Hyndman September 1915.

The Armed Nation.

Source: Fortnightly Review, September 1915;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


It is unfortunate that the arduous task of a Coalition which, with no active Opposition in the House of Commons, controls the destinies of this country and the Empire, should be complicated from the first with suggested radical changes in the method of raising the national Army. The difficulty, not to say the danger, of introducing compulsory military service, without a Dissolution of Parliament, or a Referendum to the whole people, must be obvious to all. Minister after Minister of the new Government, including Lord Kitchener himself, has declared, since the commencement of the war, that voluntary recruiting would suffice for all our needs. Yet, before a year has passed, the toll of killed, wounded, and missing has been so great, and threatens to be so much greater, that we are now almost prepared to see the voluntary principle of enlistment supplanted by a much more drastic system of obtaining the necessary men. Full proof of this pressing need must be forthcoming ere the crucial change is made; for it is already certain that on this point the people at large will require very strong evidence indeed.[1]

Nothing has amazed Europe more than the eagerness and enthusiasm with which hundreds of thousands of the cream of the working classes of Great Britain, skilled Trade Unionists in receipt of high wages, with the prospect of continuous employment during the war, have rushed to the recruiting stations. And nothing finer has been seen in all the hateful glories of war than the manner in which these volunteer troops, British and Colonial alike, have behaved in Flanders and France, since they were driven back by overwhelming numbers in August, 1914. We are now forced by policy, as well as by pressure from our own Allies, to conduct the war upon land on the Continental scale, and to maintain the command of the seas as well. For this purpose, we are told, nothing but compulsory service will now adequately provide. Voluntary enlistment could not furnish enough men to arrest the German invasion, and is at this moment alleged to be insufficient to ensure a triumphant issue to the war.

This last statement alone, when substantiated by facts, is enough to condemn volunteering, seeing that England is determined that Germany and her confederates shall be completely beaten, and beaten within a reasonable time. But the drawbacks to the volunteer system itself are numerous. I have heard the strongest advocates of peace declare that they would prefer even wholesale conscription to our existing means of getting men. It is the most unfair plan of obtaining soldiers for the national service that has ever been tried. The active, the self-sacrificing, the patriotic, come forward. The lazy, the selfish, the apathetic (just those who could best be spared) stay behind. It would be hard to show, also, that under our conditions of to-day the well-to-do are contributing their fair share of personal sacrifice to the national cause. Why, then, should the timid or indifferent or selfish be able to rely upon their more courageous or more conscientious countrymen to do their fighting for them?

Moreover, though the majority of those who enlist do so of their own free will, it is well known that, since the war began, sternest economic pressure has been brought to bear by private agency in order to obtain recruits. I myself know of very many cases in which practically no choice has been left to men of suitable age between starvation and enlistment. There was no national compulsion: they were forced to go by private effort.

The voluntary army, Regulars and Territorials, is a class army. It is officered almost exclusively by the well-to-do. This is wholly undemocratic and bad in every way. It enables the army, though manned by the relatives of the workers, to be used on the side of the employers against those same workers in civil differences, when any local magnate chooses to think that military intervention is desirable. Soldiers in England, therefore, with their voluntary enlistment, are more a military section apart from the bulk of the industrial population than they are in France, where all classes are liable to serve, and officers come largely from the ranks. And the lengthy period of barrack discipline under our arrangements is even more prejudicial than it is with the three years’ limit in France, which was in process of reduction to two years when the war broke out. “Single men in barracks don’t grow up as plaster saints.” Whatever we may take that to mean, barrack life is a bad life for free and equal men, whether the men are recruited voluntarily or not. It is injurious to health, morals, and general citizen virtues. Apart, therefore, from the contention that our entire military system – Regular Army, Territorials, and all – is proving unequal to meet the strain of this terrific war, I contend that there are enough inherent drawbacks in it to justify a complete reorganisation on other grounds.

