§ The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Lloyd George)
I do not know whether, as my hon. and learned Friend has stated, I am in need of inspiration, but if so, I am very glad that my hon. and learned Friend has supplied me with it. I came down this afternoon to answer questions which might be addressed to the Government in the course of the Debate, rather than to make a statement, and during the one and a half hours to which my hon. and learned Friend has referred I do not think that there have been many questions of a character which required very much answering as to the general conduct of the campaign, however important they might be in other respects.
But, before I approach the very specific questions which have been put by my hon. and learned Friend, I may be allowed to make one reference to the subject which was raised by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Christchurch (Brigadier-General Croft). I regret that he should think it necessary to occupy the time of the House with a matter which I think was not worthy of discussion upon a great occasion like the passing of a Vote of Credit for a great War. I followed the correspondence which he read—and, by the way, I think that he might have explained how official correspondence passed into his hands. If there is to be an inquiry, I think that that is a far more serious subject. It was a most improper proceeding. I am not sure that it was not a most criminal proceeding on the part of someone. I think that it is an offence against the law of the land to have handed over to anyone a dossier of official communications, with the whole file of letters, which he read to the House, which had come from a Government Department. That in time of peace would be a serious matter, but in the middle of a great War it betrays a looseness on the part of somebody which I think ought to be investigated, because if official documents of the kind are parted with freely to anybody outside who wants to make a personal attack on a Minister, then no one can tell what may happen. Documents of a very serious character may be let out. Therefore, I may tell the hon. and gallant Gentleman that there is a question for investigation, and that in my judgment that is the most important question of all.
776 With regard to the case itself, what does it mean? My right hon. Friend (Mr. Leverton Harris) is one of the hundreds of thousands of business men who have voluntarily given up business, in order to do war work. He has worked very hard. There is no Member of this House, and no one outside the House, who has given more assiduous service to the State than he has given voluntarily during the last three years of the War. He has rendered very conspicuous service not only to the present Government, but to the late Government as well and to the first war Government.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
And, as I am reminded by my right hon. Friend, who was then Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Leverton Harris) has been doing this work from the beginning of the War. He has devoted himself to it with great assiduity, and he has had conspicuous success in the important matters which he had in hand. He did it voluntarily. He gave up his business in order to be able to do so. It is a very difficult matter for business men to give their time to the Government. They cannot altogether see their business go to grief. He spoke of the matter which was important not so much to the firm as to the Government itself, and the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member for Christchurch only show what little experience he has in these matters. This was not the only firm that had this arrangement, and the only thing that was asked was that this firm should be put in exactly the same position as other firms who were dealing with the same class of business. The right hon. Gentleman did not take any advantage in dealing with his own Department in this matter. He simply made a communication to an absolutely different Department with which he was not associated in the least, not even as a volunteer, and over which he had not the slightest control. And he submitted to that Department certain facts as to which he said the Ministry of Munitions and the Board of Trade could give full information, and I really think that it is something like persecution to rake up a thing of this kind, as if it were a grave scandal, in order to interrupt the business conduct of the War merely to discredit a man who has voluntarily rendered great service to the State. I hope that the House of Commons will not in the least 777 countenance action of this kind, and I regret that it has been thought necessary to refer to such a matter.
I now come to another question. I read very carefully the Debate to which my hon. and learned Friend referred, and I naturally paid special attention to the statements made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Fife (Mr. Asquith) and the questions which were put by him. As far as I can see there were two questions which he put. I do not know that they were questions so much as suggestions. One was that the Government should give us more information. I do not know whether it is about particular battles that have taken place or about the campaign as a whole. The other was about Russia. I really do not know what further information we can give about the campaign, or what additional facts we can supply beyond those which are furnished by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I think that he gave all the information which it was possible to give to the House in present conditions. No one knows better than my right hon. Friend that there is a great deal of information which we could not possibly give. Some of the questions which have been put by my hon. and learned Friend are an indication of it. He raised the question of numbers. Take the question which he put about the distribution of our troops as between Infantry and other arms. That is the kind of thing about which we cannot give information. It is quite impossible. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Bonar Law) went, I think, as far as he possibly could in giving information about the American troops. There is no doubt that the numbers which have come in since the 21st March have been satisfactory. I should go beyond that. It is an amazing piece of organisation which has enabled us to bring vast numbers of first-rate American troops to France since the 21st March.
§ 6.0 P.M.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
Oh, then, if they are, they are. There is nothing more to be said. If my hon. Friend is satisfied with them, I hope that the Germans also will be satisfied with them, but I cannot give any more information, and it is obviously undesirable that I should. All I can say 778 is that they are sufficient to encourage the Allies, and I think quite sufficient to disappoint and ultimately to defeat our foes, and these troops are troops of the very best quality. Many of them are already in the fighting line, and I hope to see many more of them there in a very short time, but I could not obviously give any more information of that kind. Nor do I see what further information I can give about this campaign. If there be any indication as to the character of the information which my right hon. Friend thinks we could give, I should be very happy to give it as far as we possibly can.
