The Troubles of Neutrals
The old pictures of warfare with troops drawn up in opposing lines, graceful clouds of smoke rising here and there, and picturesque “tented fields” in the distance are quite out of date. In these days the men are hidden in trenches, often only two or three hundred yards apart, sometimes even less, but invisible to their opponents. Some of Kitchener’s men did not see a German for weeks, even though they kept close watch with their field-glasses and periscopes.
Something was going on, however, most of the time. Shells were tearing great holes in the trenches, rifles were cracking, and when the shrapnel, or shells full of bullets, came, “It was just like trying to dodge raindrops in a shower,” said one Tommy. At night things happened. Men slipped out in the darkness over “No Man’s Land,” a wild, shell-torn area between the lines which has been described as “all holes tied together.” There they mended the barbed-wire tangles; they cut grass and weeds lest these should protect some patrol of the enemy; they brought up food and ammunition from the wagons back of the lines; and they always had trenches to repair after the usual bomb-throwing. There were “listening parties,” who stole out in front of the enemy’s trenches to learn if possible what was going on either above ground or below it, and there were bombing parties, when men crept in the darkness close up to the enemy, threw bombs wherever they heard voices, then dropped flat upon the ground to await a chance to wriggle toward the home lines. This was what went on while the newspapers were reporting “Nothing doing on the Western Front.”
When an engagement was to come, aircraft became more numerous, watching the lines of the enemy; the front trenches and those back of them were crowded with soldiers and the batteries fired a barrage, or curtain of shells, at the enemy’s trenches. Under shelter of this, the men dashed forward “over the top.” Suddenly the barrage firing ceased, and a fierce attack on the trenches of the enemy was made. If the assault succeeded, men ran forward with sandbags to build up parapets on the farther side of the captured trench to shield them from the enemy’s return fire; men of the signal corps darted across No Man’s Land, unwinding spools of telephone wire as they ran; and the riflemen waited ready for the counter-attack.
Through 1915 there was an occasional attack on the Western Front by one side or the other. At Neuve Chapelle, not far from Lille in France, there was a three days’ struggle. The English were gaining. Then came four and a half hours when every minute seemed to them an age, for their hope of victory lay in keeping up their barrage fire till reinforcements arrived, and ammunition was low. The German guns pounded away, but the English response was more and more feeble; the ammunition had given out. Neuve Chapelle was “a victory that halted.”
In April, 1915, another struggle was made by the Germans for the town of Ypres—Tommy’s “Wipers.” Here for the first time poison gas was used. The Germans had compressed it into steel cylinders and when these were opened, the gas rolled along before the wind. It was a terrible surprise, and nearly a whole division of the French, 19,000 men, was destroyed. Germany had felt certain that England’s colonies would never stand by her, and had expected some of them to seize the opportunity to cut loose from their allegiance. Instead of this, they vied with one another in rushing to her aid, and here at Ypres was a Canadian brigade. Owing to the direction of the wind, they escaped much of the gas. They charged upon the German troops and halted their advance. Again and again after this the Germans let loose the poisonous gas against the Canadians and also a division of England’s Indian army. Gas-masks, however, were supplied, and soon the splendid valor of the Canadians had a better chance. The result was that, although the Allies were obliged to shorten their lines by Ypres, the Germans failed to take the city and were driven back to the eastward.
Both France and England had learned that they must make ready to meet an enemy who had long been preparing for this war. France had lost her coal-mines, her iron-mines, and her largest factories, and had not a ton of the chief high explosive on hand when the war opened. She sent to England for coal, to Spain for iron, to America for machinery. She made over automobile factories, repair shops, anything that contained a bit of machinery, into manufactories of shells and guns. She fed and clothed her armies. She sent ammunition to Serbia and artillery to Italy after that country entered the war. She put herself at the head of the flying business, and supplied airplanes not only for herself, but for Italy, Russia, and England. Wherever women could become the workers, men were spared to join the troops.
The English were even less prepared for war than France, but their lesson was soon learned. The later recruits to “Kitchener’s Mob” had uniforms and whatever else was needed. When the moment came to take the train, the train was ready to be taken.
Half an hour was allowed for loading. In half an hour the loading was done, the train rolled out and a second rolled in. So it went on until every man was at the wharf ready to go “somewhere in France.” Two mine-destroyers guarded each transport, one on either side, fifty yards distant.
As for the people who “kept the home fires burning,” they too were hard at work for England. Tobacco factories began to manufacture shells; people who had worked on pianos now made rifle stocks; the gramophone ceased its wails, for its makers were now making fuses. Mechanics who had been stamping out the peaceful trousers button now began to stamp out disks for cartridges. The wonder of it was the rapidity with which everybody learned to do everything. Gardeners and porters worked in iron foundries as if they had been used to such labor from boyhood. Society women handled lathes and helped make munitions as if they had always done so.
Meanwhile, what was the great republic across the Atlantic about during those tempestuous days? She was trying hard to keep neutral, to favor neither side. Of course, every man, even in a neutral land, has a right to his own opinion, and if he chooses he may even lend money to a country at war. The behavior of a neutral government, however, is a different matter. A neutral government must treat contending nations exactly alike. It must not lend or give money or supplies to either nation; it must not allow troops for either to be enlisted within its boundaries; it must not allow its territory to become a base for fitting out ships or expeditions against either side.
