HC Deb 20 February 1917 vol 90 cc1289-300

I desire to call attention to the case of General Sir Owen Thomas——

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

I have a statement to make which I think might satisfy my hon. Friend. I wish to state that General Sir Owen Thomas' removal from his command involved no reflection upon him, and it was simply a matter of routine instituted by a particular form of warfare in France, under which younger men were placed in command. Therefore the removal must be regarded as having taken place owing to his not being suitable for the special work which those brigades were expected to do, and not for any inefficiency in the services he had rendered.


I desire to thank the hon. Member for his statement, and I have no doubt it will be received with considerable relief in Wales. General Thomas had a very distinguished career. He served in the South African War and was mentioned in dispatches. At the request of Lord Kitchener and the present Prime Minister he also formed a division of Welshmen at the beginning of the War. Owing to his enthusiasm and tireless energy he formed a body of 10,000 men, with 350 officers in the short period of seven months, and General Sir Archibald Murray stated that it was an honour to command such a body of troops. I thank the hon. Member for the very satisfactory statement which he has made, which will place this officer in the position which he ought to occupy.


I do not quite agree with the hon. Member for Somerset (Mr. King). I fully realise that the Government have made mistakes and that the General Staff have made mistakes, but I do not think that we ought to advertise that fact on the floor of the House of Commons, for other people, besides the Government and the General Staff, have made mistakes, and they have been advertised in places outside this House. Personally, I do not want to hamper the Government in any shape or form in its efforts to win this War. I believe it is absolutely necessary at the present time, in spite of personal differences of opinion, to be united in connection with the efforts which have to be made to bring the War to a successful conclusion. I do not profess to be a financial expert, but I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Coventry (Mr. D. Mason) said with regard to the prospectus of the War Loan, in which certain promises were made to people investing in it. A very large number of people were led to believe that they would be able to secure a return of their money invested without any great depreciation. I am very much afraid, if the Government now attempt in any way to revise the prospectus, that the confidence placed in them by those small investors will be somewhat shaken. Therefore I hope that the Government will do their utmost to inspire confidence in the minds of those who invested and, so far as they can, to maintain the value of the security. I listened very carefully to the hon. Member for Tavistock (Sir J. Spear) and I agree to a very large extent with what he said. I do not pretend to be an expert agriculturist, although at fifteen years of age I could do almost everything that required to be done on a mixed farm, even to ploughing, and if the hon. Member is so minded to enter into competition with me, I do not mind taking a flail arid threshing some oats with him.


Let us have it on the floor of the House.


I may be wrong, but, in my opinion, the agricultural situation would be considerably relieved if the farmers on fairly small farms or average size farms would themselves put their backs into the work. They are not working as they might do. A large number of farmers do not quite recognise that we are at war, except so far as the price of wheat and potatoes are concerned.


They work twelve and fifteen hours a day.


I know that some of them do, but at a time like this when every man is wanted for the Army the farmers themselves, generally, ought to do their utmost to produce the food which is so vital for the nation. I say, without any hesitation, however, that with the competition between the Army, the munition works, and the demand for food production, the farmers are suffering, and great care ought to be exercised by the tribunals in dealing with cases where an appeal is made on behalf of an agricultural labourer. I quite agree with that. We must pay more attention to the demands of agriculturists I desire to refer also to extravagance, about which I spoke last week. I do not claim to be an expert on the subject. I have not the opportunity of being extravagant. In almost every Government Department there is lack of control in connection with the expenditure of public money which ought to be remedied. Let me give a homely illustration of what I mean. In connection with my own trade I did a little bit of organising, and whenever I went into a workshop, or factory and found that machinery was not applied to the best possible advantage, I suggested alterations whereby it could be better utilised. I have noticed that the clerks in Government offices, who do writing of one kind or another, whenever they have to put a pen in an inkpot have to reach arm's length over the desk, whereas if the inkpot was put in a proper position they would be able to fill the pen with ink in at least half the time. When we remember that there are anything from 30,000 to 50,000 clerical people in these offices, hon. Members will see the waste of time in even that simple matter of getting the ink on to the pen. A good organising expert man would have-seen that at once and put it right immediately. We have got a good many men who are called experts by the newspapers, but the actual performance of their duties does not prove that they are in any shape or form experts. On Friday last a foreman in a large engineering works came to me and said. "Mr. Wilson, the waste that is going on in connection with the manufacture of munitions in our engineering works is absolutely scandalous." I asked, "What is your complaint?" and he told me they had five women engaged in doing the work of one man. He had complained that five women were not required, and said that if lie trained a woman for three or four days she would be able to do the work, but still, lie could not get rid of the other four women. I said, "Why?" and he replied. "Simply because regulations are issued in connection with controlled establishments which say that we must have the five women." If those other four women were released from that work surely there would not be that appeal for women to enlist in the National Service brigade which there is at present. We ought to utilise the work of women. The same applies to men. There is a large number of men employed by the War Office and the Munitions Department who might be found useful work. An expert would say that a certain percentage of them could be released for work elsewhere. I received a letter on Thursday morning, in which the writer says: I joined the Mechanical Transport, Army Service Corps, on 22nd May, 1916. In the whole of that time I have only worked with tools for five weeks, and there are hundreds more like me. Could you not bring this ease before the House and try to find some useful employment for us to do? We hear about shipyards and munition factories being short of men and we are wasting our time here—carpenters, joiners, turners, fitters and every trade you can think of. Women are being sent out to France to make huts for the Army, and we are in receipt of 25s. 6d., including separation allowance, and stay here in idleness. I have been to thirteen different places during the months I have been in the Army. The disposal in this manner of men who are able to do a certain class of work is a waste of public money and ought to be stopped. I brought to the attention of the War Office the case of an expert millwright, who can work in a corn or any other mill and is also accustomed to shipbuilding yards. Some months ago he was declared by a medical board to be unfit for military service. He was called up as a member of the Veterans Corps, and four months ago he was acting as a beater for officers who went out to shoot game. To-day he is held up at Clacton-on-Sea, unable to get his release to do useful work. What is the use of talking about the shortage of men to do the work required by the Government when the War Office is responsible for that kind of thing? It is high time that somebody who understands the ability of workmen should be called in to assist them. It is no use bringing a capitalist or a man at the head of a large firm who, generally speaking, knows no more about the skill required to do certain work than he knows about making a pancake. The Government might well give its attention to this scandalous waste of public money.

