Belgium, but we were compelled to do wrong." The nation that begins a great war by declaring that its foundations are wrong, and it is obliged to do wrong, is likely to fare badly if there be a God in heaven. [Cheers.] Then we are not merely fighting for Belgium, for France, and the sanctity of public law, but we are also fighting for ourselves. We do not fight to gain an acre of territory, we do not fight to gain any advantage for ourselves, we only fight to secure our own liberties against an oppression which would be intolerable. [Cheers.]

I know we have seen wars in our time in which the loss of a province or two ended the war. That will not be so now. We have seen wars in which an indemnity of money put an end to the war. That will not be so now. We may lose territory and we may lose money, but what is certain is this, that if we are beaten to our knees, if we are compelled to submit, we shall lose infinitely more than provinces or money. Make no mistake, gentlemen, this is a fight to a finish. [Loud cheers.] If we go under now we go under for ever, [Cries of "Never!"] I do not ask you to suggest to yourselves that you will go under for a moment, but if you are not to go under every man who is capable of defending his country is bound to step into the breach. [Cheers.] Just think, try to imagine what it would be if we were beaten. I do not suppose we should be annexed as a province—that is unthinkable—to see foreign uniforms, foreign police, foreign laws, foreign tax-gatherers in our country. That I discard as absolutely impossible. But there is another very improbable danger which might happen, which would happen if we were defeated, and that is we would be reduced at once to an inferior Power, living at the goodwill of our superior lord, living on sufferance, our Army limited, our Navy limited, our Empire cut up and divided among the plunderers, a position so abject that we cannot realize it now. The other day, speaking to my regiment near Edinburgh, I was reported to have said—but I beg to say there were no reporters there—that I would rather see Britain wiped out than one third-rate Power extinguished. I said nothing of the kind. I did not say it if only for this one reason, that I suppose the third-rate Power indicated was Belgium, and I for one would never call Belgium a third-rate Power. [Cheers.] In territory, in wealth, in population, in military and naval power she may not be more than third-rate, but in incomparable valour, in noble patriotism, in heroic resistance she has all the moral claims to be a first-rate Power that any country could possess. [Cheers.] But what I did say was this, that if we were to sink to a third-rate Power in the position I have described, I, for one, would from my heart and soul rather that all our people, as they now exist, were to pass into exile or into death, and leave this island vacant for some superior race. [Cheers.]

Well, gentlemen, I can end, at any rate, in a more cheerful vein. Make no mistake about it, we shall win. [Loud cheers.]

We are fighting with our back to the wall to prevent a shame and a defeat such as England has never sustained. We are fighting now with our backs to the wall to prevent an ignominy and a defeat such as Great Britain has never sustained, and is not prepared to endure. We are going to win because a nation and an Empire like ours cannot be extinguished by any such warfare as this. [Cheers.] We are going to win because we have our people united as they have never been before; we are going to win because our Dominions, our Empires outside these islands, vie with each other in generous emulation—[cheers]—as to which shall give us most support, in supplies and money and men; and, above all, we are going to win because we have a high, a pure, and a just cause—[cheers]—and we can appeal with humble but, I think, earnest confidence to Him Whom, in the words of our beautiful old Paraphrase, we recognize as the

God of Bethel, by whose hand
Our people still are fed.