[from 'Our Girls' 1916]
CHRISTMAS is approaching while I am writing about woman's work in the munition factories, the third Christmas of the war. And in order that I may make (in response to many re quests) a general survey of female war work outside the London area, and give, at the same time, a broad if necessarily hasty sketch of the war-activities of the kingdom at this most critical time, I will ask the reader to follow me in memory and imagination while I attempt to describe three Christmas Eves-that which immediately preceded the war, that which is now so near at hand, and that which will soon come, please God, with its blessed and authentic message of a righteous peace.
It is the Christmas Eve of 1913. We see the people of these islands approaching with steady hearts the sweet, short pause in the calendar of the year which goes before the Christmas festival. We see the streets of our great industrial towns surging and swaying with long processions of cheerful sightseers-women with eager faces, children with sparkling eyes, and men (washed and dressed after their work in the forge or the mill) carrying babies on their shoulders that they may see over the heads of the throngs into the brightly lit shop windows, which are full of all dainty and beautiful and appetizing things, decked out with holly and mistletoe. We see millions of homes, each with its little Christmas tree, that is shining with fairy lamps and glittering with tinkling toys, and has its merry company of happy little people dancing around it and clap ping hands. As midnight approaches we hear the ringing of bells and the singing of " The Waits," and see people streaming into the churches, where the pulpits are decorated with ivy and red berries, and the walls of the chancel, above the tables of the Commandments, are pricked out in evergreens with the triumphant message, "Peace on earth, good will to men." In the Catholic churches we see the little Nativities which have been set up in the side chapels, with their tiny pasteboard figures of the Mother and Child, Joseph and his ass and the Wise Men of the East, for Christmas makes us all children. And because Christmas comes at a time of the year when want is keenly felt, we see good women, to whom God has given no children of their own, perhaps, going out into the fog and darkness of the streets to look for the homeless and hungry among the children of other people.
Such in very simple sooth, although it seems so hard to believe it, was the Christ mas of only three years ago-a few short hours snatched as by the angel of healing out of the immense sorrow of existence, even while humanity was standing on the brink of tragic abysses. And now what about the Christmas of 1916 ?
Already we realize that there is to be no rest, no calm, perhaps no holiday, or next to none, in any of the greater munition factories. A hideous crime has been committed, a foul plot against the welfare of the nations has been hatched, and if the whirl of blazing misery which it has already brought upon mankind is to be beatten down, we must go on working. Shells, shells, and yet more shells must be made and sent across the sea that the carnage may be stopped, that civilization may be saved, and (awful and inexplicable mys tery) that Christianity may be justified.
But what a spectacle for Christmas Eve ! We see the coasts of our islands blackened out, lest from the dark waters about them (which were " to serve us in the office of a wall") that offal of all fighting-craft, the submarine, should fall unawares on our sleeping towns which lie breast-oven to the sea. Our streets are darkened, and our church bells are silenced, lest the lights of the one, and the music of the other, should betray our presence to that agent of the devil, the Zeppelin, which is riding above the clouds three miles up in the sky. Behind the dark blinds of our houses our young children may be playing, but their young mothers are watching them with quivering hearts, in fear of the black fate that may fall on them at any time. Our churches are, perhaps, full at the midnight services, but chiefly with women; and while the organ is played and the anthem sung they are trying, too often in vain, to pierce the veil which interposes between them and the divine wisdom, to bow before the Unknown Will, to believe that everything is for the best, to feel that God's ways are sure; or perhaps, under the recent shock of heart-shaking news, to persuade them selves (ah, how hard it is, how infinitely pitiful !) that great as was the glory they had pictured for the future lives of their brilliant boys, death on the battlefield has been a yet greater glory than any they ever dreamed of.