I read the Debate very carefully, and I think my right hon. Friend's (Mr. Bonar Law's) statement of the actual position most accurately represented, at any rate, the view taken by our military advisers of the situation at that moment. My hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Asquith) wants to know something about the numbers, about the relative strength of the enemy and ourselves at given dates. I think I said a good deal about that on the 19th April, and in another speech which I made later. I think the relative strength of the contending forces was very accurately represented by General Maurice himself, in the documents which I quoted, where he said that they were as nearly equal as they could be.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
Whatever I said in Secret Session my hon. Friend has absolutely no right to refer to it. It is a most improper observation. As a matter of fact I said nothing in the Secret Session which is incompatible with that.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
No one has any right to refer to anything which took place in the Secret Session. It is a distinct breach of faith to do so. Since the time I made the statement in Secret Session, there has no doubt been an enormous accession of strength to the German Army from Russia. I quoted to the House a statement of General Maurice, which I still think accurately represented the relative strength of the two forces on the 21st March. The Germans themselves claim that they are inferior in numbers; they have done so repeatedly, but that does not always show what is the position They probably do so in order to 779 exaggerate their prowess, and they claim that the defeats which they say they inflicted upon our Armies and the French Armies were not in the least attributable to superior numbers. Since that date there are a good many facts which are not ascertainable, but which are elements in the computation of the relative strength of the two forces. For instance, the losses. We know our own losses, but we do not know the German losses. The Germans exaggerate enormously the losses they inflict upon the Allies. That we know. It is just possible that we may be exaggerating the losses inflicted upon the Germans, but, at any rate, it is quite impossible to tell what are the real losses, except that undoubtedly the losses inflicted upon the Germans have been very heavy, and that they have drawn upon their reserves. Until you know exactly what they are, it is quite impossible to make a computation up to date.
We know what accession of strength the Germans have had from other spheres, and, of course, we know the accessions of strength that have come to us; but there are so many elements which cannot be computed that you cannot say precisely what the relative strength of the forces on both sides is at this moment. American troops are coming at a great rate, and I should be very surprised if in a comparatively short time the Allies' strength on the Western Front were not greater than that of the Germans. The Germans are in the position of having to draw on their last reserves, to be thrown in during the course of the next month or two, and they have no further reserves to call upon, except by a most drastic comb out of men of military age from essential industries. There is some indication that they are resorting to that. That in itself is proof that the Allies have inflicted very heavy losses upon the Germans in the course of this campaign.
During the next couple of months the position must be a very anxious one, but it is gradually improving from the Allies' point of view, and all I can say is, without any appearance of boasting—which, of course, would be folly in a struggle of this kind—that the Allies' generals feel confident as to the issue. I am not sure that I could say anything which would be helpful beyond that. We are on the eve of very great events. There may be a great blow coming, perhaps coming within the next few hours—certainly within the next 780 few days. The issue of this campaign may depend upon it, and the Allies never felt better prepared to meet it. The last attack of the Germans upon the French troops was undoubtedly a failure. They did not achieve the object for which they initiated the attack. They undoubtedly—we have got proof of it—expected to go as far as Compiègne. They failed. They were beaten back by the French Army. They captured some ground, but the French, in a counter-attack, recaptured some of the most important ground of all. The losses inflicted on the German Army were undoubtedly very serious, and, on the whole, the last attack made by the German Armies upon our Allied forces was undoubtedly a defeat. The same thing applies to the attacks made upon us. Their first attack, being a surprise, was a partial, but a considerable success.
But, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, we have dwelt rather too much upon German successes and too little upon our own. The Germans were beaten, and very severely beaten, in front of the Third Army. They were beaten twice, if not three times, with very great loss, in front of the Fourth and Second Armies. I think that for the last two months there has hardly been a great attack upon our Army, and the last attacks were beaten off with very great slaughter. The same thing applies to the French Army, and, on the whole, although the Allies have sustained some reverses, the Germans have suffered severe reverses; and taking the campaign as a whole, the Germans have not succeeded in achieving their objectives. I am certain of this, that if you had put the question on, say, the 29th March last, to those who are in charge of the Allied Armies, and you had given them an indication of the position on the 23rd or 24th June, and had given the same indication to the German leaders, the leaders of the Allied Armies would have been pleased, and the leaders of the German Armies would have been profoundly disappointed. I say so after having put the question to the leaders of the Allied Armies.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
Oh, no! I did not get the opportunity, but I have not the slightest doubt of that. There are indications in documents which we have obtained where they intended to go. 781 There are indications which have come to our hands which show that the Germans expected to attain much greater things than they have realised or achieved. There is no use in talking in the middle of a battle, and there is no information which I can give which would be of the slightest use, and there is no use giving information unless it is helpful to the conduct of the battle or to the public. I really do not think there would be any use dealing with the tasteless dish of stale falsifications which my right hon. Friend (Mr. G. Lambert) referred to. They have been dealt with over and over again. The time may come when all these things will have to be accounted for, and my right hon. Friend may depend upon it that the Government will not be afraid then to give a full account of what has happened. But this is not the time for dealing with that. We are in the midst of a great battle, and what we have got to do is to work together to win it.
My hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Pringle) tried to anticipate the discussion which we are to have to-morrow about Ireland. We are to have it either to-day or to-morrow, but let us have it on one day only. One day of Irish stew is quite enough. But I will answer the questions he put to me, which bear on to-day's Debate. He wanted to know whether our failure to get troops in Ireland this year meant that we were making more exacting demands on the older men. No. He tried to put me on the horns of a dilemma. He said, "These were the men you wanted for that purpose, and if you have not got them, you must have gone to the older men." You wanted the Irishmen for a totally different purpose. The men you would have had from Ireland would have been younger men, naturally, who would have been used for other purposes. If they had been there, we should have been very glad to have had them. However. I do not want to anticipate that discussion, because I can assure my hon and learned Friend that that point is not going to be shirked to-morrow in the least, and if it is my hon. and learned Friend will be here. I think that is all I can say usefully about Ireland to-day.
With Regard to Russia, the House knows the position in Russia just as well as the Government does. Russia is in a perfectly chaotic condition. My hon. Friend sitting in the corner talked about the Russian Government. How many Governments are there in Russia?
