He has a wonderful story to tell: "In September, 1914, we were called upon to manufacture a large extra number of field-guns. We had neither buildings nor machinery for the order. However, we set to work. We took down seven dwelling-houses; in three weeks we were whitewashing the walls of our new workshop and laying in the machinery. My idea was to make so many guns. The Government asked for four times as many. So we took down more houses, and built another much larger shop. The work was finished in ten weeks. Five other large workshops were put up last year, all built with lightning speed, and everywhere additions have been made to the machinery in every department wherever it was possible to put machines."
As to their thousands of workmen, Mr. C. has no complaints to make.
"They have been steadily working anything from 60 to 80 hours per week; the average is 64.29 hours per week, and the average time lost only 3.51 per cent. A little while ago, a certain union put forward a claim for an advance in wages. We had to decline it, but as the meeting came to an end, the trade-union secretary said:
"'Of course, we are disappointed, and we shall no doubt return to the matter again. But whether you concede the advance of wages or not, our members will continue to do their level best, believing that they are not only working for themselves, but helping the Government and helping our soldiers to wage this war to a successful conclusion.'"
And the manager adds his belief that this is the spirit which prevails "among the work-people generally."
Before we plunge into the main works, however, my guide takes me to see a recent venture, organised since the war, in which he clearly takes a special interest. An old warehouse bought, so to speak, overnight, and equipped next morning, has been turned into a small workshop for shell production—employing between three and four hundred girls, with the number of skilled men necessary to keep the new unskilled labour going. These girls are working on the eight hours' shift system; and working so well that a not uncommon wage among them—on piece-work, of course—runs to somewhere between two and three pounds a week.
"But there is much more than money in it," says the kind-faced woman superintendent, as we step into her little office out of the noise, to talk a little. "The girls are perfectly aware that they are 'doing their bit,' that they are standing by their men in the trenches."
This testimony indeed is universal. There is patriotism in this grim work, and affection, and a new and honourable self-consciousness. Girls and women look up and smile as a visitor passes. They presume that he or she is there for some useful purpose connected with the war, and their expression seems to say: "Yes, we are all in it!—we know very well what we are doing, and what a difference we are making. Go and tell our boys ..."
The interest of this workshop lay, of course, in the fact that it was a sample of innumerable others, as quickly organised and as efficiently worked, now spreading over the Midlands and the north. As to the main works belonging to the same great firm, such things have been often described; but one sees them to-day with new eyes, as part of a struggle which is one with the very life of England. Acres and acres of ground covered by huge workshops new and old, by interlacing railway lines and moving trolleys. Gone is all the vast miscellaneous engineering work of peace. The war has swallowed everything.
I have a vision of a great building, where huge naval guns are being lowered from the annealing furnace above into the hardening oil-tank below, or where in the depths of a great pit, with lights and men moving at the bottom, I see as I stoop over the edge, a jacket being shrunk upon another similar monster, hanging perpendicularly below me.
Close by are the forging-shops whence come the howitzers and the huge naval shells. Watch the giant pincers that lift the red-hot ingots and drop them into the stamping presses. Man directs; but one might think the tools themselves intelligent, like those golden automata of old that Hephaestus made, to run and wait upon the gods of Olympus. Down drops the punch. There is a burst of flame, as though the molten steel rebelled, and out comes the shell or the howitzer in the rough, nosed and hollowed, and ready for the turning.
The men here are great, powerful fellows, blanched with heat and labour; amid the flame and smoke of the forges one sees them as typical figures in the national struggle, linked to those Dreadnoughts in the North Sea, and to those lines in Flanders and Picardy where Britain holds her enemy at bay. Everywhere the same intensity of effort, whether in the men or in those directing them. And what delicate and responsible processes!
In the next shop, with its rows of shining guns, I stop to look at a great gun apparently turning itself. No workman is visible for the moment. The process goes on automatically, the bright steel emerging under the tool that here, too, seems alive. Close to it is a man winding steel wire, or rather braid, on a 15-inch gun; beyond again there are workmen and inspectors testing and gauging another similar giant. Look down this shining tube and watch the gauging, now with callipers, now with a rubber device which takes the impression of the rifling and reveals any defect. The gauging turns upon the ten-thousandth part of an inch, and any mistake or flaw may mean the lives of men....
We turn out into a pale sunshine. The morning work is over, and the men are trooping into the canteens for dinner—and we look in a moment to see for ourselves how good a meal it is. At luncheon, afterwards, in the Directors' Offices, I am able to talk with the leading citizens of the great town.
One of them writes some careful notes for me. Their report of labour conditions is excellent. "No organised strikes and few cessations of work to report. Overtime is being freely worked. Little or no drunkenness, and that at a time when the average earnings of many classes of workmen are two or three times above the normal level. The methods introduced in the twenty years before the war—conference and discussion—have practically settled all difficulties between employers and employed, in these parts at any rate, during this time of England's trial."
After luncheon we diverge to pay another all too brief visit to a well-known firm. The managing director gives me some wonderful figures of a new shell factory they are just putting up. It was begun in September, 1915. Since then 2,000 tons of steelwork has been erected, and 200 out of 1,200 machines required have been received and fixed. Four thousand to 5,000 hands will be ultimately employed.
All the actual production off the machines will be done by women—and this, although the works are intended for a heavy class of shell, 60-pounder high explosive. Women are already showing their capacity—helped by mechanical devices—to deal with this large type of shell; and the workshop when in full working order is intended for an output of a million shell per annum.
I drive on, overshadowed by these figures. "Per annum!" The little common words haunt the ear intolerably. Surely before one more year is over, this horror under which we live will be lifted from Europe! Britain, a victorious Britain, will be at peace, and women's hands will have something else to do than making high-explosive shell. But, meanwhile, there is no other way. The country's call has gone out, clear and stern, and her daughters are coming in their thousands to meet it, from loom and house and shop.
A little later, in a great board-room, I find the Munitions Committee gathered. Its function, of course, is to help the new Ministry in organising the war work of the town. In the case of the larger firms, the committee has been chiefly busy in trying to replace labour withdrawn by the war. It has been getting skilled men back from the trenches, and advising the Ministry as to the "badging" of munition workers. It has itself, through its command of certain scientific workshops, been manufacturing gauges and testing materials.
It has turned the electroplate workshops of the town on to making steel helmets, and in general has been "working in" the smaller engineering concerns so as to make them feed the larger ones. This process here, as everywhere, is a very educating one. The shops employed on bicycle and ordinary motor work have, as a rule, little idea of the extreme accuracy required in munition work. The idea of working to the thousandth of an inch seems to them absurd; but they have to learn to work to the ten-thousandth, and beyond! The war will leave behind it greatly raised standards of work in England!—that every one agrees.
And I carry away with me as a last remembrance of this great town and its activities two recollections—one of a university man doing some highly skilled work on a particularly fine gauge: "If you ask me what I have been doing for the last few weeks, I can only tell you that I have been working like a nigger and have done nothing! Patience!—that's all there is to say." And another of a "transformed" shop of moderate size, where an active and able man, after giving up the whole of his ordinary business, has thrown himself into the provision, within his powers, of the most pressing war needs, as he came across them.
In July last year, for instance, munitions work in many quarters was actually held up for want of gauges. Mr. D. made something like 10,000, to the great assistance of certain new Government shops. Then the Government asked for a particular kind of gun. Mr. D. undertook 1,000, and has already delivered 400. Tools for shell-making are everywhere wanted in the rush of the huge demand. Mr. D. has been making them diligently. This is just one example among hundreds of how a great industry is adapting itself to the fiery needs of war.
But the dark has come, and I must catch my train. As I speed through a vast industrial district I find in the evening papers hideous details of the Zeppelin raid, which give a peculiar passion and poignancy to my recollections of a crowded day—and peculiar interest, also, to the talk of an able representative of the Ministry of Munitions, who is travelling with me, and endeavouring to give me a connected view of the whole new organisation. As he speaks, my thoughts travel to the English battle-line, to the trenches and casualty clearing-stations behind it, to distant Russia; and I think of the Prime Minister's statement in Parliament—that the supply of munitions, for all its marvellous increase, is not yet equal to the demand. New shops, new workers, new efforts—England is producing them now unceasingly, she must go on producing them. There must be no pause or slackening. There will be none.
I am going now to see—after the Midlands—what the English and Scotch north is doing to swell the stream. And in my next letter there will be plenty to say about "Dilution" of labour, about wages, and drink, and some other burning topics of the moment.
It is now three months since Mr. Lloyd George made his startling speech, as Munitions Minister, in the House of Commons in which, as he wound up his review of his new department, he declared: "Unless we quicken our movements, damnation will fall on the sacred cause for which so much gallant blood has flowed!" The passion of this peroration was like the fret of a river in flood chafing at some obstacle in its course. Generally speaking, the obstacle gives way. In this case Mr. George's obstacle had begun to give way long before December 21st—the date of the speech. The flood had been pushing at it with increasing force since the foundation of the Ministry of Munitions in the preceding summer. But the crumbling process was not quick enough for Great Britain's needs, or for the energy of her Minister.
