HC Deb 27 May 1909 vol 5 cc1429-41

I asked a question this morning of the Prime Minister with reference to a letter which appeared in the public Press this morning, and which was read at a public meeting last night. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister had not had his attention drawn to the letter, and was, therefore, not able to answer my question or to give us the statement which I hoped he would be able to give us, namely, that he regretted the incident very much, that he repudiated the letter, and that he would see to it that there would not be a recurrence of the matters which he complained of in connection with this and other letters. On those grounds, and although I look upon it as a very unfortunate occasion on the adjournment of the House to bring forward a matter of this kind, yet, on consultation with some of my Friends, we have come to the conclusion that this matter ought to be brought before the House to-day for the reason, if for no other, that it is more than probable that another occasion will not arise during the present Session for bringing the matter before the House, because there are only two more days on which Naval Estimates will come before the House, and it is more than likely that both those days will be given up entirely to the discussion of the expedition of the shipbuilding programme.

The letter to which I wish to draw attention is written by Admiral Mann to the First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher. My attention has been drawn to the fact that, with reference to certain other letters of a somewhat similar nature, a Motion has been put down on the Paper of the House of Commons which will preclude me from in any way discussing these letters. The writer of the letter which I am precluded from alluding to is mentioned in this letter, but I do not suppose I shall be out of order in mentioning that officer's name. The letter is as follows:—.

" 19, Sussex Mansions, South Kensington,

" 4 th April, 19116.

"DEAR SIR JOHN,—I have read 'The Times 'article of to-day's date on naval training. Grand it should settle the ignorant and suspicious! I wish he had put his name—conclude lie is a good man. "I return Bacon's letter. Capital. I agree with every word, and am glad to think Beresford and Lambton have not poisoned his mind. "The same feeling as Bacon's went through my mind. Why not have a pamphlet dealing with the whole question of training, and spread it about? For I feel with him that opposition to the new scheme as a whole is no more than ignorance. Am also glad to hear his opinion of Bellairs always an incompetent officer '; it that was known in the House he would be measured accordingly. " I aid not know it had been proposed to make a change over of duties between the present young executive and young engineer officers. "I had a nice talk with Colonel Bor, R.M.A., tonight; a real whole man he is not 'broken-hearted,' as Lord Goschen described all the Marines, in the House of Lords ! I am dining with the Skinners tomorrow, and hope to have a chance of giving tongue. " I was speaking at three meetings in Lancashire last week. I mentioned your name at all, and the audience cheered, as they alway do. There's no doubt the country is with you. "Criticism is all very well and may do good, but in the end one has to decide which is the party to trust—the noisy objectors, or the man behind the scenes who is responsible and a working for the good of the service and therefore for the country's benefit. "FitzGerald has been well answered by Vincit Veritas' in `Naval and Military Record,' March '29th. Do read it.

" Yours sincerely,

"W. F. S. MANN."

The comment on the letter, which appears where I am reading from, is that several paragraphs in the letter were received with loud laughter. I think they would probably be received with louder laughter in this House if the seriousness and gravity of that letter were not fully appreciated by hon. Members. It was a letter written by one gentleman to another, and therefore it ought never to have appeared in public at all. We appreciate that fully on this side of the House, but we must remember that the person who was responsible for the publicity given to this letter is unfortunately the First Sea Lord. That letter was printed-50 copies of it were printed—and a certain number of them were circulated, how many I do not know, but I myself have seen one of the copies which was printed at the public expense. It is very hard to characterise that letter, indeed it is hardly my duty here to criticise the writer of the letter at all, but I wish to criticise most strongly the action of Sir John Fisher in having that letter printed at the public expense, and more strongly still his action in allowing it to get out of his own hands. We were told on a somewhat similar occasion that the justification which Sir John Fisher had for printing such letters as these was that they contained matters which were valuable to the service. I do not think any person with a vestige of intelligence or sense left in him will be able to find anything in that letter which was in any remote degree valuable to the service, or to anyone except perhaps Sir John Fisher, and it is utterly inexcusable and inexplicable that such a letter as that should have been published at the public expense, and allowed to get outside the private drawers of Sir John Fisher himself. I should like to draw attention to the tone which runs through that letter which is a tone which many of us on this side of the House have complained very bitterly about as pervading many of the actions and statements of Sir John Fisher and those officers and others who are what I may call followers of his.

