WHEN THE WAR CLOUDS BURST
My Recollections of 10 Downing Street—The Work of Kitchener
Wife of the former British Prime Minister
TEN Downing Street ought to be as well known in London as the Albert
Memorial or the Marble Arch, but it is not; I lived there a long time, from April, 1908, till December, 1916, and almost always had to tell the taxi-drivers their way. They would take me to Down Street, Piccadilly, when I was sleepy and unobservant at night, or risked hurling the umbrellas and the children on to the pavement by opening the door suddenly from their seats and asking where ten Downing Street was. It is a quiet by-street off Whitehall, and of such diffident architecture, that having seen it once, the most ardent tourist would hardly recognize it on seeing it again. Liver-colored and squalid outside, it gives little or no idea to the passerby of what it is really like. The whole time I lived at number 10—knowing as it did every cabinet secret, and what was going on all over Europe— I could not but admire the re-
serve with which that historic house t r e a t|e]d t h el public
r e a public and its dislike of self-advertisement. Even the press, though they have in many ways penetrated the Prime Minister’s heart, havenever divulged the secret of his home. It is true they were not given a fair opportunity of familiarizing themselves with either its inhabitants or its inside in our Administration, but since our departure 10 Downing Street has daily extended wide arms to newsmen, and to an outsider there appears to be more Press than Policy in that quiet cul-de-sac-, but nevertheless no one really knows as much as I do about “The Prime Minister’s lodgings”—as they were called in the sixties—because no family lived there as long at a time as we did. As there is no longer any fear of “giving information to the enemy”—a formula which was found useful at question-time in the House of Commons in the year% of the War—I propose to give an account of Downing Street from 1914 to 1916.
Anyone Could Get In HAVING been intimate with five Prime Ministers— Gladstone, Salisbury, Rosebery, Balfour and Campbell-Bannerman, I thought I knew 10 Downing Street pretty well—but when I went there I found I was wrong. I myself have no bump of locaity but when I heard of intelligent people going out of one of my five drawingroom doors and finding themselves in the garden—not knowing the least how they got there—I felt convinced there were complications in the place which I would have to overcome. The first time I went downstairs and found myself in the back-garden instead of the front hall I had to retrace mv steps through a sepulchral basement. Had it not been for many mildly lit telephones, and a meandering messenger I would not have found my way back. I never knew what prevented anyone coming into the house at any time; some would say—after lunching with us —that nothing had! It is true there was a hall porter who opened the door as motors drove up, but he looked flurried when I spoke to him, as if I had come in by the wrong door. Poor man! He sat in his chair snatching pieces of cold mutton at odd hours, and was never alone. Tired chauffeurs shared the Daily Mirror over his shoulders, and strange people—not important enough to be noticed by the secretaries or messengers—sat on hard sills in the windows watching him; or the baize doors would fly open and he found himself faced by me, seeing a parson, publican or protectionist out of the house. But our porter was not a strong man, and any determined baronet about the time of the King’s birthday could have penetrated into 10, Downing Street. Our earliest visitor after the milkman was our chief whip—Percy Illingworth, a man of temper, authority and devotion who died of typhoid, poisoned by a dinner in the House of Commons, which at that time surprised no one. He was a serious loss' to my husband, and was succeeded by Mr. Gulland, a good friend and typical Scot, who died this year to the sorrow of us all. Our whip generally found the Prime Minister picking out objects of interest in the newspapers and opening his boxes. After going through letters and the gossip and business of the House of Corn-
was looked upon as a man of less courage, scruple, and candour; and of an altogether subtler, more foreign type. This popular illusion was a constant source of amusement t~ me! Kitchener's commandingheight and personal prestige gave him natural advantages over Milner but his frank desert eye was mis-. leading, and he was less like what the public thought him than it is possible to imagine. I have come to the conclusion that just as there is a difference between iron that is wrought and iron that is cast, so Kitchener was cast by the world's judgment. He was a great diplo matist. I do not at all know if the popular idea of mild persistent lying,
"5" "macy; is correct, but Kitchener's methods were oriental. His. life had been largely spent among the blacks and tans, who, when they were not over powered, were invariably outwitted by him. He had never lived with his superiors, and seldom with his equals. I was one of the few people who regretted Henry making him his Minister of War in 1914. I had known him since I was a girl, and spent a winter with him in Cairo and thoroughly understood both his powers and his charm, and his limitations. There were some things he could never appreciate, and his life in India had considerably thickened him. He never understood the Irish tempera ment; theirdesire to enlist together from the same villages and in the same regiments and above all their ardent and legitimate desire to take their priests with them-he treated with contempt; had he not done this I think Ireland would have remained in the war till the end. The Irish are born fighters, and the war gave England a great opportunity, but they were thoroughly mishandled, and though I besought him one afternoon, when he was having tea with me, on my knees to let them take their priests to the front he made difficulties, and the recruiting failed. I had often cried at our invariable insane tactics with the