§ The PRIME MINISTER
That is exactly where he is wrong. What is the Government of the Ukraine? What is the Government in Georgia? What is the Government when you come to Baku? What is the Government of the Northern parts of the Caucasus? What is the Government in any town and city of the Don? What is the Government, I will no, say in Siberia, but in any city in Siberia? He will hardly find the same Government in any two villages there. It is of no use talking about "the Russian Government" as if there were one Government for the whole country. That is one of the difficulties with which you are dealing there. You are not dealing with anyone who is responsible for Russia as a whole. My hon. Friend referred to M. Nabokoff as the Czarist Ambassador. As a matter of fact, he was the Chargé d'Affaires of M. Kerensky, who was as good a social revolutionary and democrat as my hon. Friend. Certainly he represented M. Kerensky.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I know, but if he was good enough for a social democrat and a revolutionary like M. Kerensky he ought to satisfy my hon Friend.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
Nothing will suit my hon. Friend but a Bolshevik. M. Kerensky represented Russia as a whole and its Government as a whole. Russia had not broken to pieces, and M. Nabokoff was then the representative here of a Government which had control over the whole of Russia, from Vladivostok to Archangel and down to the Caucasus. But the situation to-day is different, and there is no use making any pretence about it. There is a de facto Government in Moscow, but there are de facto Governments all over the place, and you cannot deal with any one body of persons in any part of Russia, and say, "These are the people that represent Russia as a whole." That is one of our difficulties in regard to Russia. My hon. and gallant Friend (Colonel Wedgwood), who is a man of great faith, has found a simple method of settling the whole Russian difficulty—"Appoint a Committee."
§ The PRIME MINISTER
My hon. Friend will know that, but not just yet. That is the method, I agree, when you are in trouble. I do not know what my hon. and gallant Friend is as a diplomatist, but I do know he is a first-rate soldier. He is evidently a good politician, and he says, "We are in trouble; appoint a Committee." I can assure him of this, that the Committee which he would appoint, however capable and however well-informed, would not in the least cope with what are the real difficulties in this case—not in the least. You have got to deal here with a multitude of interests, first of all in Russia itself, and you never know from day to day what Russia is. You get one man saying, "These are facts about Russia," and he knows, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary says. You get another man who knows just as well, and he will give you an absolutely different set of facts. You get more than that; you get one man to-day telling you this about Russia, and in a week he will tell you an absolutely different thing—the same man. And then you have got to deal not merely with a multitude of interests in Russia, one of them predominant to-day, and another to-morrow. Of course, it is not a question for decision by us, or by France, but it is a question for decision by the Allies as a whole, and that in itself makes difficultes when you are dealing with a country which is changing every hour. A decision which might be perfect one day might be wrong in about a fortnight's time, and there you have to communicate with five, at least, of the Allies, who have to come to a perfectly unanimous decision in dealing with a country which is shifting and changing from hour to hour. But I agree with everything that fell from my right hon. Friend (Mr. Asquith) about it being not merely our interest, but about it being just and equitable that we should stand by Russia, if Russia wants it.
Russia has been treated brutally. She has been dismembered; treaties which have been entered into of the sternest character are not even respected by Germany within twenty-four hours after they have been concluded. In defiance of that treaty, she is marching through the Ukraine, through the Don, into the Caucasus, and as far as her troops will carry her. She is marching troops up to the North, she is not in the least respecting her treaty; and no doubt these facts are 784 getting well into the minds of the Russian population. The feeling with which we had to deal some months ago in Russia—that there was no difference between one country and another, that we were all merely great Empires striving for territory and trying to satisfy our own greed—is disappearing in Russia. They are beginning to realise more and more what German militarism means. Even in the Ukraine, which entered into a voluntary treaty with Germany—that is the information which I have received in the last few hours—the peasants are in revolt against German interference. There is a partisan war going on there, and the result has been that Germany and Austria, who expected great things from the Ukraine, are not getting them.
There is another thing of which I was informed on very good authority in the last few hours. In fact, I came straight from the house of someone who knows the country very well, and he said the hatred of the Germans is growing deeper and deeper in the minds of the population of Russia, especially in those parts of Russia which have been occupied by the Germans. He said that Russia is readier than ever she has been for months to take part in any movement which would have the effect of driving out the Germans from the soil of their native land. These things are full of hope. The difficulties are well known. There are the difficulties of access to Russia. There is practically only one country which has access to Russia on a great scale, and that is Japan. My hon. Friend knows the difficulties with regard to that just as well as anybody. I am not sure that I can add anything which would be useful now. I am attempting to answer the questions put by my right hon. Friend, but no one knows better than he does the difficulty of really giving information on the subject as to what is going on, and he will forgive me, I know, if I do not go any further.
Perhaps I ought to say one word with regard to Italy. What has happened in Italy is full of promise. It is one of the most portentous events of the year. It is one of those military victories which may have infinitely greater results than other victories, which look bigger from the point of view of the number of men engaged in them, the casualties, guns, or territory lost. It is a defeat inflicted upon a Power which is not in the best condition to sustain it. Here is a great offensive 785 in which the Austrian Empire has put the whole of her strength. She gathered up all her available strength for this attack; she brought every available man she could spare from the Eastern Front, and she has thrown the whole of her strength upon the Italian Armies. Considerably more than 50 per cent. of the Austrian effectives have been employed in heavy fighting in the battle. A number of them had to hold the line, but over 50 per cent. of the Austrian Army were actually engaged in the fight. They won a certain preliminary success. They crossed the Piave; they captured a very important position on the Montello, and if they had captured the whole of it they might have got behind the entire Piave position, and there might have been a disaster. What happened? They were first of all held. The Italian Armies then began to bring pressure to bear upon them. The pressure increased from day to day. The Austrians are now in full retreat, and the only question to-day is, not whether they are going to retreat, but whether they can retreat. On the Montello, which is a very important strategic position, the Italians have recaptured the whole of the position; they have driven the enemy across; they have crossed themselves, and now they are for the first time for months on the left side of the Piave. Lower down, Italian cavalry have crossed, and are pursuing a part of the enemy's forces. They have captured a number of Austrian guns on the Montello, and have recaptured there, I believe, half of the puns which the Austrians had captured from the Italian Army in the first offensive. In the South a very tenacious rearguard action is being fought, in order to be able to secure their retreat across the two bridges.