When this statement is made in so many words it is, as a rule, taken for granted that the only alternative to voluntary service, thus criticised, is Conscription in the Continental sense. But, as a Social-Democrat, I am as much opposed to Conscription as I am to our upper-class-officered Army. So are all Socialists and Democrats. Even in Germany, where nearly the whole people seems to have gone mad and bad, for the time being, there is no love for Conscription. Far from it. The feeling against it grows every year. No wonder: the marvel is that a highly educated and capable- folk; such as the inhabitants of the Fatherland undoubtedly are, should put themselves continuously at the mercy of the Prussian militarist caste, with its Kaiser and its Federal Council. The whole population has been ruthlessly militarised. The mass of the workers, as in other countries, provide the rank and file which furnishes the ordinary food for powder; but in every well-to-do household there are perforce members of the family who look to their career in the army, during their early years of manhood, as the indispensable stepping-stone to any success, civilian or military. They all take their tone as officers from their Junker superiors, whose standards of humanity and culture we know. The atrocities committed by their orders in Belgium and France in war were led up to by the brutalities of Zabern and other military districts in peace. Common soldiers under conscript training were treated habitually as no decent man would think of treating his dogs. Ruffianism and cruelty were inculcated as high martial virtues.

Those who ventured to expose these widespread militarist horrors were indicted. as criminals and thrown into gaol. The officers who were guilty of infamous conduct to their subordinates and civilians were supported by their commanders and promoted by the Government. Criticism spelt high treason. All who know, as I do, a little of what Conscription means in Germany will be firmly resolved that, while they can resist it, peaceably or forcibly, compulsory service on the German plan shall never be introduced into Great Britain. Men under arms forfeit their rights as citizens and possess no rights as soldiers. Yet they are so overmastered by crushing discipline and so fired with spurious patriotism that they are now fighting to dominate and oppress others as scarce any troops have ever fought to emancipate themselves. A dangerous system indeed.

Moreover, the training in barracks, as carried on to-day, has in the opinion of cool and expert native observers greatly helped to corrupt morality among the well-to-do class in all the great German cities. The old decency and purity have almost evaporated. Things are far worse in this respect in the Fatherland than in other civilised countries. Brutality has bred bestiality. Scandals such as those exposed in the infamous Zu Eulenburg case have, in certain high circles, completely ceased to be scandalous. In Berlin alone the number of unseemly houses devoted to such practices is appalling. The police, completely informed and powerful as they are, dare not use their powers to deal strictly) with these offences, because of the wide ramifications of sex perversity they would reveal if they did. Corruptio optimi pessimi. A sudden access of wealth and luxury may have increased that tendency; but the de-citizenised and brutalised barrack life is the main factor in the rapid lowering of that high domestic character which was formerly the pride of the nation. The militarist caste has shown itself to the world for two generations more and more immoral and more and more ruthless. This is no accident.

Against such moral deterioration must be set off the strong interest of the dominant class and the nation at large in securing thorough physical efficiency for all males, in order that their soldierly qualities may be in no wise handicapped by lack of health, strength, and endurance at the critical time. This consideration is constantly kept in view from one end of Germany to the other. Part of the greatly superior physique noticeable throughout the Fatherland, as compared with our own population, is doubtless due to the fact that the industrial workers have been drafted much more recently from the country into the towns But the steady efforts continuously made, under official authority, to fight against the harmful influences of urban life upon children and young people, have ensured health and vigour in a way which we are only just beginning to recognise and slowly to imitate.

The organisation, discipline, physical care, and training, due in the main to compulsory service, are also useful to workers not engaged in their military duties. All the British working-class delegates who attended the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart, a few years ago, were greatly impressed by the splendid appearance and imposing bearing of the tens of thousands of German workmen who marched in solid military array to the open-air meeting which was addressed by the late August Bebel and speakers of all nationalities. I confess that as I rose myself to address the vast crowd around the platform I looked with some sadness upon their fine physical development. I knew that nowhere in all our island could I speak to so large a body of men of any political section or party, who would make such a magnificent showing, or who would manifest such perfect organisation and discipline of their own accord and in their own cause. Conscription does help to develop the force of a nation and of its people. Yet Conscription on the German method would be a curse to our country, and these same kindly and noble-looking Suabian Social-Democrats are fighting to-day, against their principles, to strengthen and expand a domination they detest. They don’t love Conscription, nevertheless. That is certain.

