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How London Took The News







From: The World Peril Of 1910

The awaking of England on the morning of the twenty-sixth of November
was like the awaking of a man from a nightmare. Everyone who slept had
gone to sleep with one word humming in his brain--war--and war at home,
that was the terrible thought which robbed so many millions of eyes of
sleep. But even those who slept did not do so for long.

At a quarter to one a sub-editor ran into the room of the chief News
Editor of the Daily Telegraph, without even the ceremony of a knock.

"What on earth's the matter, Johnson?" exclaimed the editor. "Seen a
ghost?"

"Worse than that, sir. Read this!" said the sub-editor, in a shaking
voice, throwing the slip down on the desk.

"My God, what's this?" said the editor, as he ran his eye along the
slip. "'Portsmouth bombarded from the air. Hillsea, Portsmouth,
Gilkicker and Southsea Castle destroyed. Practically defenceless. Fleet
Reserve Squadrons sailing.'"

The words were hardly out of his mouth before another man came running
in with a slip. "'Jupiter and Hannibal torpedoed by submarine.
Spartiate blown up by aerial torpedo.'" Then there came a gap, as
though the men at the other end had heard of more news, then
followed--"'Mars, Prince George, Victorious, all torpedoed.
Cruisers escaped to sea. No news of Ithuriel, no torpedo attack up to
present.'"

"Oh, that's awful," gasped the editor, and then the professional
instinct reasserted itself, for he continued, handing the slip back:
"Rush out an edition straight away, Johnson. Anything, if it's only a
half-sheet--get it on the streets as quick as you can--there'll be
plenty of people about still. If anything else comes bring it up."

In less than a quarter of an hour a crowd of newsboys were fighting in
the passage for copies of the single sheet which contained the momentous
news, just as it had come over the wire. The Daily Telegraph was just
five minutes ahead, but within half an hour every London paper, morning
and evening, and all the great provincial journals had rushed out their
midnight specials, and from end to end of England and Scotland, and away
to South Wales, and over the narrow seas to Dublin and Cork, the shrill
screams of the newsboys, and the hoarse, raucous howls of the newsmen
were spreading the terrible tidings over the land. What the beacon fires
were in the days of the Armada, these humble heralds of Fate were in the
twentieth century.

"War begun--Portsmouth destroyed--Fleet sunk."

The six terrible words were not quite exact, of course, but they were
near enough to the truth to sound like the voice of Fate in the ears of
the millions whose fathers and fathers' fathers back through six
generations had never had their midnight rest so rudely broken.

Lights gleamed out of darkened windows, and front doors were flung open
in street after street, as the war-cry echoed down it. Any coin that
came first to hand, from a penny to a sovereign, was eagerly offered for
the single, hurriedly-printed sheets, but the business instincts of the
newsboys rose superior to the crisis, and nothing less than a shilling
was accepted. Streams of men and boys on bicycles with great bags of
specials slung on their backs went tearing away, head down and pedals
whirling, north, south, east and west into the suburbs. Newsagents flung
their shops open, and in a few minutes were besieged by eager, anxious
crowds, fighting for the first copies. There was no more sleep for man
or woman in London that night, though the children slept on in happy
unconsciousness of what the morrow was to bring forth.

What happened in London was happening almost simultaneously all over the
kingdom. For more than a hundred years the British people had worked and
played and slept in serene security, first behind its wooden walls, and
then behind the mighty iron ramparts of its invincible Fleets, and now,
like a thunderbolt from a summer sky, came the paralysing tidings that
the first line of defence had been pierced by a single blow, and the
greatest sea stronghold of England rendered defenceless--and all this
between sunset and midnight of a November day.

Was it any wonder that men looked blankly into each other's eyes, and
asked themselves and each other how such an unheard-of catastrophe had
come about, and what was going to happen next? The first and universal
feeling was one of amazement, which amounted almost to mental paralysis,
and then came a sickening sense of insecurity. For two generations the
Fleet had been trusted implicitly, and invasion had been looked upon
merely as the fad of alarmists, and the theme of sensational
story-writers. No intelligent person really trusted the army, although
its ranks, such as they were, were filled with as gallant soldiers as
ever carried a rifle, but it had been afflicted ever since men could
remember with the bane and blight of politics and social influence. It
had never been really a serious profession, and its upper ranks had been
little better than the playground of the sons of the wealthy and
well-born.