mons he was succeeded by Lord Kitchener. My Impressions of Kitchener A GREAT deal of nonsense has been talked about Lord Kitch ener. He was a lovable, clumsy fel low with a touch of genius, and adored not only by soldiers and civilians, but recognized and hailed by everyone. He was a great gentleman in his own way, and the most popular figure in a crowd that was ever seen. They loved what they called his brave, honest face, his inexorable will, and way of damning the con sequences! Lord Mimer-who work ed with him during the Boer war-
Irish, and everyone hoped for better things with a new ruler. I had a row with Lord Kitchener about the English as well as the Irish soldiers. Oue of the big recruiting stations was on the Horse Guards' Parade touching our garden in Downing Street. Every morning my heart beat as I watched men of different heights and ages, ill and well dressed, ill and well fed, in hats and caps, with grave faces carrying bags in a long thin queue below my windows. Engraved upon my mem ory are scenes of unforgettable pathos in those first six months of 1914-that wonderful year in which every individual conscience was appealed to in noble phrase, and in which without noise, vulgarity, or flourish men took their stands like sailors on a ship at their appointed places. There was always a crowd on the Parade, and when the men came out of the recruiting tent they were lustily cheered as they marched off to death, stepping to the music of the massed bands. I was waked before six every morning by the thud of the feet of the soldiers marching with the monotony of a metronome; but what was if possible more upsetting was the muffled and uneven march of the civilians. One grey morning there was no music below my windows, and hardly any crowd. I saw a woman trying to prevent her man going into the tent to recruit. She wound her arms round him and dragged him out of the line. He did not resist at first, and I watched them arguing together while the others tramped off in twos and twos. When the last lot had recruited the woman was still standing arguing; at last the man turned away from her and went towards the tent; she knelt down suddenly and covered her face with her hands. The officials were inside and no one was on the parade ground. He walked
back, litted her up, and put tue arms round her and kissed her; then he went into the tent. I got back into bed and cried. No one who had neither a son nor a husband fighting can even dimly imagine the agony of war in those first years and when a loquacious viacountess, too flippant to feel and too noisy to pray, who had hardly ever been inside our doors, pandered to the public and the press at Plymouth the other day by saying she had been constantly to 10 Downing Street on matters of vital im portance during the early part of the war and had been horri fied at the indifference we dis played, she was not only lying but displaying the kind of cruelty which is the exclusive property of women. No man would have said that of any family who had had one son killed, another shell-shocked and the third maimed for life. Kitchener Never Hated
A FTER what I had seen on the Horse Guards' Parade, I sent for Kitchener and asked
him why he had stopped the bands. I told him people should be allowed to feel like heroes when they were going to die, even if it was only for a moment, and that he would get fewer men by stopping the music; he said he had more than enough recruits; I challenged him and said I would back myself against him to get thi' bands, and added that it was nonsense to say he had enough men if he really thought the war was going to last over three years--that I myself thought it would last longer. 1 did not really think this though I said to the Queen of the Belgians in the first week of August, 1914, it would certainly last over two, which was not a bad prophecy considering most of my friends and nearly all the soldiers thought it would be over by Christmas.) He smiled sweetly at me and returned to the War Office. I went to Buckinghani Palace directly he had gone and appealed to the King. After that the massed bands played every day. Kitchener was devoted to my husband and came some times three times a day to 10 Downing Street. Henry showed him infinite patience and courtesy. One day I had been discussing with him various members of our
cabinet for some of whom he had a great contempt. He told me he was proud of hating no one—then correcting himself mentioned the name of one man as his single exception. I told him that he was quite wrong about the man, whom I knew well.
Lord Kitchener:—“He deserted you also, I understand, when London society dropped you and the Prime Minister over Home Rule.”
To which I replied: “Yes, he did, but a man is not necessarily a cad because he drops me. You are proud of hating no one, but that is not difficult if you care for no one very much! How many people do you love? I know you loved Blancie Waterford, but whom else?”