Hence the outspoken speech of December 21st, supported by Mr. Asquith's grave words of a few weeks later. "We cannot go on," said the Prime Minister in effect, "depending upon foreign countries for our munitions. We haven't the ships to spare to bring them home, and the cost is too great. We must make them ourselves." "Yes—and quicker!" Mr. Lloyd George had already said, with a sharp emphasis, meant to "hustle" that portion of the nation which still required hustling; overpainting his picture, no doubt, but with quite legitimate rhetoric, in order to produce his effect.
The result of that fresh "hustling" was the appointment of the Dilution Commissioners, a second Munitions Act amending the first, and a vast expansion all over the country of the organisation which had seemed so vast before. It was not till midwinter, in the very midst of the new and immense effort I have been describing, that the Minister of Munitions and those working with him convinced themselves that, without another resolute push, the barrier across the stream of the nation's will might still fatally hold it back. More and more men were wanted every week—in the Army and the workshops—and there were not men to go round. The second push had to be given—it was given—and it still firmly persists.
In the spring of 1915, the executives of the leading trade-unions had promised the Government the relaxation of their trade rules for the period of the war. Many of the trade-union leaders—Mr. Barnes, Mr. Henderson, Mr. Hodge, and many others—have worked magnificently in this sense, and many unions have been thoroughly loyal throughout their ranks to the pledge given in their name. The iron-moulders, the shipwrights, the brassworkers may be specially mentioned. But in the trades mostly concerned with ammunition, there were certain places and areas where the men themselves, as distinct from their responsible leaders, offered a dogged, though often disguised resistance. Personally, I think that any one at all accustomed to try and look at labour questions from the point of view of labour will understand the men while heartily sympathising with the Minister, who was determined to get "the goods" and has succeeded in getting them. Here, in talking of "the men" I except that small revolutionary element among them which has no country, and exists in all countries. And I except, too, instances which certainly are to be found, though rarely, of what one might call a purely mean and overreaching temper on the part of workmen—taking advantage of the nation's need, as some of the less responsible employers have no doubt, also, taken advantage of it. But, in general, it seems to me, there has been an honest struggle in the minds of thousands of workmen between what appears to them the necessary protection of their standards of life—laboriously attained through long effort—and the call of the war. And that the overwhelming majority of the workmen concerned with munitions should have patriotically and triumphantly decided this struggle as they have—under pressure, no doubt, but under no such pressure as exists in a conscripted, still more in an invaded, nation—may rank, I think, when all is said, with the raising of our voluntary Armies as another striking chapter in the book of England's Effort.
In this chapter, then, Dilution will always take a leading place.
What is Dilution?
It means, of course, that under the sharp analysis of necessity much engineering work, generally reckoned as "skilled" work, and reserved to "skilled" workmen, by a number of union regulations, is seen to be capable of solution into various processes, some of which can be sorted out from the others as within the capacity of the unskilled or semiskilled worker. By so dividing them up, and using the superior labour with economy, only where it is really necessary, it can be made to go infinitely further; and the inferior or untrained labour can then be brought into work where nobody supposed it could be used, where, in fact, it never has been used.
Obvious enough, perhaps. But the idea had to be applied in haste to living people—employers, many of whom shrank from reorganising their workshops and changing all their methods at a moment's notice; and workmen looking forward with consternation to being outnumbered, by ten to one, in their own workshops, by women. When I was in the Midlands and the North, at the end of January and in early February, Dilution was still an unsettled question in some of the most important districts. One of the greatest employers in the country writes to me to-day (March 24): "Since January, we have passed through several critical moments, but, eventually, the principle was accepted, and Dilution is being introduced as fast as convenient. For this we have largely to thank an admirable Commission (Sir Croydon Marks, Mr. Barnes, and Mr. Shackleton) which was sent down to interview employers and employed. Their tact and acumen were remarkable. Speaking personally, I cannot help believing that there is a better understanding between masters and men now than has existed in my memory."
A great achievement that!—for both employers and employed—for the Minister also who appointed the Commission and thus set the huge stone rolling yet another leap upon its way.
It will be readily seen how much depends also on the tact of the individual employer. That employer has constantly done best who has called his men into council with him, and thrown himself on their patriotism and good sense. I take the following passage from an interesting report by a very shrewd observer,[A] printed in one of the northern newspapers. It describes an employer as saying:
I was told by the Ministry that I should have to double my output. Labour was scarce and I consulted a deputation of the men about it. I told them the problem and said I should be glad of suggestions. I told them that we should either have to get men or women, and I asked them for their co-operation, as there would be a great deal of teaching to be done. "Probably," I said, "you would like to find the men?" They agreed to try. I gave them a week, and at the end of a week they came to me and said they would rather have women. I said to them: "Then you must all pull together." They gave me their word. Right from the beginning they have done their level best to help, and things have gone on perfectly. On one occasion, a woman complained that the man directing her was "working against her." I called the men's committee together, said the employer. I told them the facts, and they have dealt with the offender themselves.
[A] Yorkshire Observer, February 1, 1916.
The general system now followed in the shell factories is to put so many skilled men in charge of so many lathes worked by women workers. Each skilled man, who teaches the women, sets the tools, and keeps the machines in running order, oversees eight, ten, or more machines. But sometimes the comradeship is much closer. For instance (I quote again the witness mentioned above), in a machine tool shop, i.e., a shop for the making of tools used in shell production, one of the most highly skilled parts of the business, you may now see a man, with a woman to help him, operating two lathes. If the woman falls into any difficulty the man comes to help her. Both can earn more money than each could earn separately, and the skilled man who formerly worked the second lathe is released. In the same shop a woman watched a skilled man doing slot-drilling—a process in which thousandths of an inch matter—for a fortnight. Now she runs the machine herself by day, while the man works it on the night shift. One woman in this shop is "able to do her own tool-setting." The observer thinks she must be the only woman tool-setter in the country, and he drops the remark that her capacity and will may have something to do with the fact that she has a husband at the front! Near by, as part of the same works, which are not specialised, but engaged in general engineering, is a bomb shop staffed by women, which is now sending 3,000 bombs a week to the trenches. Women are also doing gun-breech work of the most delicate and responsible kind under the guidance of a skilled overseer. One of the women at this work was formerly a charwoman. She has never yet broken a tool. All over the works, indeed, the labour of women and unskilled men is being utilised in the same scientific way. Thus the area of the works has been doubled in a few months, without the engagement of a single additional skilled man from outside. "We have made the men take an interest in the women," say the employers. "That is the secret of our success. We care nothing at all about the money, we are all for the output. If the men think you are going to exploit women and cheapen the work, the scheme is crabbed right away."
I myself came across the effect of this suspicion in the minds of the workmen in the case of a large Yorkshire shell factory, where the employers at once detected and slew it. This great workshop, formerly used for railway work, now employs some 1,300 women, with a small staff of skilled men. The women work forty-five hours a week in eight-hour shifts—the men fifty-three hours on twelve-hour shifts. There is no difficulty whatever in obtaining a full supply of women's labour—indeed, the factory has now a waiting-list of 500. Nor has there been any difficulty with the men in regard to the women's work. With the exception of two operations, which are thought too heavy for them, all the machines are run by women.
But when the factory began, the employers very soon detected that it was running below its possible output. There was a curious lack of briskness in the work—a curious constraint among the new workers. Yet the employers were certain that the women were keen, and their labour potentially efficient. They put their heads together, and posted up a notice in the factory to the effect that whatever might be the increase in the output of piece-work, the piece-work rate would not be altered. Instantly the atmosphere began to clear, the pace of the machines began to mount.
It was a factory in which the work was new, the introduction of women was new, and the workers strange to each other, and for the most part strange to their employers. A small leaven of distrust on the part of the men workers was enough, and the women were soon influenced. Luckily, the mischief was as quickly scotched. Men and women began to do their best, the output of the factory—which had been planned for 14,000 shells a week—ran up to 20,000, and everything has gone smoothly since.
Let me now, however, describe another effect of Dilution—the employment of unskilled men on operations hitherto included in skilled engineering.
On the day after the factory I have just described, my journey took me to another town close by, where my guide—a Director of one of the largest and best-known steel and engineering works in the kingdom—showed me a new shell factory filled with 800 to 900 men, all "medically unfit" for the Army, and almost all drawn from the small trades and professions of the town, especially from those which had been hard hit by the war. Among those I talked to I found a keeper of bathing-machines, a publican's assistant, clerks, shop assistants, three clergy—these latter going home for their Sunday duty, and giving their wages to the Red Cross—unemployed architects, and the like.
I cannot recall any shop which made a greater impression of energy, of a spirit behind the work, than this shop. In its inspecting-room I found a graduate from Yale. "I had to join in the fight," he said quietly—"this was the best way I could think of." And it was noticeable besides for some remarkable machines, which your country had also sent us.
