HC Deb 31 December 1916 vol 88 cc1733-8

I do not propose to say anything to diminish the effect of the powerful speech of my right hon. Friend by continuing the discussion of the great subject on which he has just spoken, but if the House will bear with me for a few minutes I should like to refer not to any question of high policy, but to a mere detail of administration; and the only reason why I ask leave to do this to-night is because the subject which I want to introduce is one which cannot be profitably introduced at any later stage. Parliament is, we understand, going to rise to-morrow until February, and therefore this is the last opportunity that will occur for bringing to the notice of the House a matter which, I think, is of some importance. Several times during recent months questions have been addressed to Ministers —first of the late Government, and then of the present Government—asking for information with regard to the Committee of Inquiry which the House will remember was set up in August last by a special Act passed by this House. I myself have put down questions several times, and it was inevitable, perhaps, that the answer should be postponed latterly on account of the change of Government. On Tuesday last my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary asked me to postpone this question until to-day, and, of course, at his request, I readily undertook to do so; but I pointed out that unless I could get an assurance to-day that the Report of this Committee will be made public I should have no further opportunity of pressing for its publication until next Session. I want to mention to the House that one gallant officer who is closely concerned with the Report to which I have referred is to leave this country in the middle of January. His reputation as a military officer is greatly concerned in the Report, and I think the House will agree that it would be very unfair to that officer, if this Report is to be published at all, as I hope to convince the House that it should be, that its publication should be deferred until after he has left this country for East Africa.

I want to recall to the House the composition of this Committee and how it came into operation. The House will remember that in August last the present Prime Minister, who was then Secretary of State for War, passed through this House an Act for bringing into being a mixed military and civil court for inquiring into certain matters connected with War Office administration, which, as he told the House, concerned both military and civilian individuals. The court eventually set up was an extremely strong one. Its president was Field-Marshal Lord Nicholson, and the three other members of the court were Major-General Lord Cheylesrnore, Mr. Justice Atkin, and the Deputy-Chairman of Committee of this House. It would have been difficult to have formed a court more likely to command the confidence of this country and this House. Speaking in the House in August as to the necessity for this court, the present Prime Minister said:— There are circumstances which involve imputations upon officers and upon others. With reference to the Report, when it was made, he used these words:— The Report will be considered by the Army Council, by the Secretary of State and the Government, and, if necessary, by the House of Commons. I should like to ask the Under-Secretary if he will say who is to be the judge of the necessity of this Report being seen by the House of Commons. Is the Army Council to decide? Is the Secretary of State to decide? I submit it is the House of Commons that should decide, and it is for that purpose that I am appealing to the House to-night to decide that this Report—the Report of a Committee set up by a special Act of Parliament, and a Committee containing among others, a Member of this House—should, as a matter of right, be made to this House. The Committee, by its terms of reference, was to make a Report. To what body, if not to the House of Commons, should this Committee of inquiry report? I altogether deny that it was the intention of Parliament that this court was set up to report to the Army Council. That was unnecessary. The court that reports to the Army Council should be a court-martial. Further, a fortiori, it would not report to the Secretary of State alone, who, after all, is only a member of the Army Council from the point of view of the Army. I submit that on all grounds, constitutional and equitable, this Report should be definitely made to the House of Commons and that now, when it has been in being for several weeks, the House has a right to see it. The Prime Minister, in introducing the Bill setting up the court, also said—-it is usually said on these occasions:— All the officers concerned not merely welcome but court inquiry and the fullest investigation. If it was true—I do not question it for a moment—that these officers did court an inquiry, surely it must follow that now that the Report has been made they do not shrink from the publicity of the findings. I have not seen the Report myself, although it has been in being for some weeks. It is supposed to be confidential, but copies have been sent to several individuals and, of course, the Government cannot expect that some knowledge of its contents should not leak out. I do not wish to hide the fact that, although I have not seen the Report, I have learned something of its contents. The cases which require the formation of this court were two. One concerned the reputation of a brigadier-general, who was a Welshman, and the other the reputation of a second-lieutenant, who was an Irishman, so that you have an officer of high rank and an officer of low rank both concerned. As regards the brigadier-general, I should like to remind the House of a question which was put by my friend the late Sir Arthur Markham in this House on 28th June. He asked the Prime Minister:— Whether he is aware that the late Lord Kitchener, on 3lat October, 1914, had an interview at his request with Brigadier-General Owen Thomas, the Minister of Munitions also being present— That is the present Prime Minister— when a pledge was given to the brigadier that in consideration of his agreeing to raise a North Wales Brigade the appointment of all officers should be in his hands, it being understood that Welsh speaking officers should, where possible, be appointed; that Lord Kitchener further authorised the brigadier to give this pledge to the Welsh people; whether the brigadier, despite this pledge, has now been superseded by a Scotsman. a Territorial colonel, who was formerly a lieutenant in the Regular Array; and will he, in view of this pledge, give the matter his consideration? The answer was given by the then Under-Secretary for War:— Mr. Tennant: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has asked me to answer these questions. I cannot find that there is any record in the War Office of any such undertaking as that mentioned. On the representation of the Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief the Home Forces, and in the interests of efficiency— I would call the attention of the hon. Gentleman and the House to these words— and the interests of efficiency, Brigadier-General Owen Thomas was relieved of his command by another officer."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT. 28th June, 1916, cols. 836–7, Vol. LXXXII1.] Pausing there for one moment, the Under-Secretary no doubt was giving the reply which was furnished by the Department. I make no sort of imputation as to his good faith in the matter. I think it was unfortunate that the answer given was that there was no trace of the pledge given to this officer, because I do not think that the present Prime Minister, if he were able to be present, would deny that verbally, at all events, such a pledge was given by Lord Kitchener in his presence. That, I understand, was the case. At all events, the moment that answer was given it was quite clear that it was given out to the world that Brigadier-General Owen Thomas was relieved of his command in the interests of efficiency. That, of course, was rather a severe blow to this officer, who had no reason whatever to suspect that he had not the complete confidence of his chiefs up to that time, as any commanding officer or generals who were sent down to inspect his brigade had invariably spoken in complimentary terms of his work, and he had every reason to believe that he had their confidence. In point of fact, he did retain and, I believe, retained to the last the confidence of Lord Kitchener. He was appointed by Lord Kitchener with the knowledge of the present Prime Minister, and he was appointed to this command because he possessed very special and unique qualifications for dealing with the Welsh people. I believe he successfully raised no less than ten battalions of Welsh troops. When that answer was given in this House. Brigadier-General Owen Thomas, very naturally and rightly, claimed an inquiry. I believe he was entitled to such an inquiry under the King's Regulations. Yet that inquiry was refused, for what reason I have been unable to find out. Lord Kitchener and the present Prime Minister who had appointed him knew his value.