That is the position at the present moment. The Austrian Army and the Austrian Empire have committeed the whole of their strength to a great offensive, and have had inflicted upon them one of the greatest and most disastrous defeats of the War; and that at a time when there is serious discontent in Austria—very serious discontent—when three-fifths of the population are completely out of sympathy with the objects of the War—as a matter of fact, they are far more in sympathy with the aims of the Allies—when three-fifths of the population know perfectly well that their only chance of winning—their only chance of achieving anything in the nature of freedom for 786 themselves—is to secure a great Allied victory; and at a time when the whole of the Austrian prisoners belonging to one great powerful race in Austria are actually congregating together in order to come over to fight on the Allied side in Siberia—the Czech-Slovak troops. All this is a matter full of significance, and, I venture to say, full of hope.
We have naturally been impressed by the very grave events upon the Western Front. And the danger is not over. We must not pretend that it is. It would be a mistake to imagine that it is. But whatever our difficulties, the difficulties of the Central Powers are infinitely greater. The population has been driven by hunger not merely to something in the nature of discontent and sedition, but even in several most important cities of Austria to revolt. More than half the Austrian Empire sympathises with the objects of the countries with whom that Empire is at war. And the Central Powers have other difficulties in other countries—in Bulgaria and in Turkey. I am pointing these things out, not in order to raise false hopes, but in order to emphasise one thing again and again. All we need do is to keep steady, to endure, to stand fast, and I have not the faintest doubt, surveying the whole position, looking at the whole of the facts, that our victory will be a complete one.
§ Mr. ASQUITH
I desire to associate not only myself, but, I think, the whole House, with the congratulations which my right hon. Friend has offered to our gallant Allies in Italy, first of all for their marvellous steadfastness in confronting a most formidable attack, and then for the brilliant dash and power of initiative and of aggression which they have shown with such success during the last week. As my right hon. Friend has, I think without any exaggeration, said, it is one of the most remarkable performances in the War, and it has filled us with the greatest possible hope for the future.
I am not going to say more than a few words in regard to the remainder of the speech to which we have just listened. I entirely endorse the protest which the Prime Minister made against the introduction by the hon. and gallant Gentleman who sits below the Gangway (Brigadier-General Croft) of what seems to me not only an irrelevant, but an unworthy topic, which ought never to have been raised on an occasion like this. 787 The charge, such as it was, which he thought it worth his while to put forward and worth the while of the House to listen to, was, as far as we can understand, supported—and supported only—with materials which, as far as I know, the hon. and gallant Gentleman had no right to use, and which could only have come to him by some gross breach of confidence, which I hope will be discovered, with the consequences that ought to follow to an offender so lost to all sense of propriety in the public service.
Passing from that—I am very sorry it should have been necessary to make any allusion to it—there are only two points to which I should like for a mement to refer. When I expressed the opinion a week ago that, in the stage which we have now reached in the War, it was desirable that the Government should keep the country in as full possession as is compatible with the prosecution of the campaign of all available material, be it favourable or adverse—indeed that, if they saw fit, it might be expedient that we should have periodical statements—I expressly made the reservation, from the experience I have had, that that was not to be considered in any sense a demand for a disclosure of information which would be in any way prejudicial to ourselves or helpful to the enemy. But there is a good deal that could be told, and I think ought to be told, not spasmodically, but, if possible, systematically and periodically, which could be told without injury to the country, and with very great advantage to public intelligence and public spirit. Beyond that I do not go, and, just by way of illustration, the information I should not desire is information which, to a large extent, is based upon the relative forces at any-given time which are arrayed against one another. I think—I am perfectly sure—in the first place, that it is extremely difficult; if not impossible, for anybody to give that information. It must rest, to a large extent, upon guesswork, conjecture, even upon imagination. It is not information—if I may express my own judgment frankly—which the public has a right to demand, and it is not information which it is in the interests of the cause in which we are engaged that the Government could be expected to give. That is the last kind of information for which I am asking or have in my mind.
788 On the other hand—to take another instance the other way in which, I think, it is very desirable that we should know—the right hon. Gentleman has been telling us this afternoon now in tills phase of the campaign, this, that, or the other army has encountered and repelled, as in most cases it has, the attacks of the enemy. We do not know—we know very little, at any rate—of the achievements of our different armies. Most of us are concerned—I suppose everybody here, and most people outside, have got relatives, or friends, or acquaintances, or constituents of their own serving in these different forces—and it would enormously hearten the different parts of the country where the gallant units comprised in these various divisions and corps are recruited, if they could, from time to time, hear a little more of what this particular corps, division, or army is accomplishing in, the face of the enemy. That is information which, after the event, at any rate, might very safely be given in greater copiousness and greater detail than hitherto has been the case. As I said before, I am as guilty as anyone in this House of the crime—if it be a crime—of reticence. I practised It, as my right hon. Friend knows—I suppose he is in very much the same position—not because it was my own inclination, but in deference to military and naval judgment, which we are bound to respect. Every civilian would be only too glad to disclose every taing—perhaps more than is expedient—to this House and country, but you must restrain yourself to a large extent by what expert naval and military opinion prescribes.
The other point on which I want to say a word is one to which I adverted last week, and that is our relation to Russia. It is quite true, as the Prime Minister has said, that it would be a misnomer to speak of any power which now exists in that country as the "Government of the country." I should not describe it myself as a case of the co-existence of a number of Governments, but rather as the absence of any Government. One very often means the other, and in this case it certainly does. Practically, if you look at Russia as a whole—as a unit—there is no Government in Russia at this moment, and that is one of the great difficulties of the situation. That goes to the very root of the question, and the suggestions I make, I think, are perfectly well understood—I understand they are not in any way dissented from by the Government— 789 and they are these: My right hon. Friend says, it is all very well to be ready to help Russia; but are you sure Russia wants you? I think it is very important Russia should know—and by Russia here I mean, not the Russian Government, but the Russian people, which does exist, which, as the Prime Minister says, is growing dissatisfied to discover what are the real ulterior intentions and purposes of Germany, and in which there is an opinion, it may be crude, it may be immature, it may be almost embryonic, but an opinion held by them hostile to German designs and German control.