From north to south, from east to west, our people are at work making munitions of war, and more than five hundred thousand of them are women. We look along the " garden of England," from the harassed coast of Kent, across the wild west country, to where the feet of Corn wall dip into the sea. Once at least in times long past this long stretch of our island was swept by the wings of war, and more than once by the storms of religious strife, leaving the splendid stories of both in the stones of the cathedral cities, Canterbury, Winchester, Salisbury, Exeter, Truro, whose great names are woven into the history of England, through many centuries. But another war is here now, a silent, muffled, semi subterranean war, in the great factories for the manufacture of deadly explosives, and the filling of the shells, as well as in the tin mines of Redruth and the copper mines of St. Just, not to speak of the coal mines of Cardiff, whose tall shafts may be seen at night before the glow of the smelting works of South Wales at a far view across the Severn. The women of the west country, like the women of Wales, love to sing in the little square chapels that lie scattered over their dales like sparks from some celestial anvils ; but there is no time for that now. Christ mas as it is, the mines must work at full speed if the furnaces and factories of the kingdom are to be fed.
Then we glance along the midland counties from the coast of Norfolk, with the salt spray on its face, to where, beyond the Black Country, the green mountains of Merioneth look into the blue waters of St. George's Channel. War has been here, too, and some of the memorials of it remain in the grim old castles which looked brave and formidable, perhaps, in the days when the Ironsides stood under them, or in the nights when Elizabeth and her followers went up into them by the light of torches, though they seem foolish enough now, when one shot from a howitzer would probably make such a breach in their broad-bastioned walls as an army might pass through. Romance has been here, too, for the great forest of Arden, sacred to the memory of Shake speare's sweetest heroine, stretched as far as to the fringe of Birmingham, where now there is another and much greater forest-the forest of innumerable tall chimneys from the great factories of the smiths, engineers and glass-blowers who have done so much to make man's life on the earth human and clean. They are doing other and deadlier work now, and as one drives up in the darkness towards Coventry and the vast amphitheatre of the great capital of the Midlands, and sees the wide glare with which it lights up the night sky, like a fiery buckle in the blazing belt of England, visible, one thinks, from the middle of the North Sea, and bidding defiance to Zeppelins, one remembers that tens of thousands of women are working here also. They love the theatre and the cinema, these midland women, but there is no time for either. Fuses, cartridges, cartridge cylinders, small arms, hand grenades, aeroplanes, Lewis machine-guns and the big guns must continue to be made, if the lives of our men across the sea are to be saved.
Then we look along our northern counties from the Mersey to the Wharfe, and up, perhaps, at an oblique angle to the Tyne. Some of the quaint old castles of former days are here too, looking like ghosts that have not heard the cock-crow and are surprised by the dawn. But here, also, is a line of the great towns which have stood for the finest activities of England for nearly five hundred years, and now again are standing for much of her greatest effort in her utmost need. At one end of this broad belt of Britain glycerine is being made towards the manufacture of gun cotton, and at the other end the big " Nasmyths " are being forged that hammer out our steel, the thick armour is being rolled that is to be the breastplate of our battleships, while in dockyards as big as Marston Moor, the great battleships themselves are being built in every operation, from their solid keel to the crackling wireless apparatus that is to quiver and crack at their mast heads. Between these two, along the banks of rivers and canals, are the immense mills with innumerable eyes, which in times of peace took cotton and wool from all parts of the earth and sent them back in textile goods to the limits of the sea, and are now working, day and night, by the help of tens of thousands of women, to clothe and re-clothe our vast armies and the armies of our Allies. The women of Lancashire and Yorkshire love to dance, but there is no time for that, for the winter has come and the trenches are deep with rain, and if our men are to fight they must be kept warm and dry.
Then we look along the great border country from Berwick to the Brigs o' Ayre, where Burns whistled to the plough, and where Wallace and Bruce made history in the brave, bad times of strife between Scotland and England, leaving Scott, in a later day, to tell the tale of it. Yesterday the heather was blooming, the peat smoke was rising, and the wild geese were screaming over broad stretches of this open country; and now strange new cities, such as the world has never seen before, larger in their area than Edin burgh and dedicated to the duty of manu facturing guns and shells, have sprung up like the prophet's gourd. Numbers of women are working here, also, braw Scottish lasses, often fishermen's daughters, coming from as far away as Skye and Stornoway, and the shores of the stormy waters that swallowed up Kitchener. They, too, love to sing and dance, especially at Christmas and the New Year, but there is no time to lose now. The Great Push has begun, and if the enemy is to be driven back and back, over the countries he has laid waste and the towns and villages he has reduced to shapeless heaps of scrag, the work of these strange new cities must not pause for a moment.