During the last two years I have received letters complaining of the immense waste that is going on in connection with food in military camps, not because the soldiers cannot eat the food, but because the food is badly cooked and therefore wasted. The last letter I have is from a man who is an expert in the provision trade. Writing from Wellington Barracks, Dublin, he says: The waste here is equal to 25 per cent, of the food supply, and the waste is nearly all caused by the bad cooking that takes place. The Food Controller would be doing a great deal more useful work in preventing the waste of food in connection with our military camps than by issuing the list of rations that people should eat. The list he issues is greater in quantity than hundreds of thousands of families can buy even in normal times. I am speaking from personal knowledge of what is going on. Notice must be taken of what some people might consider little details in connection with the administration of the affairs of this country; but these little details, when you take into consideration the enormous waste in connection with the larger military camps, must be something which would really astonish the Government if one could only get the particulars of it. We have men prosecuted for taking a couple of loaves from a military camp, when hundredweights of meat are buried every week and no prosecutions take place. Whether foodstuffs are wasted by civilians taking loaves away or by hundredweights of meat being buried, each is equally wicked and scandalous, considering the amount of foodstuff in the country.


Will the hon. Member give me particulars of burying hundredweights of meat?


I think the reports which have appeared in the Press during the last eight or nine months will prove what I have said. At any rate they ought to induce the War Office to make investigation.


The hon. Member misunderstands me. We are always most willing and anxious to make any inquiries into waste of any sort in or round about camps, and we are now starting a scheme for the use of by-products. Every single thing which might at other times have been wasted is now used. I would implore the hon. Member not to make these accusations.


I am very glad to hear for the first time that they have made these arrangements. I can speak from personal knowledge, which extends back some months now. I was a member of a committee that visited internment camps. There was an immense amount of waste there, and the recommendations made by the committee led to retrenchment and prevention of waste. My information is, from soldiers who are in military camps, that an enormous amount of waste is taking place. In the letter I have just quoted from the soldier, it says: Do not quote my name for goodness sake. If you do I shall be court-martialled. If his name is given to confirm a statement made in this House he runs the risk of being punished. Certain Departments pledge themselves not to victimise men who give evidence, but those men have been victimised, and I am not going to be a party in any way to victimising a private soldier or non-commissioned officer. If the hon. Gentleman goes to any military camp without letting them know he is going he will find the waste going on, or he could appoint a small visiting committee. I again protest against what are called experts. I call them newspaper experts. When they are put to a practical test their expert knowledge amounts to nil. I am not speaking in a carping spirit. I want to see the War vigorously prosecuted and I want to see the Allies win. I want to see a conclusive victory and a conclusive peace. I am not in any shape or form attempting to hamper or handicap the Government in what they are doing. My only son went to France in May, 1915, and he is there to-day. I am too old to go to fight in France, but I could fight here, if necessary, either with the rifle or otherwise. When any Member honestly expresses his opinion on these things the Government ought to take notice of the opinion expressed. My greatest complaint is that in connection with the Military camps, the cooking is so exceedingly bad that the men cannot cat the food, and a very large amount of that food is wasted. When we find soldiers in this country writing home from the camps asking their parents to send them bread and butter, one must be satisfied that there is something wrong, at any rate so far as the supply of food is concerned.


