HC Deb 03 February 1915 vol 69 cc94-106

The remaining Government Orders of the day were read, and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of this date, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


I wish to ask the question which the Government were good enough to say they would answer on the Motion of Adjournment, namely: Whether it is true that the hospital ship "Asturias" has been attacked by a torpedo; whether the hospital ship was so painted as to be perfectly clearly a hospital ship, and that there was no opportunity for any mistake in the matter; and whether, if these two questions are answered in the affirmative, the Government will consider seriously whether this very gross violation of the laws and customs of civilised warfare should not be brought to the attention of neutral powers?


We received a message advising us that a submarine, with conning towers showing, fired a torpedo at the "Asturias" at five o'clock in the afternoon of the first. Happily, it missed her. She was painted white, with a green band, and red crosses, which were illuminated. I understand she was notified as a hospital ship to the belligerents by the War Office, in accordance with the Convention signed at The Hague on 18th October, 1907. Among those Conventions was a Convention for the adaptation of the principles of the Geneva Convention to maritime war"— Those who concluded it were animated alike by the desire to diminish, as far as depends on them, the inevitable evils of war; and Wishing with this object to adapt to maritime war the principles of the Geneva Convention of the 6th July, 1906; Have resolved to conclude a Convention for the purpose of revising the Convention of the 29th July, 1899, relative to this question, and have appointed as their plenipotentiaries, that is to say"— Then follow the names of the plenipotentiaries, who, after having deposited their full powers, found to be in good and due form, have agreed upon the following provisions"— I should like to read the first article. It is interesting to note that in the list of names of those who are so animated the first name I read is His Majesty the German Emperor, King of Prussia. Article 1 reads as follows:— Military hospital ships, that is to say, ships constructed or adapted by States for the particular and sole purpose of aiding the sick, wounded, and shipwrecked, the names of which have been communicated to the belligerent Powers at the commencement or during the course of hostilities, and in any case before they are employed, shall be respected and may not be captured while hostilities last. Such ships, moreover, are not on the same footing as warships as regards their stay in a neutral port. With regard to the point as to representation made by the Noble Lord, I will of course notify his suggestion to the Foreign Office. But this much is certain, that the civilised world will need no representation of ours to enhance its sense of horror at this wanton outrage.

Sir J. D. REES

As the Resolution which has just been passed curtails the opportunities of private Members for bringing forward matters in which their constituents are concerned, I would ask the indulgence of the House for a few moments while I refer to one or two matters in which my own Constituency is interested. I see the Under-Secretary of State for War is here, and as one cannot expect Ministers in these times to remain longer than is necessary, I would begin by asking him one or two questions. In the first place it is a matter of some doubt, and there are others besides myself who would like to know, why cotton, which is an indispensable ingredient in modern explosives, is not included in the list of contraband of war? It is quite true that it has an innocent use, but as it is used for this purpose, and as it goes through under the very eyes of our cruisers, I should like to know, if not now, then on some future occasion when the right hon. Gentleman can deal with it, why it continues to go to Germany through neutral countries by circuitous routes and absolutely in front of our own cruisers? I would also urge upon the right hon. Gentleman another matter in which in my Constituency, at any rate, the public are very closely interested—that is the question of the representation made by the Government of the United States of America regarding the right of search at sea. There is a general feeling in all quarters, in chambers of commerce and among men of business, and I have no doubt elsewhere, that the answer made to that representation is an extremely satisfactory one. It gave, I believe, general satisfaction, but there is a fear that the rider contained in the dispatch to the effect that further representations would be made upon details may possibly give an opportunity for some weakening by the Government upon the point on which the utmost firmness should be maintained. Any single action by which anything is given away as regarding rights at sea has told to the detriment of this country. I need not remind the right hon. Gentleman of what mischief would have been done had the Declaration of London gone through the House and become law before the War began.

