Great Speeches of the War/Simon

RT. HON. SIR JOHN SIMON

[Speech of the Solicitor-General at a great recruiting meeting held in the Victoria Hall, Bolton, Lancashire, on December 8, 1914.]

My Lord and Gentlemen:—A meeting like this great gathering would not be possible if we did not all realize that we were meeting in a good and necessary cause. This war is none of our choosing; it has been forced upon us as certainly as any war has ever been forced on a peaceful people, because there was no choice except taking part in it or exposing ourselves to undying shame. [Cheers.] This war, I say with certain confidence, has been forced upon us, and it is in that spirit we are determined to see it through. [Cheers.] There is one cause—I am not so sure I am not such a friend of peace that I do not think it is the only cause—in which the people of this country ought to take an active part in a European war, and it is when they are compelled to keep their pledged word to a small community which has been most wantonly attacked, in breach of the most solemn promise, by a powerful and a remorseless neighbour. [Cheers.]

It is that cause which has produced a consequence which twelve months ago none of us who stand on this platform to-night would have conceived possible—namely, that we should all be here endeavouring to assert the same thing. Our conviction is that if Britain had stood aside when that appeal was made to us by the people of Belgium we should have been as false to our word as Germany has been false to her word, and we should have been in the future as clearly condemned by the civilized world as Germany is by the whole civilized world to-day.

And is it not a wonderful thing that with all their spying the Germans never found it out? [Laughter.] That is the worst of spying—you always discover the wrong thing. [Laughter.] The Germans were perfectly satisfied that if we were involved in some domestic confusion allegiances would
Rt. Hon. Sir John Simon

Rt. Hon. Sir John Simon
(Attorney-General)

be broken and treachery would arise in different parts of our scattered Empire. And the only little damp squib that could be found to go off in any part of the Empire has been very effectually squelched by the very man (Gen. Botha) who not long ago was commanding Dutchmen who were lighting the British Crown and who, within the last twenty-four hours, has received the almost unparalleled compliment of having one of His Majesty's ships of war named by his name. [Cheers.]

It surely required no great degree of cleverness, it did not need such a great deal of culture, to realize that if we allowed ourselves to stand by while this bully was putting his hands upon Belgium, then our position in Europe as a civilizing force, as a defender of right against might, was gone for ever. But that is what happens to eavesdroppers; the man that spends his life with his eye to the keyhole gets nothing by it except an inflamed eye. [Laughter.]

Here in Lancashire, with its factories, mills, and busy workshops, you have the fullest right to say that Lancashire is playing its part.

Not that there is not a further part for other Lancashire men to play, and an opportunity of entering into a priceless tradition and of making themselves comrades of some of the bravest and most gallant soldiers who ever wore the King's uniform. There is a Press Censorship which unavoidably withdraws from us, for the time at least, much that we would be glad to know. Modern war is fought in the sort of atmosphere which you meet with occasionally in the streets of Manchester in the month of December, but the thickest fog that Manchester ever laboured under could not prevent the gallantry of Lancashire regiments reaching Lancashire homes. [Cheers.] Will you allow me to deal with two criticisms often made of the Press Censorship?

In the first place it is apparently supposed in some quarters that when the publication of a particular piece of news is delayed or denied, as it has been from time to time, it is done for fear of the effect of such publication on the British people. The theory seems to be that the British people would be unduly elated by news of success and dangerously dejected by news of misfortune. That is a ridiculous misunderstanding. If we had nothing to think of but the stimulating of recruiting in this war I have no doubt that we should publish every single bit of bad news that ever came this way, and minimize every bit of good news, and carefully arrange to drop a bomb on Bolton once a week. [Laughter.] We British people receive news whether it be good or bad with composure and moderation. A message of success will not distract us from steadily pursuing the task before us; the report of a loss will only make us more determined to regain the lost ground, and to make our ultimate triumph doubly sure. But that is known to everybody, and it is perfectly well understood by those who are in control of the Press Censor. I come here to say that the one and only reason why any news is ever withdrawn from circulation is because its publication might injure us or help the enemy. The enemy may be assisted by news of our plans, of our movements, or of the numbers, position, or condition of our forces. Let me give you two examples. It was by a bold use of the Press Censorship that the British Expeditionary Force—the best-equipped body of men that ever represented any country in Europe—[cheers]—crossed the seas and took up their place in the firing-line without ever running the slightest risk of being attacked on the way. And if you go a little later it was by a bold use of the Press Censorship that General Sir John French—[cheers]—was able to move the British forces from somewhere in the centre of the Allies' line right round to the left, in order to resist the German advance upon Calais. When the history of these things comes to be written, the absolute necessity of such a censorship will become apparent to everybody.