In other shell factories a single lathe carries through one process, interminably repeated, sometimes two, possibly three. But here, with the exception of the fixing and drilling of the copper band, and a few minor operations, one lathe made the shell—cut, bored, roughed, turned, nosed, and threaded it, so that it dropped out, all but the finished thing—minus, of course, the fuse. The steel pole introduced at the beginning of the process made nine shells, and the average time per shell was twenty-three minutes. No wonder that in the great warehouse adjoining the workshop one saw the shell heaps piling up in their tens of thousands—only to be rushed off week by week, incessantly, to the front. The introduction of these machines had been largely the work of an able Irish manager, who described to me the intense anxiety with which he had watched their first putting up and testing, lest the vast expenditure incurred should have been in any degree thrown away. His cheerful looks and the shell warehouse told the sequel. When I next met him it was at a northern station in company with his Director. They were then apparently in search of new machinery! The workshop I had seen was being given over to women, and the men were moving on to heavier work. And this is the kind of process which is going on over the length and breadth of industrial England.
So far, however, I have described the expansion or adaptation of firms already existing. But the country is now being covered with another and new type of workshop—the National Shell factories—which are founded, financed, and run by the Ministry of Munitions. The English Government is now by far the greatest engineering employer in the world.
Let me take an illustration from a Yorkshire town—a town where this Government engineering is rapidly absorbing everything but the textile factories. A young and most competent Engineer officer is the Government head of the factory. The work was begun last July, by the help of borrowed lathes, in a building which had been used for painting railway-carriages; its first shell was completed last August. The staff last June was 1. It is now about 200, and the employees nearly 2,500.
A month after the first factory was opened, the Government asked for another—for larger shell. It was begun in August, and was in work in a few weeks. In September a still larger factory—for still larger shells—(how these demands illustrate the course of the war!—how they are themselves illustrated by the history of Verdun!) was seen to be necessary. It was begun in September, and is now running. Almost all the machines used in the factory have been made in the town itself, and about 100 small firms, making shell parts—fuses primers, gaines, etc.—have been grouped round the main firm, and are every day sending in their work to the factory to be tested, put together, and delivered.
No factory made a better impression upon me than this one. The large, airy building with its cheerful lighting; the girls in their dark-blue caps and overalls, their long and comely lines reminding one of some processional effect in a Florentine picture; the high proportion of good looks, even of delicate beauty, among them; the upper galleries with their tables piled with glittering brasswork, amid which move the quick, trained hands of the women—if one could have forgotten for a moment the meaning of it all, one might have applied to it Carlyle's description of a great school, as "a temple of industrious peace."
Some day, perhaps, this "new industry"—as our ancestors talked of a "new learning"—this swift, astonishing development of industrial faculty among our people, especially among our women, will bear other and rich fruit for England under a cleared sky. It is impossible that it should pass by without effect, profound effect upon our national life. But at present it has one meaning and one only—war!
Talk to these girls and women. This woman has lost her son—that one her husband. This one has a brother home on leave, and is rejoicing in the return of her husband from the trenches, as a skilled man, indispensable in the shop; another has friends in the places and among the people which suffered in the last Zeppelin raid. She speaks of it with tight lips. Was it she who chalked the inscription found by the Lady Superintendent on a lathe some nights ago—"Done fourteen to-day. Beat that if you can, you devils!"
No!—under this fast-spreading industry, with its suggestion of good management and high wages, there is the beat of no ordinary impulse. Some feel it much more than others; but, says the clever and kindly Superintendent I have already quoted: "The majority are very decidedly working from the point of view of doing something for their country.... A great many of the fuse women are earning for the first time.... The more I see of them all, the better I like them." And then follow some interesting comments on the relation of the more educated and refined women among them to the skilled mechanics—two national types that have perhaps never met in such close working contact before. One's thoughts begin to follow out some of the possible social results of this national movement.
But now the Midlands and the Yorkshire towns are behind me. The train hurries on through a sunny afternoon, and I look through some notes sent me by an expert in the great campaign. Some of them represent its humours. Here is a perfectly true story, which shows an Englishman with "a move on," not unworthy of your side of the water.
A father and son, both men of tremendous energy, were the chiefs of a very large factory, which had been already extensively added to. The father lived in a house alongside the works. One day business took him into the neighbouring county, whilst the son came up to London on munition work. On the father's return he was astonished to see a furniture van removing the contents of his house. The son emerged. He had already signed a contract for a new factory on the site of his father's house; the materials of the house were sold and the furniture half gone. After a first start, the father took it in true Yorkshire fashion—wasting no words, and apparently proud of his son!
Here we are at last, in the true north—crossing a river, with a climbing town beyond, its tiled roofs wreathed in smoke, through which the afternoon lights are playing. I am carried off to a friend's house. Some directors of the great works I am come to see look in to make a kindly plan for the morrow, and in the evening, I find myself sitting next one of the most illustrious of modern inventors, with that touch of dream in manner and look which so often goes with scientific discovery. The invention of this gentle and courteous man has affected every vessel of any size afloat, whether for war or trade, and the whole electrical development of the world. The fact was to be driven home even to my feminine ignorance of mechanics when, a fortnight later, the captain of a Flag-ship and I were hanging over the huge shaft leading down to the engine-rooms of the Super-dreadnought, and my companion was explaining to me something of the driving power of the ship. But on this first meeting, how much I might have asked of the kind, great man beside me, and was too preoccupied to ask! May the opportunity be retrieved some day! My head was really full of the overwhelming facts, whether of labour or of output, relating to this world-famous place, which were being discussed around me. I do not name the place, because the banishment of names, whether of persons or places, has been part of the plan of these articles. But one can no more disguise it by writing round it than one could disguise Windsor Castle by any description that was not ridiculous. Many a German officer has walked through these works, I imagine, before the war, smoking the cigarette of peace with their Directors, and inwardly ruminating strange thoughts. If any such comes across these few lines, what I have written will, I think, do England no harm.
But here are some of the figures that can be given. The shop area of the ammunition shops alone has been increased eightfold since the outbreak of war. The total weight of shell delivered during 1915 was—in tons—fourteen times as much as that of 1914. The weight of shell delivered per week, as between December, 1914, and December, 1915, has risen nearly ten times. The number of work-people, in these shops, men and women, had risen (a) as compared with the month in which war broke out, to a figure eight times as great; (b) as compared with December, 1914, to one between three and four times as great. And over the whole vast enterprise, shipyards, gun shops, ammunition shops, with all kinds of naval and other machinery used in war, the numbers of work-people employed had increased since 1913 more than 200 per cent. They, with their families, equal the population of a great city—you may see a new town rising to meet their needs on the farther side of the river.
As to Dilution, it is now accepted by the men, who said when it was proposed to them: "Why didn't you come to us six months ago?"
And it is working wonders here as elsewhere. For instance, a particular portion of the breech mechanism of a gun used to take one hour and twenty minutes to make. On the Dilution plan it is done on a capstan, and takes six minutes. Where 500 women were employed before the war, there are now close on 9,000, and there will be thousands more, requiring one skilled man as tool-setter to about nine or ten women. In a great gun-carriage shop, "what used to be done in two years is now done in one month." In another, two tons of brass were used before the war; a common figure now is twenty-one. A large milling shop, now entirely worked by men, is to be given up immediately to women. And so on.
Dilution, it seems to me, is breaking down a number of labour conventions which no longer answer to the real conditions of the engineering trades. The pressure of the war is doing a real service to both employers and employed by the simplification and overhauling it is everywhere bringing about.
As to the problem of what is to be done with the women after the war, one may safely leave it to the future. It is probably bound up with that other problem of the great new workshops springing up everywhere, and the huge new plants laid down. One thinks of the rapid recovery of French trade after the war of 1870, and of the far more rapid rate—after forty years of machine and transport development, at which the industry of the Allied countries may possibly recover the ravages of the present war, when once peace is signed. In that recovery, how great a part may yet be played by these war workshops!—transformed to the uses of peace; by their crowds of work-people, and by the hitherto unused intelligence they are everywhere evoking and training among both men and women.
As for the following day, my impressions, looking back, seem to be all a variant on a well-known Greek chorus, which hymns the amazing—the "terrible"—cleverness of Man! Seafaring, tillage, house-building, horse-taming, so muses Sophocles, two thousand three hundred years ago; how did man ever find them out? "Wonders are many, but the most wonderful thing is man! Only against death has he no resource."
Intelligence—and death! They are written everywhere in these endless workshops, devoted to the fiercest purposes of war. First of all, we visit the "danger buildings" in the fuse factory, where mostly women are employed. About 500 women are at work here, on different processes connected with the delicate mechanism and filling of the fuse and gaine, some of which are dangerous. Detonator work, for instance. The Lady Superintendent selects for it specially steady and careful women or girls, who are paid at time-and-a-quarter rate. Only about eight girls are allowed in each room. The girls here all wear—for protection—green muslin veils and gloves. It gives them a curious, ghastly look, that fits the occupation. For they are making small pellets for the charging of shells, out of a high-explosive powder. Each girl uses a small copper ladle to take the powder out of a box before her, and puts it into a press which stamps it into a tiny block, looking like ivory. She holds her hand over a little tray of water lest any of the powder should escape. What the explosive and death-dealing power of it is, it does not do to think about.