I think it is of the utmost importance that we should let the Russian people, among whom that phase of opinion is germinating, be assured in the most unequivocal and surest terms that we are their friends, and not merely their friends in the sentimental sense, but friends whose friendship is in no way cooled or impaired by the disastrous defection of the Russian Government of the past, but who believe that the real, permanent, and enduring interests of the Russian people are at least as strongly enlisted in the purposes and causes of the Allies as those of any other member of the Allied Powers. In fact, as I said last week, and I repeat to-day, I wish it could be known in Russia as clearly as it is understood here, that Russia has more to gain from the victory of the Allies, and she has more to lose by the victory of Germany, than any other people in the whole civilised world.
Let us with no uncertain and no divided voice send that message to the Russian people, and let us, as and when opportunity offers, be prepared to back it up by every means, diplomatic or otherwise, which the circumstances of the case allow. The difficulties are enormous, but I doubt not the Government know them; and if we do not know them we can conjecture them. Sometimes they present themselves—I will not say more than that—in unexpected forms. The difficulties are very great. They have to be surmounted. To surmount them requires patience as well as tact. I hope I am not pressing the matter unduly, and I do not wish to do so, but I do strongly urge my right hon. Friend—in these matters of such vital importance to the Allied cause as well as to Russia—to leave no step untried to bring about amongst the Allied Powers such a frame of mind and such a course of action as will enable us to bring into real and active operation those latent forces in 790 Russia which, I am certain, are glowingly upon our side. I do not think I can usefully add more on that point upon matters in regard to which one must speak with considerable reserve and caution. I am satisfied, however, that not only here in this country, but among all the partners in our Alliance, no consideration of any sort ought to weigh more strongly than the association of the Russian people with our common policy.
§ Mr. D. MASON
I should like, in a word, to say how I support what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Asquith) in regard to Russia. The Prime Minister referred to the condition of Austria. I desire to draw the attention "of my Noble Friend (Lord Robert Cecil) to two speeches which have recently been made by Baron Burian, the Austro-Hungarian Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. These speeches are so remarkable that I believe they will draw from the Noble Lord a reply, and, in any case, the matter is, I think, well worthy the attention of the House. The first speech to which I would refer is one by Baron Burian, who replied in it to a speech made by Lord Milner on the 8th of this month. Baron Burian said in reference to this speechLord Milner's speech (reported in the 'Times' of 15th June) once more affords a deep insight into the psychology of our enemies. In it expression is again given to our opponents' desire to represent the war aim of the Central Powers as an emanation of the intention ascribed to the Germans to obtain domination not only over their opponents but also over their own Allies. Our Peace treaties with Russia and Roumania have in this latest case been represented as an illustration of this lust of domination. Have, then, the Russians come under foreign domination by the conclusion of peace with the Soviet Republic? Or would, perhaps, a victorious Britain have treated any colony of our Allies more mildly than we have acted towards Roumania? But our opponent does not dispute that, and by the portrayal of the awful consequences of this plan ascribed to us of enslaving the world the peoples of the Entente are to be convinced of the necessity of battling desperately until they are completely exhausted.The second speech, which has just been reported by Reuter, was one made by Baron Burian in response to a resolution passed by the Labour Council of Vienna. In his reply, Baron Burian made this most remarkable statement. The resolution passed by this very representative council emphasised the urgent necessity for bringing about a speedy improvement of the 791 food conditions—a subject to which the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister referred. We all know the grave condition to which Austria is at present reduced, almost, as the Prime Minister said, amounting to famine and hunger throughout the Austrian Empire. The resolution of the Vienna Labour Council pointed this out, and then went on to ask for the attainment of a general peace or understanding, for which, in given circumstances, the Government should take the initiative, and the establishment of a League of Nations. A remarkable statement was made by Baron Burian in reply to that resolution. This, happening on Saturday, shows it is a most recent statement by a responsible Minister of the Central Powers. Baron Burian said that he was conscious of the great importance of the food question, and was constantly endeavouring energetically to promote negotiations with Germany regarding a reciprocal food supply. He then went on to say:Regarding peace, our policy has undergone no change, since, as before, we are solely waging a war of defence. It is far from our thoughts to prolong the War for a single day for conquests of any kind or the attainment of Imperialistic aims. Should an inclination to negotiate show itself on the part of our opponents they would always find us ready to enter into discussions to conclude a peace which would be acceptable and honourable for both sides.I believe the Noble Lord will agree that that is a statement which may be regarded as a very responsible one. If it be accurate it is, I think, an advance, and the most remarkable one, which has yet been made by the Central Powers. It entirely confirms the statement made by the Prime Minister as to the conditions which many of us know have for some time been present in Austria, and it follows the speech—the very moderate speech—made by our own Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in this House last Thursday. While still adhering firmly to our original attitude in regard to secret treaties, it is taken, collectively, that we are not to be regarded as appearing to oppose any reasonable offer being considered by the Allies. Here then is this statement which I have just read to the House, and which, if words mean anything, is a very distinct indication on the part of the Central Powers for further "conversations." The responsible Minister must, of course, have read the speech delivered by the right hon. Gentleman 792 the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and when the Austro-Hungarian Minister makes a speech of the character I have quoted, that should this country show any inclination to negotiate they are prepared to enter in to discussions to conclude peace which would be acceptable and honourable for both sides, it seems to me, and I think to many Members who take the trouble to study these two announcements—of our own Secretary for Foreign Affairs and of the Austro-Hungarian Minister—all it requires now is for some golden bridge to be formed, or for some neutral Power to supply the connecting link, so that these discussions and conversations may be still further developed. I hope, therefore, although I have given the Noble Lord very short notice to raise this matter, and I, therefore, cannot expect, in the nature of things, that he should be prepared to commit the Government to any further declaration of policy than that which we already know, that on consideration of the most remarkable utterance on the part of Baron Burian I trust we shall get at least a sympathetic reply. For here is a very distinct invitation on the part of Austria-Hungary to offer to conclude a peace with us and with our Allies. It seems to me that that is worth, and I have no doubt it will receive, some consideration by the Noble Lord and possibly further consideration by the Government of which he is a member.