He mentioned a few names, among others Lady Salisbury and Lady Desborough, and ended by saying:
"You need not twit me, as you know quite well what I feel for the Prime Minister.”
Lord Kitchener shared with my husband a stubborn optimism throughout the war. He despised the people who rushed from the raids to Brighton, or showed any sort of panic. Those who—awed by rumor—spent their breath, tired their bodies, and wasted their time in spyhunting, met with his unmeasured contempt. The only time I ever saw Kitchener the least upset was when he went secretly to France—after Poinearé’s anxious telegram— to order Sir John French to attack instead of to withdraw from Paris.
We had been spending the week-end at Lympne Castle in Kent and motored up to Downing Street after midnight. It was a terrible moment. The honor of England depended on our taking a right and prompt decision. My husband had made up his mind that there was only one course to pursue, and had his advice not been followed he would have resigned. Luckily Sir John French thought better of his original intention and after Kitchener’s historic visit our troops remained to support the French.
Germany Sued Early for Peace
TT WAS the early days of 1914 that 1 supplied the acid test to all men.
No one will ever know till secrets can be told the weight of responsibility that fell upon my husband at that time. Bringing a busy, happy, peaceful island like England into a war against an unknown foe with your chief colleague ignorant and hesitating, another irresponsible and ebullient, and several resigning, added to the personal strain of knowing that at any moment either or all of your three sons might be killed, was more than any ordinary nature could have borne. The pertinacity, coolness and courage required then was immense, but my husband had his final reward. In spite of a campaign of the crudest mendacity and calumny, amounting to persecution —shrieks about shells, boastings over the crescent and the cross, and brayings as to who won the war—the Germans sued for peace under our administration—two days after we left 10 Downing Street. 6
It was Henry’s inflexible decision over Sir John French that first attracted lp‘!:C.h,ener,to hlmHe recognized a man of more intel—-twfwià hlS.°7n' ,When he came t0 say good-bye to me Pri ° AT!>efore he was drowned—he told me that the £T^!n,fer was w°rth all his colleagues put together; he said that among the men and women, peers and politicians, soldiers and civilians that he had met during the
ÄSbif"d had Sh°Wn the most murage and wisdom, and that he had never seen him rattled even in the days of the long retreat.
The King told me that he had said much the same to turn in his farewell visit.
I do not think my husband would ever have broken silence over what has been called the Asquith-French controversy if his old friend and colleague, Lord Kitchener, had not been slandered.
One night shortly after the publication of Lord French’s memoirs we were dining at Buckingham Palace. The King told me of a talk he had had with Kitchener. I was afraid of my memory and I did not make a note of our conversation at the time, so I wrote to Lord Stamfordham and this was his answer.
„„ w “Buckingham Palace, 1918.
Dear Mrs. Asquith:—
,aJhr^res which y°u ask for are these. In August, 1314, Kitchener told His Majesty that a contract had just peen signed for twenty-nine million rounds of ammunition in America.
Are you mad?’ the king said.
D ..“ner: No not quite! Up to the present time the British have fired on the Western front a hundred and forty million rounds.’
“As usual your Henry gave nobody away over the ammunition scandal and bore the blame of others.
“Yours very sincerely,
Milner More Warlike than Kitchener
ORD MILNER was more different to his Boer war col’ league than it is possible to imagine without aspiring to the frank desert stare of Kitchener, Lis was a straighter if less elastic nature. He was cultured and quick in intellect as the other was uncertain, but, paradoxical as it may sound, he had a violent mind. His imperialism was always a trifle summary. One of the interesting things about Lord K. was that he hated war. You might have supposed from Milner’s refined, rather donnish manner that he would shrink from fighting and that Kitchener was almost a typical beau sabreur, but the reverse was true. There is one thing of which I am quite sure, no one can ever tell who the people will be that think war wicked, that think it folly, or that think it noble. The pieces de resistance in every club say it is inevitable and glorious but “it is easy to be a bloodhound on the hearth-rug” as Mr. Maguire, a dear friend of mine, once said to me. I can only speak from my own experience. I have never met a single person who has been improved by this war. The extravagant are more extravagant, the cranks are crankier, the back-biters more spiteful, the rich more frightened, the poor more restless, the clergy more confused, and the government more corrupt. The clever novels of the day are fatiguingly indecent, and there is more nakedness,
levity, blasphemy and materialism than I have ever seen before.
