HC Deb 05 March 1877 vol 232 cc1381-9

rose to ask the Secretary of State for War, Whether he could explain the circumstances under which a British officer was recently recalled from Khiva to European Russia by means of a telegram purporting to come from His Royal Highness the Field Marshal Commanding in Chief, which was sent forward by the Russian authorities from Taschkend, where the telegraph ends, to Petro Alexandrovsk, a distance of some 900 miles; whether such telegram was sent at the request of the Russian Government; whether it was to be understood that British officers were forbidden to travel in any part of the dominions of any of our allies; and, whether there was any objection to lay the telegram, if such a telegram was ever sent, upon the Table of the House, together with any communications that might have passed regarding it? The hon. Gentleman said, the facts of the case were stated in a recently-published work, entitled a Ride to Khiva, which recorded the experiences of a British officer, Captain Burnaby, who, as a private individual, made, for his own pleasure and at his own expense, a winter journey to that extremely disagreeable place. Among other statements in that work he found one to the effect that the telegram to which he referred had been sent on by the Russian authorities for 900 miles, from Taschkend, the nearest telegraph station; so that it was evident they attached the greatest importance to its reaching the hands of the person for whom it was intended. Of course, the officer obeyed the orders he received, but he naturally desired to see some new country and not to return precisely as he went. To this, however, the Russian authorities would not consent, insisting on his returning upon his old track, so that he should see as little as possible. The book in which these statements were found had passed through many editions, and it had been consequently very much read. That being so, these statements had come under the eyes of a great number of persons, and it was highly desirable that it should be clearly understood and that it should be made impossible for any person to put in this or other countries an unfair interpretation upon it. He wished, first, to know whether His Royal Highness ever sent the telegram at all; next, whether it directed the officer to return to European Russia; and, thirdly, whether it was sent at the request of the Russian Government? He had always been one of those who deprecated any interference, direct or indirect, on the part of this country with the Russian proceedings in Central Asia. He had always believed that the wise and dignified policy for this country was to know everything about what Russia did in Central Asia, and to do nothing till our interests were in some way or another interfered with, as they would be, for instance, by encroachment on Afghanistan. Nothing could be more mischievous than the constant habit of showing anxiety about the proceedings of Russia in the territory under notice, and the visit of British officers or civilians to the Russian territories in Central Asia, if freely encouraged, seemed to him more likely than anything else to make people in this country understand how completely our interests were left unaffected by anything that Russia had hitherto done in those regions, and also to make them understand where the point was at which the interests of the two countries might begin to clash. If those things were distinctly understood, he did not think they ever would clash. In order to their being understood, it was desirable that British officers, in their private capacity, and civilians, in their private capacity, should travel freely in Central Asia, but not a bit more freely than he wished to see Russian officers travelling through the whole of Her Majesty's dominions in Asia. Unfortunately, that spirit did not seem to prevail in Russia, for even in European Russia at the present day travelling was clogged by the most disagreeable passport formalities, and personal liberty had not advanced in Russia by any means so far as we, who were friends of that Power, could have wished to see it. The Russian Government thought its interests were forwarded by wrapping a great many unimportant things in mystery, and it was as jealous about allowing Englishmen to travel in Central Asia as ever the East India Company had been in its oldest and most jealous day. In later times, as was well-known, the Company had been as liberal as possible in this respect. Well, it seemed from this book that one of the greatest of English officials, the Field Marshal Commanding in Chief, had lent himself to this unwise Russian policy. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman would be able so to explain this matter as to make it clear that His Roy al Highness never meant to countenance the absurd pretension that the Russians had any right so to transgress comity and courtesy as to treat a British officer travelling in any part of the dominions of the Czar as if he were a spy. That, however, was the impression which the book left upon the mind, and he hoped and believed, nay, he was sure, the right hon. Gentleman would be glad to remove the impression. We should make the authorities at St. Petersburg understand that we desired they should come and see what we were doing, and, at the same time, that we should be permitted to go and see what they were doing. He believed that if the two Foreign Offices met each other in that spirit of frankness, the chances of our coming into collision were very slight indeed. It only remained for him to say that he had no acquaintance with the officer concerned, that, to his knowledge, he had never seen him, and, so far from sharing the political views expressed in the book, he had repeatedly, and through a long series of years, controverted them in that House and many other places; but the narrow policy of Russia with respect to travelling in Central Asia gave colour to those alarmist views which he so cordially disliked. He simply asked the question upon public grounds, and because he thought it was a matter which ought to be cleared up.