In France, also, the growing feeling is opposed to compulsion in its present form. It is accepted, so far, only because it is believed to be an unavoidable necessity if the nation is to maintain its independence and uphold its position in Europe. Yet there is no aristocratic militarist caste in Republican France, nor have the reactionists had much success in their endeavours to create one during the war. The French army is a democratic army, its officers largely rise from the ranks, and the tendency is towards still further democratisation. As it stands, even with the three years’ service, the method of Conscription is fair for all classes, and the French troops produced under it have shown themselves fully the equals of their forbears in valour, and superiors to them in cool persistence under great discouragement.

Still, Conscription is very unpopular. The barrack life is admitted to be harmful, the three years’ training is bitterly opposed as excessive and too continuous for citizens, the placing of the national army at the autocratic disposal of the political faction in power is strongly objected to, the tendency in high military quarters and the military Press to speak and write of soldiers as being of more value to the country than civilians is denounced as reactionary. Conscription, even in France, has a militarising influence. Citizenship is too often sneered at by superior persons as derogatory. Wrong ideals of human culture are maintained. The danger of a great and successful soldier setting himself up as the heir of Napoleonism is ever before the eyes of French democrats. Intrigues to obtain control of the army, which have been more frequent than some imagine, are feared and resented. The sinister influence of priests and the Catholic sisterhoods is resented. And the Dreyfus case, though now being forgotten, proved that the clerical section of the General Staff would stick at nothing to crush a man who was regarded as opposed to and menacing their influence. Thus, prior to the war, the existing compulsory service was becoming more unpopular daily, and the propaganda carried on by my lamented friend, the late Jean Jaurès, and the whole Socialist Party in l’Humanité and elsewhere in favour of “La Nation Armée” was persuading many who were opposed to Socialism that a system of national military organisation might be introduced which would well suffice to defend la Patrie without professional militarism in any form.


“Tutti Soldati e nessun’ Soldato.” – Giuseppe Mazzini.

“It is for you to urge upon all the necessity of placing yourselves in the position of an armed nation – a nation such as the Swiss, whose strength lies not in its numbers or in its military organisation, but in the spirit those who love their country and are prepared to die for it.” – The late Lord Salisbury.

“In a democratic nation every citizen must be a soldier, and every soldier a citizen.”

If, then, voluntary enlistment has already proved inadequate for the position which we have now taken up in European politics and is besides inequitable and disadvantageous to the mass of the people; if, also, Conscription is, in many respects, objectionable and unsuited to Englishmen, in spite of the advantages already referred to above: – then the problem is, how to establish a thoroughly efficient national army in which all males are obliged to serve from their youth upwards, yet in which there exists no class supremacy, military law is unnecessary, and every soldier enjoys, except during active warfare, his full civilian rights. Only under such conditions can the population of Great Britain be induced to accept such an interference with their personal liberty as the obligation imposed upon every active man to place himself under military discipline and fight for his country if called upon.

The success hitherto achieved by voluntary recruiting in this war is being cited to show that better pay and better general conditions for those who join the Army will suffice to secure by the same agency as many fresh men as we want. When we consider the ridiculous pay of the common soldier there is something to be said for this contention. But it is difficult to see why, merely by paying others to fight for him, or by contributing a fine for non-training and non-service, any man should be able to shift on to his neighbour his own personal duty to defend the country in which he enjoys the full rights and exercises the privileges of a citizen. The system of a mercenary army is allowed by common consent to be a bad system.

In Great Britain, however, there exists a considerable number of people who are not only convinced advocates of peace – we are all pacifists, except a few furious jingos, I presume – but who are bitterly opposed to training under arms of any kind. They uphold the brotherhood of man, as Socialists do, but they refuse to see, even now, that the huge conscript armies of Europe are not maintained for the purpose of inculcating the delights of fraternity. These well-meaning folk look with horror at voluntary Boy-Scout movement, which they cannot check, but they do not see that the only alternative to this sort of unlicensed militarism is that the State should undertake all such education in the duties of national defence. Their fear of Continental Conscription drives them to advocate voluntary enlistment, where they are obliged to support some sort of army, and thus places military power in the hands of a class instead of at the disposal of the country at large.