Lord Milner’s political leanings wereat oncebureaucratic and socialistic. He had infinite charm and persuasion. He did not understand his fellow creatures as Kitchener did, but he cared for more people and would have done more for them. His companionship was an unending intellectual stimulus to me.
I print a poem he wrote in 1891, but
it would be misleading to suppose from this that he loved me; being the wonderful friend he is, if he had ever really cared he would never have dropped
“Dear days, that flew like moments past, Yet held the life of years;
Fraught with a joy too rare to last A pang too sharp for tears.
“How oft, when sullen ennui’s powers Beset my soul again,
Shall I recall these glowing hours Of quickened sense and brain!
“And thou, whose Being’s magic touch Such music woke in mine,
Forgive me, if I loved too much Who loved but to resign.
T MENTIONED Lord Milner’s name in connection with 1 Lord Kitchener’s because they worked together in the Boer war, but a far greater figure than either of these was General Botha. He was one of the biggest men I have ever known. A great soldier, a great diplomatist and a great citizen. He never forgot that his country owed its freedom to my husband and Campbell-Bannerman, and apart from his gratitude he had a personal love for us both. I sat next to him at a famous lunch given at Buckingham Palace by King Edward VII. A curious meal to which every one of the South African swells, governors, presidents, many of their soldiers, and all our prominent loyalists— as they were foolishly called—had been invited. It was a reconciliation party given in return to South Africa for its noble gift to the Queen of the Cullinan diamond—subscribed and paid for by the Boers at Botha’s instigation, and much resented by our Loyalists—it was a strange medley! Men who had been fighting each other a short time before, and men like Jameson who had been condemned to death, others like President Steyn, still fretting from defeat, and the entire British colony piqued and enraged by our amazing peace were collected together; the only really happy people at that meal were our beloved Sovereign and his Queen.
After lunch, as it threatened to be dull, I said to Queen Alexandra that I thought it would entertain her guests if she allowed the Boer subscribers to hold the diamond, which was hanging like a large chandelier from her neck, in their hands and look at it. Being a gracious and unconventional person she found the idea delightful and, throwing back her beautiful little head, placed the huge jewel in the hands of all the South Africans who were brought up and presented to her. .
General Botha came to see me a few days after this and we made friends for life.
The General was a big man. He looked like a Southern French wine-merchant. He told me that when Lord Roberts in the South African war had had the bright idea of burning down the Boer farms, President Kruger was so enraged that he said he in his turn would blow up the mines. To this Botha strongly objected, but Kruger threatened the British again and again, hoping that this order would be rescinded. But though it did not meet with universal approval—General Sir Ian Hamilton and others .vigorously protesting against it—the farm burning continued.
General Botha (with a slightly foreign accent, speaking with great deliberation): “From that moment I was unpopular with the Boer population. They told me one day that some of our men had been ordered by Kruger to blow up a certain mine. I had them all arrested in the middle of the night.”
Margot: “Were you so powerful?” General Botha: “I began as a trooper, but in a short time became commander-in-chief. The war lasted from 1899 till 1902. Three years is a a long time. . . .After arresting my countrymen things became very painful. Old homes of my friends—rich and big buildings—were burnt to the ground, and many children were turned roofless on the veldt. I sometimes almost wished that my own farm, which was one of the oldest and biggest, would be burnt too—for not till then was I likely to regain my popularity. My little son went all through the campaign with me. He was thirteen years old and when he rode through the deep fords I tied his feet together under the pony’s stomach and strapped him to my side.
“One evening we were going home together after a hard day. It had been raining and the ford was high; I got off and strapped his feet as usual, and we swam at right angles up-stream; I was more frightened in that moment than at any other in the whole war. Tired out we climbed out of the water on to firm ground and rode home in silence while the day dropped. As we neared my farm I saw a thin line of smoke. It went high and straight into the sky; ‘So it has come at last!’ I said to myself, and I could not truly say I was glad.”
He was an excellent ‘raconteur’ of the commentless kind, which is what I care for. The only remark that is Continued on page 48
Continued from page 14
permissible and really needs genius is that which joins one story to another, or bridges over the hideous gap which anecdotes invariably produce.^ r~ *
A Bad and Stupid Peace *
A FTER the peace was signed General ^ A Botha came to see us. He was profoundly sad ; he thought it a bad and stupid
peace and said that he hoped he had wash'e« his hands for some time to come of Westen statesmanship; he had not been favorably impressed in Paris.