6.0 P.M.

There is one more matter which affects the right hon. Gentleman. I am not going to refer to the amount of information which is given to the public with regard to the War in general—which is often the subject of criticism—I want to ask him for information solely with regard to the warlike operations in East and West Africa and Mesopotamia, not because Mesopotamia contains the Garden of Eden, where an engagement took place, not because it was once the granary of the world, but because it is mow the scene of operations of the utmost importance, which the right hon. Gentleman will recognise when he remembers that the Baghdad Railway is to pass that way, a matter which has been the subject of so many intrigues on the part of the German Government before the War actually broke out. No information is given, so far as I know, in any quarter concerning the operations in these three very important theatres of the War—very important for different reasons to different; classes of individuals—apart from those who desire to have that general information which, to some extent, is published daily, but which is wanting in regard to these particular operations. There is a comparatively small matter, but one which excites a good deal of interest and concerns the right hon. Gentleman's Department. There are at present in the course of training in this country civil battalions like the City of London National Guard, for instance. The members of these corps are extremely anxious to qualify themselves as far as possible for military duty if they should be wanted, and at any rate their efforts are all in the right direction and tend towards that spectacle of a nation with its manhood in arms which I, at any rate, hope will be one of the results of this struggle into which we have been precipitated. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a proposal to deal with them and put them upon a totally different footing from other people wearing uniform, and to have a brassard, would be very unacceptable to the members of these regiments, and may I urge upon his consideration that so far as possible the very simple and unadorned uniform which, no doubt, will be granted to them should be in character like that worn by the Regular and Territorial forces.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Tennant)

For a Volunteer force?

Sir J. D. REES

I instanced the City of London National Guard. The right hon. Gentleman will know from that to what class of corps I refer. There is a matter upon which I have never been able to get any information. I have been repeatedly asked myself, and if the right hon. Gentleman can answer me on behalf of his colleagues of the Admiralty I will ask him whether on one occasion an opportunity will be taken by the Government to explain that which no doubt admits an explanation, namely, how it is that great battleships are apparently not preceded, in making their way across the waters, by some craft the loss of which is less vital and less serious than the loss of a big battleship or battle cruiser? I would not have asked this—there may be an elementary answer—except that I have myself been repeatedly asked, and I have worried every naval officer I have met with the question without having yet obtained a satisfactory reply.

With reference to the Board of Trade. Will the representative of that Department explain at some future opportunity how it is that the export of cocoa to Germany was not stopped until that country had an opportunity of amassing all the stores that it wanted? The export of tea to Germany was stopped, and then the prohibition was removed. I approve of the removal, because men cannot fight on tea—at least, not on tea alone. There are very few people who would care to try to do it. There was an injury to British trade without, as far as I can see, any corresponding harm to the efficiency of the German forces. But in regard to cocoa, there was the case of a most sustaining stimulant upon which I believe soldiers actually could live for days together or, at any rate, could prolong their strength over longish periods, until they came within reach of their base, or whatever arrangements are made for the supply of food. There is the most singular discrepancy in the attitude of the Government in regard to this matter. I have never yet got any explanation. Once again I mention it because I think it is unsatisfactory; and although I am not saying it for myself, there is a disposition on the part of people engaged in these trades to think that the Government's proceedings have not been in this respect so well considered and so successful as I heartily admit most of the measures taken for the conduct of the War in that and other Departments have been.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will not think I am descending to matters unworthy of the attention of the House of Commons if I ask him about the provision of machine knitting needles, an exceedingly important matter in Nottingham and also an important matter to the War Department as well as to the Board of Trade, because at present, owing to the absence of this particular implement, however small and simple it may be, there is, I believe, considerable difficulty in supplying Government contracts for hosiery as well as for other purposes. I think representations have been made to the Board of Trade. Since it is possible that the very small and inadequate supplies which now come are not properly distributed and there maybe a surplusage in one place, while there is a deficiency in another, will the Board of Trade endeavour to obtain control of all that are imported into the country, pool them and distribute them so that, as far as possible, the utmost use may be made of them, and not a single needle may be wasted? I should like to acknowledge the care which has been taken by the Board of Trade in this matter. Already, I believe, they have reduced the time of transit occupied by forwarding parcels. I am not complaining at all, but I wish to represent that it is a matter of very considerable importance in the Midlands as well as a matter of importance to the Government, and to ask them if they will give the matter their attention.