I desire to intervene for a specific purpose. We are told by Sir Douglas Haig that a great offensive is to take place, and that certain things are going to happen, I understand that vast and terrible casualities are expected. In the days before the Military Service Bill we were told what the wastage was likely to be in order to compel people to accept conscription. To-day I asked what the wastage was likely to be in the big offensive that is projected, and I was told it was not in the public interest that the fact should be disclosed; from which T infer that the wastage anticipated is so very great it would be an encouragement to the enemy to know that it was likely to occur. We hear stories current that we are preparing for a million casualties during this great offensive. I desire to take this opportunity to enter my protest against this great sacrifice of life taking place. I condemn the Government for having entailed this sacrifice, because they have precluded any possible consideration of the suggestion of negotiations by Germany, and of the assistance of the President of the United States in bringing about peace, by allowing war aims to be forced upon them by their Allies—aims which had no part whatever in the original objects of the War for which millions of men were enrolled in the Colours. I am glad for one reason that the Note was sent by the Allies to the President of the United States, because it seems to me to have brought some reality into the situation. I have some personal reason to be gratified. I can claim a certain element of personal justification in the matter, because I have always contended from the first day of the Declaration of War, from the day that Sir Edward Grey made his speech on 3rd August, 1914, that this was a war to determine who should have the reversion of the territories of the Turkish Empire. I have argued all the time that the fight was really a fight the origin of which was to be found in the fact that Russia was determined that the time had come to fulfil her historic ambition to reach Constantinople, and that for that purpose it was necessary to dismember the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I know that some people resent one raising questions regarding the origins of the War. They say that that is a matter of the past—why rake it up? But there is a reason for referring to the origins of the War. Sir Edward Grey, in a speech made as late as 23rd December last, said: I ask you to recall—you must never forget—how the War came about. If we are to approach the subject in a proper spirit it can only be by recalling, and never for one moment forgetting, what was the real cause of the War. Some people say yon need not go back on old ground. You cannot go hack on it too often. It affects the conditions of peace. That is the reason why I refer to my views on the origins of the War, because it affects the conditions of peace. If, as so many hon. Members do, we regard this war as a simple act of German aggression, looking at it simply from the point of view of the invasion of Belgium, then there remains the fixed idea of the condign punishment of the German nation. But if you regard it as I do, as a war of the contending ambitions of these great Empires to secure the hegemony of the East, I think you must take a less vindictive view of the situation.

I have taken a certain amount of interest in the Near Eastern problem since the days when I first took an interest in politics in this country, because I found myself then in frequent argument, especially with Liberal friends, as regards our attitude daring the Russo-Japanese war. I took the view, the Australian view, I suppose the view of colonists, and I regarded with regret the enthusiastic backing of the Asiatic against the Russian. And I used to argue that a day would come when England would regret that she took the action which she did in precluding Russia from having the assistance of her French Allies and in glorifying in the defeat of a European power, or a semi-European power, at the hands of the Asiatic; because it seemed to me so obvious that it was not right to turn back Russia, who had performed the great civilising action of making the railway right across Asia to Port Arthur. Yet you rejoiced and gloried in the fall of Port Arthur and the defeat of Russia because of the outlook as to the balance of power, and you thought then that to weaken Russia was to make India safe. The consequence was, it seemed to me, to throw back Russia to seek expansion in the Near East instead of the Far East. From that time you will find going forward a propaganda having for its object the unmaking of Austria, the generation of the greater Serbian movement, instigated largely by Russia, and then came the climax arising from the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne.