At International Congress after International Congress, Continental Socialists who know well what Conscription means, and who are thoroughly versed in the English voluntary system, have voted unanimously in favour of a democratic national citizen army, in which all grown-up males should be at one and the same time both soldiers and citizens, in which offenders against civil law or military discipline should be dealt with by civil courts, in which also the officers who had proved their qualifications should be elected by ballot of the men over whom they should command. An army thus recruited and thus organised for national defence would be entirely free from any chauvinist bias or militarist fervour. Being kept in constant contact with civil life and exercising continuously their rights of voting as citizens, they would all be too greatly interested in avoiding war to indulge in any haphazard ventures, or to allow others to enter pinto them on their behalf. To be unprepared is to court war, when other Powers are ready to carry out a hostile policy; whereas to be ready for defensive war is the best chance of ensuring peace.

That being the general view of democrats and Socialists, at least one democratic body in Great Britain has never failed for many years to bring this proposal forward at the Trade Union Congresses. There it has been consistently opposed year after year – on the ground that the working classes had nothing to do with military affairs and could never be drawn into war in any circumstances – by the very same men who began rushing through the country in August, 1914, as Members of Parliament, in the capacity of red-hot recruiting agents, and are at the same work still. This, nevertheless, is the only solution of the question of national defence that combines the responsibility of universal training for war against an aggressive nation, with the preservation of our ancestral freedoms. I have been of that opinion ever since I discussed the matter with old Mazzini himself so long ago as 1867.

When the old and valuable volunteer corps had been disbanded and the militia done away with, our plan of a democratic citizen army was brought to the front as against Lord Haldane’s objectionable Territorial Act, which placed a large force of voluntarily recruited men under military discipline with the liability to be used under class officers against their own countrymen. A Citizen Service Bill was drawn up and was put forward by Mr William Thorne, M.P. for West Ham. It fell quite dead. Nobody would listen to such a proposal – such a “jingo” proposal – as that all the sound and capable men, of the 8,000,000 and more in Great Britain of military age, should be trained to the use of arms for the defence of their country! The Government was utterly scared, at such a democratic suggestion: the people were horrified at the idea of creating an army which should be at their own control in peace and in war. Lord Haldane, therefore, had his way. Unluckily, Lord Roberts, who rightly opposed the bootless Territorial scheme, was as much opposed to a democratic citizen army as Lord Haldane was, and told me so quite plainly himself when I put the matter to him some years later. The Territorials were set on foot, and from the first proved a failure. Had our plan of general military training compulsory upon all been adopted in 1907, we should not have been caught contemptibly unready to support a national policy last August.[2]

A democratic army, all whose soldiers remain citizens, necessarily involves short periods of training for the great majority of: those who serve. Military authorities, for the most part, urge that this is a fatal mistake, and that the troops who would be available under such conditions would stand no chance of winning against Regulars in any field of warfare to-day. This argument has been greatly weakened by what has taken place in France, and Flanders, if we are to believe the flattering reports of the short-service, recently-trained men that reach us steadily from the front. Thus, we are assured that men enlisted and trained since Lord Kitchener went to the War Office have shown themselves fully capable of meeting and defeating the best forces Germany, with all its conscription, could bring against them! Yet the Canadians, as well as our own men, were trained not in barracks but in camp, and certainly could not be taken as examples in favour of the current militarist contention. The test of war is the supreme test, after all, and at the Dardanelles not only the Canadians, but the Australians, under Sir Ian Hamilton – a most vehement upholder of our existing system – seem to be passing it with triumphant success. There is nothing in recent events, certainly, to silence advocates of a general citizen force manned by all of military age for the defence of this country at home, or, if judged essential by democratic vote, for action on the Continent of Europe.

The South African War of fifteen years ago is an example of what may be done against a first-rate army under highly capable commanders by a much smaller force of purely citizen soldiers. Looked at rightly, that war ought to have taught us all a lesson. The Boers were fighting, of course, under totally different conditions from those which prevail in Europe to-day, but they had adapted themselves perfectly to those conditions, not by mechanical drill, or mass formations, but by precisely that sort of personal experience and individual practice, blending into action by company and brigade, which those who best understand what citizen service means advocate for their men.

There is, however, far stronger evidence at hand as to what the South African citizen army is really capable of in the masterly campaign organised, conducted, and carried out by General Botha, first against some of the best of his old subordinates in revolt, and afterwards against the Germans of South-West Africa, who had been preparing assiduously for this war for years, and did not think it possible they could fail. The difficulties were much, greater than we English at home have realised, our attention being fully taken up with the tremendous struggle going on all round us here in Europe. But they have been triumphantly surmounted by a citizen army commanded by a citizen general – that is to say, by free and equal men fighting for their country and their liberties against the threatening domination of Prussia. The politicians and journalists who have been praising General Botha to the skies for his far-seeing patriotism and faultless strategy must already be half-converted to the support of an army similar to the victorious troops they so much admire, but modified, naturally, to suit an industrial instead of a pastoral and mining community. These South Africans as democrats and citizen soldiers have shown, too, “the spirit of those who love their country and are ready to die for it.”