Another matter for the Board of Trade. I think the Bradford Dyers and Calico Printers' Association have approached them with respect to the stock of dyes on board interned ships. Have they been able to realise these stocks of dyes which are so much wanted, not only at Bradford, but at Nottingham and other places where these trades are practised? It is a matter of very considerable importance, and I sincerely hope that the Board of Trade will give it their complete attention. I will not make any remark except in passing upon their scheme of establishing the aniline dye industry in this country, although one who has seen the slow, steady and calculated ruin by Germany of the natural indigo trade of India must naturally feel very strongly about it, but I beg the Board of Trade to take their courage in both hands, and having thrown overboard, as they have, a lot of the lumber of party politics and shibboleths, why will they not resort to a measure of Protection which would enable capitalists to come in, as they would readily come in? No one will twit the Board of Trade or the Government with forsaking the conventional principles of Free Trade, for this is really a good thing to do, and I hope they will try to do it. As I am on the subject of trade, I will ask the hon. Gentleman if his Department will interest itself in dealing with the question which was raised in the case of the Continental Tyres and Rubber Company v. The Daimler Company. The dissenting judgment of Lord Justice Buckley showed how unsatisfactory is our present law under which an alien enemy, in the guise of a mere fictitious company, may obtain the aid of our Courts against the subjects of the Crown when it is a company that is legally British but actually foreign. The right hon. Gentleman must be fully familiar with the dissenting judgment of Lord Justice Buckley, I presume.


indicated dissent.

Sir J. D. REES

I am astonished. It is a matter of the very utmost importance, and I beg the hon. Gentleman to repair that omission by reading the judgment of the Court, and more particularly the judgment of the dissenting judge, at the earliest possible moment. I can assure him there are very few cases which have exercised more interest in the City of London and in commercial circles generally than this, and I am sure it is only the pressure of the work of his department, which is extremely well done, which accounts for his not being as familiar with the case as I am. I have only one more question to ask. I do not like to sit down without calling attention to the extremely drastic orders which are now being passed under the Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act. I realise that any inconvenience that is necessary for the safety and welfare of the troops must be borne, but is there any appeal against the order of the competent military authority acting, I presume, under the authority of a general officer commanding a division, in regard to early closing? I will read an order which seems to me an extremely drastic one:— I, being a competent military authority, do hereby order that all licensed premises shall be closed for the sale of intoxicating liquors, or the consumption of intoxicating liquors by any person at 9 p.m., and shall also be closed as respects members of His Majesty's Forces except between 12 and 1, and 6 and 9. I believe the latter part of this proved such a draconian regulation that the authorities themselves had to alter it when it was discovered that a high military officer wanting to have food—I do not suppose a high military officer would want a drink—was unable to get it under this drastic regulation passed by his own subordinate. About eight to ten is the time when people who work all day want their drink and have to get it. It entails getting their supper beer in what might be called, so to speak, the early afternoon. I think a regulation of this sort, not in a garrison town, but in a town with a civil population, making publicans close at nine, is extraordinarily drastic, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider it and consider the case of the licence-holders. If their houses are shut during the time when they mostly sell liquor and employ people to sell liquor, what compensation are they going to have? Does not the Government fear lest it should appear to the public that the requirements of the present situation are apt to be made use of by some of their supporters to enforce regulations against a trade which is not conspicuous for its support of the Government and their friends? I am surprised that that does not strike them, and I would urge them to have a very tender care for this trade.

I will hand this paper over to the right hon. Gentleman and ask him to consider whether something should not be done to mitigate the severity of this order, and to impose upon those who exercise these powers very properly at the present time, a sense of temperance which is not always a characteristic of the advocates of temperance—I mean the use of the authority which is placed in their hands. I am speaking for a large and poor constituency who will be glad to hear how the Government have in hand the question of food prices, and how very strongly they are of opinion that the matter should be considered and that if possible, as no doubt it will be possible, some method should be devised for ensuring to the poor of the country a continuance of the blessings of cheap food which are in no way bound up with what is known as the system of Free Trade.


