An Englishwoman’s Message
“Of course, when war comes to a peace-loving people, without warning or preparation, it must of necessity disorganize to an appalling degree the whole fabric of civilian life.”
I wish that I could give to my American friends a noble message and one adequate to the appeal of the time; but I fear that I must ask forbearance and sympathy, because the thunder of the guns is in my ears and heart. Away over there, on the blood-red fields of France and Flanders, those dearer to me than life itself are fighting for liberty, with their backs to the wall; and there is only one thing that I am certain of, and that is that I never shall see all of them again.
I could fill far more space than is allotted to me with wonderful stories of the men who are fighting there. I know them so well. I have been with them by camp-fires at home and abroad, in their tents, in their billets, behind the lines, and on the lines of communication. I have spoken to them in all kinds of places, and I could tell you many things that would fill up your hearts; but that is not my task to-day I have been sent over from my own country, to try to bring before the people of this greater country a picture of what the war has done for us and what life is like over there, where there is no peace, very little sleep, very little light, no freedom from fear, and very little food.
I want you, Americans, to think of these things one by one, and to take them with you in your hearts, and to ask yourselves if you are sufficiently grateful for these simple everyday blessings. I want to tell you that you ought to cherish them like the angels’ visits, because you never know how precious and how necessary they are until they have gone away.
Of course, when war comes to a peace-loving people, without warning or preparation, it must of necessity disorganize to an appalling degree the whole fabric of civilian life. When you take seven or eight millions of men out of the ordinary vocations which they have pursued, there must be much confusion and chaos. We went through all that in the autumn of 1914, and it was then that our women had to step into the breach and show what they could do to serve their country. It is not enough to put great armies into the field. They have to be equipped, not only with fighting implements, but with their uniforms, and boots, and all the things that the fighting man requires.
Munitions of course were the most important part. So little prepared were we, notwithstanding the lies that our enemies have spread, that at the outbreak of the war we had only three munition factories. Now we have five thousand, and they are all more or less manned by women. In every great industry, no matter how great the call from the fighting front, there must always, of course, be left a certain percentage of men, because there is skilled labor that women cannot do without years of preparation, and also there are certain kinds which are too heavy for their physical powers.
We have a million and a half women working in our munition factories to-day, — all kinds, from the highest to the lowest; peers’ daughters, and daughters of cabinet ministers, of professional men, of rich merchants, — all working side by side twelve hours a day, with brief intervals for meals, living together in little villages, which have had to be built close to the factories, in order to solve the housing problem. They are not segregated, but live the communal life, side by side, sharing the family life in dining-rooms, recreation rooms, in all respects living as one family; and it has had a wonderful effect on them all. The upper-class women have learned something from their working sisters. They have gained a broader outlook, a more candid sincerity, and a great many other things which are going to be of much value. The same thing holds good of the other side. They have learned refinement of speech and behavior. In fact, they have come to understand each other, and ignorance is the cause of so much sorrow and misunderstanding that we welcome all this wonderful new fusion in our national life. Please God, when the anguish of these days is over, it is going to be a splendid factor in our reconstruction.
In addition to the women working in munition factories, they have had to take the place of men in commercial houses, in stores, banks, — everywhere where young manhood was formerly employed, — and they have given much satisfaction to all concerned. Everywhere one hears the same story of how they have given of their very best; they are so industrious, they are so uncomplaining, so conscientious in all matters, that they very seldom have to be found fault with. It is surprising how little inefficiency there is in our depleted occupations because of the splendid way the women have stepped into the breach. We have thousands engaged in driving all kinds of conveyances, and as conductors on buses and on trains. They even clean the streets, and act as porters at the railway stations.
Then we have a land army of about half a million, taking the place of men on the farms. That has been one of our most difficult tasks, because we have found our farmers to be a very conservative body of men, who wanted no changes of any sort; they thought that they should be specially favored as they were food-producers, and should be allowed to keep all the men they wanted; but they have had to take a certain number of women on the land. No man is asked to take a woman helper until she has had some training. One old farmer in my country brought forward a very extraordinary objection. He said, ‘Women on the land! What do they know about land? They ain’t any good on the land! Just look what Eve did in Eden!’ I could not remember that she did very much to the land there. My recollection was merely that she picked the apple and passed it on.
