HC Deb 30 June 1915 vol 72 cc1895-908

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 3rd February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


Before the House adjourns, I wish to attempt to elucidate the reply given this afternoon by the Home Secretary to a question put by the hon. Member for the Mansfield Division (Sir A. Markham). In that reply the right hon. Gentleman stated:— As regards the positions occupied in the Dardanelles, the naval and military authorities supply such information as they think may be published, and the Press Bureau publish it as supplied. What I desire to have made clear is that when the right hon. Gentleman referred to the naval and military authorities he meant the authorities in London. I do not think he would suggest for a moment that he had in mind any other than the home authorities. He would not go so far as to say that all the dispatches that have been received in London have been given to the public. I do not complain in the slightest degree of the action of the Press Bureau. The Press Bureau is a distributing centre which has power to give to the public only what is authorised by the different Departments concerned. Therefore, if any complaint can be made as to the withholding of important news, it is to the Departments and not to the Press Bureau that we must address ourselves. If the Government in its wisdom can plead that the withholding of any information from any centre of operations is in the public interest, I am sure that no Member of this House would for a moment make any complaint. For good or for evil we must abide by the judgment of the Government of the day as to what is or is not in the public interest. But I would ask the Government whether they could not give us more frequent announcements as to the progress of operations in the Dardanelles. Happily we have a dispatch to-night which is, I think, of a more encouraging character. But there are long intervals between the dispatches, and I would ask whether we might not have periodical announcements, not so frequent perhaps as we have from the Continent, but, at any rate, much more often than we have had them up to the present.

I would further ask the Home Secretary whether he could give us an assurance that at no distant date we might have a Ministerial statement as to the progress of these operations up to the present. I do not suggest a Debate of a detailed character. I am not sure that that would serve any great public interest. It must be remembered that up to the present the House has really had no communication from the Government in regard to these particular operations. We are now getting men back from the scene of warfare, and we are getting information of a very detailed character from the German Press. It is, perhaps, not unreasonable to ask that any information that can be given to the House consistent with the public interest, might be given at an early date. There are many questions which one might be disposed to ask in connection with, these particular operations. Some of us might like to know why we gave the enemy two months' notice before we landed a single soldier, and thus enabled them to make their fortifications and to prepare for any attack that was to be made. But, for the moment, I will content myself with asking the Government whether they will not promise—I do not say nexk week, but at no distant date—to give the public more information than they have had up to the present. It is the first time we have made such a request to the new Government. We remember that the late Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Bonar Law) pressed upon the late Government that they would be wise to take the nation more fully into-their confidence. We remember that the Secretary of State for India (Mr. Chamberlain) said that you could not lead this country in blinkers. We are waiting with interest to see whether there is going to be any change in policy as to the amount of confidence shown in the way of information relating to these important matters. The more the Government take the country into their confidence the greater will be the confidence they will receive from the country, and the more fully will the people fulfil every demand that may be made upon them by the Government.


I desire to associate myself with the observations of my right hon. Friend. In reply to the question which I placed on the Paper, the Home Secretary said:— German wireless messages are censored only if they contain wholly false information intended to mislead neutrals and others. What I asked was whether it was the policy of the Government to refuse to allow this country to have information which was well known to the enemy. This country has given all that it has; the people have given their own flesh and blood; they are paying for this War; and yet we are asked to place in the hands of the Government a discretion to withhold from the public information of which the enemy are already aware. I say that this House did not grant to the Government powers of censorship which gave them a right to act in this way. The late Lord Chancellor, when the Defence of the Realm Act was before Parliament, stated:— There is no idea on the part of His Majesty's Government to keep back news from the public because it may be disagreeable to disclose it. That is a policy that has never been pursued. That was what the ex-Lord Chancellor said. I ask whether that is the policy being pursued to-day? We are waging—I believe none of us know exactly how many wars we are waging—we are even kept in ignorance of that fact—but we are in point of fact waging nine wars, and I think the same policy of concealment has been carried through in respect of all these wars. My right hon. Friend stated that the Leader of the late Opposition, sitting on the benches opposite, said in very emphatic language that in the opinion of the party opposite, and in his own opinion, the country was entitled to have information. Still this policy of concealment continues. At the commencement of the War I made an attack on the present Lord Chancellor—then Solicitor-General—because I thought he had improperly censored the news which the public ought to have. It has since come to my knowledge that the two Censors—the late and the present Solicitor-General—have been fighting throughout this War to get information for the public. One man, and only one man, refuses the public this information, and that man is Lord Kitchener.