Finally, we look along the Clyde to the great city that gained its first prosperity, perhaps, out of the only British war that remotely resembled this one, when " the great Commoner," sick of the corruption and inefficiency with which it was being prosecuted, went down from his house in Hampstead to the mansion of the First Lord of the Treasury in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and said, with splendid audacity, " I can save England and nobody else can," and then, being made Minister of War, startled the Empire by asking for ten millions in a single year to prove his word. He did prove it. He made him self the first Englishman of his time, and England the first country in the world, and Glasgow, meantime, the greatest manufacturing centre in North Britain. But not even in his wildest dreams could Pitt have thought that a time could come when the shipyards of the Clyde would have to work day and night, and all through Christmas and New Year, to repair the losses to our fleet of innocent merchant ships which, full of food, are put down without warning, in the solitudes of the sea. But that is what they are doing now, and thousands of Scottish women are working at this great task also, and must continue to work, if our bread is to be sure, and we are to preserve what Cromwell called " our mastery of the sea."
Such then, in general, will be the Christ mas of 1916. It makes a tremendous, almost a terrible picture. That such, and of such kind, should be the activities of Great Britain on the eve of the festival of Him Whom we agree to call the Prince of Peace, and that women with their tender ness should be in the midst of them, is a paradox of almost perplexing mystery. If another Moses ascending another Pisgah on the Christmas Eve of 1916 could look down on our islands from Cape Wrath to Land's End, and from King's Lynn to Carnarvon, not knowing that all the mighty labours in the plains below are intended to put an end to a torrent of rapine and violence and fraud, and seeing only that in this year of our Lord our people are submerging all their work for human welfare in the one sole effort of creating weapons of destruction, he would surely say that Britain was the kingdom of Satan, and that on the eve of the birthday of Christ Himself itwas singing a hymn to the devil. The blazing fur naces of Warwickshire and Stafford shire and Durham and Northumberland would seem to be the devil's altar fires, the smoke of their chimneys his incense, and the thunder of their engines his awful orchestra.
But thank God we know better than that. We know that while thousands of factories and forges all over our islands are working day and night to destroy life, thousands of houses that stand side by side with them are working just as hard to save it. We know that while half a million British women are making munitions for the war, another vast army of them, their sisters in the hospitals, are nursing its sick and wounded. We know that the women in the factories and the women in the hospitals are working under the same general impulse, and that in spite of the war, Britain, with all her faults, is still Christian to the core. We know that what some of us saw on the Christmas Eves of 1914 and 1915 we may see again in 1916-the night nurses in the great houses of pain, as the clock strikes twelve, walking in slow procession with lanterns and candles, down the long corridors and through the darkened wards, singing the simple old ballads " Christ was born in Bethlehem," and " When shepherds watched their flocks by night," which come back to some of us who are growing old in the accents of an infant's prayer. We know that our soldiers, straight out of that hell across the sea, and bearing on their bodies the scars of it, being awakened in the peaceful half darkness of their wards (such of them as are able to sleep) after the shrieking of shells and the screaming of shrapnel, by women's soft voices coming from a long way off, pausing by their beds and dying away, will be stirred up to their throbbing hearts and quivering lips by God knows what memories of home and kindred. We know, too, that even where the wounded are our enemy's, not our own, the scene will be the same, and that it will make no difference to our women nursing in our hospitals that the stricken men lying in the beds as they pass are German soldiers, and that they are dreaming of their German homes. And that is why we also know that, sooner or later, come what may, we must win this war-because the heart of a nation is the thing it lives by, and the heart of our England is sound.
NOTE.-I have been glad to learn, since the foregoing chapter was written and printed, that by order of the Ministry of Munitions, the munitions workers (unless prevented by military exigencies) will have a short holiday at Christmas. I am told, however, that the order will not be of universal applicability, and that, with certain limitations, my picture of the war activities of Great Britain at Christmastide will generally apply
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2018