Then we have a very large legion in France. The women began about eighteen months ago to relieve the men in the camps—when the need of men became very insistent. There are some who work in the cook-houses and prepare the men’s food, and others who act as orderlies, and as waiters in the different messes. They relieve men as clerks and storekeepers. They take care of and distribute the stores, and drive them to different places as required. In fact, they have relieved every man available for fighting, and they are always being reinforced from the battalions sent out from training. Part of their work is to clean the men’s uniforms, and sole and heel their boots; and the latest thing they have taken over is the mending of rifles. Thus there ahs been a great economic saving by the employment of women. It is hard work, and they are kept in their own cantonments under strict military discipline. It says a great deal for their patriotism that they are so willing to stay so far from their homes. They are really serving their country in a way that we can never be sufficiently grateful for.
We come now to our last reserve of women—the great company of home-keepers; and, believe me, their hearts are just as full of fire as the others’. They are obliged to stay within the four walls of the house because homes must be kept together, the children cared for, and the fires kept burning for the boys when they come home and for the men who are working at civilian occupations. They would love to be in out-and-out war-service, and they get no medals or stripes of honor of any kind. They are simply carrying on the everyday drudgery which we women know so well, forgetful that it is the very foundation of a nation’s strength and fineness. Now there has passed into the hands of these women, in the most extraordinary way, the greatest opportunity to serve their country. It has arisen out of the food-shortage, and requires them to serve by putting on very cheerful faces in the face of extraordinary difficulties, and by bringing all the resources of mind and body to bear on the solving of problems not easily solved, the preparation of meals out of poor and scanty ingredients. I am overjoyed to say that they are standing up splendidly to their job and are making the very best of everything at their disposal.
I suppose you are aware that that is not very much. We are getting to be very hungry in England. The shortage has come bit by bit, very gradually just as it is going to come to you. My housekeeper said to me one day about a year ago, ‘Do you notice every day there is something we cannot get?’ And that is exactly how it happened. One day one thing lacking, and another day another; and at last, like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, our larder has become very empty indeed. Our shortage of flour is very great—that is the string that is always being harped upon, that ‘you must have the wheat flour for us.’ I have seen many kinds of war-bread in this country, but nothing quite so unpalatable as ours. I tis just made of any old thing on hand at the moment. We have been able to keep up the quantity so far. We always have three and a half pounds of bread per person a week, or its equivalent; but it is not allowed to be sold until it is twelve hours old, on the theory that stale bread goes further than new bread. When you get this, with a thin scraping of margarine, you don’t go very far with it. I am very sorry for our bakers, because they get such conflicting orders. In many places in this country I hear much grumbling about continual changes in the orders from Washington.
Now I want to assure you that you are just at the very beginning of things, and that you will continue to get these new orders as time goes on, until you won’t know whether your head or your heels are uppermost. But what I want to say most emphatically is this: that the true patriot will accept these orders in the spirit of the soldier, and he will fall in line at once without grumbling. Be assured that the government is not sending out these orders without good reason for the changes; and I hope that every one will fall in line and be as cheerful as possible about them.
Our meat-supply varies greatly according to the amount of success that the U-boat has on the seas. One week we may have a little more than the last, but we never get more than our allowance of one pound a week per head. Large families get along not so badly, because they have the one big joint in the week, and they can spread it over into respectable meals; but the smaller families have more difficulty. It takes all the ingenuity of the house-wife to make meals out of such slender ingredients. Unfortunately, it is the essentials that we are so short of. In my last letter from my housekeeper she said, ‘We have had no fat in the house for a week.’ Now I put it to you housewives of America—how would you like to go into your larder to-morrow morning and find no fat of any sort to bake or cook with in any form? It takes all one’s courage and cheerfulness to tackle the problem.
Milk we were very short of in the winter, owing to the cows being killed because of scarcity of fodder. You cannot buy a glass of milk anywhere in a hotel or restaurant unless you have a child with you. Householders are supposed to take milk only for the sick or for children. Eggs also are scarce and were a dollar and a half a dozen when I left England; but probably, as summer comes on, the situation as regards both milk and eggs will be relieved to some extent, because everything is easier in the summer.
These are the food conditions so far as I know them at the moment. They have been improved somewhat by the introduction of the card system of rations. It came into operation some time last month, and I hear is giving great satisfaction. It does not, of course, increase the quantity, but it does insure equal distribution. It is a curious thing, that food seems to be the supreme test of human nature. People will give up all kinds of things: they don’t mind last year’s clothes; but when it comes to food, it is a very different proposition. Food is not a very inspiring subject to write about, but it is very wonderful how inspiring it can become when there is none of it.
