HC Deb 10 May 1915 vol 71 cc1359-63

I beg to ask the Prime Minister a question of which I have given him private notice, namely: Whether he can give further details with regard to the loss of the "Lusitania"; if he can inform the House at what speed she was proceeding; whether she was standing in to make for the Old Head of Kinsale; whether he is aware that the Old Head of Kinsale is a point of departure for vessels outward bound and a point made by vessels homeward bound; whether there was a patrol in this locality, and, if not, where was the nearest patrol; whether he can assure the House that all points of departure and points made by vessels homeward bound are now adequately patrolled; and whether the Admiralty received the warning sent; to American passengers intending to sail by the "Lusitania" informing them that the "Lusitania" would be sunk?


I also wish to ask a question on the same subject: What provision was made to safeguard the steamship "Lusitania" on her last crossing with passengers and mails inward bound, in view of the fact that the German Ambassador at Washington had issued a public and official notice before her sailing that the vessel would be attacked during her voyage, and that passengers must take the risk of the journey?


I beg, in accordance with private notice, to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty whether he was aware, previous to Friday last, 7th May, that German submarines had for some time past been actively at work off the South Coast of Ireland, in St. George's Channel, and in the Irish Sea; and was he aware that on the previous day, Thursday, two large Liverpool liners, the "Candidate" and "Centurion," outward bound from Liverpool, had been torpedoed and sunk by German submarines in these waters; whether he was aware that the "Lusitania" was expected to arrive at Queenstown about noon on Friday last, and that the German Embassy in Washington and the New York agents of the German steamship lines had publicly announced before the sailing of the "Lusitania" from New York that she would be sunk on the run across; whether he is aware that the Admiralty has provided destroyers or other naval vessels to meet steamers on the South Coast of Ireland which were carrying horses on Government account from the United States and convoy them safely to Liverpool; and whether he can state what arrangements, if any, were made by the Admiralty to protect or convoy the "Lusitania" to Liverpool?

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Mr. Churchill)

I will, as far as I am able, answer these various questions together.

As announced in this morning's newspapers, the Board of Trade have ordered an inquiry into the circumstances attending the lamentable loss of the "Lusitania," and I am glad to say that Lord Mersey will conduct the proceedings, with the assistance of skilled assessors. The inquiry will be opened without any avoidable delay.

In the meanwhile it would be premature to discuss the matter. I should, however, make it plain—first, that in no circumstances will it be possible to make public the naval dispositions for patrolling the approaches to our coast; and, secondly, that the resources at our disposal do not enable us to supply destroyer escort for merchant or passenger ships, more than 200 of which, on the average, arrive or depart safely every day.

With regard to the last sentence in the Noble Lord's question, which I am afraid I have not answered—as to whether the Admiralty received the warning which was published in America prior to the sailing of the "Lusitania" that she would be sunk the answer is that the Admiralty had a general knowledge that these announcements had been made, and from that knowledge, and from the information regarding submarines which we had, we sent warnings to the "Lusitania," and directions as to her course. I think it would not be right for me to go into that matter in detail, as it is to be the subject of inquiry, and it might appear that I was endeavouring to throw blame on the captain of the "Lusitania" in regard to a matter which will be the subject of full investigation. Therefore, I have refrained from going into that question.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether any answer was received to the instruction sent to the captain of the "Lusitania," so as to make sure that he received them?


Both messages were acknowledged, and the second message was acknowledged very shortly before the attack.


The right hon. Gentleman has not answered my question with regard to the convoying of ships carrying horses to Liverpool.


I do not remember the actual cases. We do sometimes attempt, no doubt, to provide escorts for vessels carrying troops, munitions of war, and cargoes vitally needed by the Government. But our principle is that the merchant traffic must look after itself, subject to the general arrangements that are made. There is no reason to show—none whatever—that that principle is not entirely accepted, and shocking exceptions like this ought not to divert the attention of the House, or of the world, from the main fact, that almost the entire seaborne trade of these Islands is being carried on without appreciable loss.


May I ask whether it is within the memory of the right hon. Gentleman that I wrote a letter on the 15th April giving him warnings of the perils that met the "Lusitania," and making certain proposals with regard to avoiding them? May I ask why those warnings were unheeded?


They were heeded.


The Prime Minister gave me the letter of the Noble Lord, and it was carefully studied at the Admiralty, as are all his suggestions. So far from the warnings being unheeded, a great many measures which he advocated in that letter has already been applied on the largest possible scale by the Admiralty.


Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that in February last, when the submarine danger was not nearly so pressing as it is now, the steamship "Hydaspes," bringing horses from New Orleans, was met on the South Coast of Ireland and convoyed to Liverpool by the destroyers "Loyal" and "Legion," and a similar course was taken with regard to the steamer "Armenian," which was also carrying horses?


I think I cannot controvert that statement.


May I ask whether any provision whatever was made to safeguard this ship, in view of the fact that a threat was made of her destruction?


Yes, Sir. I have stated that two warnings were sent to the vessel, together with directions as to her course. I made that quite clear. If the hon. Member asks if a special escort was sent out my reply is "No." No exception was made to the regular method by which our seaborne commerce is conducted.


I beg to ask if the Prime Minister is in a position to say whether the submarine that is alleged to have sunk the "Lusitania" is of a larger and more powerful type than any submarine known prior to 14th April last, and whether any information has been conveyed to him during the last eleven days concerning the construction of these boats?


I have no information as to the kind or number of the submarine or submarines which attacked the "Lusitania." The hon. Baronet laid some information before the Admiralty ten days ago. This information is known by the Admiralty to be wholly untrue, though, of course, the hon. Baronet was quite right to report it. The facts which give rise to the hon. Baronet's story are also known to the Admiralty, and are entirely satisfactory. The hon. Baronet was so assured, but I shall be very glad to see him if he wishes. I desire to do everything in my power to relieve the very proper anxiety felt on this matter.