HC Deb 27 March 1914 vol 60 cc784-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Gulland.]


With your permission, Sir, I desire to put to the Prime Minister a question which I have already twice asked, namely: Whether it is the case that Field-Marshal Sir John French and Lieutenant-General Sir John Ewart have tendered their resignations?

5.0 P.M.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

I desire to express my great regret and my sincere apologies to the House that I was not able, as had been intended, to make the short statement I am about to make when the House originally met. The matters involved are matters of complexity and difficulty which seemed to us to require very full consideration, and I think a partial or provisional statement, such as alone I could then have made would have been less satisfactory to the House than that I am now able to say. For that reason, and for that reason only, it has been deferred.

In answer to the question of the hon. and gallant Gentleman: Field-Marshal Sir John French and General Sir Spencer Ewart yesterday intimated their wish to be relieved of their offices, not because of any difference between their view and that of the Government as to the conditions under which the Army serves or should be employed in aid of the civil power, but because, having initialled the Memorandum which has been published, and which, as the House knows, was ultimately handed to General Gough, they thought that course incumbent upon them. The Government have conveyed to them their wish that as there was no difference of opinion on any ground of policy they do not persist in their request, the carrying out of which the Government would regard as a serious misfortune, both to the Army and to the State. We are still expecting their final reply. These two gallant officers believe, and in the circumstances they are justified in believing, that they were acting in accordance with the directions of the Cabinet when transmitting those directions to the officers concerned. It was clear to us, and to them, that there had been misconceptions—genuine misconceptions—in regard to the intentions and purport of the proceedings in Ireland under which these difficulties have arisen. In view of those misconceptions, and to obviate the possibility of their recurrence in future, the Army Council has to-day—Sir John French and General Ewart being present—unanimously determined to issue a new Army Order, the terms of which I will now read to the House. It is a Special Army Order, dated to-day, under the heading "Discipline." It consists of three articles:— (1) No officer or soldier shall in future be questioned by his superior officer as to the attitude he will adopt, or as to his action, in the event of his being required to obey orders dependent upon future or hypothetical contingencies. (2) An officer or soldier is forbidden in future to ask for assurances as to the orders which he may be required to carry out. (3) In particular, it is the duty of every officer and soldier to obey all lawful commands given to them through the proper channel, either for the safeguarding of public property or the support of the civil power in the ordinary execution of its duty, or for the protection of the lives and property of the inhabitants in the case of the disturbance of the peace. This is the Order issued by the Army Council to-day—and it has now been approved—which regulates the conduct and discipline of the Army in future. I must repeat what Ministers in both Houses have said several times this week, and what, in view of the wild legends which are current, needs to be repeated: that it is altogether untrue that the Government, or any Member of the Government, have contemplated active operations of an aggressive character in Ulster; or any operations which now, or in the future, would impose upon the Army any duty or any service which is not amply covered by the terms of this Order. To that I have only to add the Government adhere to all the declarations they have made.


I shall, of course, not say a word in regard to these resignations, or contemplated resignations, of the two distinguished officers whom the right hon. Gentleman has named. We shall have an opportunity under more suitable conditions of discussing this whole subject on Monday. By that time we shall probably know the decision of those officers, and I think it would be out of place for me to say anything in regard to that now. As regards the Order in connection with discipline which the right hon. Gentleman has read out, I have only this remark to make: that it seems to me, as far as I can judge simply from hearing, that there is not one of these Orders which in the nature of the case is not implied in the Army Regulations already; and as I say, judging only from hearing them read, I cannot take exception to the principle involved in any one of them. But, Sir, I must point out to the House, and to the right hon. Gentleman, that the fact that such a proceeding is necessary is due to one cause and to one cause only, and that is the incredible folly of the Government and of the Minister for War. The first of these Orders is to the effect that in future no officer will be required—if it applies only to officers—


No, no.