In another room a fresh group of girls are handling a black powder for another part of the detonator, and because of the irritant nature of the powder, are wearing white bandages round the nose and mouth. There is great competition for these rooms, the Superintendent says! The girls in them work on two shifts of ten and one-half hours each, and would resent a change to a shorter shift. They have one hour for dinner, half an hour for tea, a cup of tea in the middle of the morning—and the whole of Saturdays free. To the eye of the ordinary visitor they show few signs of fatigue.
After the fuse factory we pass through the high-explosive factory, where 250 girls are at work in a number of isolated wooden sheds filling 18-pounder shell with high explosive. The brass cartridge-case is being filled with cordite, bundles of what look like thin brown sticks, and the shell itself, including its central gaine or tube, with the various deadly explosives we have seen prepared in the "danger buildings." The shell is fitted into the cartridge-case, the primer and the fuse screwed on. It is now ready to be fired.
I stand and look at boxes of shells, packed, and about to go straight to the front. A train is waiting close by to take them the first stage on their journey. I little thought then that I should see these boxes, or their fellows, next, on the endless ranks of ammunition lorries behind the fighting lines in France, and that within a fortnight I should myself stand by and see one of those shells fired from a British gun, little more than a mile from Neuve Chapelle.
But here are the women and girls trooping out to dinner. A sweet-faced Superintendent comes to talk to me. "They are not as strong as the men," she says, pointing to the long lines of girls, "but what they lack in strength they make up in patriotic spirit." I speak to two educated women, who turn out to be High School mistresses from a town that has been several times visited by Zeppelins. "We just felt we must come and help to kill Germans," they say quietly. "All we mind is getting up at five-thirty every morning. Oh, no! it is not too tiring."
Afterwards?—I remember one long procession of stately shops, with their high windows, their floors crowded with machines, their roofs lined with cranes, the flame of the forges, and the smoke of the fizzling steel lighting up the dark groups of men, the huge howitzer shells, red-hot, swinging in mid-air, and the same shells, tamed and gleaming, on the great lathes that rough and bore and finish them. Here are shell for the Queen Elizabeth guns!—the biggest shell made. This shop had been put up by good luck just as the war began. Its output of steel has increased from 80 tons a week to 1,040.
Then another huge fuse shop, quite new, where 1,400 girls in one shift are at work—said to be the largest fuse shop known. And on the following morning, an endless spectacle of war work—gun-carriages, naval turrets, torpedo tubes, armed railway carriages, small Hotchkiss guns for merchant ships, tool-making shops, gauge shops—and so on for ever. In the tool-making shops the output has risen from 44,000 to 3,000,000 a year!
And meanwhile I have not seen anything, and shall not have time to see anything of the famous shipyards of the firm. But with regard to them, all that it is necessary to remember is that before the war they were capable of berthing twenty ships at once, from the largest battleship downward; and we have Mr. Balfour's word for it as to what has happened, since the war, in the naval shipyards of this country. "We have added a million tons to the Navy—and we have doubled its personnel."
And now let me record two final sayings.
One from a manager of a department:
We have a good many Socialists here, and they constantly give trouble. But the great majority of the men have done wonderfully! Some men have put in one hundred hours a week since the war began. Some have not lost a minute since it began. The old hands have worked splendidly.
And another from one of the Directors:
I know of no drunkenness among our women. I don't remember ever having seen a drunken woman round here.
I have almost said my say on munitions, though I could continue the story much longer. But the wonder of it consists really in its vastness, in the steady development of a movement which will not end or slacken till the Allies are victorious. Except for the endless picturesqueness of the women's share in it, and the mechanical invention and adaptation going on everywhere, with which only a technical expert could deal, it is of course monotonous, and I might weary you. I will only—before asking you to cross the Channel with me to France—put down a few notes and impressions on the Clyde district, where, as our newspapers will have told you, there is at the present moment (March 29th) some serious labour trouble, with which the Government is dealing. Until further light is thrown upon its causes, comment is better postponed. But I have spoken quite frankly in these letters of "danger spots," where a type of international Socialism is to be found—affecting a small number of men, over whom the ideas of "country" and "national honour" seem to have no hold. Every country possesses such men and must guard itself against them. A nucleus of them exists in this populous and important district. How far their influence is helped among those who care nothing for their ideas, by any real or supposed grievances against the employers, by misunderstandings and misconceptions, by the sheer nervous fatigue and irritation of the men's long effort, or by those natural fears for the future of their Unions, to which I have once or twice referred, only one long familiar with the district could say, I can only point out here one or two interesting facts. In the first place, in this crowded countryside, where a small minority of dangerous extremists appear to have no care for their comrades in the trenches, the recruiting for the new Armies—so I learn from one of the leading authorities—has been—"taken on any basis whatever—substantially higher than in any other district. The men came up magnificently." That means that among those left behind, whatever disturbing and disintegrating forces exist in a great Labour centre have freer play than would normally be the case. A certain amount of patriotic cream has been skimmed, and in some places the milk that remains must be thin. In the second place—(you will remember the employer I quoted to you in a former letter)—the work done here by thousands and thousands of workmen since the beginning of the war, especially in the great shipyards, and done with the heartiest and most self-sacrificing good-will, has been simply invaluable to the nation, and England remembers it well. And finally, the invasion of women has perhaps been more startling to the workmen here than anywhere else. Not a single woman was employed in the works or factories of the district before the war, except in textiles. There will soon be 15,000 in the munition workshops, and that will not be the end.
But Great Britain cannot afford—even in a single factory—to allow any trifling at this moment with the provision of guns, and the Government must—and will—act decisively.
As to the drinking in this district of which so much has been said, and which is still far in excess of what it ought to be, I found many people hard put to it to explain why the restriction of hours which has worked so conspicuously well in other districts has had comparatively little effect here. Is it defects of administration, or a certain "cussedness" in the Scotch character, which resents any tightening of law? One large employer with whom I discuss it, believes it would suit the Scotch better to abolish all restrictions, and simply punish drunkenness much more severely. And above all—"open all possible means of amusement on Sundays, especially the cinemas!"—a new and strange doctrine, even now, in the ears of a country that holds the bones of John Knox. There seems indeed to be a terribly close connection between the dulness of the Scotch Sunday and the obstinacy of Scotch drinking; and when one thinks of the heavy toil of the week, of the confinement of the workshops, and the strain of the work, one feels at any rate that here is a problem which is to be solved, not preached at; and will be solved, some day, by nimbler and humaner wits than ours.
In any case, the figures, gathered a month ago from those directly concerned, as to the general extension of the national effort here, could hardly be more striking. In normal times, the district, which is given up to Admiralty work, makes ships and guns, but has never made shells. The huge shell factories springing up all over it are a wholly new creation. As usual, they are filled with women, working under skilled male direction, and everywhere one found among managers and superintendents the same enthusiasm for the women's work. "It's their honour they work on," said one forewoman. "That's why they stand it so well." The average working week is fifty-four hours, but overtime may seriously lengthen the tale. Wages are high; canteens and rest-rooms are being everywhere provided; and the housing question is being tackled. The rapidity of the women's piece-work is astonishing, and the mingling of classes—girls of education and refinement working quite happily with those of a much humbler type—runs without friction under the influence of a common spirit. This common spirit was well expressed by a girl who before she came to the factory was working a knitting-machine. "I like this better—because there's a purpose in it." A sweet-faced woman who was turning copper bands for shell, said to me: "I never worked a machine before the war. I have done 912 in ten hours, but that tired me very much. I can do 500 or 600 quite easily."
On the same premises, after leaving the shell shops, we passed rapidly through gun shops, where I saw again processes which had become almost familiar. "The production of howitzers," said my guide, "is the question of the day. We are making them with great rapidity—but the trouble is to get enough machines." The next shop, devoted to 18-pounder field-guns, was "green fields fifteen months ago," and the one adjoining it, a fine shed about 400 feet square, for howitzer work, was started in August last, on a site "which was a bog with a burn running through it." Soon "every foot of space will be filled with machines, and there will be 1,200 people at work here, including 400 women. In the next shop we are turning out about 4,000 shrapnel and 4,000 high-explosive shells per week. When we started women on what we thought this heavy shell, we provided men to help lift the shell in and out of the machines. The women thrust the men aside in five minutes."
Later on, as I was passing through a series of new workshops occupied with all kinds of army work and employing large numbers of women, I stopped to speak to a Belgian woman. "Have you ever done any machine work before?" "No, Madame, never—Mais, c'est la guerre. Il faut tuer les Allemands!" It was a quiet, passionless voice. But one thought, with a shiver, of those names of eternal infamy—of Termonde, Aerschot, Dinant, Louvain.
