Military history


AT EVERY POINT on their journey, the new King and Queen were greeted with thunderous cheers. As their ship sailed from Portsmouth, it was flanked by 15 vessels of the Royal Navy's Home Fleet—mighty ships with names to match: Indefatigable, Invincible, Indomitable, Superb. Several days' travel brought the royal liner and its escorts to Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coast, the scene of Britain's epochal triumph of naval arms in the Napoleonic era—proof again that in warfare, daring and discipline would always carry the day—and then, after night fell, to the colony of Gibraltar. The town beneath the great rock that controlled the entrance to the Mediterranean was lit up in welcome. In the morning, sailors on ten ships of the Atlantic Fleet gave the royal couple—the King in his white admiral's uniform—three lusty cheers as they sailed onward. At Port Said the Khedive of Egypt, wearing the star and ribbon of the Order of the Bath, came to pay tribute. As the monarchs' ship steamed through the Suez Canal, relays of troopers from the Egyptian Camel Corps cantered along the banks as an escort. At Suez, fireworks filled the sky. At Aden, more British warships fired off a 121-gun salute. King George V and Queen Mary, crowned in Westminster Abbey only a few months before, were on their way to be formally installed as Emperor and Empress of India. Their voyage, in November 1911, marked the first time a British sovereign had left Europe since Richard the Lion-hearted had set off to capture Jerusalem in the Third Crusade.

The pageantry of the six-week visit surpassed anything the British Raj in India had ever seen. There were trumpet fanfares, a Punjabi war dance, a Scottish sword dance, and a championship polo match; in Calcutta, crowds of Indians broke through a line of soldiers to seize clumps of earth the King's feet had stepped on and press them to their foreheads. Gone—at least from British press coverage—was all memory of the long history of Indian uprisings against the colonial regime, some of them fairly recent. In the foothills of the Himalayas, a maharaja assembled 645 elephants to take His Majesty and a large party of guests and gamekeepers on a tiger hunt. In Bombay, the normally reticent King George was so overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcoming crowd that his voice broke and for a few moments he was unable to speak.

The climax came at a grand ceremony in Delhi, the Durbar, in which George V and Mary were proclaimed Emperor and Empress. Dust filled the air as 100,000 people assembled in the open, while on raised crimson-and-gold thrones under a canopy the imperial couple took their seats. He wore a robe of purple velvet and a crown glittering with diamonds; more diamonds sparkled in her coronet, and her white satin dress was bordered with gold. Escorting them to their thrones were men of the Life Guards and Indian Lancers, Scottish Archers and Gurkha Rifles, and 12 British and 12 Indian trumpeters on white horses. Sixteen hundred military bandsmen played triumphal music. Fourteen bemedaled Indian attendants in scarlet, with white turbans, carried maces; four more bore fans of yak tails and peacock feathers, to whisk away any insect arrogant enough to approach. Swords, helmets, and bugles glinted in the sunlight; the air was filled with fluttering pennants and smoke from the booming artillery. For a full hour, British officials and Indian nobility came forward to bow in homage, then respectfully back away: the viceroy; the chief justice and judges of the High Court; the governors and lieutenant governors of the provinces; the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Begum of Bhopal, the Nawab of Rampur, the Khan of Kalat, and too many maharajas to count.

Only one curious episode marred the proceedings. An Indian nobleman, the Gaekwar of Baroda, was thought not to have shown the proper respect. "When he came up to do homage," huffed the London Times, "he walked up jauntily swinging a stick in his hand—in itself a gross breach of etiquette—and as he passed before their Majesties he saluted in the most perfunctory manner. Very few people believe that his discourtesy was not deliberate." In vain, later, did the distraught Gaekwar repeatedly protest that he was simply nervous and confused. Wild rumors began to fly: he was even said to admire the United States for breaking free of Britain. London crowds hissed when they saw him in a newsreel. Keir Hardie, however, eagerly seized on the event: "His fellow-rulers had been taught to grovel low before the Throne, as becomes all who go near such a symbol of imbecility," he wrote. "But he ... kept erect, and then, horror of all horrors, when leaving the dais, he actually turned his back upon the King." Hardie looked forward to the day when more citizens of India would refuse "to add to her abasement by kissing the foot of the oppressor."

