The watching for invasion must have been a blind and stumbling process in Queen Elizabeth’s days, when news was slower in travelling than even the great clumsy ships of the Armada were in nailing. To keep horses saddled, and men ready to ride in an instant, on the arrival of news, was the only resource for communicating between the coast and London.
Fifty-six years ago, our fathers congratulated themselves on the advance of civilisation, which rendered it so much more easy for them to encounter an invasion. Like Queen Elizabeth’s scouts, those of George III. kept watch on the cliffs, and gave notice of every sail to people below by signals: but there was the telegraph besides, that great invention which men pointed out to their children as the last possible achievement of human faculty, in the way of sending messages.
Some people, yet living, remember the sensation of awe with which as children they looked out towards the coast-stations in the early morning, to see whether the telegraph was at work; and how mysterious seemed the rising and falling, and stretching out of its arms against the yellow evening sky.
Then there was the lookingout at night — every night, the last thing before going to bed — towards the beacon, which was to be fired to give the alarm of the approach of the enemy. However many there might be who dreaded the kindling of that blaze, there were not a few who longed for it.
In the summer of 1803, the first chill of dread at the image of brutal foreign soldiers rushing upon our as yet unviolated soil, was pretty well over, and the high spirit of the nation was fairly roused. The desire to arm, if not the arming, was as universal as in Queen Elizabeth’s time; and drill was going on everywhere.
The universities were sending forth companies of student volunteers in a state of fine discipline. The lawyers of the Inns were not quite so flexible in body and ideas; but they did their best, and did not mind being quizzed when one ran a bayonet through another’s coat, or three or four tripped one another up, and fell in a heap.
One gentleman, probably of an absent habit of mind, attempted to dischargo a musket which had six cartridges in it. He was lost to the defence of his country; for his piece blew him up, and knocked down everybody near.
Some who were not gainly enough for this kind of volunteering did their part in another fashion. Do any of my readers remember the “Declaration of the Merchants and Bankers of London,” issued at that time, and now known to have been written by Sir James Mackintosh? Those who have read it will never forget it: those who are too young to have heard much about those times had better turn to the “Annual Register,” and study it.
H our fathers were a nation of shopkeepers, these representatives of trade showed that the shop had not spoiled them for citizens, any more than it had spoiled the train-bands of London in Cromwell’s time, when apprentices and small tradesmen fought for law and liberty of conscience, as well as any gallant cavalier could fight for King and High Church.
The merchants and bankers did more than utter noble sentiments. The Common Council of London raised and equipped eight hundred men; and every citizen spared his clerks and shopmen twice a day for drill. The subscribers to Lloyd’s instituted a fund for the care of the wounded, and the reward of acts of special bravery.
The King, and his sons, and his ministers, and a great attendance of peers held reviews in the parks; and the Queen and princesses looked on. New taxes were zealously paid; and all sorts of funds raised for all conceivable modes of defending the country. The citizens felt themselves as great and devoted as their fathers ever were when looking out for the prodigious Armada; and in the make of their weapons, and all the useful arts concerned, they considered themselves immeasurably superior.
Yet there were circumstances hidden under this show of national gallantry which make us pity the condition of our fathers, as much as we admire their spirit. It was actually a daily practice for police spies to haunt the public-houses throughout the country, to ascertain whether “the people” were in favour of the invaders, or merely indisposed to defend their country, or worthy to be relied upon.
We may hope the government was duly ashamed when the report was that “the spirit of the country was good.” Again; when the enlightened metropolis was thinking and acting as one man, it took a long time to dissolve the jealousies and absurd suspicions which infested society in the provinces. There could hardly have been more distrust of the Catholics on the approach of the Armada, than there was of dissenters and liberals in the towns along the coast when the French were expected in 1803.
In the manufacturing towns, where Flemings and French Huguenots once settled with their industry, the insolence and absurdity of their purely English fellow-citizens were immortalised in many a joke, and many a caricature of the time. The member of the Dutch or French church would come home to dinner, laughing or irritated, as it might be, at the treatment he had met with during the morning.
