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Afterthoughts

So it was so after all. I write after perusing what was written two years ago. I lean back in my chair and I think of the past. “So it really was so after all,” represents the thought which comes to my mind.

It seems hardly fair to call it a conspiracy. When a certain action is formulated quite clearly in many books, when it is advocated by newspapers, preached by professors, and discussed at every restaurant, it ceases to be a conspiracy. We may take Bernhardi’s book as a text, but it is only because here between two covers we find the whole essence of the matter in an authoritative form. It has been said a thousand times elsewhere. And now we know for all time that these countless scolding and minatory voices were not mere angry units, but that they were in. truth the collective voice of the nation. All that Bernhardi said, all that after long disbelief he made some of us vaguely realise, has now actually happened. So far as Germany is concerned it has been fulfilled to the letter. Fortunately so far as other nations have been concerned it has been very different. He knew his own, but he utterly misjudged all else, and in that misjudgment he and his spy-trusting Government have dug a pit for themselves in which they long may flounder.

Make war deliberately whenever you think that you may get profit from it. Find an excuse, but let it be an excuse which will give you a strong position before the world and help your alliances. Take advantage of your neighbour’s temporary weakness in order to attack him. Pretend to be friendly in order to screen warlike preparations. Do not let contracts or treaties stand in the way of your vital interests. All of these monstrous propositions are to be found in this vade mecum of the German politician and soldier, and each of them has been put in actual practice within a very few years of the appearance of the book. Take each of them in turn.

Take first the point that they made war deliberately, and took advantage of the imagined weakness of their neighbours in order to attack them. When was it that they backed up, if they did not actually dictate, the impossible ultimatum addressed as much to Russia as to Servia? When was it that they were so determined upon war that they made peace impossible at the moment when Austria was showing signs of reconsidering her position? Why so keen at that particular moment? Was it not that for the instant each of her three antagonists seemed to be at a disadvantage? Russia was supposed not to have recovered yet from her Japanese misadventure. France was torn by politics, and had admitted in the Senate that some important branches of her armies were unprepared. Britain seemed to be on the verge of civil war. It was just such a combination as was predicated by Bernhardi. And his country responded to it exactly as he had said, choosing the point of quarrel against the Slav race so as to conciliate the more advanced or liberal nations of the world.

Then again they pretended to be friendly in order to cover hostile preparations. To the very last moment the German Minister in Brussels was assuring the Government of King Albert that nothing but the best intentions animated those whom he represented, and that Belgian neutrality was safe. The written contract was deliberately dishonoured on the false and absurd plea that if they did not dishonour it some one else would. Thus, of the five propositions which had seemed most monstrous and inhuman in Bernhardi’s book in 1912, every single one had been put into actual practice by his country in 1914. Those of us who advised at the time that the book should be taken seriously have surely been amply justified.

It is a singular thing that Bernhardi not only indicated in a general way what Germany was contemplating, but in his other book upon modern warfare he gives a very complete sketch of the strategic conception which has been followed by the Germans. He shows there how their armies might come through Belgium, how their eastern forces might mark time while the western, which were to consist of the picked troops, would travel by forced marches until they reached the neighbourhood of the coast, or at least the west of Paris, after which the whole line should swing round into France. The chance that by these movements the German right would come into the region of the British expeditionary force is dismissed lightly, since he entirely underestimated the power of such a force, while as to the Belgian army it is hardly admitted as a factor at all. A comparison of the opinions of this great military authority with the actual facts as we have recently known them, must weaken one’s faith in the value of expert judgment. He is, for example, strongly of opinion that battles will not as a rule last for more than one day. He has also so high an opinion of the supreme fighting value of the German soldiers, that he declares that they will always fight in the open rather than behind entrenchments. It makes strange reading for us who have seen them disappear from sight into the ground for a month at a time.

In what I have said in the previous article of the naval and military position, I find nothing to withdraw, and little to modify. I write with the Germans at Ostend, and yet the possibility of either a raid or an invasion seems to me as remote as it did two years ago. I do not of course refer to an aerial raid, which I look upon as extremely probable, but to a landing in these islands. The submarine which has been used so skilfully against us is an all-powerful defensive weapon in our hands. As to the submarine, I think that I may claim to have foreseen the situation which has actually come upon us. “No blockade,” I remarked, “can hold these vessels in harbour, and no skill or bravery can counteract their attack when once they are within striking distance. One could imagine a state of things when it might be found impossible for the greater ships on either side to keep the seas on account of these poisonous craft. No one can say that such a contingency is impossible.” It is largely true at the present moment as regards the North Sea. But the submarine will not shake Great Britain as mistress of the seas. On the contrary, with her geographical position, it will, if her internal economic policy be wise, put her in a stronger position than ever.

The whole question of the Channel Tunnel and its strategic effect, which is treated of in the last essay, becomes entirely academic, since even if it had been put in hand when the German menace became clearer it could not yet have been completed. The idea of an invasion through it has always seemed and still seems to me to be absurd, but we should have been brought face to face at the present moment with the possibility of the enemy getting hold of the farther end and destroying it, so as to wreck a great national enterprise. This is a danger which I admit that I had not foreseen. At the same time, when a tunnel is constructed, the end of it will no doubt be fortified in such a fashion that it could be held indefinitely against any power save France, which would have so large a stake in it herself that she could not destroy it. The whole operation of sending reinforcements and supplies to the scene of war at the present instant would be enormously simplified if a tunnel were in existence.

There remains the fiercely debated question of compulsory national service. Even now, with the enemy at the gate, it seems to me to be as open as ever. Would we, under our constitution and with our methods of thought, have had such a magnificent response to Lord Kitchener’s appeal, or would we have had such splendid political unanimity in carrying the war to a conclusion, if a large section of the people had started by feeling sore over an Act which caused themselves or their sons to serve whether they wished or not? Personally I do not believe that we should. I believe that the new volunteer armies now under training are of really wonderful material and fired with the very best spirit, and that they will be worth more than a larger force raised by methods which are alien to our customs. I said in my previous essay, “Experience has shown that under warlike excitement in a virile nation like ours the ranks soon fill up, and as the force becomes embodied from the outbreak of hostilities it would rapidly improve in quality.” Already those Territorials who were so ignorantly and ungenerously criticised in times of peace are, after nearly three months of camp-life, hardening into soldiers who may safely be trusted in the field. Behind them the greater part of a million men are formed who will also become soldiers in a record time if a desperate earnestness can make them so. It is a glorious spectacle which makes a man thankful that he has been spared to see it. One is more hopeful of our Britain, and more proud of her, now that the German guns can be heard from her eastern shore, than ever in the long monotony of her undisturbed prosperity. Our grandchildren will thrill as they read of the days that we endure.

THE END.

Arthur Conan Doyle

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