He preferred Clemenceau to the others with which I agreed—the old Tiger beinj a friend of mine. . . He said there was less chicanery about him and a better define« purpose. He thought a great opportunity for nobility on both the German and th
French side had been missed at the final signing of the peace on that great day when the whole world was gathered into one
room at Versailles.
It was after lunch at 20 Cavendish Square when Henry, Lord Knollys and I were sitting in the library on June the _'Tth, 1919, that General Botha said: “1 said to Smuts, who was sitting by my side, ‘I am the worst speaker in this room, but on this occasion I could make a fine speech. If I were Rantzau standing in front of those papers I would say to my enemies in front there: ‘The war has been fought: you have won: we have lost— you have got our ships, you have got our guns, but our people are starving—I do not look at these, I sign!’ ”
When he had finished speaking we all had tears in our eyes and he added quite simply:
“This would have made us feel guilty for years at the terms we’ve imposed, and touched the heart of every mother in Europe.”
When he said good-bye to Henry he said: “I always believe in you, and your return to power is what many of us wish. Good-by and may God bless both of
My Views on Hate
I HAVE often thought of Botha’s words, and wondered if he knew much about the hearts of women in Europe or of the men either. AllI can say is that the mothers in England have not been kept awake by the Peace terms or the starving children. One mother, lunching with us when some one who had come back from Germany was telling us that the children there were dying of hunger, exclaimed in a languid voice and in perfect seriousness: “Thank God for that!”
I don’t think there was much susceptibility shown by mothers over cruelty in this war, at least I never observed it myself. It was suggested we should shoot thousands of German prisoners chosen by lot at regular intervals for every week in which the Germans delayed accepting our peace terms. A letter of protest appeared in the Westminster Gazette, and out of seventeen signatories there were only two women—Lady Emily Lutyens and Miss Maud Royden—I never saw the letter, and knew nothing till I read theWestminster, a paper that has come out of every situation throughout the war with honor because it is edited by Mr. Spender, a man of fare character.
When Conan Doyle published his letter on hate in the Times I never met a woman that minded it, and some people go so far as to call him a religious man.
Prominent prelates—when they were not being photgraphed on gun-carriages— appeared to be apologizing to the Devil in their sermons when they quoted Christ. I may be doing the world an injustice, but if Our Lord had come to us at any time between the date at which I am now writing and the 4th of August, 1914, after what He is reported to have said about enemies I have no sort of doubt He would have been called a pro-German.
A minor minister got into a row during the war and was hounded out of public life, his offence being that his wife had visited the soldier son of an old German friend of hers in prison. The West-end was stirred to its foundations. Not a protest was raised from a pulpit, and yet there are good texts on this subject.
“For I was hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in: “Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. . . .
.... “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”—(Matthew, XXV, 35, 35,40).
Women collected round tea-tables crying out against the minister’s wife with as much vigor as the Jews shouted for Barabbas. I did not know the guilty lady by sight but was taken on about the affair one afternoon at tea:
First Lady (challenging me on my entrance into the room): “Well, Margot! I suppose you’ve heard of this disgraceful affair!”
Second Lady: “Mrs. L—n H—s, wjjjbs husband is in the Foreign Office, has to see a Hun soldier in prison!” *
Margot: “Really! Did she go regularly?' Same Lady: “Oh! I don’t say tlùu But quite often enough; some one told jn she went three times last year.”
Margot: “Was he a friend of heràî Third Lady (in horror-stricken voice) “Why, most certainly he was! Not oiU1 the boy, but I believe his mother was tót Can you imagine any woman being a frie» of a German! or going to see the brutei It’s really too disgusting while all our poc boys are being slaughtered.”
Fourth Lady: “It makes one’s bldo boil. Our sons will have died in vaia,_ we ever forgive or befriend a Hun agaifiw First Lady: “Well, Margot, you ai> nothing—I suspect you think she Wf right.” ¡
Margot: “Not at all, I think she m quite wrong. Mrs. L—n H—s ought 1 have gone far oftener to the prison if st an old friend of the boy’s mother.”
The Treatment of Prisoners
ONE day in 1916 I was serving tea 1 wounded Tommies at a party at Lad Garvagh’s house, which I did once a wed My hostess—the kindest of women—há rather irrelevantly introduced me at og of the long tables of Tommies. She sai with a sweeping gesture of welconn “I am sure you will be glad to meet Mn Asquith, the wife of our Prime Ministe who has so kindly come. . . ” At th I stopped her and said to the men :
“I think it’s kind of you to let me con and give you tea at this concert—f I can’t sing, or do anything amusing, an I’m sure some one else ought to have bee; in my place.” .
