HC Deb 31 March 1885 vol 296 cc1128-31

I should like, with the permission of the House, to make one or two remarks with reference to the war in the Soudan, as the subject is one which deeply interests the country. There is a very strong feeling that this miserable and bloody war ought to be put an end to; and, if I am not mistaken, this feeling will, within a very short time, find loud expression throughout the land. Whatever Members of the Government may say on the subject, it must be admitted that the object of the Soudan Expedition has entirely changed. It was originally of a humane character, and secured a considerable amount of support, so long as its purpose was confined to the rescue of that brave man, General Gordon. But it is vain to deny that since the death of Gordon the object of the Expedition has entirely changed. It is now either a war of vengeance, or it is a war of conquest. It is impossible for anyone to conceive what its object can be, unless we put one or other of those interpretations upon it. I feel most strongly that the action we are taking against the Soudanese is in entire contradiction to all the assurances and pledges that have been given by the Government to this House since the beginning of the Egyptian Campaign. We are all familiar with the declaration that the Soudan was to be left to its own inhabitants, who were a brave people and entitled to be free. Yet this country is now engaged in the odious task of making war against a people who are struggling for their freedom. As this is the only opportunity I have had of raising my voice upon the subject, I feel it my duty to protest against the continuance of this utterly fruitless and barren war. I defy anyone to give a reasonable explanation of the Expedition in which the country is engaged. We can all see with perfect plainness that the attempt to subdue the Arabs can only lead to great loss of life to them and to ourselves; and the time is now fast approaching when, owing to the climate, Englishmen can scarcely live in the Soudan. The Expedition to Suakin stands entirely condemned on every ground; and I do not believe any Member of the Government will now venture to say that he considers it possible to make the railway to Berber, at any rate not without great sacrifices. What I would ask the Government to do on this occasion is to consider whether it is not possible, at a very early date, to withdraw the Suakin Expedition altogether? Soon the climate will oblige you to withdraw; and what is the use of going on fighting battle after battle—shedding blood and making yourselves detested by the people, when the excessive heat will soon compel us to quit the country? It has been said that it is necessary to show our superiority over the Arabs; but we have substantially done that already in the battles that have taken place. According to the news to-day the enemy is not likely to make a stand again, and to go on following them up for the next few months would be a senseless proceeding, and would be attended with heavy losses on our side. I hope the Government will reconsider the whole situation, and will give orders for the withdrawal of the troops at an early date altogether from Suakin; and I would go further, and say that the same reasons which apply to withdrawal from Suakin apply with equal force to the withdrawal of General Wolseley's Army from its present advanced position. We made a mistake in declaring that it was our intention to go to Khartoum; it is still worse persevering in the error. The task is all but impossible, and would involve sacrifices far greater than those which the country has hitherto made. It is better to admit that we have done wrong than to persevere in a mistake; and I would therefore press upon the Government to consider whether it would not now be the wisest course to withdraw the Army of General Wolseley to the proper frontier of Egypt. We may be told that that, under present circumstances, is an impossibility; but I greatly doubt whether it is. We see in the papers to-day that General Wolseley is expected to be at Cairo on the 13th of April, so that he must be able to make the journey in 14 days. If that be so, I do not see how there can be any physical impossibility in withdrawing the Army also; and that would save the shocking loss of life that must take place if an Army remains in those unhealthy regions during the summer. But it is said that it is necessary to smash the Mahdi, because otherwise there will be danger of an attack by his forces upon Egypt Proper. If the Mahdi chooses to come to Egypt we should have the support of the nation in resisting him, because as long as we are in Egypt everyone will admit that it is our duty to defend the country. It is, however, extremely doubtful whether we shall ever see the Mahdi in Egypt at all. Many things may happen that we cannot at present even conjecture before an invasion of Egypt by the Mahdi could take place. Why, then, should we go on with this miserable, wretched war, in order to provide against a contingency which may never arise? We are certainly indulging in accusations against the French on account of their wars of ambition, and everyone condemns the war now being carried on by them in China; but our war in the Soudan is not one degree less defensible. It is a more useless contest than any in which France is engaged in any part of the world. It may be thought by some that the safety of General Wolseley's Army requires the continuance of the operations in the neighbourhood of Suakin, and for a considerable time many of us were influenced by that belief. But, as far as I am able to judge, I cannot see that there is any practical connection between the two positions, which are divided by a vast expanse of desert 600 miles in extent. I speak with no desire to throw any difficulty in the way of the Government. No one recognizes more than I do the enormous difficulties they have to cope with all over the world; but I am urging that which I believe to be strongly in their own interests and in the interests of the country. They have not yet, perhaps, sufficiently felt the pressure of public opinion out-of-doors upon this question; and I wish on this occasion to give expression to a very widespread feeling, which I am sure will in the course of the summer grow into a most formidable agitation if it is not met by concession on the part of the Government.