THE more Lloyd George worked with Smuts, the more useful and the more to his liking he found him. He sent him to the headquarters of Sir Douglas Haig, who commanded the British forces in France, to get his views, and then to discuss the situation with the King of the Belgians and the President of the French Republic. Smuts could express opinions and say things that no Englishman could say. For the same reason Lloyd George considered sending him on a propaganda mission to the United States, for Smuts would be able to pay tributes to English character and to praise England in a way no Englishman could possibly do without boasting; and if an Englishman came boasting, no American would believe him or even listen to him.
Smuts came back from France with decided views. He considered that the French ought to do more, push ahead, show more of an offensive spirit, defend France without depending so much on the English Army. England, he considered, was being dragged at the tail of France.
Hardly had he returned when Lloyd George asked him to be chairman of a Convention on Ireland: the various Irish parties, rebels and loyalists, had agreed to meet; Smuts seemed the right man to preside; he was an old rebel turned loyalist, and Lloyd George calculated that the loyalists would be pleased and the rebels might listen to him.
Sir James Craig, the leader of the northern Irish, went to see Smuts at the Savoy, and found that he wished to be chairman. Better take my advice," said Sir James Craig, who was always direct and blunt. "Get aboard the next ship to Cape Town before you accept this job. You'll be better off. Without an interpreter you'll not understand what they are saying, and without a guide to their religious differences and their characters you'll never know what they are doing." Smuts showed his wisdom by refusing to be chairman.
Lloyd George put Smuts on to committee after committee. He created a special committee to advise the Cabinet on its war policy and another to watch events in the Near East, and he made Smuts a member of both.
From every side came demands for men—men for the front line, for the reserves, for the factories, for the mines, for every national service. Every department scrambled and haggled and shouted for men. Lloyd George made a War Priorities Committee with Smuts as its chairman to hear the claims and to allot the men where they were most needed. He had to "keep his finger on the pulse of the war-weary people" and to judge how to use the men at his disposal : and he did it with a fine judgment, partiality, and firmness.
The 7th July, 1917, was a fine summer day with a clear sky and a warm, pleasant sun shining. In the middle of the morning a fleet of twenty-two Gotha aeroplanes flew out from Germany across the sea, dropped bombs on the East End of London, destroyed a great number of buildings and started huge fires, killed and wounded a hundred and ninety-five people, terrified all the population, and, despite the anti-aircraft guns and all attempts to intercept them, sailed away with a fine audadty safely back to Germany.
The result was a tremendous outcry. These were not the first German aeroplanes which had come raiding and got away in safety. From all over England came angry demands for inquiry and action: if this could happen, then there was something wrong with the air forces. And there was very much that was wrong with the air forces.
When the war began, flying was a new invention, crude and undeveloped. The war had forced it into quick development. To meet the new problems and the new dangers a dozen independent organisations had been created. They were run by forceful men, and each thought his own organisation the best. There was no centralisation or co-ordination, but waste, reduplication, and friction. For the defence of London alone there were five different independent commanders. The Navy had its own air service and the Army its own independently; and the Army and the Navy grew so bitter at any attempt to amalgamate that they expended almost as much of their energies in fighting each other in committees as in fighting the enemy in the air. Inventions were not pooled, but rather concealed, as from trade rivals. The Army had taken all its 'planes to France, and the Navy, with Winston Churchill at its head, had tried to protect England by bombing Belgian towns where there were German air bases, but with little result. There was a Board of Inventions and Research, a Munitions Inventions Department, an Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and a Ministry of Munitions, which met together, discussed, and did little.
Asquith, when Prime Minister, had set up first a War Air Committee under Lord Derby, but it had failed, and then an Air Board under Lord Cowdray, but with little power, so that it became only a conference where the Army and Navy spent their time quarrelling. It was this confusion and friction which had made the raid of the 7th July possible.