The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down raised three or four points. The first I think was the question of the treatment by the Government of cotton. I think the House will realise that this question is not quite so simple as it might appear to be on the surface, and particularly from the observations made by the hon. Gentleman. I think I may go so far as to say that the requirements of this country have been adequately safeguarded as far as one can see at present. The authorities believe that Germany had a sufficient supply of cotton for their warlike departments and that, therefore, the placing of cotton on the list of contraband goods was not necessary from the belligerent point of view. Other interests are involved which I am sure will occur to the mind of the House, and which, I am sure, it would not be desirable for me to touch upon at the moment. The hon. Gentleman went on to complain, if I may use the word, that the information supplied in regard to certain actions which have taken place in the Near East—Mesopotamia and other places—was insufficient. Upon the question of information I should like to say quite definitely that all the information which the Secretary of State for War and the Cabinet consider desirable to be published is published, and it would not be easy to convince the Secretary of State that further information should be given to the world which might, in his opinion, be advantageous to the enemy.

Sir J. D. REES

These are rather remote areas.


They are remote areas, but they are areas in whch hostile operations are being conducted against us. I do not think I need say more than that. I am sure we shall not be slow in giving information on this subject where we consider that that information is unlikely to prove of any advantage to the enemy. With regard to a uniform for the Volunteer corps which are springing up in very large numbers all over the United Kingdom, I am sure the House realises that we have had quite sufficient difficulty in providing clothing for the Regular troops who have enlisted to go and fight for the King in the Regular Forces of the Crown. As is well known, we have not been able to overtake that supply as rapidly as might have been hoped for at one time, but we are overcoming that difficulty. Therefore, this is not the moment at which to come to the War Office and ask us to supply clothing outside the Regular Forces of the Crown before we are able to clothe those who have enlisted in the Regular Forces.

Sir J. D. REES

I was rather thinking of the case where the Volunteers wish to supply the uniform themselves, and the War Office sanction.


Many economic questions arise on that suggestion. The output of clothing in the country is a limited quantity. Directly we begin to have large demands for new bodies, reaching in some cases to hundreds of thousands, you at once put the price up against the Crown—against the buyers, for the War Office—and I think everyone must agree that that is a very undesirable end to achieve. The question of clothing for Volunteers must I think remain in abeyance until the whole of the Forces which are now being formed for the new Army have been provided for. The hon. Gentleman went on to ask questions about great battleships. I am sure he will excuse me from answering the questions, but I may say that I will make representations to my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty on that subject. The hon. Member asked whether there was any appeal against the decisions come to under the Defence of the Realm Regulations. I think the answer to that is in the negative. There is no appeal, except the appeal which the hon. Gentleman made. He made an eloquent appeal, which almost brought tears to my eyes, when he referred to the supper beer being obtained before 9 p.m. Is that really so great a hardship as the hon. Gentleman tried to make out?

I appeal to hon. Members in all parts of the House in regard to what the hon. Member regards as drastic treatment. I can assure him that the owners of hotels and public-houses have let me know that it has been a great boon and advantage to them to be able to get their business through a little earlier, and to have a little more time to themselves. The business of keeping public-houses and hotels is very arduous. The men who are engaged in that occupation have a great deal of work to do in serving urban districts, and I can only repeat that all the information which has come to me has gone to show that these new regulations, at any rate in London, have been of great advantage to the men who have made representations to me. Where the military authority decides in the interests of those who are recruits under his charge that it is desirable that public-houses should be closed at an early hour, I think the House of Commons ought to be the last to interfere with any regulation of that kind, which is very likely to be of very great benefit not only to the troops whom we have to consider, but to the whole of the inhabitants of the district.


The hon. Member (Sir J. D. Rees) has addressed some questions to me as representing the Board of Trade. He raised the question of what he considered the divergent policy pursued in regard to the export of cocoa and the export of tea. The causation of the difference in the two cases is quite simple. As regards tea, there was reason to fear a shortage of our own supply. That was the first and primary motive for interfering. The shortage was soon made up as the result of special circumstances, and there is no fear of a continuous shortage of tea. Tea is not a matter of great advantage to an Army. It was considered that the matter of freeing trade far more than counterbalanced the disadvantage of supplying the enemy with tea. As regards cocoa, there was no consideration of shortage on our part at all, and, in that case, the intervention which came later was resorted to on general grounds of preventing a certain kind of food supply reaching the enemy.