I would like, further, to call attention to a recent statement made by Mr. Lansing, in which he said,The American people, by a gradual process of reasoning, have reached the firm conviction that a German victory in the European struggle would result in the greatest peril to this country and to those principles which have been ours since we became an independent nation.That is a statement to which we would all subscribe. I think there is no exception to it. I should like, further, to call attention to what Viscount Grey said the other day at the conclusion of his pamphlet. We hear a great deal as to the destruction of militarism. Mr. Lansing goes on to elaborate that point in his speech. Viscount Grey, however, finally concludes his remarkable pamphlet with these words:When those—He is referring to Germany—who accept this idea and this sort of peace can in word and deed speak for Germany—That is to say, a peace based on a League of Nations—we shall be within sight of a good peace.793 I should like to remind the Noble Lord of the fact, that is doubtless not absent from his memory, that on a previous occasion Germany had said she was prepared to join such a League, and she tried to show that she was enthusiastic about the idea. She said she was prepared to head such a League. I did not read into that the interpretation that some people did when they said she meant that she desired to dominate. Rather I should have thought she wanted to show her enthusiasm for the idea. Some may doubt that! Still, the fact remains she did say that. When a statesman occupying a position similar to that which Viscount Grey occupied in the counsels of Europe says that when Germany is prepared to take the view I have mentioned, then we are not far from a good peace—taken, I say, the statement of Viscount Grey in conjunction with those made by Baron Burian, there are elements which, without being unduly sanguine, offer some encouragement, and perhaps hope, that peace conversations may be developed, and still further extended.
§ The MINISTER of BLOCKADE (Lord Robert Cecil)
I do not think my hon. Friend will desire that I should make an elaborate statement in answer to what he has just said. I shall say a few words, and a few words only. Naturally the statement made by Baron Burian has been brought to our notice. I cannot say that it impresses me very much as a serious contribution towards peace discussions. What does he say? He says:They would always find us ready to enter into discussions to conclude a peace which would be acceptable and honourable for both sides.7.0 P.M.
There is nothing there but a mere phrase. It comes to nothing at all by itself. I cannot forget two things about Baron Burian when I am asked to attach great importance to a statement made by him. In the first place, it is known that he is the nominee of Count Tisza, who I believe to be as responsible as any man in Europe for this deplorable War. In the second place, only the other day the same Baron Burian made a speech, in which he explained with great emphasis that Austro-Hungary was completely and indissolubly united with Germany in the War. He said:The complete unity of our group in the struggle and in our war aims is our strength.I see nothing in the present speech of Baron Burian to recede from that. Therefore what we have to consider with 794 regard to Germany's war aims is what is consistent with what he would call an acceptable and honourable peace to both sides. That being so, I am afraid I cannot regard this as a very serious communication of any readiness for such a peace as this country can accept. Baron Burian says he has always been ready for such a peace. We have asked, and asked in vain over and over again, for a clear and definite statement of the war aims of the Central Empires. The Allies have given such a statement, but we have never yet had any reply to our reptated requests made in this House and other places. All we do know is what they have done. We see the peace that Germany has made when Germany has been ready to make it. It is a peace of a kind that would be, disastrous if it was to be imitated in the general European settlement. It consists in the subjugation of every nationality which Germany has been able to overrun by the force of her arms. I read the other day a description of what it amounts to. I will not give the actual authority, but it was from an Austrian source and not too highly coloured. It said this:The treaty which is to-day published confirms the apprehensions which have been aroused by the communication of Count Czernin regarding negotiations at Bukarest. It is not a peace by understanding; it does not realise the principle of concluding a peace without annexations and contributions. It brings to Austria-Hungary a very considerable increase of territory. The iron gates are secured by a fundamental alteration of the frontier. Along the whole frontier to Transylvania, the summits of the mountain chain which used to belong to Roumania fall to Hungary.It concludes in this way:It is no peace without annexations and also no peace without contributions. Roumania is not indeed openly and expressly compelled to the payment of a war indemnity, but in a hidden form economic contributions are laid upon Roumania. She has to pay for the maintenance of the Army of occupation including the requisitions required for it. Even after the conclusion of peace the country is occupied by the Central Powers: railways, post offices, mineral oil wells, industrial undertakings, remain under the military administration of the Army of occupation. German military courts can judge Roumanian citizens, German commanders are entitled to issue orders to Roumanian civil authorities. Roumania, deserted by Russia and threatened in the rear by the occupation of the Ukraine, had to submit to these conditions. Germany and Austria-Hungary could carry through what they wished, but many here will doubt if it was clever to make this use of the power which we had,and so on. That is what the Central 795
Powers have done. Until they show that they seriously and genuinely regard their action at Brest-Livotsk and elsewhere, it is useless to cite general statements by Austrian statesmen as any indication that they are really desirous of a peaceful settlement which could form the basis of an enduring settlement of the European situation.