The British officials who proudly attended the Durbar, of course, considered themselves anything but oppressors. Prominent among them, sitting in the front row, was Sir Douglas Haig. An assignment in India as military chief of staff had come to an end, but he had strategically delayed his departure until after the royal visit. He filled his diary with satisfied comments on his soldiers' role performing for the monarchs. "A perfect parade. Men stand like rocks.... I have never seen troops march past better, or Cavalry gallop in better order." As much a royal favorite as ever, he was honored with an additional knighthood and sailed for home as Knight Commander of the Indian Empire. Like John French before him, his next post would be commanding the 1st Army Corps at Aldershot, now a force slated to be immediately sent to the Continent in the event of hostilities.

Displays of imperial might like the Durbar did far more than satisfy the vanity of those who took part. They underlined to any potential adversary that if war did break out, Britain would have the strength of its entire empire to draw on. In any war in Europe, the message was, soldiers from the British Isles would be joined by those from illustrious units like the Royal Deccan Horse, the King's African Rifles, or the West India Regiment. In every corner of the empire, loyal subjects saw coming to Britain's aid as their duty. "Schools are like munitions factories," proclaimed the Reverend Percy Kettlewell, headmaster of a private boys' school in Grahamstown, South Africa, in 1913, "and ought to be turning out a constant supply of living material." He would get his wish: in the war that began the next year, nearly 1,000 graduates of his own munitions factory donned uniforms; 125 of them were killed.

The same year as the Durbar, Germany precipitated a second international crisis over Morocco, sending a warship to the port of Agadir during an uprising, supposedly to protect German citizens. (Embarrassingly, there turned out to be none on hand, but to make reality match the Kaiser's rhetoric, a startled German businessman was hastily summoned to Agadir from a Moroccan town 75 miles away.) Helmuth von Moltke, the bellicose chief of the German general staff, hoped privately that his country would "pluck up the courage to make an energetic demand which we are prepared to enforce with the sword." In response to the German move, Britain put the Royal Navy on a rare peacetime alert. Like other disputes in Africa, this one was settled by a division-of-the-spoils agreement: France consolidated its hold over most of Morocco; Germany won a slice of French territory in central Africa.

In the face of mounting tension between their countries, French and German socialists redoubled their statements of solidarity: a leading German socialist promised a congress of the French party, to great applause, "We will never fire on you"; Jean Jaurès addressed comrades in Berlin and returned home to sing the praises of the German Social Democratic Party. When the German party won more than a quarter of the seats in the country's parliament in early 1912, the leading French socialist newspaper was ecstatic, calling the results "a victory of the proletariat as a whole. It is an expression of the universal desire for peace." And, indeed, German socialist parliamentarians, rosettes of revolutionary red in their lapels, continued their long practice of voting against the country's military budget—a budget that was now increasing.

Later that year, 555 delegates from 23 countries assembled for an unusually fervent congress of the Second International in Basel, Switzerland. Children dressed in white singing socialist songs led the participants through the streets to the city's cathedral. The next year, Hardie's Independent Labour Party staged a campaign against the danger of war, which climaxed in a large London demonstration addressed by, among others, his friend Jaurès. This short, rotund, heavily bearded man, who trembled with emotion, gestured dramatically, and threw back his head as he spoke ("Jaurès thinks with his beard," commented one person who knew him), was an orator of legendary power, and though he spoke in French, no one could miss his meaning. When he placed his hand near the platform and steadily lifted it, the British crowd cheered him wildly, recalled a witness, because "we all knew he was talking about the rise of the working class."

In high places more voices were predicting war. Von Moltke pushed for a hefty enlargement of the German army and bluntly told the country's chancellor, "All sides are preparing for European War, which all sides expect sooner or later." Not only were all sides preparing, but the high commands had detailed plans for how the war would unfold. Should Germany attack France, British and French officers had already worked out which French ports British troops would disembark at, how many French railway cars and interpreters would meet them, and where their jumping-off points for combat would probably be. Little of the preparations, however, took into account that weapon meant to slaughter "natives," the machine gun. As British, French, and German generals spread their maps on war ministry tables, they spent inordinate amounts of time planning where to place their cavalry divisions.

Where were the Germans likely to attack? Obviously not across the frontier they shared with France, where they would run up against heavy French fortifications. They were expected instead to sweep through neutral Belgium, making use of the country's well-developed rail system and sturdy, granite-block roads, and then turn south toward Paris. In fact, the British and French were counting on it. Only an assault on Belgium could make Britain's entry into the war easy to justify, for all the major powers had signed a treaty recognizing Belgian neutrality. On no account, one high British official warned a French colleague, "let the French commanders be led into being the first to cross the Belgian frontier!"—for then the British public would never countenance going to war.

