Lions Led By Donkeys - Chapter 1
Rate of progress-The coining of flying-Attitude of War Office- Submarines and wireless-The pose of Society-The cult of games-Industrialism-Women's Suffrage-Internationalism- When war came.
As the Human Race plods down the path of Time, its progress is recorded by certain milestones. The first of these has now been left so far behind that we have quite lost sight of it, yet it marks the point at which Human Beings diverged most fundamentally from the remainder of the Animal Kingdom. The old Greeks made of this a legend, for they told how Prometheus gave Fire to mortals, and we poor mortals learnt how to control this gift and bend it to our will.
In the beginning Man's progress was infinitely slow. It took our progenitors many thousands of years to achieve such a small advance as to polish their chipped implements of flint. Yet the advance in habits and methods which this slight change denoted was so profound that it marked a new Age in human history.
Our rate of progress is ever accelerating, and now we rush along at such a pace that we have lost all sense of wonder at any new discovery. We call this "The March of Civilization," but truth to tell we march so quickly that we remember little, and make nothing that endures. Perhaps the only monument in England that may stand through Time to bear witness that our country was once inhabited by sentient beings is to be found at Stonehenge.
To us of this generation it has been given to witness the crowning achievement of mankind-the conquest of the air. We have seen that which has given a new element to Man. That which in your lifetime may produce changes more profound than railways effected in our grandfathers' time. It may seem as strange to you to
think that your parents were amongst the first to be carried in an aeroplane-and that they considered it a great adventure-as it does to us to hear some old person talk of the beginning of railways.
From the time of Daedalus there have been daring spirits who have dreamt of flight; but when flight came, it came with startling suddenness. The petrol engine, perfected for use in motor-cars, had placed it within the reach of man to fly; but few believed in the possibility of flight, and only here and there was found some bold experimenter. In 1906 M. Santos Dumont was hopping off the ground. Then M. Farman flew one kilometre, while from America came the news that the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright were making flights in a machine heavier than air. But at first these reports were received with much skepticism.
I think that the first flight which brought home to people that man could fly indeed, was Blériot's crossing of the Channel from Calais to Dover, in the early morning of July 25, 1909.
After this aviation meetings were organized in many localities. These were at first eagerly attended, but it was
o strange to note how speedily the novelty lost its attraction. The taste of the public was jaded by a hundred daring feats performed in every realm of sport. The sight of an aeroplane steadily circling round an aerodrome soon bored them. The wonder and the significance of the sight were lost to them.
The French, German and Russian Governments were not slow to realize the importance of flying from a military point of view, but our own Government was apathetic, preferring to wait and watch, and to leave the development of this new art in other hands. Our interest in aviation was chiefly kept alive by a series of prizes offered by the Daily Mail. When in 1906 this paper offered £1o,ooo to the man who should first fly from London to Manchester within a space of twenty-four hours, there were many who thought that the Daily Mail was obtaining a cheap advertisement without running any serious risk of being called upon to pay, but four years later the prize was won by a Frenchman, M. Paulhan, who made the journey at night.
Then came an offer of £1o,ooo for a race round Great Britain, the circuit of1,010 miles to be completed in two days. At that time these conditions seemed very severe, but the race took place on July 24 and 25, 1911. No less
than twenty-one started, but the race always lay between the two Frenchmen, "Beaumont" and Védrines, who chased each other round Britain, and finished within a few hours of each other, some days ahead of the first British aviator who completed the circuit.
Notwithstanding these efforts to rouse us we lagged behind, and had few pilots or machines compared with the great Continental Powers. Our War Office was convinced of the ineffectiveness of aeroplanes from an offensive point of view, and did not attach sufficient importance to the powers of observation which they gave.
As with other inventions, we thought that we could afford to let others experiment and ourselves reap the benefit, and build when a successful type had been evolved.
In so doing we took great risks. It showed a total lack of appreciation to treat this new arm as a mere adjunct to our small Army. Even on that basis our establishment of aeroplanes was dangerously small, but we should have recognized that we were here dealing with totally new conditions. We should have recognized that to lose command of the Air might be as dangerous as to lose command of the Sea. That we must fight for supremacy in the Air; that we must build without relation to the strength of our Land or Sea forces.
While all the Continental Powers possessed large fleets of aeroplanes, Germany evolved a successful type of dirigible balloon. In our own country the untiring patience of the inventor, Count Zeppelin, and the many misfortunes which overtook his early balloons, evoked no little sympathy. Yet no one took these airships very seriously, and all our authorities derided their effectiveness from a military point of view.
Flight was not the only new thing, for submarines had become a practical part of every navy, but they had yet to be tried in war.
Moreover, wireless telegraphy had vastly increased our powers of communication. A very few years before the War, those at sea were cut off from the rest of the world save for the signals of passing ships. Now they were linked up effectively not only with other ships, but with stations on shore.
In such an Age as this the simplicity of Victorian times was soon forgotten. Life became a mad pursuit of pleasure, a craving ever for some new sensation. Smartness became the keynote of Society. Manners deterior
ated. Reverence was no longer left for things Sacred or for things Ancient. To be ordinary was to be nonexistent. All fashions were ephemeral, for they found favour only until they were adopted by the class immediately below. Then that which had been "smart" a month ago was now condemned as "common.
At no time were riches, unaccompanied by breeding, such a passport to Society. The Middle Class was regarded as " the chrysalis from which the grub of labour would emerge into the butterfly of wealth," and never before did the Middle Classes so ape the manners of the Rich. Never before was a luxurious mode of living so well within their reach. For the country was astonishingly rich, and large families were no longer brought into the world.