Politician after politician on both sides had tried his hand at scheme
after scheme to improve the army. What one had done, the next had
undone, and the permanent War Office Officials had given more attention
to buttons and braids and caps than to business-like organisations of
fighting efficiency. The administration was, as it always had been, a
chaos of muddle. The higher ranks were rotten with inefficiency, and the
lower, aggravated and bewildered by change after change, had come to
look upon soldiering as a sort of game, the rules of which were being
constantly altered.

The Militia, the Yeomanry, and the Volunteers had been constantly
snubbed and worried by the authorities of Pall Mall. Private citizens,
willing to give time and money in order to learn the use of the rifle,
even if they could not join the Yeomanry or Volunteers, had been just
ignored. The War Office could see no use for a million able-bodied men
who had learned to shoot straight, besides they were only "damned
civilians," whose proper place was in their offices and shops. What
right had they with rifles? If they wanted exercise, let them go and
play golf, or cricket, or football. What had they to do with the defence
of their country and their homes?

But that million of irregular sharpshooters were badly wanted now. They
could have turned every hedgerow into a trench and cover against the foe
which would soon be marching over the fields and orchards and
hop-gardens of southern England. They would have known every yard of the
ground, and the turn of every path and road, and while the regular army
was doing its work they could have prevented many a turning movement of
the superior forces, shot down the horses of convoys and ammunition
trains, and made themselves generally objectionable to the enemy.

Now the men were there, full of fight and enthusiasm, but they had
neither ammunition nor rifles, and if they had had them, ninety per
cent. would not have known how to use them. Wherefore, those who were
responsible for the land defences of the country found themselves with
less than three hundred thousand trained and half-trained men, of all
arms, to face invading forces which would certainly not number less than
a million, every man of which had served his apprenticeship to the grim
trade of war, commanded by officers who had taken that same trade
seriously, studied it as a science, thinking it of considerably more
importance than golf or cricket or football.

It had been said that the British Nation would never tolerate
conscription, which might or might not have been true; but now, when the
next hour or so might hear the foreign drums thrumming and the foreign
bugles blaring, conscription looked a very different thing. There wasn't
a loyal man in the kingdom who didn't bitterly regret that he had not
been taken in the prime of his young manhood, and taught how to defend
the hearth and home which were his, and the wife and children which were
so dear to him.

But it was too late now. Neither soldiers nor sharpshooters are made in
a few hours or days, and within a week the first battles that had been
fought on English ground for nearly eight hundred years would have been
lost and won, and nine-tenths of the male population of England would be
looking on in helpless fury.

There had been plenty of theorists, who had said that the British
Islands needed no army of home defence, simply because if she once lost
command of the sea it would not be necessary for an enemy to invade her,
since a blockade of her ports would starve her into submission in a
month--which, thanks to the decay of agriculture and the depopulation of
the country districts, was true enough. But it was not all the truth.
Those who preached these theories left out one very important factor,
and that was human nature.

For over a century the Continental nations had envied and hated Britain,
the land-grabber; Britain who had founded nations while they had failed
to make colonies; Britain, who had made the Seven Seas her territories,
and the coasts of other lands her frontiers. Surely the leaders of the
leagued nations would have been more or less than human had they
resisted, even if their people had allowed them to do it, the
temptation of trampling these proud Islanders into the mud and mire of
their own fields and highways, and dictating terms of peace in the
ancient halls of Windsor.

These were the bitter thoughts which were rankling in the breast of
every loyal British man during the remainder of that night of horrible
suspense. Many still had reason to remember the ghastly blunders and the
muddling which had cost so many gallant lives and so many millions of
treasure during the Boer War, when it took three hundred thousand
British troops to reduce eighty thousand undrilled farmers to
submission. What if the same blundering and muddling happened now? And
it was just as likely now as then.