Since all of the nation's wars in living memory had been victorious, many influential Britons expected that a brisk campaign in Europe would be a welcome spine-stiffener for a country in danger of going soft. "Peace may and has ruined many a nationality with its surfeit of everything except those tonics of privation and sacrifice," wrote a commentator in the Daily Mail in 1912. "But the severest war wreaks little practical injury."

Others were less sanguine about the nature of the war, but very certain it would come. Charles Beresford, a member of Parliament and former admiral of the Channel Fleet, began each day with the greeting "Good morning, one day nearer the German war." Beresford was a friend of Kipling, whose writing pulsed with exasperation at those who did not see that war was imminent. Kipling fretted about the German naval buildup, complained loudly that his fellow Britons were "camping comfortably on the raw edge of a volcano," and began speaking of Germans as "Huns" or "Goths." In his poetry he fulminated against a government that was spending money on social reforms instead of more arms:

And because there was need of more pay for the shouters and marchers,
They disbanded in face of their foemen their bowmen and archers.

His son John's bad eyesight had defeated his hopes for joining the navy, but Kipling began pulling strings to see if he could get John into Sandhurst, sending him to a "crammer" to prepare for the military academy's entrance exam, in hopes that he could make an army career instead.

A century later, it is easy enough to see the incremental steps that primed an entire continent for war. But to Britons at the time, the bloodshed that seemed most likely lay at home. Labor union membership was surging and militance on the rise: in 1911 a transport workers' strike stopped traffic for weeks in most ports, and more strikes followed. During that year and the next, the government called out a total of 50,000 troops in response, and even sent two warships to Liverpool. In that city alone, in battles with soldiers 200 strikers were wounded and two killed.

With such threats to the status quo came a rise in surveillance. At Scotland Yard, the job of tracking potential troublemakers was taken over by Basil Thomson, an ambitious, deeply conservative former colonial official with a flair for self-promotion. In photographs, with his mustache, wing collar, and white handkerchief nattily tucked in his breast pocket, he looks more a dapper boulevardier than a detective. His agents were soon attending strike meetings, opening suffragettes' mail, and keeping close watch on Hardie's Independent Labour Party. Thomson remarked to a friend that "unless there were a European War to divert the current, we were heading for something very like revolution." He was not alone in feeling this way. "A good big war just now might do a lot of good in killing Socialist nonsense," one army officer confided in a letter, "and would probably put a stop to all this labor unrest."

When it came to eye-catching destruction, however, labor unionists were outstripped by the militant suffragettes. After Parliament failed to pass a women's suffrage bill in 1911, Christabel Pankhurst urged WSPU members to violence. In two spectacular raids, suffragettes rampaged through central London with hammers hidden in their muffs, breaking windows at newspapers, hotels, the Guards' Club, a host of government offices, and nearly 400 shops. Fearing arrest, Christabel fled to Paris, where she continued to edit the WSPU newspaper and call for ever more vandalism. Her mother and two other women made a surprise raid by taxi on 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's residence, and smashed two windows. (Emmeline managed to wrench herself away from policemen long enough to throw a rock through a Colonial Office window as well.) Britain had seldom seen anything like this.

WSPU supporters, shrinking in number but ever more extreme, set on fire an orchid house at Kew Gardens, a London church, and a racecourse grandstand; blew up a deserted railway station; and smashed a jewel case at the Tower of London. They cut the telephone wires linking London and Glasgow, and slashed the words NO VOTES, NO GOLF! into golf course greens and then poured acid in the letters so grass would not grow. One newspaper estimated that suffragettes had inflicted £500,000 worth of property damage, some $60 million in to-day's money. By now, more than 1,000 of them had gone to prison, and one spectacularly sacrificed her life before a huge crowd and newsreel cameras in 1913—Emily Wilding Davison, a WSPU member who ran onto the racecourse in the midst of the Epsom Derby and grabbed at the bridle of the King's horse, which struck her while galloping at full speed. She died of her injuries four days later. Queen Mary referred to her as "the horrid woman." Emmeline Pankhurst called her "one of our bravest soldiers."

Pankhurst's embrace of violence was striking for someone who had always taken such care to present herself as a woman of utmost propriety. Any WSPU members who opposed the new extreme tactics or her autocratic control found themselves expelled from the ranks. One person ejected not just from the WSPU but from England was Emmeline's emotionally unstable youngest daughter, Adela. Furious that Adela supported striking workers and other left-wing causes that had nothing to do with women's suffrage, Emmeline gave her a ticket, £20, and a letter of introduction to a suffragette in Australia, and firmly insisted that she emigrate. Deeply hurt, conflicted, yet still under her mother's spell, Adela obediently boarded a ship and never saw her mother or sisters again.

