The War

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The War

W. T. Stead (The Northern Echo, July 5, 1876)

The die is cast. The Rubicon has been crossed. Servia and Montenegro are at war with Turkey. Prince Milan, at the head of an enthusiastic army, has crossed the Drina. Prince Nikita has left Cettinje and both have taken to the field on behalf of the Insurgents of Bosnia. The Eastern Question entered upon new phase when the sturdy Servian axemen, amid the thunders of artillery and the shouts of [the] multitude, hewed down the lofty mast from which flaunted over Belgrade the token of Ottoman supremacy – the banner of the Turk.

All the hocus-pocus of diplomacy has been used, and used in vain, to arrest the advance of the Servians and Montenegrins to the assistance of their compatriots who, strong only in the might of despair, have for so long maintained a gallant struggle against the Moslem tyrant.

After months of negotiation, of conferences, and memoranda, there has at last come the Declaration of War, darting like the vivid lightning from the thunderclouds which have been gathering on the Turkish frontier, and Europe, appalled, awaits the full fury of the storm. It will not have long to wait. The Servian Declaration of War, the marching of the Montenegrins – these the end of a long series of diplomatic negotiations, are but the beginning of the end of the Turkish Empire. The curtain has risen upon the first scene of the last act of a great world tragedy – one of the greatest, and, mayhap, one of the most terrible, which has been witnessed since the storm aroused by the French Revolution overwhelmed the capitals of Europe beneath surges of gore.

Servia is but a small State. It’s whole population numbers but a million and a quarter. Montenegro is still smaller. The Servians are most of them engaged in agricultural pursuits, hence the snobs of the London press think it witty to sneer at them as a nation of pig-feeders. If we had to obliterate from the history of the world’s progress everything that had been achieved by small States on the one hand, and by “pig-feeders” on the other, much of our boasted civilization would disappear. Servia is but a small State, but the State has a soul; and a small State with a soul is worth a huge Empire without even so much soul as saves it the expense of salt to save it from putrefaction. The Greece that withstood the millions of Xerxes and stemmed the tide of Asiatic invasion in the defile of Thermopylae and the field of Marathon, was not a large State. England was not a large State when it defied the Continent in arms and succeeded in humbling the pride of the great Napoleon. From the Ordnance Survey point of view, Russia of to-day is infinitely greater than Palestine in the time of David, and your mere enumerators reference the Chinese for their myriads more than the Germans for their brains. To these men, the fact that Servia is a small State and Turkey a large one is a sufficient condemnation. They rule Prince Millan out of court by the infallible test of the theodolite and the census book, and dispose of the hopes and aspirations of Servia and Montenegro by a process of reasoning that would equally have condemned the growth of England, the United States, Greece, Spain, Germany, and Italy. Servia, however, though small, has on more than one occasion successfully waged war with Turkey. By sheer hard fighting she has won her independence, and although the Servians are only 1,200,000 all told, it should not be forgotten that there are only 2,000,000 Turks in Europe. No test can be more fallacious than mere numbers in a struggle such as that upon which Servia has entered. No doubt numbers are an important factor in every war, but they are seldom the deciding element. Modern Constitutional Government has so accustomed us to regard majorities as the sole test of right that it is necessary to recall the fact that nearly all the States of modern Europe have been founded by minorities. It was a minority of Christians shut up in the Pyrenees who wrested Spain from the Moslem and returned it to Christendom. It was small State – that of Brandenburg – which founded Prussia, and afterwards consolidated the German Empire. A hundred years ago the English, who now govern three hundred millions of men, were not ten times as numerous as the Servians are today Even Russia in the centuries when the Grand Dukes of Moscow paid tribute to the Tartar Khans of the Crimea would have been held – and rightly held – to be guilty of more presumption in attacking their Asiatic rulers than Servia is in attacking the moribund Empire of the Ottomans. A still more pertinent example is afforded us in the history of Italy. Piedmont for years was to Italy what Servia is to Turkey – a small, compact, hardy State, preserving its liberties in the midst of a country over-run by foreign mercenaries and oppressed by despotic Kings. There never was a time when the Piedmontese were not in a minority compared to the Austrians, or even the subjects of King Bomba. Yet the Piedmontese King now rules in Rome over a United Italy. And European diplomacy, which, thirty years ago, stood aghast at the presumption of the little State at the foot of the Alps, now recognises in the Kingdom of Victor Emmanuel one of the most important elements in the balance of power. The history of the world has precedents enough and to spare to justify the appeal of the Servians to the stern arbitrament (sic) of war.

