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The Spectator at war

The Spectator at war: A city at war

5 September 2014

8:30 AM

5 September 2014

8:30 AM

From The Spectator, 5 September 1914:

LONDON changes day by day, and the London of the first few days of the war lies far in the past, distant for all of us by differently measured aeons of time. The trainloads of troops, the horses, the hurry, the altered railway service, the packed streets, the questioning crowds, the visible stress and strain of meeting the new conditions and the new standards of the world—these are gone. London instead is very quiet, and exceedingly hard at work. The noise of preparation has ceased, and now the silence that has followed has a quality of its own. There is a new sound in it, which a Londoner returning from travel would detect at once. It is not to be located or recognized easily, and that is because none of us have heard it before; but after listening for it and hearing it for some time, we may perhaps decide that it is a sound of purpose. A new and tremendously powerful engine has been started, and we are listening to the dynamos.

The quiet of purpose fits the time of the year. The steady sunshine of late summer has been poured over London day after day. The chestnut trees in the parks are already brown and bare ; the plane trees have spread a thin, rustling carpet of leaves drifting over the grass and gravel. Vapour shimmers to the chimneys from tar and asphalt and motor-‘bus. Nobody would take a walk along these white and sunlit pavements for choice, but they are not empty because Londoners are taking holidays elsewhere; witness the deserted sands and parades of the seaside. They are empty because nobody is strolling with nothing particular to do; nobody is looking about, or walking np and down, or casually shopping: the customers in the shops are spending their money carefully, and on things which many of them have not bought before. The shops offer new goods, or goods for new purposes ; packages to be sent to the front, “service” this and that, barrels of cigars and tobacco duty free; some of them try to attract customers by pasting photographs of war incidents in their windows, with the kind of letterpress made familiar by the illustrated papers. But no one stays long to look at pictures; and for that matter, there are few passers-by. That is one of the curious aspects of the great streets of the West End; they are strangely empty. Driving on an omnibus and looking down at bare flag- stones which are usually patterned with moving colour, you think first of London on a Sunday morning : then you realize that the sun-blinds over the shops are down, and that under the sun-blinds the shops have dressed their windows as invitingly as they can. “Two hundred employees are dependent on the business of this establishment,” you read in a rather obscure little window, and realize a little less vaguely the possibilities of a Relief Fund.

In the parks and gardens there is the same air of quiet. If the sands of the seaside are deserted, Kensington Gardens are not the more crowded for that reason. The Round Pond carries not a fleet, but hardly a dozen sail. A park-keeper blows vigorously on a whistle, commanding a distant figure cycling on the Broad Walk to “get off that bike”; the figure rides on, possibly with a message that will not wait. The Row is silent; some of its horses, perhaps, are outside Paris. Only opposite Knightsbridge Barracks is there any move- ment; there are rows of horses picketed on the wiry grass, and troopers smoking pipes and cleaning their accoutrements in the sunshine. A couple of grizzled onlookers, time- expired men to judge from the set of their heads, criticize the stamp of animal beyond the railings. “All right, that. . . . Bit of a mark, he’d be. . . . Gun horse, more, p’raps.” From a window in the barracks behind floats a fragment of music, stopping suddenly : band practice fits well enough with so still a morning. Away from Knightsbridge, further east, the Park lies bathed in sunlight. By the head of the Serpentine rabbits and blackbirds hop about the slope of a mown lawn ; a woodpigeon coos in an elm, a Vapourer moth zigzags down between the boughs. You turn towards the traffic of the main street, and are confronted with two girls selling copies of L’Echo de France. In a signed article a French general discusses the value of the English Army as allied with the French. “Quels que soient les défauts d’organisation et de details de l’armee anglaise, on oublie trop qu’ils sont, chez elle, compensés par des qualités de race qui font de l’Anglais un soldat redoutable.” A familiar quotation follows: “L’infanterie anglaise est la plus redoutable de l’Europe; heureusement il n’y en a pas beaucoup.”