Sir, I will, if the House will permit me, first say a few words with respect to the Question just put to me by the hon. Member for the Elgin Burghs (Mr. Grant Duff). It is true that a telegram was sent to Captain Burnaby, which reached him at Khiva. It was not sent to him at Khiva, because it was sent with a view to prevent him travelling through Central Asia. It was not known, in fact, where it would reach him. There were circumstances at that time which made the Government consider that it was very inexpedient that an English officer, even though going on his own private affairs, should enter Central Asia, and it was thought desirable that he should be stopped, and in consequence a telegram was sent, which reached him at Khiva. The hon. Gentleman himself had shown that at that time the Russians were very anxious that no one should be allowed to go to Khiva. The telegram was not sent by direction of Russia, but sent on the grounds of general policy by direction of the Government, and was transmitted in the name of the Commander-in-Chief. The communications that have passed are of a confidential nature, and I am not in a position to lay the Papers on the Table. So far as the British Government is generally concerned, their desire is that perfect freedom should be given to any one travelling in Russia or any part of the world; but there were circumstances at that time which rendered it expedient that no officer who might be thought to have a mission from the British Government should appear in Central Asia, and that was the reason the telegram of recall was sent to Captain' Burnaby. I have just been told, though the hon. Member says to the contrary, that some Russian officers have been prevented from making their way through India into Central Asia, but that is a piece of information which I have not the means of verifying.


suggested that that was simply a case in which the Indian Government could not guarantee their safety. In all Her Majesty's dominions there was perfect freedom to Russian officers. Would the right hon. Gentleman, if convenient, give more detailed information as to the statement, and inform the House from what part of Her Majesty's dominions in India, Russian, or any other officers had been excluded?


I am not myself aware of the occurrence. As I said, I have only just received the information. The Russians gave certain reasons in regard to Captain Burnaby, one being that they would not be able to protect him if he went into certain districts. I have now answered the Question, as far as I am able to answer it, with the information at my command; and with respect to the point raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Kirkcaldy (Sir George Campbell), as I understood him, he says he wishes that officers who have received their money for their services and have left the Army should still be under the restrictions applicable to officers of the Army. Now, that subject was very well considered by my noble Predecessor in office, then Mr. Cardwell, and the Royal Warrant which was issued in 1873, sets out that— Every officer who shall hereafter commute his unattached retired or half pay shall cease to retain his rights and privileges as an Officer in the British Army, except as provided by the Pensions Commutation Act, 1871. That is to say, after a great deal of consideration by the Department, they came to the conclusion that, just as in the case of an officer who at that time had sold his commission, a man who had commuted his pension should be deemed to have left the Army altogether, and therefore could not be in a position to advance in his Profession either by brevet or any other rank. In fact, he had retired from the Army and become a civilian. That is the law at the present moment, and, as far as I am concerned, I have no intention to alter it. We cannot possibly retain our dominion over officers who have commuted their pay and who have actually retired from the Army. It seems to me that if it were otherwise the position of a man would be intolerable; that the Army would be a Profession from which a man could not retire, or, at least, could not retire in such a way as to have any reward for his services. That which an officer commutes is a pension for past services, and not for any services in the future; and inasmuch as you do not give him any benefits in the future, I do not see how you can retain any hold over his future actions or services. I am not going to follow the hon. Member as to what may be done with respect to civilians—that is a question which hardly comes within the scope of the Army Estimates.


