A regular feature in The Luton News was a weekly letter written by MP Cecil Harmsworth and sent from the House of Commons. Mr Harmsworth was elected MP for South Beds, including Luton, as a Liberal in a by-election in 1911 and continued to serve until 1922. From the outset of war he gave a quite frank assessment of events at home and abroad. This was his letter published on August 20th, 1914.
The outstanding item of news this week is the brilliantly successful landing in France of the British Expeditionary Force. The secret was wonderfully well kept. Indeed I suppose that the departure of our troops from these shores and their disembarkation at Boulogne and other French ports is the best kept secret of history.
A good many people knew what was going on and the newspaper offices have been for some time past in possession of pretty full information. It is much to the credit of the Press and to all who knew the facts that virtually no public hint was given of so important an item of news.
Clearly, this war is not going to be another case of "muddling through". Whether you regard our military preparations or the machinery that has been brought rapidly into existence to cope with the immense problems of food supply, finance, maritime insurance and the rest, you see everywhere proofs of astonishing national efficiency. The most obvious proof is that the business of the nation and the provisioning of a vast population shows no signs of serious dislocation.
I am taking a wide survey of the situation. Here and there great industries are closing down and the situation cannot be free from some anxiety as long as unemployment is on the increase. At the moment, however, employment in the staple industries is far better than it has often been in times of peace, and there is an excellent prospect of improvement now that commerce and industry are adjusting themselves to the new conditions. Many people say that trade will be booming in a few weeks! Perhaps this is too sanguine a view, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that during the war a good deal of business will come our way that used to go to the Continent.
Most gratifying of all is the abundance of our food supply. Prices of a good many of our necessaries are lower than they were at the outbreak of hostilities. And let this be remembered. There is no need for more than a marginal rise in the price of any of the prime necessaries with the exception of sugar.
To what must we attribute the fact that in the midst of a world war we are able to go about our affairs peacefully and without alarm? To the twenty-five miles and more of salt water that separate us from the Continent, and to the great fleets that keep the seas open for us. I referred last week to the great victories that our fleets have already won for us. A half-dozen successful battles on land could not have secured so much for us.
Contrast the German naval position with our own. What have they accomplished on the seas? All they have achieved is the holding up of our main fleets in the North Sea. We must keep watch and ward day and night, and perhaps from week to week, until our enemy chooses to come out to fight us. That is something no doubt, but it is not much, and there is no element of victory about it.
We, on the other hand, have been able to clear most of the ocean routes of the enemy's cruisers. Food supplies are coming to us almost without interruption. That in itself is a vitally important matter. Again, we have been able to land an army on the Continent under the very noses, as it were, of our adversaries. So all-pervading is the influence of sea power that there is no foreign possession of Germany that we cannot take at our leisure if we have a mind to do so. It comes about that without putting forth our strength, we gain advantages that Germany has been wholly unable to win after ten days of sanguinary fighting on land.
Our only danger, perhaps, is over-confidence, and the reaction that might ensue if we met with reverses. It is almost inconceivable that the perfectly organised German armies and fleets will not succeed somewhere or other in the vast theatre of war. We confront a people of immense resources, and of a courage and skill equal to our own. Their supreme disadvantage is that they are engaged in a war of proud aggression. We and our allies are fighting for national existence. But the German armies and fleets are capable of dealing tremendous blows.
I believe, nevertheless, that so high is the spirit of our people, and so unshakeable their determination, that they are ready to bear with fortitude all the shocks of war. There can be no doubt that we shall win in the end if we act to the end with moderation but with the quiet courage that has marked our conduct so far.
August 18th, 1914.