§ Sir R. COOPER
I desire to make some observations on the statement which the Prime Minister has recently made in answer to the case put forward by the hon. and gallant Member for Christchurch (General Croft). In my opinion, the answer which the Prime Minister made to that case is extremely unsatisfactory from the point of view of public life in this country. For my part, I entirely associate myself with my hon. and gallant Friend in bringing this case forward, and I readily accept full responsibility with him in bringing it before the House to-day. As this House knows, some of us have for some time been driven to the conclusion that this country has suffered very very grievously indeed during the War, and generally for fifteen years before the War, from the fact that as we regard it, the standard of public life in this country has deteriorated, and is very different from the traditions and character of the public men which in bygone days have made this country what it is. There are two reasons why we consider it a public duty that this matter should be brought forward. No one will appreciate more readily than the Prime Minister himself, who is really the custodian of the honour of the House and responsible for the proper behaviour and actions of the Members of the House, that there is attached to the privilege of membership of this House a responsibility greater than, perhaps, attaches to any other public man in this country, and, if we believe, as we do, that the case in point is one which ought not to be lightly passed over, touching, as it does, a Member of this House, who has, I have no doubt, as the Prime Minister said, rendered very strenuous and valuable service to the country during the War, just as a majority of the Members of this House have done, yet, in a case like that, more than in any other, if, in our judgment, there is a wrong action, we are bound, as a matter of duty, to bring it forward. There are certain principles with 796 regard to the standard of public life which nobody, however humble they may be, can disregard. There is a second reason for bringing this matter forward. Anyone who moves about the country, especially in commercial circles and in the city, is constantly hearing suggestions made that of those people who hold public positions and public power in the administration of this War, there are some, at any rate, who are using it to their own general advantage. Whether that be true or false, there is, I am afraid, no doubt whatever that there is very considerable suspicion amongst the public that that is the case, and the greatest service that can be rendered is to clear up any cases as they may arise, so that the public may feel that their suspicions, at any rate, are confined within their own limits, and that whenever there is an opportunity of bringing a matter to light, it will be done.
The Prime Minister, in the first part of his speech, expressed surprise that this matter had been raised on the Consolidated Fund Bill. I understand my hon. and gallant Friend was to have asked a question this afternoon with the intention of obtaining leave to move the Adjournment, but as the Consolidated Fund Bill was coming before the House, and as that is an occasion on which any hon. Member can raise any question that relates generally to the administration of the War can be raised, he considered that that was a fitting opportunity for him to raise this question, and probably he would not have been granted leave to move the Adjournment had he asked for it. Now I come to the Prime Minister's speech. As I understood it there were two points of defence put before the House by the right hon. Gentleman. But before I take those two points I would say a word as to what fell both from the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House and later on from the Leader of the Opposition with regard to the fact that documents had come into the possession of my hon. and gallant Friend which were official and, therefore, privileged documents which ought not to have been handed over even to a Member of this House. I am acquainted with all the circumstances of this matter. These papers were sent anonymously to the National party, and my hon. and gallant Friend has done nothing in any way whatever to get the information. He did put a question to-day with the object of 797 ascertaining if the facts as stated were true, and he proposed to base on the answer to that question a Motion for Adjournment, but the answer given by the Secretary to the Admiralty admitted that the facts were as stated. Now I come to the two points of defence put forward by the Prime Minister. The first was that there was a great difficulty in getting ore, which is, of course, urgently wanted for war material, and the second was that this was not the only firm that got this privilege.
Take the first point. It is quite true it is difficult to get the amount of ore which this country wants for the prosecution of the War, but I submit to the House that all people interested in shipping, even those who do not carry food or ore, are equally interested and will be equally serving a national advantage if in any way their services can be improved, or their voyages be expedited. Therefore, that point of defence does not attach particularly to this case, any more than it would attach to the case of other steamers and vessels sailing the ocean. The second point is more important, and as it has been answered by the Government, it should not be loft exactly where it is. It is that this firm is not the only one that got this privilege. The right hon. Gentleman said that this accusation against the right hon. Member for East Worcestershire (Mr. Leverton Harris) is nothing but persecution. But the House may recollect that on 18th March of this year a direct question was put to the Secretary to the Admiralty with regard to priority in cabling, and two years after the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Worcestershire made this appeal for priority we are told by the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty that no general instructions had been given and that priority was only granted for cables on Government business, and that each case has been judged on its merits. If that is true, and it is taken from the OFFICIAL REPORT, the Prime Minister's statement that other firms are enjoying this same privilege is not consistent with the facts, and he has been misinformed by some of his officials. The right hon. Gentleman himself urged at Question Time to-day, in a personal explanation, that he took this action in the national interest in connection with ships carrying food or ore, or both, to this country. It may be true that priority granted to this firm in certain specific cases might have 798 some advantage in some particular sailings in material to this country, but our complaint is that the right hon. Gentleman did not ask for this priority in the national interest for all ships, but only for the ships with which his own firm was associated and that is a material point. If he had asked for this privilege as a general one for all shipping it would have been just to other shipowners, and it would have been beyond reproach, but he asked for this privilege solely for his own firm, and anyone with any knowledge of shipping knows perfectly well that priority in cabling with regard to ships, freights and other things can be of enormous financial advantage to the persons owning the particular ships in question.
I hold, in view of the facts that have been disclosed, that the right hon. Gentleman did use his official position to obtain a personal financial advantage which was not granted to all his competitors, and that seems to me to be an abuse of official power, and if it is condoned by the Prime Minister on behalf of the Government, and if the Government condone what has happened, and if the Leader of the Opposition agrees, in my judgment if this kind of thing is going to be condoned there is a very poor outlook for the future public life of this country. Until there is a much more satisfactory reply or explanation of the case which my hon. and gallant Friend has put forward, I shall not rest content with this matter being left where it is, and I shall not hesitate to raise any other case of a similar character that may come to my notice. I deplore the attitude taken by the Government this afternoon, in the absence of any clear and convincing statement from the head of the Government that we are labouring under a delusion, that the facts of the case are not as stated, and that the right hon. Gentleman has done nothing on his own behalf that was not equally done for a number of other firms in the country. As the matter rests, there is grave injustice lying against ail shipping firms who do not enjoy this priority in cabling.