If his children are alive now they will remember his account of the behaviour of mayor, or alderman, or clerical magistrate to him; the significant hint that it would be rash to attempt to burn the cathedral; the refusal to let him bear arms as a volunteer; the permission to prepare the waggons for carrying the women and children away into the interior, as an office in which he could hardly turn traitor. This was no fancy, no delusion of sore feeling.
In Dorsetshire the Protestant magistracy searched every cellar and cupboard of a convent, to seize arms and ammunition suspected to be hidden there; and also something else — the person of “a brother of Bonaparte.” It must have been a remarkable scene, when the justices came up from the cellar, and were met by the Lady Superior with the rebuke they deserved. She reminded them that if she and the sisters were Catholics, they were also Englishwomen.
Ah! the times are changed since then. We know nothing now of spies in public houses; and the speeches of the Pope’s pitying adorers in Ireland lead to no reports of foreign princes or priests being hidden in convents. No man is questioned about his church when he wishes to enter a volunteer rifle-corps; and the one thing that every man is most sure of about all his neighbours is that they will each resist to the death the landing of an invader.
The temper of the present day is as much in advance of the former one as the arts of life. For the man and horse in waiting, we have the railway. For the telegraph and its slow spelling with its clumsy arms, we have the electric wire and its lightning speech.
There was something fine, pathetic, and yet comic in the way of going to work to make soldiers, in town and country. In the towns there were companies of artisans, differing from each other as much as Falstaff’s recruits. Broad chested carpenters and masons, with a rolling walk; dapper shopmen with a toe and heel step; wizened little weavers, with spindle shanks and bent shoulders, and bilious complexions, and bony fingers, shuffling along — these in procession in the middle of the street, with drum and life, playing a march on going out to drill; and on returning, the universal strain, exulted in by all towns and counties of two syllables (or that could make three fit in),
Jove, the god of thunder,
Alars, the god of war;
Neptune with his trident,
Apollo in his car: —
All the gods celestial
Descend from their spheres,
To view with admiration
The Harwich volunteers.
Or the Kentish volunteers, or the Bristol, or Lincoln, or any other. It was noble to see the eagerness of all kinds of men to learn the discipline, and the use of arms, for the defence of their homes. It was pathetic to see the horror of the press-gang when sailors were wanted; and to witness the heroism with which mothers and maidens sent forth their sons and their lovers, either into the militia, knowing it was for the line, or directly into the line.
It was comic to see the audacity with which men who scarcely knew one end of the musket from the other, dared Boney to come and try what Britons were made of. It was both pathetic and comic to overhear children confiding to each other what they would do whenever Bonaparte came. There was a universal resolution to bar his entrance into every house; or to blow him up from the cellar, or knock him down from the stairs, if he got in; be he man or something worse; and few were quite sure what he was, in those days of many rumours, few newspapers, and scanty movement from place to place.
We should remember that the great reliance at that, as in all former days, was on the navy. There was no question of the superiority of our navy, while the Peninsular war had not shown what our soldiers could do. It was clumsy work, the exercising of the volunteers, with muskets which at best, and in actual warfare, made scores of misses to one hit. The Martello towers along the south coast, which were said to be sure to fall in as soon as their guns were fired, were early discredited in comparison with our wooden walls.
Britannia needs no bulwarks,
No towers along the steep:
Her march is o’er the ocean waves,
Her home is on the deep.
This was the general feeling; and when the citizens armed and drilled, it was as an insurance against the consequences of some signal calamity to the fleet.
But we must not forget, amidst the vivid images of that time, what has happened since. The French never came: and when their defeat and exhaustion secured peace for some time to come, soldiering of all kinds fell into disrepute in England. Peace did not at once bring plenty; the returned soldiers were thrown back upon society, when there was not work and wages enough for the civilians; and they and their profession became unpopular. By the time that manufactures and trade began to expand, through an improvement in our policy, we had receded somewhat too far from the soldiering practices of the beginning of the century.
Let us not forget the gait and bearing of the middle-classes during the years of reaction from commercial distress, and before the re-awakening of that martial spirit which nestles in the heart of every true Briton. It is not many years since we saw children almost forgetting how to play, unless at public schools; and none dreaming of playing at soldiers.