Is it right that the public of this country should be treated as Dervishes, as we are at the present time? On what ground are we denied information respecting the Dardanelles which is perfectly well known to the enemy? How can my right hon. Friend get up and in reply state that we are not entitled to know what lines we are holding in the Dardanelles when that information, to within a yard, is well known to the enemy? We are entitled to have the dispatches of Sir Ian Hamilton. Not a word of these dispatches have been given to us. It is only to-day—I do not know whether or not it is a curious coincidence—there was a question on the Notice Paper about the Dardanelles, asking for more information than we have had in the past. The newspapers of this country very properly sent out correspondents to Turkey and the East to obtain information. Large sums of money have been spent. When the correspondents get out there all the information they are allowed by the Government to send back is reports as to the state of the weather. Those of us who have relatives fighting in the Dardanelles—and I had a brother-in-law missing last week—have no more information than any man in the street as to what is the position in the Dardanelles, or where we stand.

When the country are making these sacrifices that we are making surely it is entitled to know how these wars are being conducted! I ask my right hon. Friend to state in precise language what are the military reasons which prevent this information being given to the House. If, as my right hon. Friend has said, there are any military reasons why we should not have this information, we are all willing to acquiesce in a policy of silence. But how comes it about that in every one of the nine wars the same policy of concealment continues? We are living in times of great national stress and danger, and even now the people of this country are wholly ignorant of the state of affairs, and of the seriousness of the situation. We hear talk of strikes and of men demanding—rightly or wrongly—increased wages. There never would be these industrial struggles if the Government had taken the country into their confidence and had told the country the seriousness of the situation. Instead of that, the powers-that-be for the time being chose to treat the country in a manner which no Government could justify, or could be justified by circumstances.

We have an hon. Member below me (Mr. Wedgwood) who, having been wounded in the Dardanelles, is now back in the House. We all rejoice to see him. He will probably not join in this Debate to-night for the reason that he has been taking part in the operations at the Dardanelles. But people are, like my hon. Friend, constantly returning from the Dardanelles now, and we who are in Parliament have an opportunity of gaining far more information than the average citizen of this country. We know more or less what is going on there. The average citizen who has given up his children to the War is kept in ignorance of what is going on, and what I contend is that this is a great detriment to the conduct of the War. I am not making any personal attack upon my right hon. Friend. I know it is entirely due to Lord Kitchener that this policy of concealing all information from the public has been persisted in since the beginning of the War. The Press censors are not to blame. The Press censors have fought for the information, and the War Office have refused. Instead of Lord Kitchener devoting his great abilities—and we all admit his great abilities as a recruiting agent—instead of him devoting his abilities to censoring news from the nine seats of war, let him attend to the question of equipping the New Armies and getting them ready, and he would be filling a useful sphere of influence. He should let this matter of news be placed in the hands of some outside party who is not connected with or under the administration of the War Office.

I have a question on the Notice Paper for Monday next to ask the Colonial Secretary whether he is going to persist in the policy which Lord Kitchener and the late Government have pursued. The late Government, acting on the advice of Lord Kitchener, have prevented the public having that information; and I wish to know whether in these nine wars the Colonial Secretary, the late Leader of the Opposition, is going to persist in the same policy. Let the Government come down to the House and say definitely that in the opinion of their military experts information cannot be given without serious injury to those who are entitled to the information. To-day, for the first time, we have had mention of the Border Regiment. I am proud to see it mentioned. I am proud that the Border Regiment made a gallant charge on Monday. What has Lord Kitchener done? He has killed all the county spirit. The object of War Ministers of this country for years past has been to create county regiments and county units. All that has been killed by the suppression of the names of the regiments. Even when prisoners have been taken on the Western Front the names of the regiments have not been given. In the Dardanelles, for the first time, we have been given the name of the Border Regiment. I hope that practice will continue and will be enlarged upon. This gallant regiment, which has fought in the Dardanelles under extraordinarily terrible conditions, has done honour to itself, and it is due to it that we should know the name, and that the country should know the gallant services they have rendered.