Much as war is to be detested, in cases like the present, war is the only solution which has yet been devised. War is the fiery portal through which peoples have to pass into the possession of their liberties. Liberty does not exist which has not first been won and then been defended by the sword. Only through the birth throes of war do peoples enter upon that independence which is to the nation what life is to the individual Peace, according to the diplomatist, can be preserved only by the perpetuation of the status quo. International Arbitration cannot be applied to such disputes as those which are desolating the Herzegovins, and have brought the Servian army into the valleys of Bosnia. International Arbitrators are guided by International Law, and International Law prescribes no liberty for a revolted province until it can win it for itself. ” They that take the sword shall perish by the sword,” and the fulfillment of the prediction is impossible without the sword of the avenger. By the scimitar the Turks established their tyranny over their Christian provinces, and by cold steel they will lose them. Englishmen may deceive themselves as to the essential characteristics of Turkish male, but the Servians know too well what is the meaning of the supremacy of the Crescent. For centuries their country was ravaged by their Moslem lords. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who travelled in Servia in the beginning of the eighteenth century, describes her route as lying through “the deserts of Servia, almost quite overgrown with wood, through a country naturally fertile.” The inhabitants, she observed, were industrious, ” but the oppression of the peasants is so great they are forced to abandon their houses, and neglect their tillage, all they have being a prey to the janissaries, wherever they please to seize upon it.” The Servians understand what are the wrongs which have driven the Bosnians into the field, and it is not without a stern feeling of exultation that we see them once more enter the field against the oppressor. King Bomba was a civilised constitutional ruler compared with the best of Sultans, and the revolt of the Mahommedan (sic) yolk is inevitable when its subjects rise but a little above the grovelling instincts of slaves. The battle which the Servians and Montenegrins go forth to fight, and which we sincerely hope will result in victory, is a war of Liberation. Lovers of liberty all over the world will watch the course of the struggle with the same keen interest evoked by the heroic struggles of the Italians for unity and independence. We have confidence in the nation which, on Monday night, found a voice in Mr Bright’s speech in the House of Commons, but have no confidence in Mr Disraeli. The Premier who used persistently to assert that the maintenance of the Temporal Power of the Pope was essential to the maintenance of the European equilibrium, is quite capable of plunging the country into a disastrous war in order to perpetuate the dying agonies of the Turkish Empire by opposing the liberators of Bosnia. Our duty is to stand aloof, extending merely such a moral support to the insurgents and their friends as we gave to Greece when Lord Byron lived, and to Garibaldi when Italy was but a geographical expression. Woe be unto that man, be he Premier or be he Earl, who in the name of England dares to oppose the brave men who are struggling for liberty among the Bosnian hills lest their legitimate aspirations should hasten the end of the unutterable abominations of Turkish rule. Far be it from us to prop up the gore-stained edifice of that bankrupt despotism! England’s spirit is not dead. Our love for liberty is not extinct, although Mr. Disraeli may think it so. Should he, from jealousy of Russia, venture to play the game of the Moslem tyrant, he will discover when too late how terrible the judgement he will have brought upon himself. It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the depths of the sea than that he should tarnish England’s glory and disgrace the English name by assisting to defeat the heroic men who have gone forth against the Turks under the banners of Independence, with the war-cry of “Liberty or Death.”