It was with this woman's words in my ears that I set out on my last visit—to which they were the fitting prelude. The afternoon was darkening fast. The motor sped down a river valley, sodden with rain and melting snow, and after some miles we turn into a half-made road, leading to some new buildings, and a desolate space beyond. A sentry challenges us, and we produce our permit. Then we dismount, and I look out upon a wide stretch of what three months ago was swamp, or wet plough land. Now its 250 acres are enclosed with barbed wire, and patrolled by sentries night and day. A number of small buildings, workshops, stores, etc., are rising all over it. I am looking at what is to be the great "filling" factory of the district, where 9,000 women, in addition to male workmen, will soon be employed in charging the shell coming from the new shell factories we have left behind in the darkness.
Strange and tragic scene! Strange uprising of women!
We regain the motor and speed onwards, my secretary and I, through unknown roads far away from the city and its factories towards the country house where we are to spend the night. In my memory there surge a thousand recollections of all that I have seen in the preceding fortnight. An England roused at last—rushing to factory, and lathe, to shipyard and forge, determined to meet and dominate her terrible enemy in the workshop, as she has long since met and dominated him at sea, and will in time dominate him on land—that is how my country looks to me to-night.
... The stars are coming out. Far away, over what seems like water with lights upon it, there are dim snowy mountains—majestic—rising into the sky. The noise and clamour of the factories are all quiet in the night. Two thoughts remain with me—Britain's ships in the North Sea—Britain's soldiers in the trenches. And encircling and sustaining both the justice of a great cause—as these white Highland hills look down upon and encircle this valley.
A million and a half of men—over a quarter of a million of women—working in some 4,000 State-controlled workshops for the supply of munitions of war, not only to our own troops, but to those of our allies—the whole, in the main, a creation of six months' effort—this is the astonishing spectacle of some of the details of which I have tried, as an eye-witness, to give you in my previous letters a rapid and imperfect sketch.
But what of the men, the Armies, for which these munitions are being made and hurried to the fighting-lines? It was at Aldershot, a few days ago, that I listened to some details of the first rush of the new Armies, given me by a member of the Headquarters Staff who had been through it all. Aldershot in peace time held about 27,000 troops. Since the outbreak of war some million and a quarter of men have passed through the great camp, coming in ceaselessly for training and equipment, and going out again to the theatres of war.
In the first days and weeks of the war—during and after the marvellous precision and rapidity with which the Expeditionary Force was despatched to France—men poured in from all parts, from all businesses and occupations; rich and poor, north and south country men, English, Scotch, Irish, and Welsh; men from the Dominions, who had flung themselves into the first home-coming steamer; men from India, and men from the uttermost parts of Africa and Asia who had begged or worked their way home. They were magnificent material. They came with set faces, asking only for training, training, training!—and "what the peace soldier learns in six months," said my companion, "they learnt in six weeks. We had neither uniforms nor rifles, neither guns nor horses for them. We did not know how to feed them or to house them. In front of the headquarters at Aldershot, that Mecca of the soldier, where no one would dare to pass in ordinary times whose turnout is not immaculate, the most extraordinary figures, in bowler hats and bits of uniform, passed unrebuked. We had to raid the neighbouring towns for food, to send frantic embassies to London for bread and meat; to turn out any sort of shed to house them. Luckily it was summer weather; otherwise I don't know what we should have done for blankets. But nobody 'groused.' Everybody worked, and there were many who felt it 'the time of their lives.'"
And yet England "engineered the war!" England's hypocrisy and greed demanded the crushing of Germany—hence the lying "excuse" of Belgium—that apparently is what all good Germans—except those who know better—believe; what every German child is being taught. As I listen to my companion's story, I am reminded, however, of a puzzled remark which reached me lately, written just before Christmas last, by a German nurse in a Berlin hospital, who has English relations, friends of my own. "We begin to wonder whether it really was England who caused the war—since you seem to be so dreadfully unprepared!" So writes this sensible girl to one of her mother's kindred in England; in a letter which escaped the German censor. She might indeed wonder! To have deliberately planned a Continental war with Germany, and Germany's 8,000,000 of soldiers, without men, guns, or ammunition beyond the requirements of an Expeditionary Force of 160,000 men, might have well become the State of Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. But the England of Raleigh, Chatham, Pitt, and Wellington has not generally been reckoned a nation of pure fools.
The military camps of Great Britain tell the tale of our incredible venture. "Great areas of land had to be cleared, levelled, and drained; barracks had to be built; one camp alone used 42,000 railway truck-loads of building material." There was no time to build new railways, and the existing roads were rapidly worn out. They were as steadily repaired; and on every side new camps sprang up around the parent camps of the country.
The Surrey commons and woods, the Wiltshire downs, the Midland and Yorkshire heaths, the Buckinghamshire hills have been everywhere invaded—their old rural sanctities are gone. I walked in bewilderment the other day up and down the slopes of a Surrey hill which when I knew it last was one kingdom of purple heather, beloved of the honey-bees, and scarcely ever trodden by man or woman. Barracks now form long streets upon its crest and sides; practise-trenches, bombing-schools, the stuffed and dangling sacks for bayonet training, musketry ranges, and the rest, are everywhere. Tennyson, whose wandering ground it once was, would know it no more. And this camp is only one of a series which spread far and wide round the Aldershot headquarters.
Near my own home, a park and a wooded hillside, that two years ago were carefully guarded even from a neighbour's foot, are now occupied by a large town of military huts, which can be seen for miles round. And fifteen miles away, in a historic "chase" where Catharine of Aragon lived while her trial was proceeding in a neighbouring town, a duke, bearing one of the great names of England, has himself built a camp, housing 1,200 men, for the recruits of his county regiments alone, and has equipped it with every necessary, whether for the soldier's life or training. But everywhere—East, North, South, and West—the English and Scotch roads are thronged with soldiers and horses, with trains of artillery wagons and Army Service lorries, with men marching back from night attacks or going out to scout and skirmish on the neighbouring commons and through the most sacred game—preserves. There are no more trespass laws in England—for the soldier.
You point to our recruiting difficulties in Parliament. True enough. We have our recruiting difficulties still. Lord Derby has not apparently solved the riddle; for riddle it is, in a country of voluntary service, where none of the preparations necessary to fit conscription into ordinary life, with its obligations, have ever been made. The Government and the House of Commons are just now wrestling with it afresh, and public opinion seems to be hardening towards certain final measures that would have been impossible earlier in the war.[B] The call is still for men—more—and more—men! And given the conditions of this war, it is small wonder that England is restless till they are found. But amid the cross currents of criticism, I catch the voice of Mr. Walter Long, the most practical, the least boastful of men, in the House of Commons, a few nights ago: Say what you like, blame, criticise, as you like, but "what this country has done since August, 1914, is an almost incredible story." And so it is.
And now let us follow some of these khaki-clad millions across the seas, through the reinforcement camps, and the great supply bases, towards that fierce reality of war to which everything tends.
[B] Since these lines were written the crisis in the Government, the Irish rising, and the withdrawal of the military service bill have happened in quick succession. The country is still waiting (April 28th) for the last inevitable step.
It was about the middle of February, after my return from the munition factories, that I received a programme from the War Office of a journey in France, which I was to be allowed to make. I remember being at first much dissatisfied with it. It included the names of three or four places well known to be the centres of English supply organisation in France. But it did not include any place in or near the actual fighting zone. To me, in my ignorance, the places named mainly represented the great array of finely equipped hospitals to be found everywhere in France in the rear of our Armies; and I was inclined to say that I had no special knowledge of hospital work, and that one could see hospitals in England, with more leisure to feel and talk with the sufferers in them than a ten days' tour could give. A friendly Cabinet Minister smiled when I presented this view. "You had better accept. You will find it very different from what you suppose. The 'back' of the Army includes everything." He was more than right!
The conditions of travelling at the present moment, within the region covered by the English military organisation in France, for a woman possessing a special War Office pass, in addition to her ordinary passport, and understood to be on business which has the good-will of the Government, though in no sense commissioned by it, are made easy by the courtesy and kindness of everybody concerned. From the moment of landing on the French side, my daughter and I passed into the charge of the military authorities. An officer accompanied us; a War Office motor took us from place to place; and everything that could be shown us in the short ten days of our tour was freely open to us. The trouble, indeed, that was taken to enable me to give some of the vividness of personal seeing to these letters is but one of many proofs, I venture to think, of that warm natural wish in British minds that America should understand why we are fighting this war, and how we are fighting it. As to myself, I have written in complete freedom, affected only by the absolutely necessary restrictions of the military censorship; and I only hope I may be able to show something, however inadequately, of the work of men who have done a magnificent piece of organisation, far too little realised even in their own country.