There is to be more, in any case. Not much is to be seen of the new recruits in the parks. Regent’s Park is as empty as Hyde Park; you can see by the turf near Albany Barracks where the horses have been picketed, and there are heaps of litter swept up under the trees ; otherwise, except for a group of troopers by a fence, and a glimpse through the barrack- gates, a stranger would not guess the purpose of the long line of buildings. It was in the barrack yard only a few yards away that fourteen years ago the first squadrons of Imperial Yeomanry stood on parade, the day that the news came through from Spion Kop. To-day it is again “unmounted men preferred,” with better reason. The unmounted men to be seen in London are mostly Territorials. You may be sure of coming across some of them, or of watching them from a distance, in the neighbourhood of a large building on the east side of Tottenham Court Road. The Y.M.C.A. has a strong hold on the type of young Englishman who fills the ranks of the Territorials. The privates stand in groups in the street talking with their friends and relations; the rooms looking out on the road are full of them, smoking and reading the papers ; high above the street they are sitting on the broad ledges of masonry outside the windows, gazing down at the -crowd and waving to acquaintances; all without any noise. They, of course, are in uniform; but in some ways the most striking additions to the ranks of the ” unmounted men” are those without uniform. They stand in rows outside the recruiting stations, and glancing at them, you may speculate as to what will be the percentage of rejections. Some are plainly too young, and for that reason worth looking at. But there is not much doubt of the quality of those who pass the tests. These are not the type of the second lot of mounted infantry which were sent to South Africa. The drill-sergeants, surely, will have an easier task than usual. The great majority are the same class of men wherever you see them—at Great Scotland Yard, on the Horse Guards Parade, in the shade on the north side of St. Martin’s Church in Trafalgar Square. On the Horse Guards Parade there is a ten-foot notice-board nailed on props driven into the gravel, and it is covered with papers with the names of recruits enlisted in the London district; across the papers there are notices written to the effect that these men are to parade before the despatch tents “after receiving pay” before proceeding by rail to the various depots. Inside a roped-off space there are tents, and a plat- form from which the names of the recruits are read out to the bystanders ; as each man answers his name he is shown his place in the ranks by the platform. These men will be -drilled in barrack-squares near and far—Colchester, ‘Winchester, Hounslow. But there are other recruits whom anyone may see drilling in London, and here and there in places which a month ago would have seemed unlikely enough. You may come up to London in the early morning over Waterloo Bridge, perhaps, and turn to look down the river where H.M.S. President ‘ lies moored beyond the grey hull of the ‘North- ampton,’ and there on the narrow terrace of Somerset House there are squads drilling under non-commissioned officers— some of these drill instructors in khaki and some in plain clothes. All the recruits are in their shirt-sleeves, some with straw hats, some bare-headed, and they drill not at all as other recruits have been seen to drill in other days. These are young men with a spring, who want to learn very quickly. They will be taught very quickly what they can learn on a stone terrace, and when they are taken into the open they will move easily, being used to the space of -cricket fields and football grounds. They are not quite so fortunate in their parade ground as some others—those whom you will find in the air and shade of Lincoln’s Inn, for instance. But that is a matter of chance ; there is no difference in the material, from the eyes and shoulders to the other evidence of boots, collars,. hats. English games are making their contributions now, and will contribute more yet. “Quels que soient les défauts d’organisation et de details,” these are the soldiers who come forward to the proof. Into one custom of the British Army they initiate themselves without drill. The railway stations provide the time and place. There is always hurry at a railway station, and there are always crowds ; the hurry is dis- connected and the crowds are of individuals, with individual thoughts and cares. At intervals the crowd breaks, and the individuals stand aside; there is a sudden atmosphere of intention, of concerted movement; perhaps there is the heralding signal of a shout or the note of a song. A score of young men, marching two deep, swing up the platform ; a train is waiting beyond the iron gates. After an interval there is the familiar whistle of the guard, then the equally familiar slogan: “Are we down-hearted ? No-o-o !” The train grows smaller in the sunlight beyond the platform, and the railway station, like the street outside, resumes its purpose and its quiet.

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