These are the duties of a neutral government, but it also has rights. These are chiefly concerned with its commerce. This commerce must not be interfered with except in so far as may be necessary to maintain a blockade or shut from an opponent “contraband of war”—that is, articles of use in war.
In the matter of trade our first difference of opinion was with England, who had declared a blockade of German ports. This is permitted by international law, that is, the rules upon which the principal nations have agreed; but there has always been controversy in regard to details. Only one principle has been recognized by all nations, namely, that a blockade must not be a “paper blockade,” but must be effective. This means that a coast declared to be blockaded must be so closely watched by its enemy that any vessel attempting to break through the blockade will be in real danger of capture. The mere proclamation of a blockade is not sufficient. Vessels enforcing a blockade have been expected to remain near the enemy’s harbors, so as not to interfere with ocean traffic; but in these days of submarines, mines, and aircraft, it would be exceedingly dangerous for any vessel to attempt to remain near the harbor of an enemy; therefore England declared that ships passing a line drawn from the northern point of the Hebrides through the Faroe Islands to Iceland would do so at their own peril. This shut off a large area of the ocean from neutral trade.
Such trade was also interfered with in another way. The German Government had taken possession of all the food in Germany, in order that it might see to it first of all that the troops were well provisioned; therefore, England declared that she would prevent food and other contraband from going to Germany, not only directly, but also through neutral countries. The United States protested earnestly against this. England pointed out that neutral countries had increased their importation of certain substances used in war, like copper and rubber, far beyond what they themselves could use; and that Holland, for instance, even if she agreed to send no American leather to Germany, could easily export all that she produced if she was getting from the United States what she needed for herself. England also explained that in several cases our ships had brought in contraband under false manifestoes, and that, therefore, her only course was to take the vessels into port and examine their cargoes. Of course this caused delay, and sometimes perishable cargoes might be injured or even spoiled, but she agreed to pay for all damages that might be caused by her action. This was not very different from the policy that we had followed toward England during our Civil War in regard to her trade with Mexico and the West Indies.
Meanwhile Germany had been building submarines and sending them to sea as fast as she could. Her fleet was bottled up in the Baltic Sea, and she depended upon the underwater craft to destroy merchant vessels and so prevent food and munitions of war from reaching her enemies. She now declared that just as far as possible she should destroy without warning every enemy vessel coming into the waters surrounding the British Isles, from the Faroe Islands to Spain and from Norway to the twentieth degree of west longitude. To destroy a merchant ship without examination to see whether she carries contraband is contrary to international law; and to sink her without making sure of the safety of her passengers and crew is not only contrary to law, but to common humanity. Germany said that, if she gave warning, the merchant ships would escape, and that, as for passengers, a submarine had no accommodations for them; therefore, she would not be bound by any law unless the United States would induce England to give up her attempts to keep food from the Central Powers. She advised neutrals not to make use of the vessels of the Allies, and closed with the suggestion of a threat—that the submarines might not always be able to recognize neutrals. Apparently they were not able, for American ships were sunk without warning. Thus England and Germany interfered with our trade; but Germany also took the lives of American citizens, a very different matter. As to the question of indemnity, England promptly offered to make good all damages; Germany evaded and excused. This is the way matters stood at the end of 1914.
Germany was angry with us for not attempting to control England, but she was even more angry because our Government did not forbid the sale of ammunition and guns to the Allies. She was fully prepared for the short war that she had planned; but now that it threatened to be a long war needing a vast amount of ammunition, she wished, like the Allies, to be able to buy it. The merchants of every country have the legal right to sell such articles in war as well as in peace, and Germany had been perfectly willing to sell to belligerent nations in other wars. We were willing to sell to Germany as well as to the Allies, but we had not the ships to deliver the articles to either party. The Allies could send vessels, while Germany could not; therefore, Germany wanted the trade stopped; that is, she wanted the rules changed in the middle of the game. Yet Germany had sold munitions to Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904; to Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898; and in the Boer War of 1899 she had sold to England, although the Boers, like the Germans to-day, were shut away from markets. Moreover, taking a wider view of the subject, if a nation could not in its hour of need buy munitions in the open market, then a militarist nation like Germany, which at all times makes a business of manufacturing and exporting them, one firm alone employing 42,000 men in time of peace, would have a great advantage over nations which did not engage in such manufactures. The result would be that in order to provide for its own defense, each nation would be forced to accumulate to the extent of its ability whatever would be of use in war.
Germany became more and more angry. The United States, too, was becoming aroused, for many fires and explosions in this country had been found to be the work of Germans in the pay of the German Government. American ships flying the American flag, and even Red Cross ships with their symbol and their names painted on their sides were torpedoed without warning. In one case, indeed, a warning was given, and the captain was allowed just five minutes to get off his 250 passengers and crew! The ship was torpedoed before the lifeboats could be lowered, and nearly half of those on board lost their lives. This was about as near a state of war as anything could be. Protests to Germany met the reply that Germany was not to blame; it was all the fault of England, who was trying to starve her.