HC Deb 28 September 1915 vol 74 cc759-66
Colonel YATE

I wish to raise for a few minutes to-day the question of the warfare which is now being waged against us and our Allies in Persia by the Germans in that country, and to ask what steps are being taken to put a stop to it. Persia, as we all know, is supposed to be a neutral country, yet we find that the whole of Persia is occupied and terrorised by armed bands under German officers, who, apparently, are doing their best to raise the whole country against us. The Persian Government is powerless. The Shah himself is helpless. The Medjliss do nothing but talk and try to make as much money as they can for themselves, and the local Governors in the various Provinces have neither sufficient money nor the men to raise a finger against any of these German armed bands, who, apparently, do what they like and go where they like. We have all read in the papers of the anarchy in Ispahan and the flight of the Russian and French residents there. We were all glad to see in the papers on Sunday morning last that all these men, women and children had arrived safely at Teheran. Not only at Ispahan though, but at Shiraz, Yezd, and Kirman and other places also, there are many British subjects employed in the Consular service, the telegraphs, the Imperial Bank of Persia, merchants and missionaries. News as to the safety of these people is most anxiously awaited all through the country. The Indo-European telegraph line, from Bushire to Ispahan has long been cut, and now it is reported that the Central Persian line has been cut as well, consequently a stop has been put to all communications between Europe and Asia.

All this is the result of open intrigues carried on by Germany and Germans amongst the various tribes since the commencement of the War, and the large sums of money spent by them in inducing these tribes to do as much damage as they can to British interests throughout Southern Persia, even to the extent of inciting them to murder British officials and those employed by the other companies I have named. The state of things at Bushire is even worse. Bushire is under the protection of Indian troops, supported by vessels of the Royal Navy lying in the roadsteads. The local tribesmen, owing to the successful efforts of the late Acting German Consul there, named Wassmuss, are in active hostility. It is said that Wassmuss, on the declaration of War, made his way into these districts viâ Baghdad, and at once commenced an anti-British propaganda among the tribesmen. He had almost unlimited funds at his disposal, and by this means he easily induced them to adopt a hostile attitude. In July they ambushed and killed Major Oliphant and Captain Banking, and night after night they attacked and sniped Bushire. They were continually attacking the residences of British subjects and merchants. Attacks were made on the houses of employés of the Imperial Bank of Persia, and valuable property was taken off. All houses have had to be vacated, and the women and children sent away. The latest reports say that there are almost nightly attacks on European property, and the troops, with such a long line to defend, cannot prevent small bands of raiders getting through. The papers about a fortnight ago reported that an attack in force had been driven off, but these attacks may be repeated again and again, and this shows how serious the situation is in that part of Persia. Unless these tribesmen are punished severely, their villages rased and their chiefs taken as hostages, things will go from bad to worse.

Had the matter been taken in hand earlier, things would not have been so bad. If we had organised a strong force of Persian levies under British officers during the last few years, instead of trusting solely to the Swedish gendarmerie, which is failing us so entirely now the crisis has come, we might have had the situation much better in hand. We have had an excellent illustration of what can be done by local levies under British officers in the repulse the other day of the Persian raiders into Mekran, on the Baluchistan border, by the Mekran Levy Corps. I do not mind saying that this levy was originally raised by myself when I was Chief Commissioner of Baluchistan. It is composed of Baluchis and the Brahuis, of much the same stock as the Persian raiders on the other side of the border, who tried to invade them. That corps could be increased to any extent. Regular troops are not the best material for punishing nomad tribesmen like those who have been bribed by the Germans to attack us in Persia, neither are Regular troops required even to hunt down the bands under Germans themselves now traversing Persia from one end to the other. None of these bands have any Artillery or any real organisation or discipline. If I might venture to make a suggestion it would be that this Mekran Levy Corps should be used as the nucleus for the raising of a combined Indian and Persian Levy Corps under the command of British officers of the Indian Army with good knowledge of Persian, to hunt down these various bands.

