The War Cabinet was planned to consist of men of exceptional ability and standing, free from routine or department ties, and so able to undertake any important duties. If a committee hung fire because of jealousies, personal or departmental, or because of a timid or inefficient president, a member of the War Cabinet was sent to preside and bustle the committee; and he had behind him the whole power and prestige of the Cabinet. If a situation at home or abroad was delicate, critical, or obscure, a member of the War Cabinet was sent to investigate, and he reported his own conclusions direct to the Cabinet. It was an autocratic system excellently suited to the war.
Many of the members of the Cabinet, however, were too busy. Lloyd George, Bonar Law, and Curzon especially had their own departments. Others of the members had been brought in for political reasons and were of little other use. Lord Milner and Smuts were the two who were the best fitted and the freest for these special duties.
At the first meeting which he attended Smuts found himself sitting beside Milner, his old rival, the man he hated, the man who had always set his hackles up; but now they were to work together for one great object. They quickly became friends, and from friendship they went to respect. Both had the same quick, decisive mind: Smuts more complicated by alternatives and more tortuous, Milner more simple and direct. Like a woodman preparing a tree to fell, each rapidly cut away all undergrowth from a problem and left the trunk bare. The more they grew to know each other, the more they saw eye to eye. There grew up between them a close mutual understanding. They consulted each other, trusted and backed each other. Smuts treated Milner as son might treat an honoured father. He would take Milner by the arm away into a corner to work out some knotty point, and until Milner had agreed, he would not be satisfied to give his opinion.
At meetings Smuts was extraordinarily reserved. He refused to be drawn into any discussion on local politics. Even when it was on military or diplomatic subjects he often sat silent. On one occasion he sat right through a long meeting of the full Cabinet without opening his mouth, though Austen Chamberlain tried several times to draw him out, and at the end Bonar Law, in jest, complimented him on his restraint.
When, however, he did speak he always had something to say and something worth saying. The rest of the members were too close to the events, too close to the ground. They had sons and brothers in the fighting line and the problems were intensely personal as well as national, and they could not look up and beyond.
Smuts was freer. He could look up and away into the future, and now and again he made schemes and observations which were like flashes of inspiration to the others tied down to the immediate problems.
"We shall," he said in 1917, "win this war but lose the peace, and all who are directing in this war will lose their reputation." He began to speak of an organisation, a league of all nations, to keep the peace and build a new world when the war was over. To the others the war had become wearily eternal, without ginning and without visible end. He began to plan out the form of the British Empire after its ordeal and testing in the fire through which it was passing. He opposed all idea of concrete union by federation with a central Imperial Parliament. "No one outside a lunatic asylum wants," he said," to force the young nations of the Empire into any particular mould. . . . All previous empires were based on the idea of assimilating and forcing different human material through one mould to form one nation. ... My conception of the British Empire is a grouping of free states held together with a common allegiance on terms of freedom and equality." And he coined the telling phrase "The British Commonwealth of Nations."
So both by his silences and his expressed opinion he earned the reputation of being "a wise councillor."
Smuts had a suite of rooms at the Savoy Hotel in London, luxuriously fitted and with a view across the Embankment and the busy Thames beyond; but at times he became homesick for the wide, arid spaces of the veld; for the sun; for the rough accommodation of the converted bungalow which was his house at Irene, where he ate veld food and slept on a hard mattress on a narrow iron bedstead, often out on the stoep. These things suited hini better than the luxuries of the Savoy.
On one occasion a friend sent him some biltong, the sun-dried strips of meat used in South Africa. The parcel was given to him in the hotel hall. He would not wait until he got to his room, but tore it open as he went up in the lift and chewed the brittle strips of meat as he went down the passage, enjoying it more than the delicacies of the hotel restaurant and its French chef.
Like all others in those days of intense effort, he worked hard and took what sleep he could get, went to bed late, and got up early. He ate sparingly, never smoked, drank only a little red wine and occasionally some brandy. He was usually well dressed in the uniform of a lieutenant-general, with red tabs on his coat, and he looked well and healthy. For exercise he drove out in his car to Richmond and walked hard across the Park. He avoided social functions and dinners, though he was a member of one or two clubs, including the " Other Club," a select group started by F. E. Smith and Winston Churchill. Any spare time he spent with friends—quiet, unimportant people in London or Oxford—so that officials, and especially those representing South Africa, complained that he neglected his social duties. Even when he had promised, they were never sure he would turn up, but they would find that he had gone off somewhere walking, or to his friends.
Colonel House, the confidential adviser of Mr. Wilson, the President of the United States of America, reported that he had met Smuts and that "He is alert, energetic, and forceful. One of the few men here who do not seem tired"; and that was natural, for Smuts was in a special position. The months he was in England were a holiday for him. He was away from the oppressive routine of his office and the churlish suspicion and dislike of his own people. He was being educated. He needed culture. He was as yet only half educated, and then only in law and erudite philosophy, some science grubbed out of books, and some poetry. He was like an encyclopaedia with only a few pages cut. Of music and the heart-beat of sound, of art, painting, of the joy of colour caught, of the play and working of great intellects, he knew and felt nothing. In these he had had no experience. In South Africa he met no first-class brains. In England he was in constant contact with first-class minds working at high pressure. The contact stimulated and taught him. One hour's talk with Balfour or Milner was more of an education than a month of reading alone in Irene.
He had, moreover, no responsibilities. He was in the pleasant position of being free-lance adviser to the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet, who respected him, asked his advice, and trusted his judgment. From his youth up he had been called by the big thing and the big idea. Now he was a power behind the men handling world affairs and without their obligation to justify their opinions.
He had few personal anxieties. South Africa, his country and home, was six thousand miles away and in no danger. He was convinced that Germany could not win the war; she might be able to force a draw or stalemate, but no more: so she could do no harm to South Africa.
He was able to stand well back out of the crowd and watch. He was apart, like one of the old gods sitting on Mount Olympus looking down with scorn on the efforts of men and the puny battles of the mortals round Troy. He was like one who has found an ants' nest broken up by some clumsy foot, and who watched with detached curiosity the massed striving of the pygmy world below him.
The Smuts of South Africa disappeared : the impatient, liverish, often ill-natured, often petty, Smuts, harassed with constant responsibility, overworked, always under close criticism and distrusted, who had to calculate all he did and said in terms of how it would affect the voters at the next election. The slowness of the routine of Government offices and even of the Cabinet and the fumblings of older men—he was younger than his colleagues, had lived more simply and in a better climate, and so had more vigour—irritated him somewhat, but he was more tolerant. He was more easy-tempered and more human. And while all round him there was massed hysteria and the palpitating, bloodshot-eyed confusion of a world gone mad and the weariness of men about to break under strain, he developed an air of tranquillity, of imperturbability, of the watcher self-contained, looking on from his superior viewpoint, interested but not intimately affected; so that many came to him for his advice.
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