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Mr. McKenna)

May I ask whether it would be in order to criticise the tone of the writer of a private letter? After all, so far as Admiral Mann was concerned, it was a private letter. I submit that it would hardly be in accordance with the custom of the House to criticise the contents of a private letter, which has come by accident into the hands of the hon. Member.


The matter ceases to be private if it is printed and circulated.


The letter was certainly printed, but circulated never. It was not printed by the wish or to the knowledge of the writer. I only say that in regard to the writer of the letter it is a private letter.


May I say I am personally aware that the letter was circulated, and that naval officers among whom it was circulated at the proper time are prepared to come forward.


I do not see how I can interfere. The hon. Member must use his own judgment how far he goes in criticising it.


Of course, if the letter was not of a more or less objectionable nature we should never have brought it before the House at all, nor would it have been quoted at last night's meeting. I do not desire to criticise it further than to draw the attention of the House to one or two statements or expressions which I think are highly improper, and the impropriety of which is proportionately increased by the action of Sir John Fisher in printing and circulating the letter. In the second paragraph of the letter we object very strongly to such an expression as— Capital. I agree with every word. and am glad to think Beresford and La/111)ton have not poisoned his mind. I say that is a most vicious remark to snake. It is tantamount to this: This letter was written at a period when the new system of training was initiated in the Navy; and what we are to gather from that expression is that the writer of the letter, and presumably Sir John Fisher, considered everybody's opinion in this matter of training, or on any other matter in which they disagreed from him, as poisonous. I maintain that that is a most unnecessarily offensive term to use, and it shows a very bad spirit. The same spirit is carried right through the letter, and anybody who differs from Sir John Fisher must be treated as a person who is administering poison. The letter also contains this statement:— For I feel with him that opposition to the new scheme as a whole is no more than ignorance. That is to say that everyone who disagrees with him in the slightest degree on this matter—and I may remind the House that there was the acutest disagreement on this matter among the officers of the Navy —is taking a course which is due to ignorance. At another place he calls everybody who disagrees with him on this matter "noisy objectors." I say all these expressions are most improper, and they ought never to have come out, but having been circulated, as we know from the hon. Member's interjection they have been, even among naval officers, we cannot help taking cognisance of them in this House. I do not desire to say anything mare 'than to express the hope that the First Lord of the Admiralty will tell us that he has put his foot down on this sort of thing in the Admiralty. Such letters as that which I have quoted produce a very bad feeling indeed in the Navy. We all know that it was by such effusions that the system of opposition and of two parties in the Navy have grown up. During the past two years there has been a great schism in the Navy which never existed before, and it cannot be for the good of the Navy that it should be allowed to continue. I shall not trouble the House further on this subject, but I hope that the First Lord of the Admiralty will be able to tell us that neither Sir John Fisher nor any other officer at the Admiralty over whom he has any control will be allowed to print and publish at the public expense letters of that kind. They would never have been printed and published at all except for one of two objects—either for his own self laudation or to injure those who do not agree with him.