In the cities home-life came to occupy less and less of our time, while the restaurants and theatres were thronged. Woman's dress grew ever more daring, so that it was said:
"Both rich and poor alike their nakedness display;
The poor because they must, the rich because they may."
And the ladies were no longer escorted by the barely adolescent whiskered dandies of mid-Victorian days, but by men who might be young or elderly, but always with clean-shaven faces and with their hair brushed smoothly back from their foreheads.
Strange cults were formed. In the realms of Art we met the Ultra-impressionists; and later we had to face the weird designs of the Cubists and the Futurists.
In the ballrooms, where for many years little had been heard save languorous waltz music, we were now forced to make exotic contortions to syncopated negro airs, or to perform the sensuous tango.
In the theatres musical comedy for a while reigned supreme, though the whimsical fancies of Gilbert and Sullivan were lost. So we were introduced to The Merry Widow, who was born in Vienna and waltzed through Europe. But even the slight plot of musical comedy proved irksome, and so it gave place to the revue-a meaningless medley of songs and dances, whose authors sought only to outshine their predecessors in lavish display. Some tried to entice us by means of the classical dancer, but later came the vogue of the Russian ballet and the incomparable Pavlova.
Sports and games absorbed an extraordinary amount
of our time, and concerned our thoughts so much that Rudyard Kipling was moved to reprove the "muddied oaf" of the football field. But his censure would have been better aimed at those who found no pleasure in participation, but flocked to watch contests between bands of paid athletes, just as the populace of Rome once flocked to see the gladiatorial shows.
One of our chief failings-if failing it be-is an amiable one. We regard all our affairs from a sporting point of view. The greatest reproach that we can ever level against anyone is that " He does not play the game."
'I'he old saying that "Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton," is true enough in spirit, even if it has been wrongly attributed to the Iron Duke. Those virtues which we imbibe on the cricket or the football field can not be taught in the schoolroom, and it is only by learning to obey that we can become fitted to command.
In that fateful decade " Before the War," motor-cars came to be looked on not as a luxury for the rich, but as a necessity to the moderately well-to-do. The roads which for sixty years since the coming of railways had been deserted, save for local traffic, once more became national highways. The old-time coaching inns revived. Motors gave us back the countryside and restored to us adventure and romance, for we could set forth and wander whither we would on a summer afternoon.
In that decade we enjoyed ourselves, and yet we were occasionally annoyed by subterranean mutterings. In those days we met some faint forerunners of those great industrial strikes which have since threatened to engulf us. That time was marked by general unrest, and labour heaved uneasily.
Control was passing into the hands of " Lower breeds, the Law."
At no time had the moral authority of politicians been so weak.
Women were demanding a voice in the national councils-at least the right to vote. For years the question of Women's Suffrage had fallen into abeyance, but on entering the twentieth century, Women began to take an ever-increasing share in the occupations of men. Woman had been emancipated from most of the chains which had hitherto bound her. She was brought up with a freedom that girls had never before known. No longer did she look on marriage as the sole aim of her existence.
She asked much more of life, whether she happened to be a college graduate or a healthy sports-loving girl or a precocious " flapper," sophisticated beyond belief.
The question of Women's Suffrage was revived, and supported by a most powerful agitation. The more perfervid supporters of Women's Suffrage were so hasty that they enforced their views by insulting Members of Parliament and destroying property, both public and private. They caused the Government some embarrassment and harmed their own cause, with which the majority were in sympathy. Their end has now been attained, and a wise basis for the electorate was reached, for a woman at thirty is supposed to be sufficiently discreet to vote, but she is at perfect liberty to vote for some exceptional girl of twenty-one to represent her in Parliament.
There were many in our country who, in their eagerness to promote a wider brotherhood of nations, affected to despise race barriers. To them " Patriotism" was a worn-out shibboleth, and " Nationality" a barbarous institution. These ideas found favour amongst many great financiers, whose operations were so interwoven with every country that they could not contemplate the disturbance which would ensue were we to go to war. They were held also by the extreme Socialists who saw only a world-wide struggle between Capital and Labour; and these Socialists claimed a closer kinship with men of like ideas in other countries than with their own countrymen.
Our slip-shod internationalism not only allowed men of every race to settle freely in our midst; it permitted them to become naturalized with a minimum of delay and expense, to hide their identity under English names, and to claim all the privileges of a born British subject. Too often when we accepted a man at his face value as British in heart and mind we were harbouring one whose heartstrings were still deeply rooted in his Fatherland; one who in case of war would be a secret enemy within our gates.
The number of Germans amongst us was particularly large. Their influence on our counsels was even greater than might have been supposed from the mere number in our midst. Highly placed Germans held positions of trust and honour amongst us. High finance was also largely in German hands or in hands that were easily controlled by German intrigue.
Such briefly were the conditions under which we lived
in 1914. To some it seemed that we were decadent; wrapped in money making, mere seekers after pleasure. Yet when the call came it found the spirit of the nation untarnished. Then it was seen that the smartness of Society was but a pose-the froth which came from a sound brew. The smartest women went to tend the hospitals, or to assume responsibilities which their menfolk had laid down when they went to the War. Only the pseudo-smart remained to be an idle reproach. The Roll of Honour tells what the gentlemen of England did.
And the workers-the millions who responded voluntarily! Indeed no words can ever tell the unbelievable heroism which those men displayed, the awful hardships which they faced; and most wonderful of all, remained cheerful. For those men who left their peaceful occupations-the factory or the plough-were called upon to face dangers which would have appalled the bravest of old; to face death in more horrible forms than had ever been conceived before. Truly the nations of Europe proved that they were not effete. In blood and fire they proved that their metal was true.