Men ground their teeth, and looked at their strong, useless hands, and
cursed theorist and politician alike. And meanwhile the Cabinet was
sitting, deliberating, as best it might, over the tidings of disaster.
The House of Commons, after voting full powers to the Cabinet and the
Council of Defence, had been united at last by the common and immediate
danger, and members of all parties were hurrying away to their
constituencies to do what they could to help in organising the defence
of their homeland.

There was one fact which stood out before all others, as clearly as an
electric light among a lot of candles, and, now that it was too late, no
one recognised it with more bitter conviction than those who had made it
the consistent policy of both Conservative and Liberal Governments, and
of the Executive Departments, to discourage invention outside the
charmed circle of the Services, and to drive the civilian inventor
abroad.

Again and again, designs of practical airships--not gas-bags which could
only be dragged slowly against a moderate wind, but flying machines
which conquered the wind and used it as a bird does--had been submitted
to the War Office during the last six or seven years, and had been
pooh-poohed or pigeon-holed by some sapient permanent official--and now
the penalty of stupidity and neglect had to be paid.

The complete descriptions of the tragedy that had been and was being
enacted at Portsmouth that were constantly arriving in Downing Street
left no possibility of doubt that the forts had been destroyed and the
Spartiate blown up by torpedoes from the air--from which fact it was
necessary to draw the terrible inference that the enemy had possessed
themselves of the command of the air.

What was the command of the sea worth after that? What was the fighting
value of the mightiest battleship that floated when pitted against a
practically unassailable enemy, which had nothing to do but drop
torpedoes, loaded with high explosives, on her decks and down her
funnels until her very vitals were torn to pieces, her ammunition
exploded, and her crew stunned by concussion or suffocated by poisonous
gas?

It was horrible, but it was true. Inside an hour the strongest
fortifications in England had been destroyed, and ten first-class
battleships and a cruiser had been sent to the bottom of the sea, and so
at last her ancient sceptre was falling from the hand of the Sea Queen,
and her long inviolate domain was threatened by the armed legions of
those whose forefathers she had vanquished on many a stricken field by
land and sea.

"Well, gentlemen," said the Prime Minister to the other members of the
Cabinet Council, who were sitting round that historic oval table in the
Council Chamber in Downing Street, "we may as well confess that this is
a great deal more serious than we expected it to be, and that is to my
mind all the better reason why we should strain every nerve to hold
intact the splendid heritage which our fathers have left to us--"

Boom! A shudder ran through the atmosphere as he spoke the last words,
and the double windows in Downing Street shook with the vibration. The
members of the Cabinet started in their seats and looked at each other.
Was this the fulfilment of the half prophecy which the Prime Minister
had spoken so slowly and so clearly in the silent, crowded House of
Commons?

Almost at the same moment the electric bell at the outer of the double
doors rang. The doors were opened, and a messenger came in with a
telegram which he handed to the Prime Minister, and then retired. He
opened the envelope, and for nearly five minutes of intense suspense he
mentally translated the familiar cypher, and then he said, as he handed
the telegram to the Secretary for War:

"Gentlemen, I deeply regret to say that the possible prospect which I
outlined in the House to-night has become an accomplished fact. Two
hundred and forty-three years ago London heard the sound of hostile
guns. We have heard them to-night. This telegram is from Sheerness, and
it tells, I most deeply regret to say, the same story, or something like
it, as the messages from Portsmouth. A Russo-German-French fleet of
battleships, cruisers and destroyers, assisted by four airships and an
unknown number of submarines, has defeated the Southern portion of the
North Sea Squadron, and is now proceeding in two divisions, one up the
Medway towards Chatham, and the other up the Thames towards Tilbury.
Garrison Fort is now being bombarded from the sea and the air, and will
probably be in ruins within an hour."





Next: A Crime And A Mistake

Previous: The Tragedy Of The Two Squadrons



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