I think that one reason why you had a conflict precipitated at that moment was not because of any antagonism of the Foreign Office in this country towards Germany or German desires of expansion, but because we balked Germany's great desire for economic expansion which took the form of the construction of the Bagdad Railway. I remember watching a message being ticked off the tape, but it never appeared in any paper. It was a statement made by Mr. Maclure on his return to America from Berlin, in which he is alleged to have given the terms of the Treaty which was on the point of signature between the British Government and the German Government relating to the Bagdad Railway, at the time when the crisis arose. It was stated that great advantages were to be conferred upon Germany, and that this country was going to support her in getting concessions from the Turkish Empire, and so on. It is very obvious that the very support of Germany's legitimate desire for expansion, and, if you like, to get the economic con- trol of the Turkish Empire, constituted in itself a barrier to the desires and ambitions of Russia. It seems to me, therefore, that when this crisis arose, Russia felt that the time had come to deal with the ambitions of Germany, and that not Germany alone, but Austria and Russia were all prepared to fight out this issue of the Near East. If that is so, I think it is wrongful to have presented to the people of this country the origins of the War in the way they have been set forth. Holding those views, I am glad that we had some reality brought to bear by means of the Note which the Allies sent to the President of the United States. All these aims, as declared, show that the views I have expressed have every foundation and every justification. We know that we are not fighting for the rights of small nationalities, that we are not fighting for Belgium, but that we are fighting to give Russia Constantinople. We are fighting to dismember the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so that Russia may have a secure position at Constantinople. Why cannot we face this in a quite straightforward way? We tell the people, however, that we are fighting for the independence of small States, or rather for the liberation of the Czeho-Slovak. Probably 999 out of every 100,000 of our people had never heard of Czecho-Slovak. I believe there is no such people as Czecho-Slovak. It should be Czee and Slovak, but it appeared in the Note as "Czecho-Slovak." I have asked questions about these interesting people and have been unable to get any enlightenment. I doubt very much if the Foreign Secretary ever heard of the Czecho-Slovaks before their names transpired in connection with the Note. The fact is, what is aimed at is the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Here we have, therefore, some indication of the truth. In the Russian Duma recently the Premier made this statement:— The vital interests of Russia are as well understood by our loyal Allies as by ourselves, and that is why the agreement which we concluded in 1915 with Great Britain and France, and to which Italy has since adhered, establishes the rights of Russia to the Straits and Constantinople. I make this statement, because the Russian people should know for what they are shedding their blood. But it was not only the Russian people who were shedding their blood in order to acquire Constantinople. Our own people are equally, through the Pact of London, shedding their blood with the same object. All the way through, from the very beginning of the War. I have claimed that the people should be told the truth. Great problems have developed out of our association with the Eastern ambitions of Russia. I have pointed out in the past that it was because of the claim of Russia to Constantinople that Greece did not support us in the early days of 1915. Greece actually offered to come in but Russia said "No; no Greek army shall come within 50 miles of Constantinople." Evidently Russia was frightened lest another claim should be set up to that city. We should never have had the Turks in against us, but for their knowledge that Russia was aiming at their capital. And then their was the case of Bulgaria. Recently there appeared in the papers a statement that the Premier of Serbia complained that great offers were made to Bulgaria to come in on the side of the Allies, including possession of Monastir, but that she refused because she could not tolerate that Russia should secure possession of Constantinople. The dominant point of our policy in the Near East was associated with Constantinople. It was only through a speeeh delivered by the British Ambassador at Petrograd that the information was allowed to become known to the British people that we had gone to Gallipoli at the request of Russia. The hon. Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon) asked why Dr. Dillon's articles had been suppressed. I am not in the least surprised at the suppression of the articles by the Censor, seeing that Dr. Dillon was one of the first to point out that this secret commitment had been entered into in April, 1915, which gave Constantinople to Russia and to show how it would prejudice our interests in the Near East.

No wonder his articles were suppressed. The hon. Member for Mayo has told us the truth about Roumania, which is not disclosed to us, but which, of course, the Germans know. The hon. Member for Mayo mentioned the speech in the Reichstag, in which the allegation was made that Russia had forced Roumania to come in under threat of marching into her territory with 100,000 men if she did not do so at once. That was all set out in the Red Book issued by the Austrian Government. It is in the despatch of the Ambassador at Bucharest sent to his Government after he had left the capital. I have a translation of it by me, but we are permitted to know nothing about it. It all shows that really the causes of our difficulties in the continuation of the War are all centred in the Near East; and I wish to raise my protest here, in an hour before hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million, of my fellow countrymen are going to death and mutilation, against the Government's having committed itself in a way which prevents peace being attained even though the high and noble objects for which these men enrolled could have been attained. If we are compelled to go on fighting till Russia has Constantinople and the Austro-Hungarian Empire is dismembered, I fear our countrymen will fall, not by the hundred thousand, but by the million. I protest against the Government having, by taking up these new war aims, which are those of conquest and aggrandisement, prohibited all possibility of peace by way of negotiations, peace based on the attainment of the aims of which we were first told were those we had in view.


This is not a suitable occasion on which to occupy the time of the House at too great a length, because, however I may feel as to the importance and the urgency of many of the questions in which the Irish people are interested, it would only be anticipating a much more suitable opportunity in the near future. But I wish now to draw the attention of the Treasury to a matter in which I have taken some interest, and to which I have directed the attention of the Treasury on two or three occasions. I am very glad to see the representative of the Treasury here this evening, and I am very pleased to see him occupying the position which he does, to which I am sure he will do honour and credit. The matter I refer to is in connection with the old age pension clerks in Ireland.


There is nothing in this Bill with regard to the old age pension clerks in Ireland.


With great respect, Sir, I understand that anything affecting people suffering from a denial of just claims upon the Treasury is in order on this occasion.


This Bill deals only with Votes of Credit which have been passed by the House to carry on the War.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.