Behind their show of militance and unity, similar tensions were brewing between Emmeline and Sylvia, her middle daughter. For Sylvia, too, women's suffrage was always part of a broader battle for the dispossessed, as it was for her lover, Keir Hardie; she was also quietly dismayed by the newfound zeal for violence of her mother and the self-exiled Christabel.

After 1912, Sylvia increasingly went her own way, moving into the festering slums of London's East End to work with the poor. For the time being, she and the East End women she started organizing remained formally, if uneasily, affiliated with the WSPU. Living with a couple who were shoemakers, she continued to stage the dramatic confrontations that were the Pankhurst trademark. She arranged, for instance, for a woman to be hidden in a large padded box, which was delivered as freight through the service entrance of the House of Commons. Once inside, the woman slipped out of the box unobserved, and from the visitors' gallery dumped the contents of a three-pound bag of flour over the head of the anti-suffrage prime minister, Herbert Asquith. But despite her love of the limelight, the organization Sylvia built did far more than such stunts. Among other things, it offered classes or lectures on public speaking, the legal position of women, child care, and, unusual for the time, sex education. Many women she helped train later went on to leadership positions in trade unions or elective office.

During a long, bitter dock strike, she organized women to help feed the dockers' children, and in return hundreds of East End labor unionists joined a solidarity march to Holloway Prison in support of a hunger-striking suffragette. After all, many working-class men also did not have the right to vote, since roughly 40 percent of Britain's adult males were too poor to qualify. Basil Thomson's men at Scotland Yard kept Pankhurst and her new allies under close surveillance. A police inspector who arrested her in 1913 reported to his superiors that he had had a narrow escape from "a hostile crowd" of men, some of whom "were armed with ... docker's hooks ... and were going to make every possible effort to prevent Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested." For a brief few years, her East End work seemed a living embodiment of that always elusive socialist dream: solidarity among society's have-nots. And at one point it seemed as if another dream of Sylvia's might be fulfilled when her mother came to visit her while she was bedridden after a prison hunger strike. Could she finally be winning a place equal to Christabel's in Emmeline's heart?

Charlotte Despard, of course, had long preceded Sylvia into London's slums. Although of different generations—Despard was 38 years older—the two women now found themselves political allies, often speaking from the same platform. Oratory, in this pre-television era, was the primary way for radicals and dissidents to get their message out,* and Despard was as at ease on a street-corner soapbox as in a lecture hall. Crowds in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, turned out to hear her. The writer Christopher St. John described her talking suffrage to a rally in Hyde Park: "The arms were raised Cassandra-like; the whole thin, fragile body seemed to vibrate with a prophecy, and, from the white hair, the familiar black lace veil streamed back like a pennon."

Despard and many of her followers refused to pay taxes, declaring, like the American rebels of 1776, "no taxation without representation!" In response, the government seized her household furniture. Now nearing 70, she felt so energized by the battles for women's suffrage and the rights of labor that she declared, "I was older at twenty than I am now." However much Despard identified with the dispossessed, she never lost her aristocratic sense of entitlement, even on the four occasions she went to prison. "I was thrilled to see that stately and commanding figure enter," another prisoner wrote. "...Her first act was a calm refusal to take the medicine the doctor had prescribed. 'I have never taken medicine in my life—I do not propose to begin now.' Her word was immediately taken as law. All the officers appeared to be in awe of her." Another inmate remembered: "I have never heard of [another] prisoner before or since who slept soundly through the first night of sentence."

"News in the Paper ... makes one think that the class war has already begun," Despard wrote hopefully in her diary in early 1914. If there was a revolution in Britain, someone destined by his position to play a central role in suppressing it was her brother, who had just been promoted to field marshal, the British army's highest rank. Sir John French continued to keep his wife Eleanora and their children tucked away in Hertfordshire while he carried on his London love affairs from a pied-à-terre he shared with George G. Moore, an American railway magnate and financier as well as the solution to French's chronic money problems. An ardent Anglophile, Moore idolized French and gladly paid for the house and the lavish expenses the men incurred in wining and dining their lady friends. Despard remained on friendly terms with "my dear old Jack," and, as she told her diary, he paid her a "delightful" visit in the spring of 1914. What did French make of his sister's many passions? He certainly shared none of them, but she still mattered to him enough that he visited her again a few months later, bringing along his latest mistress, a former actress now the wife of an earl. The thought that brother and sister might someday find themselves on opposite sides of some revolutionary barricade apparently did not bother either of them.

