The failure to produce a more satisfactory world settlement in 1919–20 was, we have suggested, a symptom of an almost universal intellectual and moral lassitude resulting from the overstrain of the Great War. A lack of fresh initiative is characteristic of a fatigue phase; everyone, for sheer inability to change, drifts on for a time along the lines of mental habit and precedent.
Nothing could be more illustrative of this fatigue inertia than the expressed ideas of military men at this time. It will round off this chapter in an entirely significant way, and complete our picture of the immense world interrogation on which our history must end, if we give here the briefest summary of a lecture that was delivered to a gathering of field-marshals, generals, major- generals, and the like by Major-General Sir Louis Jackson at the Royal United Service Institution in London one day in December, 1919. Lord Peel, the British Undersecretary for War, presided, and the reader must picture to himself the not too large and quite dignified room of assembly in that building, and all these fine, grave, Soldierly figures quietly intent upon the lecturer’s words. He is describing, with a certain subdued enthusiasm, the probable technical developments of military method in the «next war».
Outside, through the evening twilight of Whitehall, flows the London traffic, not quite so abundant as in 1914, but still fairly abundant; the omnibuses all overcrowded because there are now not nearly enough of them, and the clothing of people generally shabbier. Some little way down Whitehall is a temporary erection, the Cenotaph, with its base smothered with a vast pathetic heap of decaying wreaths, bunches of flowers, and the like, a cenotaph to commemorate the eight hundred thousand young men of the Empire who have been killed in the recent struggle. A few people are putting fresh flowers and wreaths there. One or two are crying.
The prospect stretches out beyond this gathering into the gray vastness of London, where people are now crowded as they have never been crowded before, whose food is dear and employment more uncertain than it has ever been. But let not the spectacle be one of unrelieved gloom; Regent Street, Oxford Street, and Bond Street are bright with shoppers and congested with new automobiles, because we must remember that everybody does not lose by a war. Beyond London the country sinks into -night, and across the narrow sea are North France and Belgium devastated, Germany with scores of thousands of her infants dwindling and dying for want of milk, all Austria starving. Half the population of Vienna, it is believed unless American relief comes quickly, is doomed to die of hardship before the spring. Beyond that bleak twilight stretches the darkness of Russia. There, at least, no rich people are buying anything, and no military men are reading essays on the next war. But in icy Petrograd is little food, little wood, and no coal. All the towns of Russia southward as far as the snow reaches are in a similar plight, and in the Ukraine and to the south a ragged and dingy war drags to its end. Europe is bankrupt, and people’s pockets rustle with paper money whose purchasing power dwindles as they walk about with it.
But now we will return to Sir Louis in the well-lit room at the United Service Institution.
He was of opinion – we follow the report in next morning’s Times—that we were merely on the eve of the, most extensive modifications of the art of war known to history. It behooved us, therefore-us being, of course, the British and not the whole of mankind-to get on with our armaments and to keep ahead; a fine opening generalization. «It was necessary to develop new arms … The nation, which best did so would have a great advantage in the next war. There were people who were crying aloud for a reduction of armaments»
(But they’re the Director of Trench Warfare and Supplies was wrong. They were just crying at the cenotaph, poor, soft, and stupid souls; because a son or a brother or a father was dead.)
Sir Louis believed that one of the greatest developments in the art of warfare would be brought about in mechanical transport. The tank he treated with ingratitude. These military gentlemen are ungrateful to an invention, which shoved and butted them into victory almost in spite of themselves. The tank, said Sir Louis, was «a freak … The outstanding feature» of the tank, he said, was that it made mechanical transport independent of the roads. Hitherto armies on the march had only been able to spoil the roads; now their transport on caterpillar wheels would advance in open order on a broad front carrying guns, munitions, supplies, bridging equipment, rafts, and men and incidentally ploughing up and destroying hedges, ditches, fields, and cultivation generally. Armies would wallow across the country, leaving nothing behind but dust and mud.