The Cabinet met at once and faced an indignant House of Commons in a secret session. Something had to be done and done quickly. Lloyd George sent Smuts post-haste to investigate and report.
Smuts went at his work at full speed. He had behind him the indignation of the whole country and the full authority of the Cabinet. In South Africa he was involved in every political feud, and this sapped his strength and influence there. In England he was not involved in any of the departmental quarrels, nor was he tied by any personal or official commitments. The departmental and political leaders, with the admirals and generals behind them, tried to carry on their old feuds and so to hold him up. These difficulties he tactfully but firmly ignored, and pushed on quite relentlessly; nothing was going to hold him up.
He knew nothing about the subject or its technicalities, but he listened to anyone who could tell him anything of value. He quickly picked the brains of those who came to him and got rid of them as quickly, wasting no time on them. In South Africa, where life moved more slowly, that method had made him unpopular. In England people accepted it, in the rush and scurry of life, as normal and natural.
With amazing speed he assimilated details, and, refusing to allow his mind to be complicated by personal considerations or time-honoured conventions, he sorted the details into essentials, gripped them, and made his decision clearly and firmly. Within eight days he had a complete scheme for the defence of London. He destroyed the separate commands. All must be centralised, he advised, under one commander who should control, as well as the aeroplanes and the men, all the guns, lights, telephones, and every available service; air barrages were to be devised; the antiaircraft stations were to be outside London and the pilots trained not merely to chase the Germans after a raid but to meet them in the air before they reached London, fight them in formation, and drive them off.
Then he divided England into areas and repeated the same system for the whole country.
That done, he went hard at the whole problem of the fighting air services. Again he was up against the intense rivalries of the Navy and Army chiefs; again he ignored them firmly and pushed on. He recommended the amalgamation of the air forces of the Navy and the Army into a separate fighting force and the creation of an Air Ministry with a minister at the head.
The Cabinet accepted his scheme. Parliament passed it into law. It was a success.
On one point alone Smuts hesitated. The Germans had deliberately bombed undefended English towns and killed defenceless civilians. Should he recommend reprisals on German towns and on German women and children?
Smuts had a great respect, even a great liking, for the Germans, their mentality, and their philosophy. He believed that the Teutons were the soundest stock of all the nations; that the real objective of the war was to rip away the Prussian military dictatorship which had driven them to war and to set the German people free; and that the future of the world and of civilisation depended on Germany and England, after the war, acting together. He wondered whether reprisals against civilians, the killing of women and children, might not lead to such bitterness that no such co-operation would ever be possible. It was the memory of the deaths of the women and children in the South African war which still kept many of the Dutch hostile to England.
South African politics also made him hesitate. Hertzog and many of the Dutch boasted that they were of German extraction. Hertzog said one-third of the population of South Africa had German blood in them. This was an exaggeration, but Smuts saw that if he recommended reprisals against the Germans undoubtedly his opponents would use this as another stick with which to beat at him at the next election.
He had, moreover, many friends in Holland. The Netherlands Minister in London, Jonkeer van Swinteren, was an intimate friend of his. The Hollanders were very pro-German. Smuts had tried to help them. Botha had encouraged him to do so. "There is a tender feeling," he wrote in one letter, "for Holland in the Union. The greater England's friendship with Holland the easier it becomes to uphold the Empire in South Africa." More than once Smuts had been criticised for helping Holland and so for helping Germany indirectly. He had protested when the Admiralty commandeered some ships from Holland, and he had arranged for the export from Holland of gravel, which was used on the roads in Belgium, and these roads were utilised by German troops in occupation. He was greatly influenced by the feelings and the opinions of the Hollanders, and they advised him and tried to persuade him against reprisals.
Had it been against any other people, or a question of pity or of humanitarian sentiments, Smuts would not have hesitated; but it was a question of policy. He had to decide whether reprisals would stop the Germans raiding English towns and whether they would create such bitterness that the two peoples would never be able to act together. He was peering away out beyond the immediate need into the future beyond the war.