I was at a strange little meeting in Ohio, — a pro-German community, — and just before the meeting a woman came up with a very stern expression on her face and said, ‘I am just going to tell you this. I had to give my boy. He was drafted and I had no choice. But I won’t give up my food for anybody.’ It sounded as if her food was of more value to her than her boy. ‘But won’t you please come to the meeting and hear what I have to tell you about how it is over there?’ I asked. She came; and after the meeting she came to me and said, ‘I am just going to tell you that I am going to change my mind. I will go without some of the things.’
It is the supreme test. There is no doubt about it.
Every kind of voluntary ration broke down in England, and it was the people to whom we looked for counsel and advice who were convicted of hoarding on a very large scale. They were very promptly discovered and exposed by the newspapers, and fined or imprisoned, so it did not do them much good. Our women as a whole, however, have been splendid. I am sorry to have to say that it was the men who made the most trouble. The men you know are conservative, especially about food. They like the straightforward things that they know about. In the old days, when we used to have tremendous dinner-parties, two soups, two entrées, etc., etc., it was very interesting to see who sampled the new dishes. It never was the men. They like the straight-forward things. They don’t like substitutes of any sort. A woman said to me in the street one day, ‘I don’t mind substitutes, and the children don’t, but Harry don’t like messes.’
I wonder whether you American men when the test comes, are going to live up to your very high reputation. As husbands you are considered to have no equals on the face of the earth. When little jars occur, as they do in the best households, we have been known to tell our lawful spouses that we wished we had married American husbands. Even now, I suppose, you have to eat things that you don’t particularly want. The true patriot is the man who can eat an imitation beefsteak, with a smile on his face, and tell the woman who prepared it that it is as good as the real thing.
These are the food conditions, and they are very difficult. The supreme test has come to us after we have grown a little war-weary, and after we have lived through three and a half years of unexampled strain and sorrow and anxiety. I think it is not quite understood in this country, how big a part of England now s as truly the war-zone as where the actual battles are being fought. We have had a great deal of air-raiding, and during the last year the attacks have become much more frequent and much more violent, just as in every department of the war things have become more quick and poignant and active.
The air-raids have increased, in particular. We have no Zeppelins now, because we brought down so many of them: these monsters cost a tremendous amount of money, and the damage they did was so small as not to be worth their while. But they have another kind of machine which can do a great deal more damage. It is called a Gotha. It is a very quick-flying aeroplane. A Zeppelin has to stand still before beginning operations, so that it made a splendid target for our guns; and that is why we had so much success in bringing them down. But this particular ship which has been over us this winter drops bombs while flying, and a rapidly moving object is much more difficult to attack from below. They do much damage, and destroy a tremendous amount of private property. They come over the coast in large numbers now, — anywhere from twelve to twenty-five or thirty ships, — and they often split up at the coast. They come up the Thames valley, where there are many things they would like to destroy: Woolwich Arsenal for instance, with its twenty-mile circumference of war activity. But they have never once got what they could call an objective of military importance. Neither have they found any of our splendid buildings in London, our historic monuments, the Parliament buildings, and the like. They have succeeded only in destroying a great quantity of small property, and killing poor people who never did them any harm.
I am so tired of telling this story of how my own house was destroyed.
In October, 1915, the Zeppelins’ visits began to be very serious. They had made other visits before, and we were much interested in them. We always ran out like children to watch them. A Zeppelin may be six or eight hundred feet long. The last ones we know were eight hundred, because we saw one come down near where we lived. Made of beautiful shining material, so exquisitely woven, it was a joy to look at. When you see a shape outlined against a dark blue sky on a starless night, it is like a fairy picture; but when it starts to do its deadly work, you forget about its beauty; and when you hear the grinding of its engine, you have nothing but terror in your heart.
My daughter, who had been working for over three years in the French War Zone, was at home for her first leave that night. She was very anxious to see an airship. (Both the boys and the girls feel that this war is a great adventure. If they had the real fear and hatred of it that we older people have, whose souls have been seared by the suffering and anguish, they would never be able to do the things they do. We ought to rejoice, and we do, that they have the spirit that sends them when necessary ‘over the top.’) When I told her that I thought the Zeppelins were out, we went into the garden. We don’t venture out any more, for many were killed by falling shrapnel. I have even heard it pattering on my roof like hail. The boys back from the front don’t like it.