Sir J. D. REES

What was the date?


There was no reason to fear a shortage on our own part. The hon. Member perhaps realises that all these interferences with trade cause inconvenience and loss to our own traders, and it is only where good reason seems to arise that we have intervened at all. As soon as tea seemed to be safe the prohibition of the export was taken off. The prohibition of the export of cocoa was also taken off as regards the bean. It is only cocoa powder on which there is any prohibition, and, inasmuch as the Dutch Government had prohibited the export of the bean from their own country, it was considered that there was no great risk of the bean reaching Germany. There is still a veto on the export of the powder, on the ground that this is understood to be an element in the food supply of the enemy. I am not to be supposed to endorse the hon. Member's high estimate of the value of cocoa powder.

With regard to the supply of knitting-needles, I admit that that is a very important matter. It did come before the Board of Trade, and I understand that there was a scheme proposed for consideration as to the supply of the needles required. The matter is under the special control of the War Office, inasmuch as that is the great State Department interested in the supply of knitting-needles, the question essentially having reference to the needles required for making Army uniforms, and so on. It is important that the necessary needles should be supplied, and, therefore, the War Office must have the first call. The hon. Member's suggestion that the Board of Trade should pool the supply and distribute it, is overridden by the over-mastering need of the War Office to secure supplies. From information received recently, it appears that a scheme which was proposed has fallen through, but I understand that the War Office is closely and continuously attending to the matter, and I have no doubts whatever that the supply is quite as well looked after by the War Office as is possible in the circumstances. If I get further information, I shall communicate it to the hon. Member. The hon. Member also raised the question of the dyes on interned ships. I presume he refers to dyes not consigned to British owners. As to dyes which are not consigned to British owners, I do not see any way out of it, but as to dyes—

Sir J. D. REES

Are they to remain on the ships until they are ruined?


I am not aware at present what can be done as to using them. Something may be done by negotiation, but it all depends who the owners are. The hon. Member made some observations which seemed to involve the question of Free Trade and Protection, and to pursue that subject would be an infraction of the rule laid down this Session to exclude controversial topics. I must therefore ask the hon. Member to excuse me from accepting his tempting invitation to deal with that matter. He asked me to make myself master of a decision of the Court in regard to tyres. I will endeavour, as soon as my duties admit, to fulfil his behest, and if he has made the request with the view to the production of a measure by the Board of Trade I hope he will understand that he should address the question on this subject to my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General.


I think that the hon. Gentleman will find some difficulty in reconciling the explanation which he gives with regard to the export of tea with that which the President of the Board of Trade made when I had the honour of raising the matter last Session. Then it was not a question of shortage in the Home markets, but it was said that no tea was going to the enemy. When I was able to prove by invoices that it was going direct to Germany the Board of Trade reconsidered the matter and altered their whole attitude. As to the question of shortage in the Home market, if it is to govern their whole policy the Government have no case at all. The price of tea is 2d. a lb. dearer to the consumer because the tea was allowed to go to Germany. In reference to cocoa the whole question was raised, and I was told that there was no need for what was demanded, as the article was not going to the enemy. Many weeks afterwards, when we got the Board of Trade Returns up to the 31st of December, they admitted that what we had said in the House of Commons was right, and then put an embargo on cocoa, after Germany had got millions of pounds in—more than they had ever got before. The hon. Member is right in asking if it is right to stop cocoa six months afterwards, why did they not stop it at the beginning? The evidence is complete that it got into Germany and got to the enemy. And it is not only a question of going into Germany, but of making the people at home pay for the privilege of having it sent to Germany. Cocoa is 10s. a cwt. more and tea is 2d. a lb. more because it was allowed to go to Germany. It is time for the Board of Trade to apply their thinking powers, and to pay a little more heed to our own people and less to alien countries.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Thirty-eight minutes before Seven o'clock.