HC Deb 15 September 1915 vol 74 cc134-8

May I refer to the dispatch of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, on a matter which came up with regard to some recent peace overtures which were advertised in the American newspaper as emanating from the German Embassy in Washington. Certain speeches were made, notably one by the Secretary of State in Germany, to which our own Secretary of State replied in a very admirable dispatch. I would like to ask the representative of the Foreign Office if he would, perhaps, give us some further details, which the House would probably think very interesting and valuable, with regard to this dispatch, as to what was said by the Secretary of State in the Reichstag in Germany. The particular passage to which our Secretary of State referred was a reference to some passages in which the German Chancellor and Finance Minister had stated that they looked to the Allies to pay an indemnity after the War was over. The Secretary of State replied that after the War had concluded, the heavy burden must be borne, not by Germany, but by those whom they were pleased to call the instigators of the War. I should like to know if the Noble Lord can state whether that referred directly to an indemnity expected from this country, or whether it was referring to a general charge as a result of the War. The Secretary of State apparently thought that it was referring to an indemnity expected from this country, and our own Secretary of State replying said, of course, that if that was expected by Germany, then such expectation was a futile one, which would not be tenable for a moment.

The Secretary of State in a further part of the dispatch, said very properly and very clearly, that with regard to any guarantees which might be demanded at the end of the War, if they were guarantees against future war then they should be equally binding on Germany as well as other nations, including ourselves. That is a very admirable proposal, but I should like the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs to say what the idea is with regard to this—whether it meant that, in the event of peace proposals being adumbrated or discussed, the several Powers would form a conference, and that such a thing was in contemplation, and that, speaking for this country, the right hon. Gentleman was perfectly willing, as he put it in this dispatch, that those conditions should apply to ourselves as well as to other belligerents. I should be very glad indeed if the Noble Lord can give us any information as to these proposals, and if they have been made at all, whether they have an official character and been brought before the Government. If he can give us such information the House and country would appreciate it as indicating the temper and tone of the German Government. I believe the German Chancellor is much more disposed to peace proposals than the military party. If the Noble Lord can give us any such information I am sure the House and the country will appreciate it, and will attach great value to any communication which he may make. I do not know whether he can give us any information with regard to the interposition of the American Embassy or the American Government. As I understand, the American Government are friendly with the German Government and in their confidence. The Noble Lord may also be able perhaps to give us some information as to the character of those communications, and I would ask him whether he can in any way inform the House and the country in regard to these communications. No doubt they are well known, seeing that in the newspapers it has been stated that there have been proposals in regard to Germany through American agency. Without in any way doubting the accuracy of the newspaper reports, and we do know that newspaper reports are not always reliable, if the Noble Lord can give any information in regard to that matter, it will be valued by the House and country. I do not know whether the communications or proposals are developed, or whether, as suggested, some conference might be proposed. But anything which the Noble Lord can state to us, or make public, would be appreciated and we would be very glad to hear it.


The hon. Member was good enough to tell me that he was going to raise this point, but I think he will see that it is practically impossible for me to enlarge on the considerations which he has submitted to the House without running very great risk of doing public injury. Let me just refer to what he described as the dispatch of my right hon. Friend in reply to what was said by the Chancellor in the Reichstag. That is not quite correct. because it was actually a communication to the Press of this country. I was asked whether the reference made by my right hon. Friend to the statement of the German Chancellor that thousands of millions must be borne through decades, not by Germany, but by those whom he is pleased to call the instigators of the War—whether that applied to a demand for an indemnity or to the charges which the War would cause all the belligerents. I think it is perfectly plain that it refers to an indemnity. That is quite clear from what my right hon. Friend says. Referring to his summary of the German Chancellor's observations, he said:— Such is apparently the conclusion to be drawn from the German Chancellor's speech, and to this the German Finance Minister adds, 'that the heavy burden of thousands of millions must be borne through decades, not by Germany, but by those whom he is pleased to call the instigators of the War.' It is quite clear that if it were only a reference to the general financial disorder caused by the War, that would be borne equally by Germany and other Powers. There could be no doubt that the German Chancellor, I presume for the purpose of encouraging his friends, though I imagine that he had not the slightest hope of ever being able to bring his prophecies or suggestions to fruition, referred undoubtedly to a large indemnity to be paid by this country. It is quite unnecessary to say that no such consideration has been entertained by the Government of this country for one moment. I was asked, also, what exactly was meant by the passages of the letter of my right hon. Friend which referred to what he called guarantees of peace. I really do not know that I can add anything to what was there said. It seems to me to be quite clear what my right hon. Friend said, though I think it has been the subject of some misapprehension in other places besides what has fallen from my hon. Friend. The Secretary of State said:— Freedom of the sea may be a very reasonable subject for discussion, definition and agreement between nations after this War, but not by itself alone, not while there is no freedom and no security against war, and German methods of war on land. If there are to be guarantees against future war, let them be equal, comprehensive, and effective guarantees that bind Germany as well as other nations, including ourselves. I should have thought that was clear. That is the meaning, as I understand, of this dispatch, and there is certainly no intention whatever, in regard to any such suggestion, to deprive ourselves of any legitimate weapons against Germany. It was merely a general observation that if there was a general pacification, we might have to reconsider the whole methods of making war by land and sea. I do not think it is more than that. As to the rest of the hon. Member's observations, I am afraid I cannot make any reply except in the most general terms. He asked me, if I understood him aright, if any peace proposals had been made by Germany, or whether any had been made by her to America, or whether anything of the kind had taken place. It is quite obvious that it is impossible for me to reply as to what communications have taken place between Germany and America, but no such proposals have been made by the German Government. I cannot at present imagine there is any probability they will make any proposals which would be even entertained for a moment by the Allies who are fighting against them. I should wish to make quite clear, so as to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding in any part of this country my words may reach, or in foreign countries, and that is to say that no consideration will be given to any suggestion of peace except in common with our Allies and in conformance with our treaty obligations to them.


I am not in the least interested in the question of peace, because I am afraid we have got a very long way to go, and we will think a little more about it when we do get there. I wish to make a reference to what the Noble Lord has said on the rights of the seas, because there is a great deal of apprehension on this matter, and personally I have had questions put to me about it. The conclusion in the last Note of the Foreign Secretary to the United States carried with it the suggestion that certain matters concerning our rights at sea might be submitted to international arbitration. I want to be cautious not to make any criticisms to-night, because the last thing I want to do is to say anything which is best left unsaid. I merely rose to state that there is a great deal of apprehension, especially at the present time, of anything of that kind being carried out, just as there is a good deal of anxiety as to how far the Declaration of London or the Naval Prize Bill, which was not passed by the House of Commons—how far that has really been operated, and we Members of the House do not know it. We know it is pernicious: that is our view. The Parliament of this country would not pass the Bill, and we know what a millstone round our necks it would have been. I do hope and trust that the Government will not find itself placed in any position in which it has to deal with this matter without first giving to this House the opportunity of expressing its opinion upon it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Thirteen minutes before Nine o'clock.