I do not think it is really necessary to say any- thing to impress upon the House the importance of the case which has been brought forward by my right hon. Friend. The matter appears to me not only a disagreeable one, but it seems to me one of very real importance. I, for my part, have never joined, and, on the contrary, I have always refused to join, in the campaign, which, as everybody knows, has been going on more or less for a long time against the First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher. First of all because I have always taken the view up to this moment certainly that the First Sea Lord, as First Sea Lord was, after all, only the servant of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and that it was the First Lord of the Admiralty who must be held responsible in this House for all that he does in his official capacity. That view I hold strongly, and that is one of the reasons why I have always refused to join in any attack on the First Sea Lord. Secondly, I have refused because I recognise quite well that, whatever may be the mistakes and defects of Sir John Fisher—we all make mistakes, and I think the mistakes he has made are very great, and some of them very serious—certainly no one can doubt that in many of the changes and reforms carried out owing to his influence great service has been done to the Navy, and that the Navy will be found to owe much to him in many respects. But all that being true, everybody knows that allegations have been made now for a long time, that as a matter of fact neither of these two suppositions were in this case well founded, and that as a matter of fact the First Sea Lord had become virtually the master and the autocrat at the Admiralty. That has been suggested, and it has been suggested that many of the mistakes which the First Sea Lord may have made in this policy have been mortal mistakes, which it may be very difficult for the Navy to recover from. It has been said—and this is the real complaint—that Sir John Fisher has been conducting throughout the country and in the Navy a campaign of a character which would not bear serious inspection, in order to promote the scheme of reform, though be may have done so in a public-spirited manner, which he desires to effect in the Navy. That I have always hesitated to believe, but I do not see how anybody can refuse to believe that there is a great deal of truth in the allegation in the face of letters such as that which my hon. Friend has read. What can such a letter as that mean? Taken in conjunction with other letters, which it is not in order to refer to now, it appears to me that the only meaning that this great officer, the First Sea Lord, has, as a matter of fact—departing altogether from the traditions to which we are accustomed, so far as I know, in the action of great officers—been conducting actively a personal campaign, not only among retired officers, but among officers in the Service itself, and that in order to further a particular scheme. It. appears to me to have been extremely badly conducted. I cannot imagine anybody employing an officer who would write such a letter as that to further any scheme in the world, and I cannot understand why Sir John Fisher, or any other human being, should have taken the trouble to have it printed and, as I understand, circulated in the Service, and certainly in the Department. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I hope he will tell us what on earth was the object with which this letter was printed, and whether, as a matter of fact, it was or was not circulated in the Navy or elsewhere 7 I cannot take the view that Sir John Fisher chose to have this letter printed merely to keep 50 or GO copies in a drawer. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman himself will accept that reason. Officers in the position of the First Sea Lord do not have letters like this printed merely to have them as a reference. Something must have been intended. What was it? I think we are entitled to know, in view of what has happened. It does seem to me that if facts of this sort are continually being brought to the notice of the public and of the service it may result in very serious injury to the service itself, because it is a very disagreeable and disquieting thing for officers in a service like the Navy, when they open their papers, to find that there is going on a sort of campaign, which appears to me to be of a very serious character, and obviously must strike at the very roots of confidence in the Navy if it is to continue to go on. Nobody can tell how many other officers may be writing letters of this character. Nobody can tell how many more such letters the First Lord will consider it to be his duty to publish, and nobody knows but that sooner or later every one of these letters will leak out of Admiralty, and go on producing this sort of unpleasantness. It does seem to me that this sort of thing is likely to breed a very bad spirit, and I hope that the First Lord will be able to tell the House that he for his part, and the Government for their part, regret that this letter should be thought necessary to be printed, and that they will give us some assurance that this kind of spirit which obviously must he engendered by things of that sort will be put an end to so far as the First Lord is concerned.