We all stood there in the garden, listening. Suddenly the engine stopped; following that there was another sound, quite familiar to us because we had heard it in the distance before. It was the explosion of a very large bomb; and that was followed by another and another, in such rapid succession that we were quite stunned. We had no time to be afraid. It was such a wonder to us. It was terrifying in a way. We never spoke a word during the four or five minutes in which this rapid and fierce bombardment took place. In our old town, which had kept its one thousandth birthday shortly before, strange-looking things kept dropping, which proved to be incendiary bombs, intended to set fire to the buildings of which the explosive bombs had begun the destruction. The air was filled with strange, sulphurous, smoking fumes. Above the noise of the bursting bombs could be heard the cries of the wounded. It was as if the mouth of hell had been opened.
We soon saw the evil thing above us. On the lawn was a wonderful old cedar tree, which had stood for four hundred years. This was split by the concussion, and had afterward to be taken down. When it was over and comparative quiet restored, the man who stood by us said, ‘I think now we can go into the house.’ And so we walked across the terrace, and tried to go in. There was a French window opening on the terrace, and it was unbroken; but when we tried to open it.=, we found there was no house. The entire front had been blown up, and the noise was so great, and the concussion being outward, not toward us, we did not know that it had happened. Books, pictures, furniture, walls, roof, — everything was down in our inextricable heap. We could look into the street, where were a few flashing lights.
What happened to me that night, and to a number of other people, is the sort of thing that is happening all the time in our country in the war zone, which is increasing in size every day. They are building more and more airships, and they are going farther and farther into the interior. We don’t talk very much about it. This war is such a stupendous thing. We just don’t think about our own possessions. Why, we don’t seem to belong to ourselves any more. You can always get another house, you know, but there is only one country. After all, for the things that alone make life worth living there is no sacrifice too great. You are willing to give, and give again—to give life itself if only it will help in winning the victory.
Another night I came very near to the Zeppelin danger. My job has been a talking job for a long time. I have talked to munition workers in factories, etc., etc. All women who work on munitions need encouragement. It is not women’s work. If you could see the heads bent over the work—women’s heads, such pretty heads!—you would rebel as I did. But they are dedicated to this service because there is one thing worse than war, and that is dishonorable peace. I think our women will not have any such peace. Just before I came here I went to Woolwich Arsenal to get light on how matters were there. There is one splendid welfare superintendent there, who looks after forty thousand women workers. I asked her if the spirit of the women who had been working so long as munition work was as fine as in the beginning; and she answered, ‘Yes, it is just as fine, but I think it is more determined, and there is only one thing that would make them rise in a body and that is if an inconclusive peace was settled upon. They have worked so long they will only hold on to victory.’
The other question was quite as interesting and equally important. A good many of us who are old-fashioned have been troubled about what is going to be the future of the homes over which these women who have been dedicating themselves to strange unwomanly work would preside; and I asked Miss Barker what effect it was likely to have on the homes to be established by-and-by. There was no hesitation about her answer. She said, ‘Every one of them will be glad to creep back to their firesides. There will be better homes because of the wilder vision. The men will have to be worthy of them. I tell the women, too, that they will have to be worthy of the men when they come back.’ So out of this war there may arise something finer and more beautiful in our family life than anything we have experienced yet.
I spoke to the women on the nightshift, reminding them that they were soldiers quite as much as the boys at the front, and that they must stand behind the fighting men. As I stood speaking to these women and girls, suddenly the lights went out. We knew what that meant. We could hear the grinding of the Zeppelin engine, and we knew that if one shell fell on the glass roof above us, but few would live to see the dawn of another day. It was an awful moment, and presently the nerve of some of the women began to break. You could hear a sob here and there and a little scream, and presently some one, inspired by a message from on high, began to sing softly that beautiful hymn, ‘Jesus, Lover of my Soul.’ I wish that I could make you see and feel what it was like, — that wonderful low melody stealing across the factory, taken up by every voice, — and how it fell like a benediction upon the bowed heads and beating hearts until all fear was stilled and we knew that nothing would happen to us; and nothing did. Presently the lights went up, and work was resumed as usual.
That is not a fancy picture, not an unusual thing. It is just what our women are going through day by day. You may wonder what the spirit is of that people living under that strain every day. We are very tired in the old world. I think that you who are so young, so full of hope, must find it difficult to understand just how tired we are. We are just tired in the old world. I think that you who are so young, so full of hope, must find it difficult to understand just how tired we are. We are just as brave, just as determined. We have taken the vow, on our hearts and our consciences, that we will never, never let go; that we will stand to fight to the last man, to the last woman, to the last ditch. That is one of the things that the war has done for us. It has made us feel, because we have suffered so much, that we can endure more; and the same thing is true of Italy, France, and whenever there is the war. You will find the squaring of the shoulders, the setting of the lips, the hardening of the eye, that tells of a people who have lost neither hope nor courage. We know that the darkest hour is before the dawn, and the tide will turn by-and-by—perhaps not for the victory that once we hoped for, but there can be no doubt about the issue; for it is not an ordinary war, an ordinary struggle between nations for a bit of supremacy or power or prestige: it is the beginning of the final struggle between good and evil, between might and right, between the powers of evil and the powers of good. And because we know and believe that this great English-speaking people are on the side of liberty and humanity, we have courage to go on and hold on, even through the days of sacrifice and darkness.