Our middle-aged men did not know the use of their limbs, unless they were university athletes, or country gentlemen. Of the young men, how few could row, or play cricket, or follow the hounds, or even ride or swim at all! They used to shuffle or strut along the street pavement, and creep up a coachbox, and climb painfully over a stile. They could hardly mount the stairs three at a time in case of a fire, or run up a ladder, or leap a ditch, or knock down a thief to save their lives. It was all want of practice.
Nobody then thought any more of England being really invaded, than of a comet burning up the globe; and just at the same time, there was a great spread of pedantry about intellectual recreations, and literary accomplishments. Thus, when the Prince de Joinville published his views about an invasion of England, we were just in the state to disrelish the idea to the very utmost.
It was a wretched sensation, it must be owned. There was no cowardice about it. Nobody for a moment doubted anybody’s love of country, and the courage which springs from that love: but there seemed to be no means of making it available. Giving money to increase the army would not do. We did not know what the army was worth; and we had no great belief in it, after seeing what the common run of officers thought of their profession during a quarter of a century of peace.
And what could the citizens do? They could not acquire muscular limbs and expanded lungs, and a trained eye all in a moment. There was no central rendezvous of the national force of mind and body. Each man’s good will and courage would go for nothing, in the absence of organisation. Considerations like these, far more than the condition of Treland at that time, or squabbles with America, or anything else, sent a cold shudder through many brave hearts at the thought of a French invasion. What changes may we note since then?
The revival of the military spirit among us perhaps strikes us most. It began with the existing imperial regime of France. It was a confused business — the reinstitution of the arts of defence after’ they had been so nearly lost. The young men showed the strongest reluctance to bestir themselves at first — to the shame and surprise of elders who remembered what their own martial youth had been. It was mere inexperience, and obedience to custom, as we see now.
They talked of waste of time and expense, and the breaking up of regular and peaceful habits; and their sisters talked of danger and dissipation, while father and mother mentally held up hands and eyes. There was, however, the great order of public schoolmen — the sporting-men and country gentlemen, who keep up traditions of bodily exercises and the good fellowship which belongs to them. Under the lead of these adepts we became, as a nation, more apt in the use of our limbs and senses, and better aware of the privilege of being Englishmen, before the alarm passed away.
Then came the Russian war, giving us just the education we wanted, and were beginning to crave. We learned the quality of the British soldier, which we had often talked about, but had not been able to feel, in the absence of actual observation. We became a military nation again; and we now know better how to secure our remaining so, as far as our national safety requires it. We suffered such anguish under the discovery of the bad administration of military and naval affairs, that we are more in the way of a good administration of our forces than we have ever been before.
This is one great and good result of the war. Another is the utter shaming and silencing of persons who recognise no higher stake than “blood and treasure.” Some time since, when it was proved that any procedure caused “a waste of blood and treasure,” the argument stopped, as completed. The roused spirit of the nation now (admitting that there may be arguments as to the fact of “waste”) considers that there are things for which “blood and treasure” may be wisely expended.
We have gone on rising in views and in spirit till now, when perhaps our national mood is as satisfactory as it has been at any time in history. Our navy is improving in all dimensions and directions; our army is growing healthful, busy, respectable, contented, and ambitious, even while still troubled with scamps who enter to desert, and with a certain portion of officers who cannot be turned into men of business in a hurry.
A few months more of such vigorous reform as is now going on in the army, and that force will be superior to anything we expected to have — or to need to have — again. But the strongest interest at the moment is the civilian force — the national force — which is hourly preparing to abide the critical events which all Europe believes to be impending.
The interest is only too strong; for there is the doubt hanging upon it whether the spirit of the men, and the mastery of the arms will spread fast enough to keep pace with the need we may have of them. The volunteer movement of 1859 is not exactly a new sport, — a wholesome exercise to be taken leisurely in a season of peace; and the interest of it grows more solemn with the lapse of every precious week of the few or many which may be allowed us for making our island-home secure.
Looking at the bright side of the movement, there is much that is animating. It is pleasant to be awakened in the autumn mornings by the reveille, the sweet and thrilling bugle tones sounding through the last of one’s dreams. A young friend, the bugler of the volunteer rifle corps, comes to rouse the men of the household for their six o’clock drill, and every child in the family begins trumpeting the reveille for the day. This and marching will fill up all intervals of business to day, as yesterday and the day before.