Despite the accelerating military buildup of the previous half-dozen years, the first six months of 1914 felt like an unusual interlude of calm, unbroken by any international disputes. More than 50,000 Germans were working in Britain, where they could often earn higher wages than at home. Britons who went to Germany were pleased to find how many Germans now spoke English; German artists and intellectuals were so admired in England that the majority of honorary doctorates awarded by Oxford this year went to Germans.

The major powers of Europe seemed to be getting along splendidly, as well they might, since King George V, the look-alike Tsar Nicholas II, and Kaiser Wilhelm II were all kin. George was a first cousin of Nicholas on one side of his family, and of Wilhelm on the other; he was also related to the wives of both. The three future monarchs had met as children, moored their royal yachts next to each other on holidays in the Baltic, and had all been together in Berlin for the wedding of the Kaiser's daughter the previous year. Wilhelm was godfather to one of Nicholas's children and had been at the bedside of his grandmother Queen Victoria when she died. In late June, a squadron of British battleships and cruisers were welcome guests at Germany's annual Elbe Regatta. Loving medals and epaulets as much as ever, the Kaiser proudly donned his gold braid as an honorary British admiral of the fleet, and British and German officers attended races and banquets together. When the Royal Navy warships weighed anchor and sailed for home, their commander signaled his German counterpart: "Friends in past, and friends for ever." And why not? The conflict that dominated English newspaper headlines and political life this spring and early summer was not with the Germans, but close by.

After long centuries of seeing its taxes and landowners' profits drained away to England, Ireland was ablaze. A compromise version of an Irish home rule bill, granting autonomy over most domestic issues to a new Irish legislature, was scheduled to be implemented later in the year. Appalled by the prospect of falling under the sway of the island's impoverished Catholic majority, activists in wealthier, largely Protestant northern Ireland vowed to form a rebel provisional government of their own. Quietly supported by Protestant landowners in the rest of Ireland, they set up a militia for which they imported 30,000 rifles. In response, Irish nationalists in Dublin formed their own paramilitary force and also began arming. Delighted by this potential warfare in England's backyard, the Germans secretly sold weapons to both sides.

For months, the crisis consumed a British government already on edge from labor turbulence and from not knowing where militant suffragettes were going to attack next. That Ireland and England were inseparable was an article of faith for imperial-minded Britons—wasn't the country's very name the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland? Many of those at the very top of British society—Sir John French, for example—proudly boasted family roots in Ireland. Hadn't the United States fought a civil war to remain united? Some in Britain were prepared to risk the same, and among them was Alfred Milner. In early 1914, he decided drastic action was needed—action, he hinted ominously, "falling short of violence or active rebellion, or at least not beginning with it." To Violet Cecil he wrote: "For the last 3 or 4 months I have really worked hard—at public things—for the first time since South Africa." In Milner's view, the Irish were no better than Boers, and like them belonged firmly under British control; Rudyard Kipling agreed, considering Irish Catholics "the Orientals of the West."

Milner began traveling England making speeches and skillfully mobilizing other opponents of Irish home rule on the political right. Publicly, he and his allies gathered some two million signatures on a manifesto threatening civil disobedience. Secretly, he raised funds to buy arms for the Protestant militia, with Kipling contributing an astonishing £30,000, the equivalent of well over $3 million today. Violet Cecil firmly supported their campaign. After all, if the subversive idea of home rule spread, there would soon be no British Empire left for her son George—now a newly minted officer in the Grenadier Guards—to defend.

As the summer of 1914 began, the authorities worked desperately to resolve what seemed the gravest national crisis in a century. The Royal Navy recalled some ships from overseas. King George V convened an unprecedented emergency conference of all sides at Buckingham Palace, somberly declaring, "Today the cry of Civil War is on the lips of the most responsible and sober-minded of my people." The conference collapsed in discord. Widespread violence seemed to draw yet closer when British troops opened fire on protesters in Dublin, killing three and wounding many more, one of whom died. Carrie Kipling began assembling supplies of clothing for the beleaguered Irish Protest ant refugees who were certain to soon flood England.

The Kiplings, Milner, Despard, French, the Pankhursts, and almost everyone else in Britain were so focused on the looming conflagration in Ireland that they paid little attention to the news, at the end of June, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife, Sophie, had been killed by an assassin's bullets in the provincial city of Sarajevo.

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