So our imaginations are led up to the actual hostilities.
Sir Louis was in favor of gas. For punitive expeditions particularly, gas was to be recommended. And here he startled and disconcerted his hearers by a gleam of something approaching sentimentality. «It might be possible», he said, «to, come to some agreement that no gas should be used which caused unnecessary suffering». But there his heart spoke rather than his head; it should have been clear to him that if law can so far override warfare as to prohibit any so of evil device whatever, it can override warfare to the extent of prohibiting it altogether. And where would Sir Louis Jackson and his audience be then? War is war; its only law is the law that the maximum destruction of the forces of the enemy is necessary. To that law in warfare all considerations of humanity and justice are subordinate.
From gas Sir Louis passed to the air. Here he predicted the most important advances… We need not trouble ourselves yet with flying destroyers or flying concrete forts, but in twenty years’ time the Air Force Estimates might be the most important part of our preparations for war». He discussed the conversion of commercial flying machines to bombing and reconnaissance uses, and the need for special types of fighting machine in considerable numbers and always ready. He gave reasons for supposing that the bombers in the next war would not have the same targets near the front of the armies, and would secure better results by going further a field and bombing the centers «where stores are being manufactured and troops trained». As everyone who stayed in London or the east of England in 1917–18 knows, this means the promiscuous bombing of any and every center of population. But, of course, the bombing of those ’prentice days would be child’s play to the bombing of the «next war». There would be countless more aeroplanes, bigger and much nastier bombs…
Sir Louis, proceeding with the sketch, mentioned the «destruction of the greater part of London» as a possible incident in the coming struggle. And so on to the culminating moral, that the highest pay, the utmost importance, the freest expenditure, must be allowed to military gentlemen. «The expense entailed is in the nature of an absolutely -necessary insurance». With which his particular audience warmly agreed. And a certain Major-General Stone, a little forgetful of the source of his phrases, said he hoped that this lecture «may be the beginning not of trusting in the League of Nations, but in our own right hand and our stretched-out arm!»
But we will not go on with the details, of this dream. For indeed no Utopia was ever so impossible as this forecast of a world in which scarcely anything but very carefully sandbagged and. camouflaged G.H.Q. would be reasonably safe, in which countless bombers would bomb the belligerent lands incessantly and great armies with lines of caterpillar transport roll to and fro, churning the -fields of the earth into blood-streaked mud. There is not energy enough and no will whatever left in the world for such things. Generals who cannot foresee tanks cannot be expected to foresee or understand world bankruptcy; still less are they likely to understand the limits imposed upon military operations by the fluctuating temper of the common man. Apparently these military authorities of the United Service Institution did not even know that warfare aims at the production of states of mind in the enemy, and is sustained by states of mind. The chief neglected factor in the calculations of Sir Louis is the fact that no people whatever will stand such warfare as he contemplates, not even the people on the winning side. For as northern France, south- eastern Britain, and north Italy now understand, the victor in the «next war» may be bombed and starved almost as badly as the loser.
A phase is possible in which a war-tormented population may cease to discriminate between military gentlemen on this side or that, and may be moved to destroy them as the common enemies of the race. The Great War of 1914–18 was the culmination of the military energy of the Western populations, and they fought and fought well because they believed they were fighting «the war to end war». They were. German imperialism, with its organized grip upon education and its close alliance with an aggressive commercialism, was beaten and finished. The militarism and imperialism of Britain and France and Italy are by comparison feeble, disorganized, and disorganizing survivals. They are things «left over» by the Great War. They have no persuasive power. They go on for sheer want of wits to leave off. No, European Government will ever get the same proportion of its people into the tanks and into its ammunition-works again as the governments of 1914 did. Our world is very weak and feeble still. (1920), but its war fever is over. Its temperature is, if anything, subnormal. It is doubtful if it will take the fever again for a long time. The alterations in the conditions of warfare are already much profounder than such authorities as Sir Louis Jackson suspect.