Reluctantly, putting on one side the effects in South Africa and the advice of the Hollanders, he recommended reprisals. "The Germans have forced it on us," he said, "and, moreover, our air position should be not here in London but beyond the Rhine."
In the meantime he was employed on a dozen other duties. The police in London went on strike. It was a good-humoured strike, little more than a protest at the terms under which they worked; but it was difficult to handle, for neither the police chiefs nor the Government could accept the principle that the police had the right to strike as if they were miners or factory workers: they were the guardians of the law. Lloyd George sent Smuts to deal with the strikers.
Smuts did not have to bother about the principles: he could without loss of dignity or control be more amiable to the strikers and more conciliatory than any of the officials. He heard their grievances, gave them much when it was justified, and they went back to duty quickly and in excellent temper.
With Barnes, the Labour leader, he settled a strike of five thousand engineers in Coventry and then went to South Wales, where the coal-miners round Cardiff were out and in a dangerous mood.
The situation was critical. The men refused to return to work. The Navy reported that they had only one week of coal in reserve, and after that they would be unable to keep the battle fleets at sea; all movements of food, troops, and supplies would be paralysed; no reinforcements would be able to go to France; no food shipped into England, and England would starve within another two weeks. The Germans would have won.
At Tonypandy an immense crowd waited for Smuts. They were out for trouble. They would not have listened to an Englishman or a Welshman, but they were prepared to listen to this South African and to hear what he had to say. They had expected a black man; and though they were disappointed that he was only white, still he was a stranger, and a novelty, and they waited for him to speak.
For a minute Smuts stood looking out over the seething thousands of angry men, a sea of white faces from under grey-cloth caps staring up at him, moving like waves broken up when a wind breaks across the tide; now a catchword or a jeer ran through them, to be taken away up to the edge of the crowd, and died away. He could feel the air electric with the massed passions below him. He knew that on his success or failure with these men depended defeat or victory in France and the future of England, of the Empire, and of Europe; perhaps of the civilised world.
It was just such a moment as brought out all the best in Smuts, the steel in his character. He had prepared no set speech: he had left to the inspiration of the minute what he should say. As he had left London, Lloyd George had said to him, "Remember, my countrymen are great singers." He would use that.
He leant a little forward and the crowd was still and tense.
"Gentlemen," he said, and his Malmesbury accent showed he was no Englishman, "I come from far away.... I do not belong to this country.... I have heard in my country that the Welsh are the greatest singers in the world. Will you first sing me one of the songs of your people?"
A second of surprise and of hesitation, and then a man struck up with "Land of My Fathers," and the whole immense crowd, tier on tier, joined in as one tremendous choir and with an intense passion and fervour.
When they finished there was silence. They were quivering with emotion, the anger out of them, and he spoke quickly before the mood passed. "You know," he said, "that your comrades in France by tens of thousands are risking their lives in the trenches... but the trenches are not only in France, but here in Tonypandy... and I am convinced that here in Tonypandy you will defend this Land of your Fathers."
The men went back to work. The strike was over. The Navy got its coal and kept the high seas open for the Allies.
When some part of England began to falter or grow war-weary the Cabinet sent Smuts to speak. He made fighting speeches full of stock, trite phrases. Had they come from an Englishman they would have met with a shrug of the shoulders, but coming from a stranger—for such is human nature—they roused and invigorated his audiences.
"What is required of you is unfailing determination to hold on and win," he said. "We have conquered. The victory is ours....In Germany there is a growing feeling of terror." In the Midlands, in Sheffield, and Manchester, he said, "We are fighting for an ideal........Right may be borne down by force for a time, but if we have determination right will win at last"; and away in the north, "The enemy are already defeated: that is my conviction," and, "We fight for freedom. In my day and in my country I have seen freedom go under and I have seen freedom rise again, indestructible, deathless, immortal."
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