It is reasonable to add that, while not having the very slightest claim to be an expert in military affairs, and writing throughout simply as a civilian, I have personally very good grounds for mistrust of untrained or half-trained troops, when opposed by thorough soldiers, even in a district well suited to guerilla warfare. Patriotism, enthusiasm, self-sacrifice, courage, and devotion will not make up for the absence of knowledge, experience, and physical training for service in war. The success achieved by Garibaldi on the flank of the French Army in Italy before the battle of Solferino, the victory of the Thousand of Marsala, the overthrow of the domination of Bomba on the mainland, misled us as to the value of irregular troops when employed in scientific warfare on any considerable scale. This I witnessed myself in the Tyrol in 1866, when a force of Kaiser-Jägers, never exceeding 1,250 at any time, held in check ten times their number of Italian volunteers supported by some batteries of the admirable Piedmontese artillery. The spirit and valour of the Italians were unquestionable. They lacked the discipline, steadiness, and confidence of trained troops.

The Swiss Army, because it combines the advantages of all existing methods of military training, while at the same time strengthening instead of weakening the forces of democracy, is the best model for the reorganisation of our own army during the war and afterwards in peace. In Switzerland we have the full programme of a democratic citizen army completely carried out – except that during the actual period of service, even in peace, the citizen soldier is under military discipline instead of being, as I suggest, subject only to the common law. The training for the defence of the country really begins in the schools. The Swiss education is, on the whole, the best in Europe, not even excepting that of Germany. This is rightly regarded as the indispensable groundwork of modern democracy, and that it should have been established under such difficult geographical conditions among a people and in a Republic comprising several races and languages, and professing more than one religion, is strong evidence of the common sense of a free, democratic community whose political and social interests and development are the concern of all the persons who constitute it. Switzerland spends twice as much on education as she does on her army, while, prior to the war, England’s Army cost seven times as much as her entire educational expenditure. And this disparity is not secured to the Swiss advantage by any cheeseparing in the matter of national defence.

All Swiss children are not only well taught intellectually and morally in the common schools, and provided, as they grow up, with admirable institutions for higher education and special acquirements; they are also well trained physically in gymnastics and all sorts of exercises and games which develop will health and strength and prepare them for the duties they will later have to perform and the exertions they must undergo. Thus from their boyhood on to youth and manhood the Swiss grow into good soldiers as they learn how to become good citizens. They understand throughout what they must do, why they will have to do it, and the value of their country to them, as well as of themselves to their country. The lads who are free from any natural physical defect therefore reach the age of seventeen quite as vigorous and far more satisfactorily educated mentally and physically than the best specimens of the middle class in Great Britain at the same age. From the first, the nation recognises, in theory and in practice, that the bodily and mental vigour of every boy and lad who will proceed to the full rights and duties of citizenship is the concern not merely of his parents and relations, or even of himself, but of the whole Republic, which relies upon him, and becomes in turn responsible for him in after years.

At seventeen all youths join the second reserve or Landsturm, where they receive their first technical military training. This Landsturm, apart from these active lads, consists of men past their prime who have gone through their first two periods of service. Under the Army reorganisation law of 1907 – what time we were tinkering with lawyer Haldane’s Territorialism – all male citizens join the Active Army (l’Elite) from their nineteenth to their thirty-second year. This is the cream of the Swiss Army, a force of remarkable vigour and capacity. Yet the duration of training, though very strict and even severe, is surprisingly short. The total period of service or training in the first year was forty-five days for the infantry, fifty days for the engineers, fifty-five days for the artillery, and eighty days for the cavalry. Non-commissioned officers and officers serve for considerably longer periods.

