We were resting after the first battle of the Somme. Naturally all the talk in the Mess was of after-the-war. Ours was the H.Q. Mess, and I was the only subaltern; the youngest of us was well over thirty. With a gravity befitting our years and (except for myself) our rank, we discussed not only restaurants and revues, but also Reconstruction.
The Colonel’s idea of Reconstruction included a large army of conscripts. He did not call them conscripts. The fact that he had chosen to be a soldier himself, out of all the professions open to him, made it difficult for him to understand why a million others should not do the same without compulsion. At any rate, we must have the men. The one thing the war had taught us was that we must have a real Continental army.
I asked why. “Theirs not to reason why” on parade, but in the H.Q. Mess on active service the Colonel is a fellow human being. So I asked him why we wanted a large army after the war.
For the moment he was at a loss. Of course, he might have said “Germany,” had it not been decided already that there would be no Germany after the war. He did not like to say “France,” seeing that we were even then enjoying the hospitality of the most delightful French villages. So, after a little hesitation, he said “Spain.”
At least he put it like this:–
“Of course, we must have an army, a large army.”
“But why?” I said again.
“How else can you–can you defend the honour of your country?”
“The Navy! Pooh! The Navy isn’t a weapon of attack; it’s a weapon of defence.”
“But you said `defend’.”
“Attack,” put in the Major oracularly, “is the best defence.”
I hinted at the possibilities of blockade. The Colonel was scornful. “Sitting down under an insult for months and months,” he called it, until you starved the enemy into surrender. He wanted something much more picturesque, more immediately effective than that. (Something, presumably, more like the Somme.)
“But give me an example,” I said, “of what you mean by `insults’ and `honour’.”
Whereupon he gave me this extraordinary example of the need for a large army.
“Well, supposing,” he said, “that fifty English women in Madrid were suddenly murdered, what would you do?”
I thought for a moment, and then said that I should probably decide not to take my wife to Madrid until things had settled down a bit.
“I’m supposing that you’re Prime Minister,” said the Colonel, a little annoyed. “What is England going to do?”
“Ah!… Well, one might do nothing. After all, what is one to do? One can’t restore them to life.”
The Colonel, the Major, even the Adjutant, expressed his contempt for such a cowardly policy. So I tried again.
“Well,” I said, “I might decide to murder fifty Spanish women in London, just to even things up.”
The Adjutant laughed. But the Colonel was taking it too seriously for that.
“Do you mean it?” he asked.
“Well, what would you do, sir?”
“Land an army in Spain,” he said promptly, “and show them what it meant to treat English women like that.”
“I see. They would resist of course?”
“Yes. But equally without doubt we should win in the end?”
“And so re-establish England’s honour.”
“I see. Well, sir, I really think my way is the better. To avenge the fifty murdered English women, you are going to kill (say) 100,000 Spaniards who have had no connexion with the murders, and 50,000 Englishmen who are even less concerned. Indirectly also you will cause the death of hundreds of guiltless Spanish women and children, besides destroying the happiness of thousands of English wives and mothers. Surely my way–of murdering only fifty innocents–is just as effective and much more humane.”
“That’s nonsense,” said the Colonel shortly.
“And the other is war.”
We were silent for a little, and then the Colonel poured himself out a whisky.
“All the same,” he said, as he went back to his seat, “you haven’t answered my question.”
“What was that, sir?”
“What you would do in the case I mentioned. Seriously.”
“Oh! Well, I stick to my first answer. I would do nothing–except, of course, ask for an explanation and an apology. If you can apologize for that sort of thing.”
“And if they were refused?”
“Have no more official relations with Spain.”
“That’s all you would do?”
“And you think that that is consistent with the honour of a great nation like England?”
“Oh! Well, I don’t.”
An indignant silence followed.
“May I ask you a question now, sir?” I said at last.
“Suppose this time England begins. Suppose we murder all the Spanish women in London first. What are you going to do–as Spanish Premier?”
“Er–I don’t quite—-“
“Are you going to order the Spanish Fleet to sail for the mouth of the Thames, and hurl itself upon the British fleet?”
“Of course not, She has no fleet.”
“Then do you agree with the–er Spanish Colonel, who goes about saying that Spain’s honour will never be safe until she has a fleet as big as England’s?”
“That’s ridiculous. They couldn’t possibly.”
“Then what could Spain do in the circumstances?”
“Well, she–er–she could–er–protest.”
“And would that be consistent with the honour of a small nation like Spain?”
“In the circumstances,” said the Colonel unwillingly, “er–yes.”
“So that what it comes to is this. Honour only demands that you should attack the other man if you are much bigger than he is. When a man insults my wife, I look him carefully over; if he is a stone heavier than I, then I satisfy my honour by a mild protest. But if he only has one leg, and is three stone lighter, honour demands that I should jump on him.”
“We’re talking of nations,” said the Colonel gruffly, “not of men, It’s a question of prestige.”
“Which would be increased by a victory over Spain?”
The Major began to get nervous. After all, I was only a subaltern. He tried to cool the atmosphere a little.
“I don’t know why poor old Spain should be dragged into it like this,” he said, with a laugh. “I had a very jolly time in Madrid years ago.”
“O, I only gave Spain as an example,” said the Colonel casually.
“It might just as well have been Switzerland?” I suggested.
There was silence for a little.
“Talking of Switzerland—-” I said, as I knocked out my pipe.
“Oh, go on,” said the Colonel, with a good-humoured shrug. “I’ve brought this on myself.”
“Well, sir, what I was wondering was–What would happen to the honour of England if fifty English women were murdered at Interlaken?”
The Colonel was silent.
“However large an army we had—-” I went on.
The Colonel struck a match.
“It’s a funny thing, honour,” I said. “And prestige.”
The Colonel pulled at his pipe.
“Just fancy,” I murmured, “the Swiss can do what they like to British subjects in Switzerland, and we can’t get at them. Yet England’s honour does not suffer, the world is no worse a place to live in, and one can spend quite a safe holiday at Interlaken.”
“I remember being there in ’94,” began the Major hastily….
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