That is the first mistake made about the censorship.

The second mistake is even further removed from the true facts. It seems to be imagined that when the order goes forth that for reasons of national policy and military strategy certain information is to be withheld it is the Press Censor who decides the matter at his own whim and pleasure. The Press Censor, besides being a fellow-Minister, happens to be in a very special degree a colleague of mine, and I wish he could come back and help me with my job. But to think that it is Sir Stanley Buckmaster who decides which piece of news ought to be published and which ought not is an obvious absurdity. The moment people understand that the only reason why you don't publish a particular piece of news is because of military and naval reasons, it follows that it is not the Press Censor but the military and naval authorities who have to judge whether news is to be published or not.

I do not know what you think, but I think a little honest criticism is good for everybody, and I am sure the naval and military authorities do not object to having a little healthful, invigorating criticism, so long as it is fair and honest. But surely those who criticize ought to remember that in times of war these difficult questions must be decided by those who have the best means of forming a judgment. The responsibility is theirs, and they must answer for what they do. Do you think it likely that Lord Kitchener—[cheers]—who is not the Minister of a party but the Minister of a nation, and who has as great an interest as any one in encouraging recruiting, would allow a single fact to be withdrawn from the public if it were not that reasons of strategy made it necessary so to do? I think we should remember that. If anybody says, "I don't like the Press Censorship; they manage it better in Germany"—[laughter]—I say I agree with them. So they do. They are used to it. [Laughter.] They have in Germany a censorship far more strict and absolute than we have any experience of.

We have grown up under the great tradition of a free and unfettered Press that has had liberty to publish whatever it likes, whenever it likes, and wherever it likes, without asking anybody's leave, and subject to no restraint of its activities except a sense of responsibility and the law of libel. [Laughter.] I think that is much the best way, and when we get back to times of peace we shall return to that good practice as one of the first things that we do. In the meantime we must remember that in war-time these doctrines have to give way and give first place to military and naval considerations. For the rest, I am not at all sorry that the British people do not like the Press Censorship. I hope they never will. It is a good and healthy sign that they should dislike it. We have only adopted it for strategic and military reasons. Let us remember that those who are discharging the Press Censorship have undertaken a most unpleasant duty. There they are in the trenches, day and night, without ever getting any rest, working under the greatest pressure, and they are being shot at by friend and foe from every point of the compass. They cannot explain—it would not be in the public interest that they should explain—what is the precise reason why they apply this rule or that, and I think they are entitled to appeal to the British people and the British Press to endure this inconvenience as we are enduring many greater inconveniences, and to determine that this is only one of the small sacrifices we have to make in carrying this war through to a successful conclusion.

The Country has reason to be proud of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. It is, I think, the only regiment officially entitled to use the proud word loyal. They and their colleagues in other Lancashire regiments have already given one-half of the answer which the German Emperor was waiting for. The Kaiser has talked about General French's contemptible little army. He has already learned that the British soldier is not contemptible, and our duty now is to give him the answer to the other half of the slander. We had a little army when the war broke out. We were a peaceful people, and did not want to go to war on the Continent or anywhere else. We felt we were strong in our little island, defended by an incomparable Navy night and day—[cheers]—but the Kaiser scornfully threw down the challenge, and it was for us to take it up.

We have shown abundantly that our Army is of incomparable quality; what we have to show now is that it can produce numbers which will make even the Lord of Potsdam withdraw his censure. We in this land have never known what war means; we do not understand its real horror as waged by the German Army; we have never had that horror brought before our eyes. But we may still have it if we fail to do our duty—we would deserve to have it.

Thanks to that blessed destiny which has put us in this island, we are in a certain sense only the spectators of much of the horror and disaster which war has involved, and the young men should bear that in mind when they are tempted to think that the need for their services is small. Another thing I want to ask of you, do not undertake a great mission, as this most surely is, in any spirit of light-hearted adventure. It is not a picnic you are being invited to; it is a stern, laborious, painful, and possibly even fatal career. I recognize readily that there are many men who, having weighed the question fairly, are entitled to say, "My duty lies here at home." It is a question the answer to which a man must justify to his own conscience; I only ask you not to be too ready to assume that your duty is at home, and to remember that to-night in the trenches there are Lancashire soldiers, men from your own town, almost dropping for want of sleep, waiting for the time when workmates will come out and help to give them a night's respite from their anxious and arduous, but still glorious task.