The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times
Chapter XVI. — War Weariness—A Great Speech
War Weariness—A Great Speech.
Depletion of single men—Complaints against War policy—Attacks in Legislative Council—Bell's reply to the critics.
As the War dragged on from year to year and the casualty lists continued to tell their tragic tale, voices began to be heard even in high places urging that we should ease off in our War effort. Sir Joseph Ward had to meet a deputation which complained that railway services were unduly curtailed to enable more men to go to the Front.
"The only thing that passes through my mind," said Ward, "is that we shall have to consider how much further this country can go in sending men at all. The time will come—I cannot say when—when it may not be possible to let any more men go."
Even as early as December, 1916, a deputation of anticonscriptionists urged that New Zealand had already sent sufficient men to the front and that essential industries were suffering.
But fortunately the Government stood firm. In the House of Representatives Allen declared that the country would be false to its pledges if it failed to keep the Expeditionary Force at full strength. He granted page 145more adequate allowances for the families of conscripted married men, but he resisted their full demands as being impossible to comply with.
Even some of those who had originally supported conscription began to complain that our War effort was excessive. In the Legislative Council one of the oldest and most experienced Councillors—the Hon. J. D. Ormond—made an elaborate attack on the Government War policy, and said that his speech was based on communications he had received from various parts of the country. He repeated all the old arguments against the depletion of our man-power. He urged that men would be better occupied in producing the food that England could not produce for herself. Our exports were falling off. In his view it would be quite sufficient to send only the single men.
"At the present time," he said, "we have been asked to make greater sacrifices than any other Colony of the Empire. My honourable friend (Bell) cannot deny that."
Sir Francis Bell:
"I deny that we have been asked to."
Hon. Mr. Ormond:
"We have done it."
Sir Francis Bell:
"That is a different thing."
Ormond went on to argue that as America had now come into the War, that country could find all the men required. He alleged that members of the New Zealand Cabinet were divided on the matter. This attitude was supported by the Hon. Sir William Hall-Jones, who page 146urged that it was utterly impossible to send married men under the conditions that existed.
It was in reply to this and similar arguments that on July 12, 1917, Bell delivered one of the greatest speeches of his career. The speech is too long to quote in full, but some extracts will serve to convey to the reader the vigour of his thought and language and the deep emotion with which he spoke. Early in his speech Bell complained that two separate issues were being confused. To argue that the agricultural industry was suffering through want of man-power was one issue: to argue that we were on the verge of exhausting the single men available and therefore should relax our War efforts was another issue.
"It is," said Bell, "as if we should say that a single man is bound to fight for his country, but if a man marries he is thereby free from the obligation imposed upon us all. It is as if to say that the suffering which is borne by a wife who parts from her husband is greater than the suffering borne by a mother who has sent her son to the front. It is not right or just thus to cloud the issue of our present convenience, with the question relating to the callingup of married men. If all the men in the country were single men, the first issue would be as present and as pressing as it is to-day, if it were present at all."
He then proceeded to quote the emphatic pledges made by the New Zealand Parliament on the outbreak of War, expressing our resolve to make any sacrifice to maintain our heritage and birthright. These pledges had been repeated on each anniversary of the declara-page 147tion of War. They had expressed our inflexible determination to continue to a victorious end the struggle for maintenance of those ideals of liberty and justice which were the common and sacred cause of the Allies.
"Yes Sir," proceeded Bell, " 'any sacrifice' and 'inflexible determination'; but when the point has arrived that something of our convenience and comfort is to be sacrificed the determination of the Hon. Mr. Ormond and of the Hon. Sir William Hall-Jones becomes flexible at once. These, I say, are the obligations to which you and I and every member of this Council are parties—with the Government it is true; but it is not the Government of this country alone—it is the people of the country, the Parliament of the Country, and this Council that have given the promises and the pledges I have read. 'Any sacrifice' of some one else; no sacrifice of convenience or comfort for ourselves.
"Why, Sir," he continued, "the Saturnalia being held near Wellington to-day, and the clamour of complaint against want of convenience in railway conveyance to the races, and crowds of motor-cars going to enjoy pleasure show how many of us yet can sacrifice nothing. Byron, in the last century, in his glorious ode, after appeal to the Greeks to remember their history and to rouse their nation to defence against the oppressor, found them such as the men I have just spoken of:
"'In vain, in vain; strike other chords,
Fill high the howl with Samian wine;
Leave battle to the Turkish hordes,
And shed the blood of scio's vine.'