The spirit goes down to the very humblest. The poor school-child begs to be excused coming home for dinner-hour. The bugle sounds at that hour, and the boys like to march to it in the churchyard, and to go through their exercise. The professors of our universities, the wealthiest of our merchants, the humanest of our clergy, are as earnest as they.
As there is due cause for the earnestness, the enthusiasm is so much pure blessing. It is not a mere mode, turning men into children in their eagerness about a transient interest: it is a true enthusiasm, turning children into men, and men into patriots. This is shown by the fine spirit in which our middle and lower class young men offer what they have to give. They have no false shame about asking for arms or uniform, if they cannot afford to buy them. They offer themselves — aware that they are of greater value than rifles and military dress.
In high places the change in half a century is as great as in low. Before, there was always a hanging back of the government, which chafed the people, and puzzled all observers. The truth was, the governments of former days feared to arm the people. It seems scarcely credible now, when the making of rifles and the preparation of cannon are going on night and day, without being able to overtake the demand of the one for the volunteer rifle-corps, and of the other for the volunteer artillery on the coast.
As fast as the arms are ready, they are furnished to all volunteers who subscribe to the necessary conditions agreed upon: and then, in a great municipal hall or on an archery-ground, and on indoors here and market-places there, the indigenous soldiery of England go gaily but steadily through their training.
The pleasant part is chiefly to come — that of becoming marksmen; and the preparatory drill is gone through cheerfully, in the conviction which every sensible man entertains, that there can be no true soldiering without discipline, whatever men may be as marksmen.
The spirit is cordial, as far as it goes, and unanimous wherever roused. The interest is in the solemn question how far such preparation corresponds with the need, if it is needed at all. It sets the heart glowing to see thousands of citizens fitting themselves for a stern new duty — diligent in drill, and dexterous with the rifle; but we cannot do without millions of indigenous soldiers, or without all known methods of defence.
If we need any, we shall need all. If we saw the whole adult population hastening on its military education, the exhilaration might be of a deeper tone than our fathers used in their volunteering, but perhaps it could not be too grave for the occasion. The more serious it is, the stronger is the certainty that it will continue to be exhilaration, under all circumstances, secure from degenerating into mere alarm.
Our nation will have acquired a kind of new life when millions of us feel, for the first time, that our right arms can keep our heads; and that the men of any district can guard the homes, and the women and children of that district. Instead of the dreary fluctuating apprehension about certain very distinct horrors which we used to feel when we were threatened from abroad, we shall be conscious of a growing clearness about what to expect and what to do, and fear will ooze away just as courage does from a perplexed and blinded man.
We shall not be wild enough to suppose that any raw force can withstand a practical army, be the cause as holy as it may; but we may expect, as volunteers, to set free our regular troops for the measured warfare, to guard every point that an enemy can attack, and to punish all intruders on our sacred soil.
The great point will be achieved in the rousing of the citizens. English determination and pertinacity will do the rest. We are already safer than we have been hitherto, and every day of activity will add to our security. The Glasgow volunteers were the first to wait upon the Queen. The Edinburgh volunteers lined her road to Holyrood. Thus we have something to show in the autumn of 1859.
The guardians of London and its commerce and treasures are in training: and they ought to be an army in themselves, if the foe should ever come within sight of our great city. The strains of military music and the reverberation of arms can be propagated over the land very rapidly; and British hearts beat high and steadily when the ear catches the echo of either. Englishwomen can and do help. Some have money to impart; all have sympathy. Our Queens are not the only brave women in England. There are millions who would “think it foul shame,” as Queen Elizabeth did at Tilbury Fort, that an enemy should gain an advantage over us because we prefer peace to war.
It will not be the women’s fault if any invader is invited by our unreadiness, or allowed to return by our want of handiness in disposing of him. We do, and always shall, prefer peace to war; we do, and always shall, desire to be friends with the French especially. But if we are compelled to meet old friends as enemies, we must do it in an effectual way.
We do, in our hearts, believe and know that our country and national life are better worth defending than any others in the world; and our defence must therefore be the best in the world. Ships or men, whenever and whatever comes to assail our rights, liberties, and homes, must never go back. The time is come for every Englishman to seek his post as a citizen soldier, and make himself fit to maintain it, in peace or war, or suspense between the two.