We do not read our casualty lists any more. Many of us dare not. When we meet, we do not even speak of those who have gone away. A very touching thing was told me by one of my neighbors. He was the last of twenty-four officers in one of the Gordon regiments. He said that the places were just filled up as soon as they were emptied, and they never spoke of those who had fallen. That brings the reality of the thing to you.
In every home in our country to-day there is found the vacant chair, the loss of some near kindred. In my own little country—Scotland—you will find many, many villages from which the Highland regiments have been recruited. There are no boys left to come back. They are all dead.
Not many weeks before I came to this country, I was up in the Gordon country, and on a Sunday night I was speaking in a church on the spiritual side of the war. At the close, a woman came to me, a little simple country woman, dressed in deep mourning, and in her bag she had three portraits of boys dressed in the uniform of the Gordon Highlanders, and a little yellow missive, which I, alas, knew too well. ‘The War Office Department regrets to inform ———— that —— —— was killed in action.’ She laid this little missive beside one of the portraits, and said, ‘That came yesterday. That’s Jimmie. He’s the last of the three.’ She had given her all. Then she added, ‘I hear you are going to America. Will you tell American mothers I have given all my lads? I had only three and I would give six, if I had them, for the same cause.’ Another friend of mine has given all her five sons. She was a widow and she has none left; but she is working in one of the canteens with no shadow on her face.
I wonder where that strength comes from. I will tell you. Since there has been this great and universal loss throughout the length and breadth of our land, there has arisen a great questioning about the better country to which so many of our splendid boys have gone. They were the flower and hope of the nation; not the dregs, not the remnants, but the boys who had to die before they lived; and there has arisen in the hearts of the men and women who never thought about it before, a new interest in the life that is to come. They could not believe that those lovely creatures could go down like the beasts that perish. If we have a loved one who has gone to another country, we read about that country, and ask all manner of questions concerning it. We put any traveler who returns through a regular catechism, so that we may visualize it. So it is with the Father’s house to which our boys have gone. We want to know about it. We want to feel sure that these glorious souls are marching on, and that somewhere, somehow, they are fulfilling themselves and finding a destiny that is worthy of them. And so you would find us to-day in England a very serious but not a too sad people, because we have got a vision of the inner flame. We have, rearing itself in the very core of our national life to-day, a foundation which is built upon the sure hope. It is being built by men and women who have found for the first time the key which the Lord Christ left upon the stone, on the Resurrection morn.
So, you see, the war is not all loss, it is not all cost, all pain. It has its compensation; and you men and women of America, who stand at the beginning and to whom this sorrow will surely come, I want to tell you that with your sorrow will come the courage and light from above for everything you need in the hour of supreme test. Now I wonder whether you men and women of America have realized this stupendous fact, that this country to which you have the honor and privilege to belong, this great America, is now the last reserve standing between civilization and the evil thing that is out to destroy it. We are very tire; we have given all we have to give. Our age-limit has been raised to fifty, and we are taking at this very time our boys of nineteen; so you will understand that we are coming near the end of our resources.
And now the eyes of the whole world of humanity, of those who have been through the Gethsemane of these terrible years—all eyes are turned on you. I wonder if you realize the solemnity of this high hour, if you know the greatness of your own destiny. It narrows down, as all the big things of life do, to the personal, the individual question, ‘What are you doing to make yourself worthy of the great offering which has been laid, not only on the altar of all those countries which are suffering, but on the altar of humanity?’ No one can say that what he or she can do is of no account. The cumulative effort, built up like the sands of the sea, is what counts; so what you men and women do greatly matters. Perhaps, who knows, even the little which you have to offer may turn the scale.
Out of a heart that is strained almost to the breaking-point, I beg you, please, please wake to the fact that the whole world has its eyes turned in travail and in sorrow, but also in hope and in confidence, to these shores and to the flag which has stood so long for liberty and freedom. Please God, the flags that are united in this great conflict shall never be disunited, and the great union of English-speaking peoples shall secure and safeguard the future for our children and our children’s children.