The hon. Gentleman who has just spoken (Mr. Bowles) has spoken in a perfectly fair and reasonable manner upon the facts as they have been presented to his mind. Let me put my view, which in this matter has been entirely overlooked. It is said that a violent personal attack has been conducted by Sir John Fisher. It was not said by the hon. Member, but the hon. Member said that it is said that a violent campaign has been conducted by Sir John Fisher, who has got a number of people connected with the Navy to write to him about methods of maintaining the Navy, and that he has had numbers of these documents circulated in the Navy, and the hon. Member.. for King's Lynn (Mr. Bellairs) is prepared to produce naval officers to whom they have been sent. It is perfectly obvious, as the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Stewart Bowles) said in his speech, that Sir John Fisher has had for some years a great many detractors and enemies. That is perfectly notorious, and is probably within the knowledge of every individual Member in this House. Will the House observe this strange and curious fact: These letters, we are told, which have been circulated through the Navy, and which are undermining the spirit of comradeship, and this violent campaign, were all three years ago; and the only evidence that can be produced three years afterwards of this widespread personal campaign and conducted through the Navy, is the production of a letter three years old.

Surely if it were true that letters of this kind were being scattered broadcast through the Navy something would have been produced later than the month of April. 1906. We should have been confronted with something that had been done during the time I have been in office, but amongst all the millions of documents which are to be circulated through the Navy, not a letter has been produced, except individual letters, individual specimens dated three years ago. Surely that will give the hon. Gentleman opposite pause and make him consider that probably this great personal campaign, about which we have heard so much, has very little foundation in fact. Let me explain to the House briefly once again exactly what happened. I wish to make no secret of it. Sir John Fisher makes no secret of it, and so far injury has been done to no one but the hon. Member for King's Lynn. I was invited by Sir John Fisher to express his personal regret. I did so in this House on the very first opportunity, and therefore I trust, so far as that incident is concerned, it may be considered closed. We come to the question of printing the letters. Two points arise. First of all the letters were printed at the public expense, and, secondly, these letters, being in the nature of private letters, ought not to have been printed at all. I do not know whether I am called upon to defend every single incident of the smallest importance that takes place in a great office. In 1906, the House knew that a new system of naval education had been introduced. That was a subject of controversy in the Navy and among the public. It was one on which men's minds were agitated, there was a heated controversy, and every letter which bore on the controversy, appeared to them of importance. I have no doubt that if Sir John Fisher read those letters at this moment he would see that many of them were of no importance.


I think the right hon. Gentleman is under a mistake. The scheme was introduced in 1903, and not in 1906.


Pardon me. Though the scheme was introduced in 1903, the great controversy over it was raging in 1906. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that 1906 was the year in which that scheme was being first brought to the test.




Yes, in 1900, and it was. then that the controversy over the scheme was most violent. What does the whole case amount to? An error of judgment was undoubtedly made, and a number of letters were printed—a great number. I have read a good many of them, and they appear to me to be remarkably good letters, aptly bearing on the subject of controversy at the time. Some of those letters, reading them three years later, I do not think I would print, and I do not think Sir John Fisher would print them now; but when a man is working day and night, as Sir John Fisher was at that time, with a great many things on his mind and great responsibility upon him, he might then have given an order for printing a number of letters, the great majority everybody will agree ought to have been printed for the purpose of record. Surely it is not much to make a case of, that individual letters can be found, can be ferreted out three years afterwards. By hunting up hill and down dale they can just discover a letter amongst all the documents that have been circulated in the Navy. I do not know how they were obtained or what money was being paid to get them. These letters have all been produced through the efforts of one man. He pursues his own political methods in his own way. The House is familiar with some of them. I wish to say nothing with regard to them. All the letters that have been produced have been produced through his efforts only. Is this all they can find out of the great mass of letters of this sort that have been supposed to have been circulated/ Is the House seriously going to be asked to condemn a great man because, at a time of great labour, he has ordered to be printed a number of letters—two, three, perhaps half a dozen of which, amongst a great many ought not to have been printed—it would have been better, I would say, not to have been printed at all?

