Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 1/"England expects every man to do his duty"

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume I  (1859) 
"England expects every man to do his duty"
by Harriet Martineau


The watching for invasion must have been a blind and stumbling process in Queen Elizabeth’s days, when news was slower in travelling than even the great clumsy ships of the Armada were in sailing. To keep horses saddled, and men ready to ride in an instant, on the arrival of news, was the only resource for communicating between the coast and London. Fifty-six years ago, our fathers congratulated themselves on the advance of civilisation, which rendered it so much more easy for them to encounter an invasion. Like Queen Elizabeth’s scouts, those of George III. kept watch on the cliffs, and gave notice of every sail to people below by signals: but there was the telegraph besides, that great invention which men pointed out to their children as the last possible achievement of human faculty, in the way of sending messages. Some people, yet living, remember the sensation of awe with which as children they looked out towards the coast-stations in the early morning, to see whether the telegraph was at work; and how mysterious seemed the rising and falling, and stretching out of its arms against the yellow evening sky. Then there was the looking-out at night—every night, the last thing before going to bed—towards the beacon, which was to be fired to give the alarm of the approach of the enemy. However many there might be who dreaded the kindling of that blaze, there were not a few who longed for it. In the summer of 1803, the first chill of dread at the image of brutal foreign soldiers rushing upon our as yet unviolated soil, was pretty well over, and the high spirit of the nation was fairly roused. The desire to arm, if not the arming, was as universal as in Queen Elizabeth’s time; and drill was going on everywhere. The universities were sending forth companies of student volunteers in a state of fine discipline. The lawyers of the Inns were not quite so flexible in body and ideas; but they did their best, and did not mind being quizzed when one ran a bayonet through another’s coat, or three or four tripped one another up, and fell in a heap. One gentleman, probably of an absent habit of mind, attempted to discharge a musket which had six cartridges in it. He was lost to the defence of his country; for his piece blew him up, and knocked down everybody near. Some who were not gainly enough for this kind of volunteering did their part in another fashion. Do any of my readers remember the “Declaration of the Merchants and Bankers of London,” issued at that time, and now known to have been written by Sir James Mackintosh? Those who have read it will never forget it: those who are too young to have heard much about those times had better turn to the “Annual Register,” and study it. If our fathers were a nation of shopkeepers, these representatives of trade showed that the shop had not spoiled them for citizens, any more than it had spoiled the train-bands of London in Cromwell’s time, when apprentices and small tradesmen fought for law and liberty of conscience, as well as any gallant cavalier could fight for King and High Church. The merchants and bankers did more than utter noble sentiments. The Common Council of London raised and equipped eight hundred men; and every citizen spared his clerks and shopmen twice a day for drill. The subscribers to Lloyd’s instituted a fund for the care of the wounded, and the reward of acts of special bravery. The King, and his sons, and his ministers, and a great attendance of peers held reviews in the parks; and the Queen and princesses looked on. New taxes were zealously paid; and all sorts of funds raised for all conceivable modes of defending the country. The citizens felt themselves as great and devoted as their fathers ever were when looking out for the prodigious Armada; and in the make of their weapons, and all the useful arts concerned, they considered themselves immeasurably superior.

Yet there were circumstances hidden under this show of national gallantry which make us pity the condition of our fathers, as much as we admire their spirit. It was actually a daily practice for police spies to haunt the public-houses throughout the country, to ascertain whether “the people” were in favour of the invaders, or merely indisposed to defend their country, or worthy to be relied upon. We may hope the government was duly ashamed when the report was that “the spirit of the country was good.” Again; when the enlightened metropolis was thinking and acting as one man, it took a long time to dissolve the jealousies and absurd suspicions which infested society in the provinces. There could hardly have been more distrust of the Catholics on the approach of the Armada, than there was of dissenters and liberals in the towns along the coast when the French were expected in 1803. In the manufacturing towns, where Flemings and French Huguenots once settled with their industry, the insolence and absurdity of their purely English fellow-citizens were immortalised in many a joke, and many a caricature of the time. The member of the Dutch or French church would come home to dinner, laughing or irritated, as it might be, at the treatment he had met with during the morning. If his children are alive now they will remember his account of the behaviour of mayor, or alderman, or clerical magistrate to him; the significant hint that it would be rash to attempt to burn the cathedral; the refusal to let him bear arms as a volunteer; the permission to prepare the waggons for carrying the women and children away into the interior, as an office in which he could hardly turn traitor. This was no fancy, no delusion of sore feeling. In Dorsetshire the Protestant magistracy searched every cellar and cupboard of a convent, to seize arms and ammunition suspected to be hidden there; and also something else—the person of “a brother of Bonaparte.” It must have been a remarkable scene, when the justices came up from the cellar, and were met by the Lady Superior with the rebuke they deserved. She reminded them that if she and the sisters were Catholics, they were also Englishwomen. Ah! the times are changed since then. We know nothing now of spies in public-houses; and the speeches of the Pope’s pitying adorers in Ireland lead to no reports of foreign princes or priests being hidden in convents. No man is questioned about his church when he wishes to enter a volunteer rifle-corps; and the one thing that every man is most sure of about all his neighbours is that they will each resist to the death the landing of an invader. The temper of the present day is as much in advance of the former one as the arts of life. For the man and horse in waiting, we have the railway. For the telegraph and its slow spelling with its clumsy arms, we have the electric wire and its lightning speech.