This naturally seems to militarists, who are devoted to the old methods, a wholly insufficient length of training for men to become trustworthy soldiers in any real sense of those words. But they are quite mistaken. The Swiss take nothing for granted in this crucial matter of efficiency. Every year one half of the Active Army and a quarter of the Landwehr (citizens between thirty-two and forty-four) are mobilised and thoroughly tested in manoeuvres. Nothing approaching to this is attempted in any conscript country.

Instance after instance has been given of the extraordinary activity and endurance of the men. Nearly twenty years ago a French General of the highest ability declared, after having been present at the Swiss manoeuvres: “Alone among European nations Switzerland has solved the problem we have all attempted in vain – to arm all its citizens and to make of each citizen a soldier.” There is good reason to believe the Swiss Army is even better to-day than it was in 1896, and that its soldiers are in every respect equal to any troops in Europe. For mountain warfare they are probably superior to all but the French Alpine regiments and the Piedmontese Bersaglieri. The Swiss artillery and cavalry, the two arms most difficult to improvise, are also second to none, the cavalry being supplemented by picked forces of cyclists. Instances are given of mountain batteries of artillery which marched for twelve days and manoeuvred for five, covering no fewer than 340 kilometres (more than 200 miles) in perfect order through mountains in mid-winter. They marched over twenty-five miles the first day. Yet not one of the officers or men was a permanent soldier. The day before the march they, were simple citizens. And these batteries were no exceptions to the others or picked in any way, nor are the Swiss specially qualified as artillerymen.

In the infantry every man is provided with the best possible rifle at the national cost. He retains this weapon himself and keeps it in order. Ample opportunity is afforded him for becoming expert in its use, and many rifle competitions of individuals and squads are held to encourage cool and accurate shooting throughout the army The uniforms provided for the troops are worn only when engaged in actual training. At ordinary gatherings and places of amusement civil dress is worn. Leave is granted during the service period in order that all ranks may be able to vote or perform any necessary civil duty. In this way the soldier never at any time loses touch with the citizen, while his military training obliges him to keep himself well qualified to fulfil his duties when called upon. Though this Swiss army has not been tried in modern war, there is every reason to believe it will acquit itself admirably should the necessity arise. Certain it is that if longer and more continuous training is required, this will be voted for and enacted. The whole population is directly interested in securing the highest personal efficiency as well as in providing the most perfect and adequate supply of equipment, material, and munitions.

I do not claim that this Swiss system can be applied forthwith to the reorganisation and extension of our own army, but I do say emphatically that if Great Britain is to take her fair share on land in the present war, and to be able under democratic forms to defend these shores and be true to her Treaty pledges, some modification of the Swiss plan of compulsory training must be adopted. Not being an Imperialist, in the sense of wishing to keep under our domination peoples who would be glad to dispense with our rule, I leave it to others to say how (and why) the European army in India is to be kept up. As India pays the whole expense, including that of the depots at home, it might be as well to confer with capable Indians on that point. But for home, and even for Continental, service a democratic citizen army appears to me an immediate necessity if volunteering is really insufficient, Conscription being obnoxious to our entire working class. The absorption of our existing troops into the new organisation would present little difficulty, and they would probably welcome it if proper care were taken to secure them from unemployment on the declaration of peace.

The main trouble under any method of compulsory training whatever would arise from the unsatisfactory physical status of large portions of our industrial population, which renders it impossible for them to become effective soldiers within any reasonable period. But, in the interest of the future of the nation, it is imperative that the truth with reference to this should be made known as speedily as possible, and vigorous steps taken to remedy the terrible social conditions which produce such deplorable results. In this respect we are on a lower plane than any other country in Europe. The first necessity for the creation of a powerful democratic citizen army is the provision of educated democrats and physically capable citizens.


1. Great as are the drawbacks to voluntary recruiting, it cannot be disputed that, so far, it has provided the country, during the present war, with more men than the Government could clothe, equip, and supply with munitions.

2. At this period the Social-Democratic Federation was exceptionally active in agitating for a democratic Citizen Army. Pamphlets by the late H. Quelch and Sergeant-Major Edmondson, articles by the Swiss artilleryman, M.. Moth in the Social Democrat, Mr. W. Thorne’s draft Bill, as well as reprints of comments from Justice, were widely distributed. Speeches were also made to large audiences all over the country. But the people had got it into their heads that Great Britain needed no considerable army, and that if they themselves were armed they would be forced to fight without their own consent: which is just what a real Citizen Army renders impossible.