HC Deb 22 December 1916 vol 88 cc1824-7

I beg to ask the Under-Secretary of State for War whether he is in a position to make any statement with regard to the publication of the Report of the Committee of Inquiry which was set up under the Army Act Amendment Act?


I am desired by my Noble Friend the Secretary of State for War in the first place to express his regret for the delay in making an announcement on this subject to the House. The matter in question was one which the present Prime Minister had kept in his own hands when Secretary of State for War, and it was essential that my Noble Friend should consult him as to any decision which had to be taken. I am sure the House will acquit both present and past Secretaries of State from any desire to unduly retard that decision.

As I stated yesterday, the findings of both Courts of Inquiry will be published forthwith. It may be necessary, in order to make them thoroughly intelligible, to add a short synopsis of events which led up to the Inquiry and also to publish in extenso letters to which reference is made in the findings. The findings will be published in their entirety. My Noble Friend thinks the House would like to know what action he proposes to take in the matter of those concerned.

With reference to Second-Lieutenant Barrett, he congratulates that officer on his complete vindication, and he deplores the illness to which his mental anxiety has contributed so much, and hopes that he may be speedily restored to health and have a long and useful career as a soldier in front of him.

With regard to General Owen Thomas, with whom my Noble Friend had most pleasant co-operation in the days of voluntary recruiting, he would express to that officer his hope that he will recognise that the action that was taken in his case was due entirely to military requirements, and not to any undue influence, and he would take this opportunity of thanking the gallant officer for the great services he rendered in recruiting for Welsh regiments.

With regard to the lady implicated in the case, she is outside the jurisdiction of military control, and he feels he cannot do better than leave the verdict of the Court of Inquiry to stand for itself.

Sir Henry Mackinnon, an old and distinguished soldier, has now retired under the age clause, and no action, even if it were asked for, in his case is either possible or desirable. The Court, however, explicitly say that he was actuated by good intentions. My Noble Friend feels that Sir Henry's long and honourable association with the Western Command would naturally prompt him to a continued interest in a matter of this kind.

Colonel Delme Radcliffe, whose conduct is very seriously impugned, has been removed from command of his battalion.

Lastly, there is the case of Sir John Cowans. Sir John Cowans has served for many years at the War Office and during the present War has rendered most distinguished service. He made frequent application to Lord Kitchener for employment on active service, but in Lord Kitchener's opinion it was impossible to accede to his request, as his services were invaluable at home. Sir John Cowans has placed himself unreservedly in the Secretary of State's hands. My Noble Friend does not wish to protect any officer from the consequence of any action simply because of his high position, but he feels that this is not the moment, after he himself has just taken office, when the best interests of the country would be served by not continuing to avail himself of his services. The feeding of both men and horses, and the equipment of our now vast armies, have been in Sir John Cowans' hands from the commencement of the War, and nobody will deny that the vast responsibility placed on his shoulders has been met with a courage that merits our utmost approbation and with a success that has been unparalleled even in our far smaller campaigns.

Since July, Sir John Cowans has had the full responsibility of supplies for Mesopotamia, and it may not be inappropriate at this moment to quote a telegram from Lieutenant-Colonel Godfrey Collins, the well-known Member of this House, as to how that new duty has been met: December 3rd. Have visited all centres. Material -well-being force depends on river transport, and up the river traffic shows decided and continued progress. Taking average of four weeks in each month in ton mileage of all kinds of stores from Basra by steam craft to Amara and up to and including Arab village, including native craft to Amara, the November figures shows a 78 percentage increase over October, while the October figures showed 28 per centage increase over September. Facilities maintained and repairing ships show great improvement. British troops are receiving full winter ration, with potatoes, as supply is available. Stocks now coming in Temporary shortage recently at Basra of few groceries due to military necessity, but to-day this shortage no longer exists. Full winter scale clothing for all the troops has been sent up the river, except gun boats awaiting transport. Leaving fair stock at the base. Ample supplies of medical comforts various centres. Full three months canteen stocks now at the base and gradually being distributed to all centres. Much Arab labour ashore and many boats employed on piece work. Whatever may hare happened in the past, all that human foresight, money, and work can do is being done to-day for welfare of these troops. Under the circumstances, my Noble Friend feels that the best interests of the Army and of the nation will be served by informing Sir John Cowans of the displeasure of the Government at his action, while at the same time retaining him for the present in the position of Quartermaster-General.

The Secretary of State trusts that the country will recognise, when they study the findings of the Report, that justice has been meted out to all concerned.


I do not know, Sir, whether you will permit me, with the indulgence of the House, to make an observation?


If I allow the hon. Gentleman to do that I must allow a Debate. The hon. Member must put what he has to say in an interrogative form.


Then may I say this to my hon. Friend: In the first place, is he aware of the conversation he had with me last night—that before I knew the nature of the statement he was about to make, I proposed, if I got the leave of Mr. Speaker and the House, to make a request to him that the country should not be deprived of the services of Sir John Cowans; and, secondly, may I ask him whether his attention has been called to an answer given by the Prime Minister to me on the 21st November, in which he said that, before publishing the Report, he was going to call for explanations from any officers who were involved, and whether, in fairness to the officers involved, and to Sir John Cowans, he will publish those explanations along with the Report?


I will convey my hon. Friend's remarks to my Noble Friend the Secretary of State for War.


Will the hon. Gentleman say whether his Department has considered the question of any compensation to Lieutenant Barrett for the unjust treatment he has received, or whether the Department is still open to consider that?


I will certainly convey that to my Noble Friend.