There was something fine, pathetic, and yet comic in the way of going to work to make soldiers, in town and country. In the towns there were companies of artisans, differing from each other as much as Falstaff’s recruits. Broad-chested carpenters and masons, with a rolling walk; dapper shopmen with a toe and heel step; wizened little weavers, with spindle shanks and bent shoulders, and bilious complexions, and bony fingers, shuffling along—these in procession in the middle of the street, with drum and fife, playing a march on going out to drill; and on returning, the universal strain, exulted in by all towns and counties of two syllables (or that could make three fit in),

Jove, the god of thunder,
Mars, the god of war;
Neptune with his trident,
Apollo in his car:—
All the gods celestial
Descend from their spheres,
To view with admiration
The Harwich volunteers.

Or the Kentish volunteers, or the Bristol, or Lincoln, or any other. It was noble to see the eagerness of all kinds of men to learn the discipline, and the use of arms, for the defence of their homes. It was pathetic to see the horror of the press-gang when sailors were wanted; and to witness the heroism with which mothers and maidens sent forth their sons and their lovers, either into the militia, knowing it was for the line, or directly into the line. It was comic to see the audacity with which men who scarcely knew one end of the musket from the other, dared Boney to come and try what Britons were made of. It was both pathetic and comic to overhear children confiding to each other what they would do whenever Bonaparte came. There was a universal resolution to bar his entrance into every house; or to blow him up from the cellar, or knock him down from the stairs, if he got in; be he man or something worse; and few were quite sure what he was, in those days of many rumours, few newspapers, and scanty movement from place to place.

We should remember that the great reliance at that, as in all former days, was on the navy. There was no question of the superiority of our navy, while the Peninsular war had not shown what our soldiers could do. It was clumsy work, the exercising of the volunteers, with muskets which at best, and in actual warfare, made scores of misses to one hit. The Martello towers along the south coast, which were said to be sure to fall in as soon as their guns were fired, were early discredited in comparison with our wooden walls.

Britannia needs no bulwarks,
No towers along the steep:
Her march is o’er the ocean waves,
Her home is on the deep.

This was the general feeling; and when the citizens armed and drilled, it was as an insurance against the consequences of some signal calamity to the fleet.

But we must not forget, amidst the vivid images of that time, what has happened since. The French never came: and when their defeat and exhaustion secured peace for some time to come, soldiering of all kinds fell into disrepute in England. Peace did not at once bring plenty; the returned soldiers were thrown back upon society, when there was not work and wages enough for the civilians; and they and their profession became unpopular. By the time that manufactures and trade began to expand, through an improvement in our policy, we had receded somewhat too far from the soldiering practices of the beginning of the century.

Let us not forget the gait and bearing of the middle-classes during the years of reaction from commercial distress, and before the re-awakening of that martial spirit which nestles in the heart of every true Briton. It is not many years since we saw children almost forgetting how to play, unless at public schools; and none dreaming of playing at soldiers. Our middle-aged men did not know the use of their limbs, unless they were university athletes, or country gentlemen. Of the young men, how few could row, or play cricket, or follow the hounds, or even ride or swim at all! They used to shuffle or strut along the street pavement, and creep up a coachbox, and climb painfully over a stile. They could hardly mount the stairs three at a time in case of a fire, or run up a ladder, or leap a ditch, or knock down a thief to save their lives. It was all want of practice. Nobody then thought any more of England being really invaded, than of a comet burning up the globe; and just at the same time there was a great spread of pedantry about intellectual recreations, and literary accomplishments. Thus, when the Prince de Joinville published his views about an invasion of England, we were just in the state to disrelish the idea to the very utmost.

It was a wretched sensation, it must be owned. There was no cowardice about it. Nobody for a moment doubted anybody’s love of country, and the courage which springs from that love: but Page:Once a Week Jul - Dec 1859.pdf/455 Page:Once a Week Jul - Dec 1859.pdf/456