Nothing can be expected of the Persian Government. Nothing can be done by them. They are hopeless and helpless. All that is required is a backing of Regular troops, and that we already have in the Indian regiments at Bushire. The present dual control by which Persia remains under the charge of the Foreign Office, while the Persian Gulf and the military control is under the charge of the Government of India must tend, in my opinion, to delay and confusion. I would suggest, if I may be bold enough to make a suggestion, that the entire charge of the whole of Southern Persia, both military and political, should be given to the Government of India, who alone are able to deal promptly with affairs on the spot. Until that is done, I honestly say that I do not see how our interests in Southern Persia can be properly safeguarded. The oil wells and pipe-line are being threatened by attacks from tribesmen under German officers on the western side; the telegraph lines are cut and the lives of all British subjects are threatened in the centre, and further raids on Baluchistan are also threatened on the East. I urge on the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs that something must be done, and what I hope to see done is that some endeavour will be made to get a strong and good Persian governor, if there is such a man in Persia, for Ispahan and Fars and to give him the services of a good combined Persian and Indian Levy Corps, such as I have suggested, to put down these German raiders, and to place the whole of Southern Persia under the charge of the Government of India. I would suggest that the Secretary for Foreign Affairs should consult with the Secretary of State for India on this subject, and see if some prompt and energetic action can be taken.


I am sure my hon. and gallant Friend will recognise the great difficulty of discussing this or any other subject affecting the Foreign Office at a time like this, and I am bound to speak with the utmost reserve upon it. At the same time I can assure him that the matter has been already the subject of very anxious consideration and consultation between the India Office and the Foreign Office. There is no lack at all of common action between those two offices and the difficulties, such as they are—I am not going to underrate them at all—arise not from the many Departmental difficulties here but from the essential and inevitable difficulties of the situation in Persia. It is perfectly true—I regret very much that it should be so—that at Bushire there was a lawless attack, I have very little doubt instigated by German and Austrian intrigues and by German money, which resulted in the very deplorable and regrettable death of two gallant British officers. Since that time Bushire has been occupied by British troops, and is still in the occupation of British troops. I do not know that there was anything more, as far as Bushire is concerned itself, which could have been done than was done immediately after the outrage took place. My hon. and gallant Friend says some hard things about the Persian Government, but it is only right to say that the Persian Government has expressed their regret for that outrage, and we think, at any rate, that there is reason to hope that the steps which they have taken will result in the prevention of any repetition of the outrages which have occurred. I quite agree that the Persian Government is in a very difficult position. No one doubts that, but I do not think there is any reason to doubt that their wish is to carry out the duties of a Government in preserving law and order. Then, at Ispahan, which is within our portion of Persia, there was also an attack—pure murder, of course—upon the British Consul-General. Fortunately, he was only wounded, but I regret to say his Indian orderly was killed; and there are undoubtedly Germans and Austrians who have engaged the services of paid bandits whose whole object is to create disorder and to threaten the lives of the British and Russian civilians who are in charge of purely peaceful interests in a neutral country. That is part of the German methods of making war. Then it is true, under these circumstances, the British Colony have withdrawn from Ispahan, and so have the Russians, and gone to Teheran. There, too, strong remonstrances have been made to the Persian Government, and we have reason to hope, after what has occurred there, that there is at any rate a very earnest desire on the part of the present Persian Government to prevent the repetition of these outrages. I regret to say that at Shiraz also a similar outrage has taken place. There, I am sorry to say, the British Vice-Consul was seriously wounded and has since died.


Have the Persian Government power to carry out their promises?