A typical West-end lady at my elbowalso pouring out tea—said, looking meai ingly at the soldiers near us and speakin with emphasis:
“I am sure we are all too glad to me» Mrs. Asquith, and you will be able to te her how you British soldiers were treate in the German camps and prisons—vei different to the way we treat the Germa prisoners here!”
I—suspecting nothing and full of syn pathy—said:
“Ah! Yes, from what I hear you ha\ all suffered Hell! What terrible peop the Germans have become! I can hardi bear to think of their cruelty.”
I had not finished my sentence when saw the lady’s eyes gleam and in an acri voice she said to a charming looking Ton my:
“Yes indeed! All of you were as il treated as the German prisoners are pan pered here. You should tell Mrs. Asquit a little about it.”
I suddenly recognized the Billinj Bottomley touch and was reinforced in m conviction by the look on the soldier face which wás one of acute observatioi I said rather coldly to her:
“You may be right, but how do yo know? I have never visited the Germa prisoners or seen Donnington Hall in m life. I don’t even know where it is.
The Tommy, instinctively feeling b my voice that the temperature was nsinj looked at the lady and said :
“Would you have us treat the Germa prisoners like they treated us, Miss? 1 think your prisoner is your gueat.” 1 The lady drew her head up like a goosi on a green and walked majestically away!
When the Crisis Came
HERE quote from my diary.
“On Thursday the 30th of July, 1914] I went down to the Speaker’s Gallen with a beating heart and heard Henri make the following announcement; h] rose and told the House that the Govern] ment of Ireland Amending Bill was post] poned. He said:
“ T do not propose to make the motioi which stands in my name. By the in dulgence of the House I should like ti give the reason. We meet to-day unde conditions of gravity which are almos unparalleled in the experience of every om of us. The issues of peace and war an hanging in the balance, and with them thi risk of a catastrophe of which it is impos sible to measure either the dimensions o:
tiie effects. In these circumstances it is of vital importance in the interests of the whole world that this country, which had no interests of its own directly at stake, should present a united front, and be able to speak and act with the authority of an nndivided nation. If we were to proceed to-day with the first order on the paper, we should inevitably, unless the Debate was conducted in an artificial tone, be involved in acute controversy in regard to domestic differences whose importance to ourselves no one in any quarter of the House is disposed to disparage or to belittle. I need not say more than that such a use of our time at such a moment might have injurious and lastingly injurious effects on the international situation. I have had the advantage of consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, who, I know, shares to the full the view which I have expressed. We therefore propose to put off for the present the consideration of the second reading of the Amending Bill—of course without
Srejudice to its future—in the hope that y a postponement of the discussion the patriotism of all parties will contribute what lies in our power, if not to avert, at least to circumscribe the calamities which threaten the world.’
“When he sat down, every face looked bewildered. The Gallery was packed '■'with Orange ladies who had been rivalling each other in rudeness to me and my family for months past. Civil war in Ireland had been served up with the milk in the mornings, and, profoundly ignorant of the events that were taking place in Europe, the Ulster ladies received the announcement with disappointment and indignation—I longed to escape and slip away silently out of the Gallery, down the stairs back to Downing Street. . . Neither Henry nor I had even tried to sleep the night before—our heads and hearts were throbbing in an anguish of apprehension, and I did not feel up to hearing anything pert; but there was something infectious in the atmosphere—something awing that made curiosity get the better part of dignity, and to my surprise the Ulster ladies collected round me, begging me to tell them what had happened.
“I looked at them in silence and felt inclined to say, ‘What excuse have you for speaking to me now? You have insulted me, and avoided me for months; my Elizabeth has either not been asked to your balls or you have invited her without me—a new idea of courtesy. . . Why should I minister to your ignorance? Why should I not cut you too?’ But I felt unhappy. What did it matter! Ulstermen or Nationalists! Rudeness or courtesy! Nothing mattered now. With dull eyes and dead limbs I contented myself with telling them that we were on the threshold of war.”
How the Cabinet Stood
WAR must always be looked upon by sane men as such a crime and. blunder that few of us can censure any Minister who hesitates or resigns from the Cabinet that has decided to wage it. It is not easy for people who were not behind the scenes to understand what a Liberal Prime Minister had to go through before he could bring this peaceful island into war with an unknown foe. It is not easy for a Prime Minister of either party, but it is especially difficult for a Liberal, because our men are not Jingoes.