All the better. That in future no officer or soldier will be required to answer any question as to what he will do under conditions which have not yet arisen. I may remind the right hon. Gentleman that in a communication made to the country on Sunday he stated what he must now admit to have been absolutely inaccurate information, that no such inquisition had been directed to the officers of the Army. As my right hon. Friend said on Wednesday in connection with another statement of the Prime Minister, his honour, which I do not doubt his being able to clear, is at stake in this matter, and he must—and I am sure will on Monday—explain to the House how he could have made such a statement, when we all know now that it was contrary to the fact and contrary to what had actually been done in Ireland.




The right hon. Gentleman says even now he does not think so. Well, on Monday he will have an opportunity, I hope, of giving his reasons for not thinking so, in view of the admitted fact that the resignation of the officers at the Curragh was due solely to this fact, that that question had been put to them and that they were required to give an answer to it. As regards the second of these Orders, they are Orders which it ought not to be necessary to give. No officer, no soldier, has a right to put any such question to the Secretary of State or any officer serving under the Secretary of State, and everyone in the House knows that no such question would have been put by any officer, and that no officer would have dreamed of putting it had he not been placed in the position that the inquisition was first directed to him, and he was required to answer it. The third Order is simply, as I understand it, a repetition of what has already been more than once stated, and was, I should have thought, in the Army Regulations. As regards the solemn assurance that the right hon. Gentleman has given us, I have only this to say: I do not know how he exactly interprets the words he used, but this I am absolutely sure of, that more was contemplated, either by the Government as a whole or by Members of the Government, than was admitted in the explanations which were given in this House on Wednesday. I shall not now develop what I consider as clear proof of the statement which I have made, but this, at least, I can say, and it is sufficient, that if the General Commanding the forces of His Majesty in Ireland was correctly informed as to the intentions of the War Office, then the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman cannot possibly be accurate.


I should like to say here and now, on behalf of the officers in the Army—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh !"]—on behalf of the officers and the men in the Army, that the statements we have just heard read by the Prime Minister are the grossest insult to the whole of the Army. There never was, and there never will be, in my humble opinion, a single doubt as to the possibility of the officers or the men obeying the orders of their superior officers. I say that Sir John French has stultified his position absolutely by signing this statement. He knows perfectly well that he has only got to go and ask any officer or man to know what his position is. They will all tell you exactly the same thing. Dozens have told it me in the last few days. If you had never played with this question; if you had behaved like men and had gone straight; if the right hon. Gentleman had not done his best to spoil the discipline of the whole Army; if he had not gone to the officers and asked them himself, or through Sir Arthur Paget, what their views were, this question would never have arisen. Let me tell hon. Gentlemen opposite that the Army, both officers and men, feel that their honour is at stake in this question. Any sensible man with sixpennyworth of brains would have known what the orders ought to have been. If you had said, "You go to Ulster, under my orders," and the officers and men had not gone, they would have taken the responsibility on themselves, as any officer and gentleman would. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is still Secretary of State for War. Goodness knows; he may be Secretary of State for the Colonies. Perhaps, for all we know, he has gone to one of our Dominions beyond the seas, or perhaps he has gone to another place. I do not know where he is, but may I tell him this: If he is going to remain at the War Office, officers are usually termed "officers and gentlemen," but when it comes to a decision between being au officer or a gentleman, the whole crowd of them will prefer to be gentlemen. Yes, and the men, too. You go and ask the men what their views are. You go and ask those at the Curragh, and find out what their views are. Let me tell hon. Gentlemen opposite this: A gentleman does not mean an aristocrat like the Noble Lord the Member for Portsmouth (Lord C. Beresford) talked about. I dare say there are lots of them cads, but I tell you that a "gentleman" does not mean a man in a frock coat. A "gentleman" means a man who is prepared to stick to his pals, to his convictions, and to his word, and who is prepared to sacrifice a good deal to do that. The right hon. Gentleman has made a grave mistake if he thinks that the Army are going to appreciate the order which, under the signature of Sir John French, he has been issuing. It was not necessary, and it never will be necessary, as long as the Army remains as it is at present.