I think that is rather an unfortunate question to put. All we can say is that there has been a change made in the Governor-General at Kars, and we hope the new Governor-General will be able to preserve order more successfully in his Province than the old one. I do not know that there is very much more that I can usefully say. My hon. and gallant Friend has made a certain suggestion, namely, that we should organise an irregular force and put it under the command, I do not know whether of a native or a British officer. I think he will see the enormous difficulty of even entertaining any proposal of that kind during the progress of a gigantic war. There are, unfortunately, enormous difficulties in any Imperial war in which the whole energies and monetary resources of the country are being taxed to their utmost. But we have done our best with the present Persian Government, and I think there is some ground for hoping that things will improve. I do not want to go into detail, but we are taking measures to improve the financial position of Persia, and our Minister, who has most ably conducted the whole of the negotiations and done most admirably, is now conducting negotiations with the Persian Minister for Foreign Affairs on that basis and is prepared to make very considerable concessions of that kind with the consent of His Majesty's Government, provided, of course, that an impartial administration may be thereby secured. I do not dispute that my hon. and gallant Friend has a perfect right to say that my reply is very incomplete. I do not deny it. If this were in time of peace no such reply would be made, of course, from this bench, but I am sure that he and the rest of the House will recognise the enormous difficulties which the Government are under at present, and will accept our assurance that his suggestions will receive very careful consideration. Every suggestion has been already most carefully looked into, and the fact that he recommends it will undoubtedly carry great weight with the Department with which I am connected. I am afraid I cannot say more at present. I can only express the hope that these very regrettable occurrences will not take place again, and we may be very certain that that kind of warfare, and that means of carrying on warfare, is not really ultimately likely to be of service to the German cause, and even in Persia proceedings of that kind are likely to cover the Germans not with glory but with contempt.

4.0 P.M.


By this Bill we are granting power to spend a large sum of money which has been voted in Supply. Under ordinary circumstances that is merely a common form and the money has been granted for the specific purposes of Supply. But here the vast bulk of the money has been voted by a Vote of Credit, and a Vote of Credit does not specify the objects for which the money is required. I am asking the Government to let us know, as far as is consistent with the public interest, what they propose to do with this money. It is stated broadly to be for Army and Navy purposes, but Votes of Credit have been used for purposes other than what I should call direct Army or Navy needs. The Government will remember the case of the Chief Whip's salary, which was one of the matters that came under a Vote of Credit. There was also another matter, the desirability of which I am not questioning, and that was a Grant of £100,000 to trade unions, to be advanced in September of last year. I am not discussing the desirability or un-desirability of any of these matters, but it does seem to me that they should be brought before the House of Commons so long as they conveniently can be consistent with the public safety. That is the point I am rather pressing upon the Government at the present moment. If part of these moneys will be used for other purposes than direct Army and Navy expenditure, I hope the Government will let us know as soon as possible the objects for which they have devoted the money or intend to devote the money, so that the House of Commons may have an opportunity of discussing the matter. That is the point I desire to raise on the general ground. Secondly, we know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has told us that a considerable portion of this money is to be used for what I may call trading purposes, and we have been promised that a separate account will be kept of each different trading purpose. We were told that a large sum had been spent in purchasing sugar, and that there had been resales of sugar, which might or might not result in a profit or loss to the Government. We have been promised that separate accounts should be kept. Of course, if there is any profit, it will go to the Treasury. Will the Government let us know as soon as possible, consistent with public interest, the result of the loss or profit, as the case may be, in regard to these sugar transactions? If the information can be given without any injury to the country in any way, perhaps it will be given. I am not in the least pressing the Government upon this head. If there is the slightest injury likely to occur to anybody, I do not want to press the matter for one moment, but I do think it is very important that the House of Commons should, if possible, have the information.

We have been passing these vast sums of money, millions of pounds, without having inquired what they are going to be spent upon, and without being told what they are going to be spent upon. I am perfectly willing to grant money to the Government, and if I am told that it is not in the public interest to give the information, I am perfectly willing to abdicate my rights as far as that is concerned. Of course, it is our duty in the House of Commons to deal with the finances of the country. That is one of our primary duties. There was another matter, with regard to the money to be expended. There is a second Clause in this Bill which gives power to the Government to borrow money under the present emergencies, and the remarks which I made upon the first Section apply equally to this second Section. I am anxious that the Government should, as far as possible, take the House of Commons into its confidence on the ques- tion of loans. I am not making any particular complaint, but it does seem a somewhat anomalous position that we read from the newspapers that huge loans are being carried out on behalf of the British Government and the House of Commons has never heard a word about it from beginning to end. The only fact we know is that we give authority for the Treasury to borrow from anyone they think fit vasts sums of money. I do not wish to press the Government on this matter if it is inconvenient, or if it is inadvisable that the House of Commons should know that which, I think, everybody will admit it is not only their right, but their primary duty to know. If it is disadvantageous to the country that the information should be given, I would not press the matter at all. I only wish the Government to recognise that it is the primary duty of the House of Commons to know about and to sanction these matters.