It is a fact that the names of regiment? and divisions are actually published in the German papers. Before they leave this country to go to the Dardanelles statements appear in the German papers giving the names of the regiments and the division, and saying, "We are ready for them!" Knowing as we do that the Germans have a spy system which they have carried out in this country to a degree which we all recognise is remarkable, why cannot we even be allowed to be told the names of the regiments when the German Government have the information from the spy department? My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will not deny that the German Government have got a most complete spy system. No Government probably ever had in a friendly country so complete a spy system. They have the names of the regiments, the brigades, and the divisions. Yet in all areas of these nine wars these things are suppressed, and we are not allowed to have information. The question that my right hon. Friend has brought before the attention of the House is one that is really worth the consideration of the Government. This is a question on which the country feels deeply. Having made all the sacrifices it has, it feels entitled to have the truth told. We in this House kept our mouths shut for month after month, and this policy of concealment had the inevitable result of muddle and chaos in every Department. We are not going to shut our mouths in the future. We have only one object, and that is to carry this War to a successful conclusion, and in carrying that War to a successful conclusion, having regard to all the circumstances, of all these nine wars, we say the time has come, and it is the duty of the Government to say to Lord Kitchener that the people of this country are not to be treated as fellaheen, and to have the truth laid before them unless there are military reasons why it should not be.


I think we shall all recognise that the question which has been raised on the Motion for the Adjournment is one of importance and gravity which, as the hon. Member who has just sat down says, deeply concerns and deeply interests the whole population of these islands, and everyone who is joining in the sacrifice involved in waging a great war. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and and hon. Friend for having spoken in moderation and in fairness as regards the part which the Press Bureau plays in these matters. I do not desire in the least, in answering what they have said, to shelter myself behind some sub-division of work between one office and another, because, of course, a matter of this sort is important in whatever Department it may happen to fall, and an answer is never complete or satisfactory which merely depends on pointing out that the duty rests with another Department. At the same time, it is a great point gained—and I am sincerely grateful to the hon. Baronet for making it so plain if the public will clearly understand that the Press Bureau in this matter is not the author of news, or the provider of news. It is a machinery which works for the purpose of informing those about to publish news what portion of their news, in the view of the naval or military authorities, ought in the public interest not to be published. It is, I am sure, a very ungracious and ungrateful task. I do not suppose anybody is envious of the work of the Press Bureau. It is discharged day and night with the very greatest diligence and the greatest care, and I am sure anyone who really understands what that task is cannot but feel we owe a great deal to the public spirit and devotion of those who conduct that office. That being so, the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Baronet say, "Yes, but we still feel that the news which is permitted to be published is less than the public interest would justify and indeed would require."

It is difficult, of course, to judge of this matter without very expert knowledge. I am willing to confess that there have been occasions where I have thought that a particular piece of news might be published, and yet, when I have inquired, I have been completely convinced by the explanation offered to me by those who judge these matters with the skill of experts. I do not think we ought to assume that, because at first sight a bit of news looks innocent there may not be extremely good reasons for a contrary opinion. I will give one simple instance. Some short time ago there was a letter from the front which contained what appeared to be a perfectly innocent piece of information as to a number of soldiers who had been maintaining a position for some days and were resting in a particular building. It happened to be a rather prominent building on the landscape, and the man wrote home to his relatives describing the building in some detail. It so happened that that particular description was published in the paper, owing, I suppose, to the fact that its significance was overlooked. Within 24 hours that building was smashed to pieces by German shells, which undoubtedly had been directed at the building because of the publication in the newspaper. Really, it is a matter of the greatest importance that we should with care, industry, and diligence apply the rules, even though in some cases there may be astonishment that certain pieces of news are omitted.

I do not know whether the application of the rules will be always thought to be right, but to my mind there are only two rules in this business, and I say this not merely on behalf of the Press Bureau, or the Home Office, but it is the view, I know, which the whole Government entertain. The first rule is that you must suppress the publication of any piece of news which, if published, could by any reasonable calculation assist the enemy; and the second rule is that, having fearlessly applied that first rule, you must publish everything else without regard to whether the news is pleasant or unpleasant, and without regard to the question of whether it encourages us or discourages us, for the real truth is that if the news is good it encourages us and we are happy to receive it, and if the news is bad it encourages us because we are determined to reverse it To my mind those are the principles on which any Press Bureau should be run. Let me come to the case of the Dardanelles.


Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me any single case where the War Office ever published any bad news since the War began?


Yes, but let me just come to the particular case of the Dardanelles. I am very glad to think there is some recent news from the Dardanelles, and I am sure the whole House and country will be glad in that there is cause for satisfaction. But this particular question has been raised to-night because the hon. Baronet who spoke last put a question to me earlier in the day and thought that my answer did not quite cover the ground. I think, if I may say so, it did. There is one point I would like to make quite plain. My hon. Friend asked a question as to how far what he called I think, "official German news" was censored in this country. The news which comes to this country from what is called official German sources comes by wireless telegraphy. It is wireless news. It is picked up as a matter of fact by our own wireless establishment, and is available for publication unless there is a good public reason against it being published. As a general rule that news is published without any censoring or challenge at all, but there are cases when it is not, and I may tell the House why. It is a regular practice of the German Government to include in their wireless news from time to time statements which, as we know, are wholly unfounded about ourselves, about our proceedings, about the attitude of this country towards the War, and they include them in their wireless news in the hope that we will publish them in this country, and when we publish them in this country they are put in the German papers as news which has already been printed in the British papers. By that means they hope to induce a state of opinion unfavourable to ourselves, more particularly in neutral countries.

I will give an example. There was stopped the other day, and I think quite rightly stopped, a piece of news which purported to be official German news by wireless which was in effect that the whole of our scheme for the raising of money for the new Loan was a complete and utter failure, that no one would have anything to do with it, and that it betokened the breakdown of the whole British financial system. This we were asked to publish in our papers, not because it would do us any harm, but because the enemy could say such-and-such a London paper had published the news and then set it out in their papers. It does surprise me that hon. Friends of mine who are so rightly zealous in following up cases of suspicion in connection with spies should not see there is exactly the same kind of danger unless a proper censorship is exercised over that kind of news. As regards the Dardanelles itself, the House will perhaps observe—or those, at any rate, who have read the evening papers will observe—that only to-day a very long and very important piece of news has been published from General Ian Hamilton at the Dardanelles. I cannot pay the hon. Baronet the compliment of saying it was published because of the questions he put down. It is one of those happy coincidences on which he is to be congratulated. The news is news of events which happened only two or three days ago. The dispatch itself was sent off, I think, only two or three days ago. It was placed before the confidential advisers of His Majesty only this morning. It was issued to the Press Bureau at 5.20 this afternoon, and it is now published in the evening papers. It is true that the dispatch contains some details which are highly gratifying to us, because it contains the names of some of the regiments.


For the first time.


I think it must be satisfactory to everybody to see how in details the story is told. How, at a particular hour and at a particular place, the Royal Fusiliers played a gallant part and the Royal Scots made a fine attack. Let me read two or three sentences to show that all the details in this case which can possibly be given are given. Sir Ian Hamilton says:— During the afternoon the trenches, a small portion of which remained uncaptured on the right, were attacked, but the enemy held on stubbornly supported by machine guns and artillery, and the attacks did not succeed. During the night the enemy counter-attacked the furthest trenches gained, but was repulsed with heavy loss. A party of Turks who penetrated from the flank between two lines of captured trenches was subjected to machine-gun fire at daybreak, suffered very heavily, and the survivors surrended. Except for a small portion of trench already mentioned, which is still held by the enemy, all and more than was hoped for from operations has been gained. On the extreme left the line has been pushed forward to a specially strong point well beyond the limit of the advance originally contemplated. All engaged did well, but certainly the chief factor in the success was the splendid attack carried out by the 29th Division, whose conduct on this, as on previous occasions, was beyond praise. Such a record is not only deeply gratifying to the House and the country, but it is in itself an indication of the great advantage which may be secured by publishing news where possible in some detail. I feel quite confident that my Noble Friend the Secretary of State for War is as conscious of that as anybody, and the only thing I wish to remind the hon. Member for Mansfield of is this: The conditions at the Dardanelles and on the long line in Flanders are not in all respects the same. There cannot be extensive lateral movements in the Gallipoli Peninsula, and once the enemy know what troops are opposing them it cannot be a matter of advantage to us, as a general rule, I apprehend, to conceal what particular unit it is which has taken part in any particular operations. I am a mere layman in these matters, but I am assured by those who spend their lives in studying the problems of modern warfare that other considerations may well apply when you are dealing with a long line, and when it is of the first importance that you should do nothing, and, above all, do nothing officially, which will enable the foe to know exactly what are the troops and their number and composition facing them at a particular moment and a particular time. That is not for me to decide, and I say with great respect, it is not for the House of Commons to decide. If we are not prepared to put confidence in our own generals and military advisers on matters of that sort we are not fit to wage war. Subject to that, which is a technical matter, I say with all my heart, the more news and the more details you give, the more you will be able to stir public imagination, and reward the anxiety of hearts at home by stating what are the units that are engaged in a particular gallant enterprise. That is perfectly obvious.