The House must, remember that this sort of attack is doing a cruel injustice to the First Sea Lord, who has had the unreserved confidence of four successive First Lords of the Admiralty. It must not be forgotten that Sir John Fisher was appointed First Sea Lord by the Government representing hon. Gentlemen opposite. Two successive First Lords of the Admiralty, both of whom have retained the confidence of hon. Gentlemen opposite, and are regarded by them as most successful administrators, two of those First Lords approved of the whole of Sir John Fisher's conduct and gave him their unreserved confidence. Sir John Fisher was appointed a member of the new Board when the present Government came into office, and two successive First Lords of the Admiralty have found in Sir John Fisher a valuable public servant, and I appeal to the House not to be misled by any such trumpery matters as these into censuring in the slightest degree a man who has given the very best service to the public that any man could give as in the case of Sir John Fisher.


I have heard, with some regret and disappointment, the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. McKenna) about this matter. This was not an attack on the name of Sir John Fisher. There was no desire on the present occasion for making such an attack. We are quite willing to admit, for the purposes of argument, Sir John Fisher may be a very valuable servant of the. country. The point is, Is this letter a proper one to have been printed and circulated by a very high Government official under the circumstances which have occurred? The right hon. Gentleman says that this letter is the only one, amongst other letters, which, after ferreting up hill and down dale, and with a suggestion of bribery and corruption, have been produced. I do not know what justification the right hon. Gentleman has for that statement. It may be true or not. He has not given any justification for that statement. I do not think it is a statement that ought to be made by a Minister unless he is prepared to justify it. But the real difference that lies between us is that the right hon. Gentleman regards this as a question of very small importance. I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman. What does it amount to? That really is the issue which I venture to submit to the House. Here is a letter written by a retired admiral, which shows quite clearly he has been the recipient of other letters. of a similar character, and which have been circulated by him. He writes a letter reflecting in strong terms upon a fellow officer and a Member of this House. That letter is received by a very high official of the Crown, and he thereupon orders. it to be printed at the expense of the Crown and circulated amongst those. people who would be most likely to be affected by the receipt of such a letter. It is an attack by one naval officer, printed' and circulated by the authority of almost the most powerful naval officer in the service, and circulated among other naval officers. No one can defend that, and I cannot understand how any Minister can refer to it as a matter of slight importance.. It may have been an isolated instance. There are circumstances to which we are not allowed to refer on the present occasion which make it doubtful to many of us whether it was at all an isolated instance, and whether it was not much more accurately described as a typical instance. Could anything be worse for any organisation or service, public or private, than that the head or one of the chiefs should be-circulating among those under his command attacks written by one member of. the service upon another? It is impossible to imagine anything which would do more harm to the spirit of the naval service.


I hope the Noble Lord will forgive my interrupting him; but I really think he has no ground for using the words "circulating among naval officers." Had these letters been so circulated it is -obvious that they would have been known of long ago. I absolutely deny that they were circulated. An individual Dopy, perhaps two copies, perhaps three, may have gone out, but as regards the rest they were at the Admiralty, and were destroyed. There is no question of the letters having been circulated.


The right hon. Gentleman may be right, but he must bear in mind the paragraph of this letter which refers to another letter of a similar character. "I return Bacon's letter." I will not read the rest of it; I do not wish to give unnecessary publicity to the rather foolish vapourings of a retired officer; but he had evidently received a previous letter and returned it, apparently by request, to the First Sea Lord.


When Admiral Mann happened to call on Sir John Fisher, Sir John at that moment had received Captain Bacon's letter. It was not printed. It was the original letter that Admiral Mann saw. It was a long letter, and he asked, "May I read it?" Sir John Fisher said, "You may." Admiral Mann took it away with him to read and then returned it. The letter which he returned to Sir John Fisher was the original letter written by Captain Bacon. That is the exact history of all that occurred.


