16 NOVEMBER 1907, Page 25


OTHER persons than ourselves, we fancy, must have felt that the naval speech of Sir John Fisher at the Guildhall Banquet last Saturday was pitched in a wholly unfamiliar key, and must have asked themselves whether his boastfulness was in accordance with our traditions, and whether it was even suited to its purpose, whatever might be said of its elegance. As we read the speech we felt as though Sir John Fisher, acting as our representative, if without our authority, had been tempting Providence. We were inclined to " touch wood," or pour libations to some outraged god of destiny. The object of Sir John Fisher was, let us suppose, to rally the support of the country to the side of the Admiralty, and for a First Sea Lord that was in itself an act of duty the performance of which should always be counted for merit. No Admiralty could do its work long without having the reasonable confidence of the nation, and a reassuring speech by a high naval official on November 9th every year is a mere condition of continued existence. But unlimited assurances cancel themselves, and it is doubtful whether the spectacle of Sir John Fisher protesting too much has quelled as much criticism as it has excited. "I look in vain," be said, speaking of the fleet recently collected in the North Sea, " to see any equal to that large fleet anywhere. That is only a fraction of our power. And that large fleet is nulli secundus,

as they say, whether it is ships or officers or men The gunnery efficiency of the fleet has surpassed all records—it is unparalleled—and I am lost in wonder and admiration at the splendid unity of spirit and determination that must have been shown by everybody from top to bottom to obtain these

results Our object has been the fighting efficiency of the Fleet and its instant readiness for war; and we have got it. So I turn to all of you, and I turn to my countrymen and I say—Sleep quiet in your beds, and do not be disturbed by these bogeys—invasion and otherwise—which are being periodically resuscitated by all sorts of leagues." All this, of course, is simply assertion ; and it asserts too much,—far more than the intelligent taxpayer can ask to have guaranteed to him. If we are guaranteed too much our mind at once turns sceptical. We remember only too well the advertisements which bear no relation to the quality of the goods advertised. Only ill-informed persons are impressed by them. It is fatally easy to say that the Navy is nulli secundus,—as easy as it was to give that name to the airship which came to an end in a puff of wind at the Crystal Palace. It is fatally easy to say that invasion is a bogey,—but Lord Roberts, who is our most experienced soldier, believes in the possibility of it.

But there is no need to rediscuss naval policy here. We are only interested for the moment in the ethics and uses of boastfulness. It would not be far from the truth to say that those responsible for a military administration should never boast, but that the soldier or sailor may be justified in a kind of boasting when he is on the point of action and it is his business to inspirit others. No figures look more amply foolish in history than the Ministers of War and Generals who have uttered their soothing prophecies before appalling catastrophes. Lebceuf, who told Napoleon III. before the Franco-German War that everything was ready in the French Army down to the last button on the gaiters, will occur to most minds as the type of the class. On the other hand, the officer in the field, or the captain on board his ship, is not required humbly to underrate or criticise his own fighting strength. His duty is not to say: "The enemy is very strong, and unless we have some luck we shall be beaten"; but to say : " Come on. We are as good as he is. Do as you are bid. Remember your duty and the enemy will be utterly routed." In his essay on " Vain-Glory " Bacon expressly makes this distinction between soldiers in battle and ordinary rulers. " In military commanders and soldiers," he says, " vain-glory is an essential point; for as iron sharpens iron so by glory [which in Baconian language means boasting] one courage sharpeneth another. In cases of great enterprise, upon charge and adventure, a composition of glorious natures cloth put life into business." Yet even when iron sharpened iron it has been the English tradition not to inspire more than necessary the "Dutch courage" of personal or national ambition. Napier in his history of the Peninsular War remarks that Napoleon in his despatches used to speak of " glory," but Wellington spoke of "duty." The idea of duty, with its reticent suggestions and its associations of small and deferred rewards, may not always be a sufficient incentive to weak human nature, but it would be grand to think that to Englishmen it could remain nearly sufficient. But, it may be said, "is not this notion that boasting among adminis- trators leads to disaster a mere superstition? It is foolish to suppose that bombast, however rash or impious, can have any real effect on events." In a material sense this is true; bombast is not a final cause of catastrophe. But it is none the less a symptom of a state of mind which is itself &kid,.

cause. The symptom is not there without the germ of the disease. The boaster boasts because he is without the capacity of self-criticism. He says all is well when it is not.

He invites his countrymen to become drowned in security.

The mere existence of a great army or great navy does not necessarily provide against even the majority of the chances of fortune. The manipulator of a great organisation can never justifiably fold his hands and invite people to slumber in peace. The unexpected is a terrible foe :-

" A King sate on the rocky brow

Which looks o'er sea-born Salamis ; And ships, by thousands, lay below, And men in nations ;—all were his !

He counted them at break of day—

And when the sun set where were they ?"

The proverbs of nearly all languages show that as a matter of fact boasting is joined to meagre performance. Beaucoup de bruit, peu de fruit, says the old French proverb. " Much boast, small roast," is both English and Italian. M9div tiyav, temperateness in all things, was the familiar maxim of Greek culture, and, according to the Greek tragic dramatists, deviations from it always led men into a kind of 17f3ptr, or insolence, towards heaven. The Tarquin who bore the title of Superbus happened also to be the last of the ancient Kings of Rome. The power and will to criticise oneself is a true manifestation of strength. So is respect for one's enemy. Abraham Lincoln was never guilty of a boast or an over-confident prediction, and his courtesy to his enemies was such that he never spoke of the Confederates as " rebels " in accordance with the common Federal practice. That was a notable restraint in a country which seems to us often to brag, although Englishmen do not make enough allowance for American temperament and ethics, which are quite different from their own. The American, for example, thinks it a gross affectation in the Englishman to deny accomplishments which he knows himself to possess. A young nation, again, just conscious of nationality and of its independence of a parent stock, may be forgiven for glorying in the strength of its limbs. But a country grown old in vicissitudes, and bearing the mark of misfortunes even in the record of its triumphs, has no excuse for indulging in Bacon's "glory." If it does, it forgets the warning of Ahab to Ben-hadad: "Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off." Without exaggeration, we feel that boasting is a sort of impiety in a British official, and we shall be relieved if no harm comes of it in the long run :- " For frantic boast and foolish word Thy mercy on thy people, Lord."