For in truth we in England know very little about our bases abroad; about what it means to supply the ever-growing needs of the English Armies in France. The military world takes what has been done for granted; the general English public supposes that the Tommies, when their days in the home camps are done, get "somehow" conveyed to the front, being "somehow" equipped, fed, clothed, nursed, and mended, and sent on their way across France in interminable lines of trains. As to the details of the process, it rarely troubles its head. The fact is, however, that the work of the great supply bases abroad, of the various Corps and Services connected with them—Army Ordnance, Army Service, Army Medical, railway and motor transport—is a desperately interesting study; and during the past eighteen months, under the "I.G.C."—Inspector-General of Communications—has developed some of the best brains in the Army.
Two days spent under the guidance of the Base Commandant or an officer of his staff among the docks and warehouses of a great French port, among the huts of its reinforcement camp, which contains more men than Aldershot before August, 1914, or in its workshops of the Army Ordnance Corps, gave me my first experience of the organising power that has gone to these departments of the war. The General in command of the base was there in the first weeks of the struggle and during the great retreat. He retired with his staff to Nantes—leaving only a broken motor-car behind him!—just about the time that the French Government betook itself to Bordeaux. But in September he was back again, and the building-up process began, which has since known neither stop nor stay. That the commercial needs of a great French port should have been able to accommodate themselves as they have to the military needs of the British Army speaks loudly for the tact and good feeling on both sides. The task has not been at all times an easy one; and I could not help thinking as we walked together through the crowded scene, that the tone and temper of the able man beside me—his admiration, simply expressed, yet evidently profound, for the French spirit in the war, and for the heroic unity of the country through all ranks and classes, accounted for a great deal. In the presence of a good-will so strong, difficulties disappear.
Look now at this immense hangar or storehouse—the largest in the world—through which we are walking. It was completed three years before the war, partly, it is said, by German money, to house the growing cotton-trade of the port. It now houses a large proportion of the food of the British Army. The hangar is half a mile long, and is bounded on one side by the docks where the ships are discharging, and on the other by the railway lines where the trains are loading up for the front.
You walk through avenues of bacon, through streets of biscuits and jam. On the quays just outside, ships from England, Canada, Norway, Argentina, Australia are pouring out their stores. Stand and watch the endless cranes at work, and think what English sea power means! And on the other side watch the packing of the trucks that are going to the front, the order and perfection with which the requisitions, large and small, of every regiment are supplied.
One thinks of the Crimean scandals. The ghost of Florence Nightingale seems to move beside us, watching contentedly what has come of all that long-reforming labour, dealing with the health, the sanitation, the food and equipment of the soldier, in which she played her part; and one might fancy the great shade pausing specially beside the wired-in space labelled "Medical Comforts," and generally known as "The Cage." Medical necessaries are housed elsewhere; but here are the dainties, the special foods, the easing appliances of all kinds which are to make life bearable to many a sorely-wounded man.
As to the huge sheds of the Army Ordnance, which supply everything that the soldier doesn't eat, all metal stores—nails, horseshoes, oil-cans, barbed wire—by the ton; trenching-tools, wheelbarrows, pickaxes, razors, sand-bags, knives, screws, shovels, picketing-pegs, and the like—they are of course endless; and the men who work in them are housed in one of the largest sheds, in tiers of bunks from floor to ceiling.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Depot to the outsider are the repairing sheds and workshops established in a suburb of the town to which we drive on. For this is work that has never been done before in connection with an army in the field. Day by day trains full of articles for repair come down from the front. I happened to see a train of the kind, later on, leaving a station close to the fighting line. Guns, rifles, range-finders, gun-carriages, harness, all torn and useless uniforms, tents, boots by the thousand, come to this base to be repaired, or to be sent home for transformation into "shoddy" to the Yorkshire towns. Nothing seems too large or too small for Colonel D.'s department. Field-glasses, periscopes, water-bottles, they arrive from the trenches with the same certainty as a wounded howitzer or machine-gun, and are returned as promptly.
In one shed, my guide called my attention to shelves on which were a number of small objects in china and metal. "They were found in kits left on the field," he says gently. "Wherever we can identify the owner, such things are carefully returned to his people. These could not be identified."
I took up a little china dog, a bit of coarse French pottery, which some dead father had bought, at Poperinghe, perhaps, or Bailleul, for the children at home. Near by were "souvenirs"—bits of shell, of German equipment; then some leaves of a prayer-book, a neck-medallion of a saint—and so on—every fragment steeped in the poignancy of sudden death—death in youth, at the height of life.
The boot and uniform sheds, where 500 French women and girls, under soldier-foremen, are busy, the harness-mending room, and the engineering workshops might reassure those pessimists among us—especially of my own sex—who think that the male is naturally and incorrigibly a wasteful animal. Colonel D. shows me the chart which is the record of his work, and its steadily mounting efficiency. He began work with 140 men, he is now employing more than a thousand, and his repairing sheds are saving thousands of pounds a week to the British Government. He makes all his own power, and has four or five powerful dynamos at work.
We come out into a swirl of snow, and henceforward sightseeing is difficult. Yet we do our best to defy the weather. We tramp through the deepening snow of the great camp, which lines the slopes of the hills above the river and the town, visiting its huts and recreation-rooms, its Cinema theatre, and its stores, and taking tea with the Colonel of an Infantry Base Depot, who is to be our escort on the morrow.
But on the last morning before we start we mount to the plateau above the reinforcement camp, where the snow lies deep and the wind blows one of the sharpest blasts of the winter. Here are bodies of men going through some of the last refinements of drill before they start for the front; here are trenches of all kinds and patterns, revetted in ways new and old, and planned according to the latest experience brought from the fighting line. The instructors here, as at other training-camps in France, are all men returned from the front. The men to whom they have to give the final touch of training—men so near themselves to the real thing—are impatient of any other sort.
As we stand beside the trenches under the bright sun and piercing wind, looking at the dark lines of British soldiers on the snow, and listening to the explanations of a most keen and courteous officer, one's eyes wander, on the one side, over the great town and port, over the French coast and the distant sea, and on the other side, inland, over the beautiful French landscape with its farms and country houses. Everything one sees is steeped in history, a mingled history, in which England and France up to five centuries ago bore an almost equal share. Now again they are mingled here; all the old enmities buried in a comradeship that goes deeper far than they, a comradeship of the spirit that will surely mould the life of both nations for years to come.
How we grudged the snow and the low-sweeping clouds and the closed motor, on our drive of the next day! I remember little more of it than occasional glimpses of the tall cliffs that stand sentinel along the river, a hasty look at a fine church above a steeply built town, an army lorry stuck deep in the snow-drifts, and finally the quays and ships of another base port. Our escort, Colonel S., pilots us to a pleasant hotel full of officers, mostly English, belonging to the Lines of Communications, with a few poor wives and mothers among them who have come over to nurse their wounded in one or other of the innumerable hospitals of the base.
Before dinner the general commanding the base had found me out and I had told my story.
"Oh, we'll put some notes together for you. We were up most of last night. I dare say we shall be up most of this. But a little more or less doesn't matter." I protested most sincerely. But it is always the busiest men who shoulder the extra burdens; and the notes duly reached me. From them, from the talk of others spending their last ounce of brain and energy in the service of the base, and from the evidence of my own eyes, let me try and draw some general picture of what that service is: Suppose a British officer speaking:
Remember first that every man, every horse, every round of ammunition, every article of clothing and equipment, all the guns and vehicles, and nearly all the food have to be brought across the English Channel to maintain and reinforce the ever-growing British Army, which holds now so important a share of the fighting line in France. The ports of entry are already overtaxed by the civil and military needs of France herself. Imagine how difficult it is—and how the difficulty grows daily with the steady increase of the British Army—to receive, disembark, accommodate, and forward the multitude of men and the masses of material!
You see the khaki in the French streets, the mingling everywhere of French and English; but the ordinary visitor can form no idea of the magnitude of this friendly invasion. There is no formal delimitation of areas or spaces, in docks, or town, or railways. But gradually the observer will realise that the town is honeycombed with the temporary locations of the British Army, which everywhere speckle the map hanging in the office of the Garrison Quartermaster. And let him further visit the place where the long lines of reinforcement, training and hospital camps are installed on open ground, and old England's mighty effort will scarcely hide itself from the least intelligent. Work, efficiency, economy must be the watchwords of a base. Its functions may not be magnificent—but they are war—and war is impossible unless they are rightly carried out.
When we came back from the Loire in September, after our temporary retreat, the British personnel at this place grew from 1,100 to 11,000 in a week. Now there are thousands of troops always passing through, thousands of men in hospital, thousands at work in the docks and storehouses. And let any one who cares for horses go and look at the Remount Depot and the Veterinary Hospitals. The whole treatment of horses in this war has been revolutionised. Look at the cheap, ingenious stables, the comfort produced by the simplest means, the kind quiet handling; look at the Convalescent Horse Depots, the operating theatres, and the pharmacy stores in the Veterinary Hospitals.
