Not a century has passed since the days when, as the noblest mind of those times wrote, a million of hungry operative men rose all up, came all out into the streets, and—stood there. “Who shall compute,” he asked:
“Who shall compute the waste and loss, the destruction of every sort, that was produced in the Manchester region by Peterloo alone! Some thirteen unarmed men and women cut down—the number of the slain and maimed is very countable; but the treasury of rage, burning, hidden or visible, in all hearts ever since, more or less perverting the effort and aim of all hearts ever since, is of unknown extent. ’How came ye among us, in your cruel armed blindness, ye unspeakable County Yeomanry, sabres flourishing, hoofs prancing, and slashed us down at your brute pleasure; deaf, blind to all our claims and woes and wrongs; of quick sight and sense to your own claims only! There lie poor, sallow, work-worn weavers, and complain no more now; women themselves are slashed and sabred; howling terror fills the air; and ye ride prosperous, very victorious—ye unspeakable: give us sabres too, and then come on a little!’ Such are Peterloos.”
The parallel, if not exact, is close enough. During popular movements in Germany and Russia, the party of freedom has sometimes hoped that the troops would come over to their side—would “fraternise,” as the expression goes. The soldiers in those countries are even more closely connected with the people than our own, for about one in three of the young men pass into the army, whether they like it or not, and in two or three years return to ordinary life. Yet the hope of “fraternisation” has nearly always been in vain. Half a dozen here and there may stand out to defend their brothers and their homes. But the risk is too great, the bonds of uniform and habit too strong. Hitherto in England, we have jealously preserved our civil liberties from the dragooning of military districts, and the few Peterloos of our history, compared with the suppressions in other countries, prove how justified our jealousy has been. It may be true—we wish it were always true, that, as Carlyle says, “if your Woolwich grapeshot be but eclipsing Divine Justice, and the God’s radiance itself gleam recognisable athwart such grapeshot, then, yes, then, is the time coming for fighting and attacking.” We all wish that were always true, and that the people of every country would always act upon it. But for the moment, we are grateful for the reminder that, whether it eclipses Divine Justice or not, the grapeshot is still there, and that a man in uniform, at a word of command, will shoot his mother.
“OUR FATHERS HAVE TOLD US”