In writing this chapter I am not going into military matters—of which I know nothing except what soldiers said—nor can I tell Cabinet secrets, but from my diary and from notes and letters I propose to give an accurate if sketchy account of my own experience of the first months of Autumn, 1914.
When Henry brought England into the war on August the 4th his colleagues were not unanimous. Hostile critics and foolish pressmen have said:
1. That the Liberal party would never have fought had they not been pushed by the Conservatives;
2. That pacifism was rife in our ranks; we were hopelessly unprepared.
3. That my husband, who was at the head of the Government of the day, did nothing.
There is not one word of truth in any of these assertions.
Thanks to Mr. Balfour, Lord Haldane and my husband, we had an expeditionary force—not large enough to fight half
Europe because England will never keep an idle army large enough for this—but more perfectly equipped and prepared than any body of men that ever left these shores, and if Lord K. had used the Territorial “cadres” every soldier knows we would have had a larger army in a shorter time. It was the Territorial scheme spirit that made it possible for us to fight the war.
If there were Pacifists I never met any unless the word applied to those Ministers who hesitated and resigned; and as for the other accusation—though believed by few and those prejudiced — my husband had made up his mind before he knew what anyone thought either on his own or on the other side.
Henry’s worst enemies cannot accuse him of lack of foresight, but fears and hesitation in his Cabinet, added to resignations, did not make it easier for him. It is an open secret who the fearing were, and I shall here publish two letters expressing the views of very different colleagues on resignation, one from Lord Morley and one from John Burns.
“Privy Council Office, “Whitehall, S. W. “August 4, 1914.
“My Dear Asquith:
“ Y our letter shakes me terribly. It goes to my very core. In spite of temporary moments of difference, my feelings for you have been cordial, deep, and close, from your earliest public days. The idea of severing these affectionate associations has been far the most poignant element, in the stress of the last four days. But I cannot conceal from myself that we— I and the leading men in the cabinet— do not mean the same things in the foreign policy of the moment. To bind ourselves to France is at the same time to bind ourselves to Russia, and to whatever demands may be made by Russia on France. With this cardinal difference between us, how could I either honorably or usefully sit in a cabinet day after day discussing military and diplomatic details in carrying forward a policy that I think a mistake? Again I say, divided counsels are a mistake.
“I am more distressed in making this reply to your generous and most moving appeal than I have ever been in writing any letter of all my life.
“Local Government Board “Whitehall, S.W. “August 17, 1914.
“Dear Mrs. Asquith:
“Many thanks for your kindly letter, the sentiments of which I reciprocate.
“I am disinclined, at least for the present, to give you any impressions of what transpired on Aug. 4th. (Remember Quatre Septembre)
“What happened then is of less consequence now than what will happen next week. We are very busy here. I am engaged in hunting out relief works and have been successful in getting sufficient for at least 20,000 men for 5 months, capable of further extensions as necessity compels.
“We are confronted with all the philanthropic mischief of the social butterflies and sentimental busybodies. Lady Bountiful competing with Lady Prodigal for the smiles of the poor and the bibulous cheers of the loafers in distributing other people’s money at the cost of the character of all the poor.
“But we are sitting on their heads, as the cabman would say, and after a fortnight’s firmness getting our own way with
“Our eight years’ experience at L. G. B., the few but splendid people got around us, and the excellent civil servants, will pull us through this awful ordeal in London.
“I never worked harder in my life than during the past month, but there never was a soul more at ease nor a happier spirit than I am, with no resentment but only a noble pity for those who succumbed to the diseased ambition of writing their diaries in red instead of black. The sadness, badness, and madness of it all fills one with a merciful condolence rather than a blazing wrath, but the wrath will
“The sun here is warm, the common bright and green, the sheep are browsing in a field across the way, and the temper and behaviour of the people in the streets superb.
“But in Belgium the serried ranks of soldiers are waiting to he mown down in swathes by the deadly scythe founded by ¡ingrv statesmen, and wielded by the men of war for the errors of the diplomats who have blundered, and at the cost of the people who have trusted, and the millions who will suffer. By the way it was almost worth having a war to get rid of the suffragettes.