As to the troops themselves, every Regiment has its own lines, for its own reinforcements. Good food, clean cooking, civilised dining-rooms, excellent sanitation—the base provides them all. It provides, too, whatever else Tommy Atkins wants, and close at hand; wet and dry canteens, libraries, recreation huts, tea and coffee huts, palatial cinemas, concerts. And what are the results? Excellent behaviour; excellent relations between the British soldier and the French inhabitants; absence of all serious crime.
Then look at the docks. You will see there armies of labourers, and long lines of ships discharging horses, timber, rations, fodder, coal, coke, petrol. Or at the stores and depots. It would take you days to get any idea of the huge quantities of stores, or of the new and ingenious means of space economy and quick distribution. As to the Works Department—camps and depots are put up "while you wait" by the R.E. officers and unskilled military labour. Add to all this the armies of clerks, despatch riders, and motor-cyclists—and the immense hospital personnel—then, if you make any intelligible picture of it in your mind, you will have some idea of what bases like these mean.
Pondering these notes, it seemed to me that the only way to get some kind of "intelligible picture" in two short days was to examine something in detail, and the rest in general! Accordingly, we spent a long Sunday morning in the Motor Transport Depot, which is the creation of Colonel B., and perhaps as good an example as one could find anywhere in France of the organising talent of the able British officer.
The depot opened in a theatre on the 13th of August, 1914. "It began," says Colonel B., "with a few balls of string and a bag of nails!" Its staff then consisted of 6 officers and 91 N.C.O.'s and men—its permanent staff at present is about 500. All the drivers of some 20,000 motor vehicles—nearly 40,000 men—are tested here and, if necessary, instructed before going up to the fighting lines; and the depot deals with 350 different types of vehicles. In round figures 100,000 separate parts are now dealt with, stored, and arranged in the depot. The system of records and accounts is extraordinarily perfect, and so ingenious that it seems to work itself.
Meanwhile Colonel B.'s relations with his army of chauffeurs, of whom about 1,000 are always housed on the premises, are exceedingly human and friendly in spite of the strictness of the army discipline. Most of his men who are not married, the Colonel tells me, have found a "friend," in the town, one or other of its trimly dressed girls, with whom the English mechanic "walks out," on Sundays and holidays. There are many engagements, and, as I gather, no misconduct. Marriage is generally postponed till after the war, owing to the legal and other difficulties involved. But marriage there will be when peace comes. As to how the Englishman and the French girl communicate, there are amusing speculations, but little exact knowledge. There can be small doubt, however, that a number of hybrid words perfectly understood by both sides are gradually coming into use, and if the war lasts much longer, a rough Esperanto will have grown up which may leave its mark on both languages. The word "narpoo" is a case in point. It is said to be originally a corruption of "il n'y a plus"—the phrase which so often meets the Tommy foraging for eggs or milk or fruit. At present it means anything from "done up" to "dead." Here is an instance of it, told me by a chaplain at the front. He was billeted in a farm with a number of men, and a sergeant. All the men, from the chaplain to the youngest private, felt a keen sympathy and admiration for the women of the farm, who were both working the land and looking after their billetees, with wonderful pluck and energy. One evening the chaplain arriving at the open door of the farm, saw in the kitchen beyond it the daughter of the house, who had just come in from farm work. She was looking at a pile of dirty plates and dishes which had to be washed before supper, and she gave a sigh of fatigue. Suddenly in the back door on the other side of the kitchen appeared the sergeant. He looked at the girl, then at the dishes, then again at the girl. "Fattigay?" he said cheerfully, going up to her. "Narpoo? Give 'em me. Compree?" And before she could say a word he had driven her away, and plunged into the work.
The general relations, indeed, between our soldiers and the French population could not be better. General after General, both in the bases, and at the front dwelt on this point. A distinguished General commanding one of our armies on the line, spoke to me of it with emphasis. "The testimony is universal, and it is equally creditable to both sides." The French civilian in town and country is, no doubt, profiting by the large demand and prompt payments of the British forces. But just as in the case of the women munition workers, there is infinitely more in it than money. On the British part there is, in both officers and men, a burning sympathy for what France has suffered, whether from the outrages of a brutal enemy, or from the inevitable hardships of war. The headquarters of the General I have mentioned were not more than fifteen or twenty miles from towns where unspeakable things were done by German soldiers—officers no less than men—in the first weeks of the struggle. With such deeds the French peasantry and small townsfolk, as they still remain in Picardy and Artois, can and do contrast, day by day, the temper, the courtesy, the humanity of the British soldier. Great Britain, of course, is a friend and ally; and Germany is the enemy. But these French folk, these defenceless women and children, know instinctively that the British Army, like their own, whether in its officers, or in its rank and file, is incapable, toward any non-combatant, of what the German Army has done repeatedly, officially, and still excuses and defends.
The signs of this feeling for and sympathy with the French civils, among our soldiers, are many. Here is one story, slight but illuminating, told me by an eye-witness. She is one of a band of women under a noble chief, who, since very early in the war, have been running a canteen for soldiers, night and day, at the large railway-station of the very base I have been describing, where trains are perpetually arriving from and departing to the front. In the early days of the war, a refugee train arrived one afternoon full of helpless French folk, mainly of course women and children, and old people, turned out of their homes by the German advance. In general, the refugees were looked after by the French Red Cross, "who did it admirably, going along the trains with hot drinks and food and clothing." But on this occasion there were a number of small children, and some of them got overlooked in the hubbub. "I found a raw young Scotchman, little more than a boy, from one of the Highland regiments," with six youngsters clinging to him, for whom he peremptorily demanded tea. "He had tears in his eyes, and his voice was all husky as he explained in homely Scotch how the bairns had been turned out of their homes—how he couldn't bear it—and he would give them tea." A table was found. "I provided the milk, and he paid for bread and butter and chocolate, and waited on and talked to the six little French people himself. Strange to say, they seemed to understand each other quite well."
It was with this railway-station canteen that my latest memories of the great base are concerned. All the afternoon of our second day at —— was spent in seeing a fine Red Cross hospital, and then in walking or driving round the endless reinforcement and hospital camps in the open country. Everywhere the same vigourous expanding organisation, the same ceaselessly growing numbers, the same humanity and care in detail. "How many years have we been at war?" one tends to ask oneself in bewilderment, as the spectacle unrolls itself. "Is it possible that all this is the work of eighteen months?" And I am reminded of the Scotch sergeant's reply to his German captive, who asked his opinion about the duration of the war. "I'll tell you what—it's the furrst five years that'll be the worst!" We seem—in the bases—to have slipped through them already, measuring by any of the ordinary ratios of work to time. On my return home, a diplomat representing one of the neutral nations, told me that the Military Secretary of his staff had been round the English bases in France, and had come back with his "eyes starting out of his head." Having seen them myself, the phrase seemed to me quite natural.
Then, last of all, as the winter evening fell, we turned toward the canteen at the railway-station. We found it going on in an old goods' shed, simply fitted up with a long tea and coffee bar, tables and chairs; and in some small adjacent rooms. It was filled from end to end with a crowd of soldiers, who after many hours of waiting, were just departing for the front. The old shabby room, with its points of bright light, and its shadowy sides and corners, made a Rembrandtesque setting for the moving throng of figures. Some men were crowding round the bar; some were writing letters in haste to post before the train went off; the piano was going, and a few, gathered round it, were singing the songs of the day, of which the choruses were sometimes taken up in the room. The men—drafts going up to different regiments on the line—appeared to me to come from many parts. The broad Yorkshire and Cumbrian speech, Scotch, the cockney of the Home Counties, the Northumberland burr, the tongues of Devon and Somerset—one seemed to hear them all in turn. The demands at the counter had slackened a little, and I was presently listening to some of the talk of the indefatigable helpers who work this thing night and day. One of them drew a picture of the Canadians, the indomitable fighters of Ypres and Loos, of their breathless energy, and impatience of anything but the quickest pace of life, their appetites!—half a dozen hard-boiled eggs, at 3d each, swallowed down in a moment of time; then of the French-Canadians, their Old World French, their old-world Catholicism, simple and passionate. One of these last asked if there was any chance of his being sent to Egypt. "Why are you so anxious to go to Egypt?" "Because it was there the Holy Family rested," said the lad shyly. The lady to whom he spoke described to him the tree and the Holy Well in St. Georgius, and he listened entranced.
Sometimes a rough lot fill the canteen, drawn from the poorest class, perhaps, of an English seaport. They hustle for their food, shout at the helpers, and seem to have no notion that such words as "please" and "thank you" exist. After three or four hours of battling with such an apparently mannerless crew one of the helpers saw them depart to the platform where their train was waiting for them, with very natural relief. But they were no sooner gone, when a guardsman, with the manners, the stature, and the smartness of his kind, came back to the counter, and asked to speak to the lady in charge of it. "Those chaps, Miss, what have just gone out," he said apologetically, "have never been used to ladies, and they don't know what to say to them. So they asked me just to come in and say for them they were very much obliged for all the ladies' kindness, but they couldn't say it themselves." The tired helper was suddenly too choky to answer. The message, the choice of the messenger, as one sure to do "the right thing," were both so touching.