Two other points were mentioned. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kirkcaldy (Sir H. Dalziel) pointed out, and he did so quite accurately, that up to the present news as to the operations in the Dardanelles had been published only through the newspapers, either news which had come from the military authorities or news coming from special correspondents whose dispatches have to be censored by the military authorities. My right hon. Friend says he hopes the time would soon come when a statement might be made with the authority of the Government as to the course of operations in that part of the field of war. I am very glad to be in a position to make a statement to the House on this point, and I am authorised by the Prime Minister to say that as soon as the national interest permits a suitable occasion will be taken for making a statement as to the operations of the Allies in the Dardanelles. I am very glad to be able to inform the House that a dispatch from Sir Ian Hamilton—when matters so anxious as these are now taking place it is a matter of regret that written dispatches cannot always be forthcoming—has been received and arrangements for its publication are in an advanced state and will shortly appear in the London Press. I am glad to be able to deal to that extent with the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman. He put one other point. He wanted to know what was meant when it is said the military authorities had to censor the unofficial reports from the Dandanelles. I understand that the plan is this: I am told that there are more British and Colonial correspondents at the Dardanelles than there are in Flanders, and of course they write their accounts and reports there on the spot. It is quite inevitable that they should be censored within limits on the spot. I do not believe that in any field of war any other course would ever be followed, but the dispatches having been in that way reviewed are sent by the quickest possible route to this country, and they are instantly handed out to the newspapers concerned, and it is not the practice of the Press Bureau to censor those newspaper accounts as they reach this country further than they have been already censored.


Does the right hon. Gentleman suggest that dispatches from authoriscd correspondents at the front have not been censored in London?


I know the right hon. Gentleman speaks with knowledge on this question, but I am telling him what I think is right when I say that as regards the special correspondents in the Dardanelles their reports, as I understand it, are censored by the military authorities at the Dardanelles, but I will make inquiries and let the right hon. Gentleman know. I am quite certain of this: I do not think that when they get here they are censored. No doubt they are censored by the military authorities here if there is anything that escapes notice, but I am quite certain that they are not censored inside the Press Bureau here. I am informed that they rely entirely on these newspaper correspondents having had their matter suitably censored from a military point of view, and we do not deal with that matter at all in the Press Bureau.

I have done my best to deal with the points which were raised. I would like to assure my two hon. Friends and the House that I do not in the least resent such questions being raised. I sympathise with those who ask whether all that can be done is being done, and I realise to the full that the best way in which we can maintain the spirit of our people in connection with these great events, and it may be these great sacrifices, to earn victory is to give them as far as ever we can information of what their own friends, their own brothers, their own sons, and their own fathers are doing. Of course, at the same time, we I must ask the House of Commons and we must ask the country in this matter, as in others, which after all are expert matters, to trust the experts. I refuse to believe that the great authorities who conduct our I military affairs are other than fully alive to the fact that part of the stimulus which can be applied to the community is the stimulus of knowing what is going on at the front. I assure my hon. Friends that as far as I am concerned—and I am speaking in this matter, I am sure, with the authority of the whole of the Government—it will be our constant desire to make those publications as full as we can, keeping out of publication only such matters as expert authority has shown us is calculated to be helpful to the enemy.


I should just like to say that we are indebted to the right hon. Gentleman for his very full and very frank statement.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Thirteen minutes before Nine o'clock.