"The poet in these lines," said Bell, "expressed what the minority for whom the honourable gentleman has spoken to-day in Council really mean. Do not touch the music-halls, the picture-shows, the races, or the public-houses. The time has come when we are beginning to disturb them; the limit of sacrifice is then overstepped. Well, Sir, at all events, I who speak here am solemnly bound by those engagements that I have read; and if they are to be thrown to the winds, then let some others—let some others be the men to break the faith of New Zealand, but not a man born in New Zealand, proud of New Zealand, happy in what has been done, feeling that his country has done its duty so far in performance of its obligations to the Mother-country. If our promise is not longer to be the measure of our obligation, then let some other men dishonour our word and the promise that we have made.
"But I do not believe, Sir," he proceeded, "we have become craven. I will not believe it till the country has so declared. This country, Sir, was the first to enter upon German soil. It is true that we occupied Samoa without resistance, but that was a mere accident of the absence of the great fleet Germany was prepared to defend it with. We were the first country—the first dominion of the Empire— to enter upon German soil. We have that to our credit. Shall we be the first to quit, and have that to our lasting dishonour and disgrace? And, Sir, the third anniversary is approaching. Are those who have spoken prepared to send a message of shame, or will the honourable gentleman on the third anniversary move an amendment to the twice-repeated page 149resolution? Shall we not again say that our determination is inflexible or shall we admit that it is flexible, and that our time for abandonment has come, and that we have had enough?"
He next dealt with the suggestion that as America had entered the War we could relax our effort:
"How can the entry of America into this quarrel make any difference to the obligation of New Zealand? If any part of the Empire was in danger more than another, New Zealand was that part. It is our New Zealand soil we are defending, and the enemy is at the gates of one New Zealand avenue which stretches to the other side of the seas. How can the entry of America into the battle make any difference to our duty? Is it to be said of Englishmen at last as some one said in days of old, 'We will fight with Hessians, but not with our men and our own sons?' Are we to sit behind a rampart of Americans or of any nation? Americans are our brothers, of the same speech and of the same blood, but they are of another nation. They have different aims, different objects, different hopes, and other aspirations.
"What test can it be of the question," he asked, "whether we are doing all that we can, and making as much sacrifice as possible, that there are others who are prepared to join England and her Allies in the fight? It will make the end speedier; but shall the end come without us because the Americans are there? The honourable gentleman's claim that page 150we should at this stage make a pause and halt, and cease to reinforce our division, is nothing but a base and ignoble surrender."
Bell then showed that we had kept our promise to send a full division and supply reinforcements so that it could always go into action full in strength and equipment.
"I believe," he said, "that there is no difference of opinion upon that in the minds of the vast majority of the people of New Zealand—that even if we have done more than other countries because we have fulfilled our promise, that which we have done in fulfillment of our promise we shall continue to the end, come Americans, come Russians, come any other nation in the world, and until the breaking-point whatever be the sacrifices. But I declare that it shall never be the case with me, and I declare my firm belief that it will never be the case with the people of New Zealand—that it shall be said at such a time as that, and in such circumstances as I have referred to, that there are no men to spare."
"I would ask further," he continued, "what can such a speech as the honourable gentleman made, moderate as it was, restrained as it was, carefully free from offence to those to whom he addressed himself —what can such a speech mean to the enemy? Has it any other meaning than that we are at the end of our resources, so far as our support to the Empire is concerned?
"We are the descendants of men who in the last century bore privation and suffering, almost starvation rather than give way to a military despotism. I do not believe I shall live—I hope I shall not live— page 151to see the day when it shall be truly said that the dogged determination that made England the pilot that weathered the storm in the beginning of the nineteenth century has disappeared from the traditions of our race, and that our heritage and birthright, of which we spoke so proudly when the War broke out, is a heritage and a birthright whose value is to be calculated in money, and to be defended not to the utmost limit of physical endurance, but only until our pockets begin to be affected.
"I do not believe," proceeded Bell, "there is the smallest cause for the contention that this country will be brought to ruin by the further depletion of its manhood. It may be that it will be brought to privation. It certainly may, and I think should, be brought to privation of many of the comforts, conveniences, and luxuries that we have to-day.
"Sir, the upright man was defined by a poet two thousand years ago:
" 'The upright man remains ever determined to carry out in full that to which he is pledged, and is not swayed from his determination by the clamour of the crowd demanding base and mean conclusions, nor by the frown of any tyrant, however near.'
"That, Sir, I hope will be the maxim of every man and of every woman in New Zealand who at the beginning of this War joined with the rest of the Empire in the fervent determination to support the cause of justice. A pause in it would mean that we had abandoned the cause which we declared we page 152would maintain to the end. The end has not yet come, Sir, and I trust that no words from the honourable gentleman, long as his experience has been and great as is the respect in which he is held, will prevail to make the determination of the people less, or to make us hesitate in our duty to the cause and to the Empire until the victory is won."
This powerful appeal silenced the waverers and afforded a further proof of Bell's fine qualities of leadership in a great crisis.