HC Deb 27 November 1914 vol 68 cc1597-600

That they have agreed to,—

>Question again proposed, "That this House, at its rising this day, do adjourn until Tuesday the 2nd day of February."

Lord C. BERESFORD (continuing)

I was referring to the three "Cressys." The next case was the escape of the "Goeben," a serious incident which led to the Turkish Declaration of War. The House will remember that the admirals in this case was acquitted of any neglect of duty with regard to that ship. Then there was the loss of the "Pegasus." With regard to the Pacific action, I will tell the right hon. Gentleman opposite that generally in the Service we regret that some mark of esteem and sympathy for that great admiral (Admiral Cradock) was not brought forward at the instance of the Government. I think that was a mistake, and probably it was unintentional, but we felt it very greatly in the Service. He was one of the most brilliant of our admirals, and his pluck was impossible to overrate. He was a very capable officer. He was very popular and a great leader of men, and there was no better admiral in the whole Service. I say this with some feeling, because I had the honour of commanding a fleet in which he was one of my captains. Some small attempt has been made to throw blame upon this admiral, but again I say that the Service bitterly resents any remarks of that sort, He fought a superior force and he had ineffective ships and reserve crews, but he maintained the old tradition of our Navy. Are we to be told that on any occasion when we are fighting a superior force that orders must never be disregarded. It is well-known that most of our brilliant actions and our Empire have been brought about by some sort of neglect of orders in the presence of the enemy, always with the knowledge that though you may go down yourself the opposing force does not escape damage. Admiral Cradock's action contained the best traditions of the Service, and anything that is said about him of this nature would be resented most violently by me and the whole of the British Navy. With regard to the Antwerp incident, this is not the time to discuss it. This is not the time to give our opinions as to what authority did or did not do. Mistakes are being made, but until the end of the War, and until it has been fought to a finish, we must support authority with all the effort that we can in all parts of the House. I say that the confidence in the Fleet must rest supreme. The only feeling we should have at present is one of gratitude to the Navy for the position in which we find ourselves, of enabling our gallant and heroic Army to get to the front to fight our battles on shore. We must not underrate our enemy. That German fleet will come out in my opinion. She will never line up in line of battle. She may come out in a fog, or she may come out and try and fight a mêlée, and in that case nobody knows what might happen, but I can assure the House that whatever happens, luck or no luck, we shall win in the end. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to remember this. The Duke of Wellington laid down a very fine maxim in fighting: "Tell your admirals or your generals what your object is, but do not give orders to them how they are to carry out that object, as a circumstance may occur in which the general or the admiral by obeying your orders will defeat the object." That is a fine sentiment. There cannot be any better for fighting, and I hope the administrative authority will, as is their duty, make out the policy, but will not tell the admirals in command how they are to carry out that policy. I say once more that any little doubt as to the power of the Navy, the discipline of the Navy, and the efficiency of the Navy ought to be removed. There ought to be no doubt cast on those three qualifications by the incidents that have occurred. I say to the House respectfully, "Trust the Royal Navy, and it will never fail you."

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Mr. Churchill)

I certainly have no cause to complain of the tone of the Noble Lord's brief remarks, and I must say that I think the principle on which he goes, that everything that goes right is to be attributed to the Navy and everything that goes wrong is to be attributed elsewhere is an exceedingly sound principle, one with which I am quite content, and one which cannot be too widely adopted. The Noble Lord sees, as most Members of the House know, that the time has not yet arrived when we can discuss with any profit some and probably most of the particular incidents to which he has referred. It is no use attempting to discuss the rights and wrongs, if rights and wrongs there be, of particular actions unless all the facts can be disclosed. If I take the incidents to which he has referred—the action in the Pacific, the loss of the cruisers off the Dutch coast, or the expedition to Antwerp—as good examples of his principle I would say that before it is possible to form a judgment it is necessary that the orders should be disclosed, that the telegrams which have passed should be disclosed, and that the dispositions which prevail, not only at the particular point, but generally throughout the theatre of war, should also in their broad outline and even in considerable detail be made known. That is clearly impossible at the present time. It would be very dangerous for the Minister representing the Admiralty to be drawn into what would necessarily become a controversial, and what might easily become an acrimonious discussion of these matters. And, above all, to disclose partially what has taken place would only lead to demands for fuller and further publication, which would be very prejudicial, not only to the actual conduct of the War but to the general interests of the Naval Service, during the course of the War.

It is not possible, however desirable it may be, at present for the public or the House to form any judgment on these matters. The only rule which should guide us in regard to information is that nothing must be published which is against the public interest, or hampers naval or military operations. It is the only rule, and it is a rule which must be capable of wide interpretation. Of course, it would be entirely wrong for a Department or a Minister to use the term "public interest" on naval and military matters in order to shield the Department or himself from blame or censure. This is a war so serious and formidable in its character that persons ought not to be spared. If an improvement can be made in any command the officer ought to give way for others who can better discharge the public duty. That is a rule and principle that should not be confined to naval and military officers, but equally to heads of Departments. The Prime Minister is especially charged by the country at this time, and it is his duty, if he considers any improvement can be made in the conduct of a public Department, not to allow any considerations of party association or personal friendship to stand in the way of making any change that is necessary in the public interests.

[See col. 1601.]

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