The UNDER-SECRETARY Of STATE for WAR (Mr. Macpherson)

I do not know whether my hon. Friend would like me to intervene now to say that I have seen my Noble Friend the Secretary of State for War since Question-Time, and he has had an interview with the present Prime Minister, who personally is very much interested in -his case as he was Secretary of State for War. I am enabled now to tell the House that we propose to publish the findings of the Court of Inquiry at once.


At once?


Yes, at once. I hope, with the leave of the House, to be able to make a further statement tomorrow.


After what my hon. Friend has said I shall not certainly trouble the House any further. All I was anxious for, all I have asked for weeks and weeks, and all I have pressed for is the publication of the Report which, as I have already said, the House is entitled to have. Now we have the assurance of my hon. Friend that the findings of the two Reports—do I understand it is the two Reports?


indicated assent.


Will be immediately made public- I have no further complaint to make.


It is unnecessary for mo to take up more than one or two moments of the time of the House in expressing my gratification at the promise that the findings of this Court will be published immediately. The House will understand that to me in my position as a Welsh Member with a full knowledge of the Welsh position this particular case of Brigadier-General Owen Thomas is of especial interest to the people of Wales. Our only desire is that in this case the conclusions of this Court of Inquiry with regard to the circumstances under which he was removed from his command should be made public, and we hope that the atmosphere will be cleared of a certain suspicion as to the desire of the War Office—which I do not believe existed— to hush up matters which ought to be made public. I am only too glad to receive the assurance of the Under-Secretary of State this evening that possibly to-morrow he will be able to make a fuller statement which will not only, as I hope and believe, clear away the imputation from the character of Brigadier-General Owen Thomas which was conveyed in the answer to the question of 28th June, and which will do much, I hope, to restore full public confidence in the action and the policy of the War Office.


I only regret the long delay there has been in the publication of this Report. Many months back the Report was ready. I personally thank the hon. Member opposite (Mr. R. McNeill) for having raised the question and having appealed to the Government to agree to the publication of this Report. It is of the utmost importance that there should be confidence in the war administration of this country. There can only be confidence in the administration of the War and of the offices which administer the War if the country believe and know that justice and mercy will be meted out to high and low alike without fear and without favour. I congratulate the Under-Secretary upon the decision to publish the Report.