“With all good wishes,
The Appointment of Kitchener
UTof my diary:
“On the morning of August the 3rd, 1914, I was looking out of my bed-room window into the Downing Street garden, watching my little man flying paper aeroplanes, preparatory to joining him, when Henry came into my room:
“ T have been sounding Kitchener about taking the War Office,’ he said, T can’t go on with this heavy work.’
“Thanks to bungles in the Curragh— Henry had taken the War Office over at a critical moment before he had time to tell any of the colleagues except Winston, who happened to be spending that week-end at the Wharf and was much loved by the soldiers. I did not want K. to succeed him, so I said I profoundly hoped he would refuse, and added:
“ ‘I am sure K. would be much more useful to us diplomatically—I suppose he jumped at your suggestion. . .
“Henry: ‘Not he! He did not want it at all, he doesn’t fancy taking the post now that every detail of our plans have been made. . . . ’
“Margot: ‘Oh! He’ll take it all right! Perhaps he wanted to be pressed. . . ’ “Henry: ‘Then he will be disappointed— I told him to think it over. . . . ’
“Margot: ‘What did he say?’ ”
“Henry: ‘That was all, we didn’t say anything else, I sent him away as I had to go to the King. . . ’ ”
“A friend of Kitchener’s met me a few hours after this and said :
“ ‘What a wonderful man K. is! I hear he instantly offered himself and his services to the Prime Minister in whatever capacity he wished to use him.’ ”
“After lunch Henry and I motored down to the House—groups were cheering and a queue of people coming and going under the Foreign Office arch.
“The House of Commons that gathered that afternoon to hear the statement of our Minister of Foreign Affairs was a very different one to Thursday’s. There was no vagueness or bewilderment in anyone’s face; the grave men sitting and standing on both sides represented a silent, steady, and unanimous people. All eyes were fixed on the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
“Sir Edward Grey—now Lord Grey of Falloden—was as typically British as the Duke of Devonshire and it would not have taken a Sherlock Homes to trace in his manly bearing and almost feminine charm the distinction of his breeding. He had above all men the simplicity, reserve, moral indignation and sense of fair play
which are the characteristics of this coun-? try. Some men speak above their intel-> lects, and some above their characters/ but Grey’s speaking was an inextricable* combination of the two.
“When we returned to 10 Downing Street, there was a huge crowd cheering outside our door. It seemed strange to me that people could cheer! I can imagine loving almost anything—stamps, stones or snakes —but not War.
“Our house was like the General Post. Office—people coming and going till the early hours of dawn. I lay awake listening to the burst of cheers breaking on the silene like rockets in the sky, and to “God Save the King” sung in snatches outside the Palace all night.
On the Fateful Night
AFTER the Speaker had read the King’s message the next day, the House emptied and I went down to the' Prime Minister’s room. He looked terribly worried and was depressed by the resignation of his Cabinet; he gave me John Morley’s letter, saying:
“ T shall miss him very much, he is one of the most distinguished men living and certainly the best talker. . . ’.”
“Margot: ‘Ah, Yes! I am sure you will miss him’—After a silent pause I leant over the back of his chair and said—‘So it’s all up?’
“Henry (turning round and looking at me):‘Yes, it’s all up. . . . ’
“I sat down feeling numb.
“I watched the groups of men waiting outside the half open door with misty eyes; a secretary came into the room with Foreign Office boxes, he put them down and went out in silence.
“Henry sat at his writing table looking in front of him with his pen in his hand .... what was he thinking of? . . His sons .... My son was too young to fight. . . . would they all have to fight? I got up and put my head against his, we could not speak for tears. How could it have all happened? What were we like five days ago?. . . On the 30th of July there was still so much hope, where had it all gone? We were talking about Ireland and civil war such a short time ago!—civil war. People were angry but not serious; and now the sound of Real War waved like wireless round our heads and the whole world was listening: lieft his room. I met Winston and Lloyd George as I went downstairs;, there was not a trace of tears in their eyes —I could not speak to them. When I got back to Downing Street my head throbbed and I went to bed.
“After dinner Henry went down to the cabinet room: I looked at the children asleep and then joined him. Crewe and Grey were already there; we sat and smoked and said nothing—Lloyd George and Winston came into the room; the latter, in high spirits, began to talk but as no one wanted to listen, he stopped. Grey sat with his elbows on the table, serious and handsome, and Henry looked very grave. No one spoke. The clock on the mantelpiece hammered out twelve and when it had finished it was as silent as dawn.
“We were at war.”
To be Continued