Peter Hoskin

From the archives: The end of the First World War

From the archives: The end of the First World War
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A blast of celebration – and of reflection – from The Spectator, written after the armistice in 1918. There is more than a touch of foresight in the warning that, "True peace and valid reconstruction demand … as much time, renunciation and self-sacrifice as the winning of the war."

Thanks be to God, The Spectator, 16 November, 1918

The thought that has filled the mind of the nation on Monday, and has possessed it ever since, is the thought, Thanks be to God. Under a thousand names and forms, consciously and unconsciously, realised fully or only half realised, this it is that has given unity to the nation and made the moment mighty. Not to have recorded this fact, and to have left unsaid what we have just said, would have been impossible. But it is equally impossible to say more. If it is true that the greatest truths demand the greatest care in their statement, it is also true that the greatest and most moving thoughts entertainable by man can only find the simplest expression. No flow of eloquence, no torrents of rhetoric, will help is to go beyond the four words which we have placed at the head of this article. But they are sufficient both for our hearts and for our lips. If we were to attempt to fathom the Divine purpose or to analyse its workings, we should but fall into spiritual pride or self-glorification, or else become lost in the mazes of inquiry, as to why and how all the tumult and the agony of the last four years were necessary or were permitted. On such topics each human soul must find its own pathway, its own answer, and its own solution. It is not for us at any rate to try to lift the veil of Divine mystery. There is a fine saying of Lincoln's which we may call to mind. He was asked whether he could really feel sure that God was on the side of the North. He answered, with his wise simplicity, that he had not thought of the matter in that way. What had troubled him was the question of whether the North was on the side of God. Let us leave the mystery of the war at that, contented, if we may not enjoy in thankfulness what we cannot understand. We dare not proclaim that ours was the cause of God, nor can we even hold with absolute certainty that we have been on the side of god. But at any rate in our thankfulness we may and do draw near to that great hope. Whatever may have been the Divine intervention, our duty is clear. We profess deep gratitude, and we feel it. To prove the reality of that gratitude we must show our faith in works. We must make the world new fashioned, better and worthier than the old.

The central fact of the war is the triumph of Democracy. Popular Government has proved, as we felt sure it would prove, stronger and more war-worthy than Autocracy and Slavery. Democracy does not know how to prepare for war nearly as well as tyranny, autocratic or oligarchical, but it is a hundred times a better stayer and a better temporary loser. When a whole nation has but one thought in it, and that thought is its own and not imposed from above, it is invincible. The peoples of the Allied Governments possessed in peace no such instruments of war as those made ready by Germany and Austria. Yet the end of the war was never doubtful to those who had eyes to see. For Germany each fatal triumph only brought the inevitable end more near. Democracy was able to cast a spell in war which shivered the arms of her assailants. And now that Democracy has proved herself invincible in war she must prove herself invincible also in bearing the burdens and solving the problems of peace. That she will in the end prove worthy of her destiny is our belief, but such worthiness cannot be achieved by self-glorification or complacency. Democracy has its dangers and its risks like every form of government. The chief of these dangers is the proclamation in words, but the denial in deeds, of government of the people by the people for the people. If a nation allows a section of the nation to usurp the name, the functions, and the powers of the people as a whole, true Democracy may be as much outraged as it is by the rule of a Kaiser.

Now it is the fated hour for the nation's resolve. If it determines to maintain, not in theory but in fact, Justice, Liberty, Honesty and Humanity, the precious cause for which the British Empire has bled and endured, in a four years' agony, will be secure. But determination can only be lasting and of might if it weans itself from the emasculating food of sentiment, rhetoric, and spiritual pride, and remembers, even in the intoxication of triumph, to be sober in its judgements, to be sincere with itself, and to be steady and reasonable even in good doing. If the people suppose that the new and better world which we desire can be taken by storm, or built in a day, or established in a frenzy of good intentions, they will find themselves cruelly mistaken. True peace and valid reconstruction demand - we know it is a hard saying - as much time, renunciation, and self-sacrifice as the winning of the war. Indeed, it is a harder task, for superficially, at any rate, there can be none of that "rapture of the strife" which in war touches, and touches to fine issues, many of the nobler spirits.