But there was a sudden movement in the crowd. The train was up. We all surged out upon the platform, and I watched the embarkation—the endless train engulfing its hundreds of men. Just as I had seen the food and equipment trains going up from the first base laden with everything necessary to replace the daily waste of the army, so here was the train of human material, going up to replace the daily waste of men. After many hours of travelling, and perhaps some of rest, these young soldiers—how young most of them were!—would find themselves face to face with the sharpest realities of war. I thought of what I had seen in the Red Cross hospital that afternoon—"what man has made of man"—the wreck of youth and strength, the hideous pain, the helpless disablement.
But the station rang with laughter and talk. Some one in the canteen began to play "Keep the Home Fires Burning"—and the men in the train joined in, though not very heartily, for as one or two took care to tell me, laughingly—"That and 'Tipperary' are awfully stale now!" A bright-faced lad discussed with D—— how long the war would last. "And shan't we miss it when it's done!" he said, with a jesting farewell to us, as he jumped into the train which had begun to move. Slowly, slowly it passed out of sight, amid waves of singing and the shouting of good-byes....
It was late that evening, when after much talk with various officers, I went up to my room to try and write, bewildered by a multitude of impressions—impressions of human energy, human intelligence, human suffering. What England is doing in this country will leave, it seems to me, indelible marks upon the national character. I feel a natural pride, as I sit thinking over the day, in all this British efficiency and power, and a quick joy in the consciousness of our fellowship with France, and hers with us. But the struggle at Verdun is still in its first intensity, and when I have read all that the evening newspapers contain about it, there stirs in me a fresh realisation of the meaning of what I have been seeing. In these great bases, in the marvellous railway organisation, in the handling of the vast motor transport in all its forms, in the feeding and equipment of the British Army, we have the scaffolding and preparation of war, which, both in the French and English Armies, have now reached a perfection undreamt of when the contest began. But the war itself—the deadly struggle of that distant line to which it all tends? It is in the flash and roar of the guns, in the courage and endurance of the fighting man, that all this travail of brain and muscle speaks at last. At that courage and endurance, women, after all, can only guess—through whatever rending of their own hearts.
But I was to come somewhat nearer to it than I thought then. The morrow brought surprise.
Our journey farther north through the deep February snow was scarcely less striking as an illustration of Great Britain's constantly growing share in the war than the sight of the great supply bases themselves. The first part of it, indeed, led over solitary uplands, where the chained wheels of the motor rocked in the snow, and our military chauffeur dared make no stop, for fear he should never be able to start again. All that seemed alive in the white landscape were the partridges—sometimes in great flocks—which scudded at our approach, or occasional groups of hares in the middle distance holding winter parley. The road seemed interminably long and straight, and ours were almost the first tracks in it. The snow came down incessantly, and once or twice it looked as though we should be left stranded in the white wilderness.
But after a third of the journey was over, the snow began to lessen and the roads to clear. We dropped first into a seaport town which offered much the same mingled scene of French and English, of English nurses, and French poilus, of unloading ships, and British soldiers, as the bases we had left, only on a smaller scale. And beyond the town we climbed again on to the high land, through a beautiful country of interwoven downs, and more plentiful habitation. Soon, indeed, the roads began to show the signs of war—a village or small town, its picturesque market-place filled with a park of artillery wagons; roads lined with motor lorries with the painted shell upon them that tells ammunition; British artillerymen in khaki, bringing a band of horses out of a snow-bound farm; closed motor-cars filled with officers hurrying past; then an open car with King's Messengers, tall, soldierly figures, looking in some astonishment at the two ladies, as they hurry by. And who or what is this horseman looming out of the sleet—like a figure from a piece of Indian or Persian embroidery, turbaned and swarthy, his cloak swelling out round his handsome head and shoulders, the buildings of a Norman farm behind him? "There are a few Indian cavalry about here," says our guide—"they are billeted in the farms." And presently the road is full of them. Their Eastern forms, their dark, intent faces pass strangely through the Norman landscape.
Now we are only some forty miles from the line, and we presently reach another town containing an important British Headquarters, where we are to stop for luncheon. The inn at which we put up is like the song in "Twelfth Night," "old and plain"—and when lunch is done, our Colonel goes to pay an official call at Headquarters, and my daughter and I make our way to the historic church of the town. The Colonel joins us here with another officer, who brings the amazing news that "G.H.Q."—General Headquarters—that mysterious centre and brain of all things—invites us for two days! If we accept, an officer will come for us on the morning of March 1st to our hotel in Boulogne and take us by motor, some forty miles, to the guest-house where G.H.Q. puts up its visitors. "Accept!" Ah, if one could only forget for a moment the human facts behind the absorbing interest and excitement of this journey, one might be content to feel only the stir of quickened pulses, of gratitude for a further opportunity so tremendous.
As it was, I saw all the journey henceforward with new eyes, because of that to which it was bringing us. On we sped, through the French countryside, past a great forest lying black on the edge of the white horizon—I open my map and find it marked Bois de Crecy!—past another old town, with Agincourt a few miles to the east, and so into a region of pine and sand that borders the sea. Darkness comes down, and we miss our way. What are these lines of light among the pine woods? Another military and hospital camp, which we are to see on the morrow—so we discover at last. But we have overshot our goal, and must grope our way back through the pine woods to the sea-shore, where a little primitive hotel, built for the summer, with walls that seem to be made of brown paper, receives us. But we have motored far that day, and greet it joyfully.
The following morning we woke to a silvery sunlight, with, at last, some promise of spring over a land cleared of snow. The day was spent in going through a camp which has been set down in one of the pleasantest and healthiest spots of France, a favourite haunt of French artists before the war. Now the sandy slopes, whence the pines, alack, have been cut away, are occupied by a British reinforcement camp, by long lines of hospitals, by a convalescent depot, and by the training-grounds, where, as at other bases, the newly arrived troops are put through their last instruction before going to the front. As usual, the magnitude of what has been done in one short year filled one with amazement. Here is the bare catalogue: Infantry Base Depots, i.e. sleeping and mess quarters, for thousands of men belonging to the new armies; 16 hospitals with 21,000 beds, 3 rifle ranges; 2 training-camps; a machine-gun training-school; a vast laundry worked by Frenchwomen under British organisation, which washes for all the hospitals, 30,000 pieces a day; recreation huts of all types and kinds, official and voluntary; a Cinema theatre, seating 800 men, with performances twice a day; nurses' clubs; officers' clubs; a Supply Depot for food; an Ordnance Depot for everything that is not food; new sidings to the railway, where 1,000 men can be entrained on the one side, while 1,000 men are detraining on the other; or two full ambulance trains can come in and go out; a Convalescent Depot of 2,000 patients, and a Convalescent Horse Depot of 2,000 horses, etcetera. And this is the work accomplished since last April in one camp.
Yet, as I look back upon it, my chief impression of that long day is an impression, first, of endless hospital huts and marquees, with their rows of beds, in which the pale or flushed faces are generally ready—unless pain or weariness forbid—as a visitor ventures timidly near, to turn and smile in response to the few halting words of sympathy or inquiry which are all one can find to say; and, next, of such a wealth of skill, and pity, and devotion poured out upon this terrible human need, as makes one thank God for doctors, and nurses, and bright-faced V.A.D.'s. After all, one tremblingly asks oneself, in spite of the appalling facts of wounds, and death, and violence in which the human world is now steeped, is it yet possible, is it yet true, that the ultimate thing, the final power behind the veil—to which at least this vast linked spectacle of suffering and tenderness, here in this great camp, testifies—is not Force, but Love? Is this the mysterious message which seems to breathe from these crowded wards—to make them just bearable. Let me recollect the open door of an operating theatre, and a young officer, quite a boy, lying there with a bullet in his chest, which the surgeons were just about to try and extract. The fine, pale features of the wounded man, the faces of the surgeon and the nurses, so intent and cheerfully absorbed, the shining surfaces and appliances of the white room—stamp themselves on memory. I recollect, too, one John S——, a very bad case, a private. "Oh, you must come and see John S——," says one of the Sisters. "We get all the little distractions we can for John. Will he recover? Well, we thought so—but"—her face changes gravely—"John himself seems to have made up his mind lately. He knows—but he never complains." Knows what? We go to see him, and he turns round philosophically from his tea. "Oh, I'm all right—a bit tired—that's all." And then a smile passes between him and his nurse. He has lost a leg, he has a deep wound in his back which won't heal, which is draining his life away—poor, poor John S——! Close by is a short, plain man, with a look of fevered and patient endurance that haunts one now to think of. "It's my eyes. I'm afraid they're getting worse. I was hit in the head, you see. Yes, the pain's bad—sometimes." The nurse looks at him anxiously as we pass, and explains what is being tried to give relief.