I am glad that in this particular case we have been able to obtain more authentic details than we were able to get with reference to some of the other letters. But I do not think that the explanation the right hon. Gentleman has given really affects the matter. It is quite plain that one of these letters was returned by the request of Sir John Fisher. There is no reason why they should not all have been returned. The point is not whether the letter was circulated to two or three, or four or five, or 20 to 30. The whole system is utterly objectionable, and I regret very much that the right hon. Gentleman did not say perfectly frankly to the House, "I am not making any attack on the First Sea Lord, but this particular incident in his career it is impossible to defend; I will take care that no such occurrence shall take place in the future; the greatest possible precautions shall be taken against it." The right hon. Gentleman said that all this—I have but a few more observations to make—took place three years ago, and that no statement of the letter has been produced. I do not know at all how that may be. I do not know whether any other letters may be in existence, or may be produced later on. What I do know is that these letters have been issued, and that this letter has been brought up for the consideration of this House, and I feel it is a very serious matter. The right hon. Gentleman considers it entirely a personal matter between Sir John Fisher and the hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bellairs). He says, since personal regret has been expressed to the hon. Member that that should close the incident. That is not the point at all. I am not here to protect the character of the hon. Member for King's Lynn. If he should feel it worth while, he has other methods of appeal.

My point is that the whole question is a. public question; why letters of this description, written to an official who occupies a distinguished position of responsibility like Sir John Fisher, should have been printed and circulated among other naval officers. From that point of view, it appears to me that only one possible opinion can be held. I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman that that is a matter either trivial or trumpery, and a matter not worthy of consideration.

Viscount MORPETH

The First Lord of the Admiralty made an appeal to this House not to criticise the First Sea Lord. I agree with that, and should have been more ready to fall in with that advice, partly because I think it is always undesirable that officers of the rank and position of the First Sea Lord should be subjected to criticism on the Floor of this House, and partly because I regard it as subversive of discipline in the naval service. The First Lord, however, does not make it much more easy to the Members of this House to take that view by the very curious attitude which lie has adopted. The accusation that he put forward was that Sir George Armstrong had obtained these letters by corruption. I am not acquainted with Sir George Armstrong. All I know of him is what may be read in the daily papers. But, so far as I can understand from what has happened, Sir George has not been actuated in what he has done by any party motives or intentions. So far as I can judge, he seems entirely to have acted from considerations which he thinks good for the service to which he formerly belonged. He believes that the present system is working untold harm, and thinks it his duty, so far as he is able, to show un what is going on and to try to get it put right.

I do not think any man who has been an officer, and who is working with motives of that sort should be exposed to the criticism of the First Lord. It is most injurious. I should like to ask the First Lord why, when appealing to the House of Commons, he does not—I think the far simpler method—say definitely and plainly to the House that this system, which I do not believe he himself defends, should be put an end to for the future. His defence was of a most modified kind. He gave us a very plain hint that he himself did not approve of this letter, that he regarded it as a letter not at all worth being printed—an opinion in which I should say every Member in this House will agree. For it is quite inconceivable to me what policy should have dictated the printing, or why so distinguished an officer as Sir -John Fisher should have desired the support of a letter of that kind. It would have been far better and far simpler if the First Lord, instead of making these excuses and of quibbling as to whether this letter was a circular or not, could have said that it should cease. I think it is plain to everybody that letters have been printed, or have been sent round in manuscript, to various officers.:No one can defend the system which has caused a most widespread feeling of dismay in the Navy. The First Lord attempted to right all by putting forward Sir John Fisher's eminent services. He represented him as an injured man and a martyr. I think that is a very absurd pose to put the admiral in. For my part, the alarm which has been spread is not that undue attacks have been made upon Sir John Fisher, and that he is an injured man, but that many officers of the Navy, simply because they do not find themselves in agreement with all the proposals that he has made, consider themselves marked men, who risk losing promotion and advancement in their profession. I join in the appeal made my by hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Stewart Bowles) and my noble Friend the Member for Marylebone (Lord Robert Cecil) to the officials of the Admiralty responsible to this House and to the country to give some assurance that they will exercise their authority to put an end to that system which is so disastrous to the Navy and so bad for the country..