though we see all the needs and the dangers, we have good hopes. Our soldiers have shown the very qualities we have just described in many a stricken field and in many a combat that seemed hopeless, and which, when victory came at last, left the victors more surprised than vanquished. Our soldiers must teach those who have remained at home the spiritual lessons of war, and prove to us once again that in all the great things of life it is the spiritual and not the material triumph that counts. As they served and saved us and the world by their unconquerable valour in the Retreat from Mons, in the long-drawn agony of the Ypres Salient, in the deadly combats of last March, they must serve and save us now. They and our sailors in their long vigil have preserved for us all that makes life worth living - Freedom and Honour. It is for them to teach us how to guard and keep unstained their priceless gift.

Democracy, it cannot be said too often, must be true to herself and obey the law of her own being. Happily, Free Government and Popular Government are no new things here. We have throughout our history enjoyed and been possessed by the Spirit of Liberty and of Justice. Englishmen have always declared that the will of the People should prevail, and that the supreme law, the law above Kings and nobles, Churches and all other powers, is the voice of the People. But if Democracy is not new to us in essentials, it is coming to us now in a new form with its twenty million voters. What is even more momentous, it is, owing to the changes wrought by the war, bringing with them problems many and great which clamour for solution. In dealing with these Democracy must remember, even in the highest moments of its zeal for change, for development, for the construction of a new and better world, that power is not everything, or, rather, that power is a trust, and must be used with caution, and with care for the rights of individuals, even when such care appears to be delaying reform. Such a spirit is the essential mark of trusteeship. The sovereign People must always remember that through it is good to have a giant's strength - and they will have strength beyond anything we have ever know in our history - it is base to use it like a giant.

It is said that Mr. Gladstone shortly before his death, in a melancholy mood and reviewing the future in the light of past experience, recalled how power in England had been enjoyed in turn by Kings, by Aristocracies, by the Middle Classes, and now finally by the People. Each holder of supreme authority had in turn made an ignoble use of its powers. Instead of regarding those powers as a trust, it had looked upon them as a means of selfish or class exaltation. What assurance, what hope had we, he asked, that the old bad tradition would be broken, and that the People, when they fully realised their power, would not show themselves as callous in their trust? Our hope is better. We believe, and we claim to have sure foundations for our belief, that just as Democracy has proved stronger and more self-sacrificing and altogether nobler in war than has either Autocracy or Aristocracy, so Democracy in peace will prove far less selfish than her predecessors. We have this assurance to support us, that in true Democracy we have reached the rock bottom. We have got down to the foundations of the State and cannot go further. Our backs, so to speak, are against the wall. The only alternative to the will of the People is individualist anarchy, with all its countless miseries. To the weak anarchy is a trampling mob, without pity, but not without fear. A nation with its back to the wall, like a man in the same position, may, we believe, be braced, not weakened, by the thought that all other resources are exhausted, that it has no other shifts to try, no other shoulders on which it can throw responsibility, that all depends upon its own strength of will, and that it will not be able to indulge in the luxury of blaming others if it allows itself to be destroyed.

What is to be Democracy's lamp through the gloom, its guiding force? It may be told in one word: Justice. Justice is the antiseptic of the world; the greatest, and the simplest of all the moral qualities. It is easier to be heroic than to be just. If we are asked by some jesting Pilate "What is Justice?" we shall answer: "You shall not fight us with a word." Justice is safe from the mocking Devil of sophistry that loves first to put words upon a pinnacle and then hurl them down. Justice may be not be definable, but it lies secure in the conscience of each man and woman, ready to help us if we will only give it its rights. Justice may seem, and in a sense is, stern, inexorable, not to be denied. Yet, and here is the supreme mystery, in the highest, truest sense Justice is a knowledge made more luminous and creative, through love. Was not He Who preached the Gospel of Love also the supremely Just?