I wish to make one observation with regard to the explanation of the right hon. Gentleman opposite as to the recall of Captain Burnaby. I do not say it at all in a hostile spirit to the right hon. Gentleman; but I cannot think that the House will consider that the explanation of the recall of the officer under the circumstances is entirely satisfactory. The right hon. Gentleman has referred somewhat mysteriously to certain circumstances which made it extremely desirable at that time that a British officer should not be travelling in Central Asia. The history of that time was well known, and is, doubtless, in the recollection of hon. Members. We were at profound peace with Russia, and an assurance had been given of the most friendly intentions with regard to the advance in Central Asia. I cannot realize the special circumstances which rendered it desirable that a British officer should not travel in Central Asia, and which induced his recall. I understand that no application was made by the Russian Government for his recall, and I further understand that it was a spon- taneous act on the part of Her Majesty's Government. I regret that spontaneous act, and for this reason—what would they think in Central Asia of such a circumstance as a telegram having been sent by the British Commander-in-Chief recalling this officer after he had travelled with incredible courage and endurance and had successfully accomplished the object of his journey? I do not know whether all hon. Members have read the book; but I must say that the Russian Government were most obliging in carrying out the intentions of the British Government, and they facilitated and expedited his return. In fact, it appears to me that Captain Burnaby was very much like being under arrest on his return journey from Khiva to Petro Alexandrovsk. I should have thought that the Government would have been charmed at the opportunity of informing themselves of the state of affairs at Khiva, and a most interesting account is given of what passed at Khiva. Then Captain Burnaby was not permitted to travel to Taschkend, and the Russian Government were perfectly acquainted with the orders sent him by the English Commander-in-Chief. Whence this intimate knowledge, if this was a spontaneous act on the part of the English Government in recalling Captain Burnaby? The matter appears to me to be rather serious, and it is interesting from this point of view, whether Russia wishes Europe to believe she is not anxious for Europeans to travel in Central Asia. I am very glad this step of recall was not committed by the late Government. If we had recalled a British officer under similar circumstances, it would have been said that we had done so at the dictation of Russia, and it would have been followed by the remark that we were in such a hurry to oblige Russia that we recalled an officer so that he should not see what they were doing. A Conservative Government, however, may do many things which may not be done by us when in office, and, therefore, I say no more on that part of the subject. But as regards the action of the Russian Government, that is a far more serious matter. Apart from the particular question of the recall of Captain Burnaby, I trust the Russian Government is not so blind to its own interest, or so little alive to international comity and goodwill, that if such travels be again undertaken by British officers, similar impediments would be imposed. I believe the feeling of the House is, that my hon. Friend (Mr. Grant Duff) has done quite right in bringing this question before the House. There is a note in the book that Major Wood was also prevented from going to Khiva, not at the instance of the British Government, but under other circumstances. I think that, notwithstanding the limitations which fell from the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War, it may be said that any Russian officer can travel through every nook and corner of this Empire, even through our dominions in India. They are treated with the greatest confidence, and welcomed everywhere in this country; and without wishing to use very strong language, it is a very unhandsome act on the part of Russia to put impediments in the way of a British officer in that vast territory, the territory of an ally. It would be much more so if such a thing should occur again.


said, he had to thank his hon. Friend the Member for the Elgin Burghs for having brought the question before the House. If the Notice had not been put upon the Paper, he (Lord Elcho) should have felt it his duty to have put a similar one; but he should have addressed his inquiry with respect to it rather to his hon. Friend the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs than to his right hon. Friend at the head of the War Department, for rumour said that neither the latter nor the Commander-in-Chief had anything to do with the matter, but that they were made to act through the Foreign Office. The answer of his right hon. Friend did not, he might add, seem to him to be satisfactory. He said Russia had nothing to do with the proceeding to which his attention had been called; but the public were under the impression that the Foreign Office had acted at the instance of Russia, and he therefore thought that even for the sake of Russia, if not of the Government, it was desirable the House should have from the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs a distinct assurance that such was not the case. But whether it was so or not it was, in his opinion, much to be regretted that the Foreign Office should have interfered to stop the travelling of an English officer in Central Asia, espe- cially as the officers of all nations were allowed to travel through all parts of Her Majesty's Empire.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.