If anybody should speak further for the Government, I hope we shall be encouraged to think that a little more consideration is going to be given to this matter. If it is left as it is, then it is going to have a very bad influence on the country generally. Many cases have cropped up during the administration of 799 the War. Perhaps some months may pass between them and we are apt to forget them, but I doubt very much whether the public generally forget these matters as readily as hon. Members. From the early days of the War up to the present time there has been a very unpleasant tabulation of cases, not confined to Members of this House, but a number of cases that do affect men who have power and position of great responsibility, which, so far as we have been able to judge, they have abused to their own advantage. I do not see that my hon. Friend and I can do anything more to-day beyond protest that there has been no fair and square answer to the case as submitted to this House by my hon. and gallant Friend. We are powerless to do anything more for the moment, and we have to leave the matter where it is; but I may say that in this and other cases we are determined to the best of our ability, where we believe public interest is to be served, and where anything can be done to keep up the standard of public life higher than has prevailed for the last fifteen years, we are going to do everything in our power to achieve that desirable end.
§ Mr. HOGGE
One of the disadvantages of the Debate on the Third Reading of this measure is the manner in which prominent members of the Government deal with their subjects, and, having delivered their speeches, disappear from the House, presumably to get on with the War. I have listened to a great number of Third Reading Debates on large issues, but I confess that I never listened to two speeches—one from the Prime Minister and the other from the ex-Prime Minister—which were less suited to the occasions and which dealt with material of so little importance to the relevancy of the subjects before the House. It is useless to debate this point, as neither the Prime Minister nor the ex-Prime Minsiter is present, but it is useful to put on record, shortly, what one thinks of the way in which these subjects are dealt with in this House. Hon. Members will recall the circumstance that last week the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Fife made a speech in this House in which he demanded information. The second portion of his speech was confined to exaltations in regard to the Government and its policy in Russia, but the important part of his speech was the demand for information; and when the ex-Prime 800 Minister gets up and asks for information those of us who are not ex-Prime Ministers, and who, therefore, have not access to the sources of information which are open to ex-Prime Ministers, obviously wonder at the meaning of the demand coming from him with the authority of an ex-Prime Minister. The Member for East Fife asked for information, and I naturally thought he was in possession of information which those of us in other parts of the House could not possibly have; and when one heard, as one did, the Member for East Fife state in his speech that the position to-day, particularly on the Western Front, was one of as much gravity and peril as in the month of September, 1914, then obviously one desires to follow that point up.
I made a speech last Tuesday in which I put the point to the Leader of the House of Commons, who was then present, as to whether he agreed with the Member for East Fife in the statement he made from the bench opposite with regard to the gravity and peril of the position to-day as compared with September, 1914, and the Leader of the House agreed that that was perfectly right. He agreed that the position to-day was as grave and as perilous as it was in September, 1914, and those facts having been asked for by the Member for East Fife, the right hon. Gentleman gave a pledge to the House that either he himself or the Prime Minister would come down to-day and answer not only the speech of the hon. Member for East Fife, but the other speeches made that day asking for information. Naturally, when the Prime Minister rose to-day, I expected to hear an answer to the speeches which had been made last Tuesday—in fact, I was led to assume that because the Prime Minister assured the House that for the purposes of this Debate he had studied all the speeches made in that Debate before he came down to the House. If the Prime Minister had done that, which I very much doubt, he would have known the points which were raised on Tuesday. I suggest that the Prime Minister did not deal with a single point that was raised in the Debate on Tuesday.
The first speech that was made from the ordinary benches of the House of Commons last Tuesday was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Roch), who put four specific questions to the Government, every one of which dealt with a point to which the 801 House of Commons was entitled to have an answer. One of those points raised a very serious question to a great many Members of the House. It was described as the spatch-cocking of British troops with the French troops on the line in the West, and the Member for Pembroke asked whether we could have any information with regard to that method, and as to what it meant and what was behind it, and as to what might happen in the case of which, God forbid, there should be a French defeat south of Amiens. The Member for Pembroke raised the very vital question of the treatment of the wounded of those British divisions that were spatch-cocked with the French divisions, and he pointed out from information available from him, from his own friends and others, that on a recent occasion, on account of the very fact that the British troops had been spatch-cocked in that way, the British wounded had to undergo sufferings comparable to the sufferings endured by the wounded in Mesopotamia.
Now, the hon. Member for Pembroke is not an extravagant Member of this House, and is not given to expressing extravagant views about anything, or putting too high a construction upon facts, but the Prime Minister never replied to him. Surely there was a point with which the Prime Minister could have dealt in regard to the speeches delivered last Tuesday if he had really wanted to reply! Surely he could have said whether or not precautions had been taken to look after the British wounded who were wounded under those conditions, and whether those conditions obtained on the Western Front! But not a syllable of information was vouchsafed. Then I myself raised the point by way of an interruption, and I pointed out to the Prime Minister that the facts he was giving to the House of Commons were entirely different to the facts he gave to the House in Secret Session, and he told me that I had no right to reveal any facts that were given in Secret Session. I have never revealed any of those facts, and it would be rather interesting to know when he says one was revealing facts given in Secret Session. The Prime Minister nor any other member of the Government, when they come in open session to give facts, and make statements about similar facts and statements given in Secret Session and give them 802 differently, cannot expect honest men to sit and agree with them and say nothing about it. So long as I am in this House, and upon every opportunity I have outside this House, I shall say what I said to-day in my interruption, that the Prime Minister does not give the same facts in Secret Session as he does in open Session when dealing with the same subjects. He conceals the facts, but for what purpose I do not know, and I do not mean to debate at the moment. That is the truth, whatever the Prime Minister may care to say about it.
I now come to the reply made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Fife. I was almost as astounded at the reply given by the ex-Prime Minister to the Prime Minister as I was at the speech of the Prime Minister. Last Tuesday the ex-Prime Minister got up in the House, and, with the weight of his authority, put a position to us and to the country which suggested that to-day the situation on the West was as grave and as perilous as in September, 1914, but to-day, when the Prime Minister refuses to give him any information, the ex-Prime Minister says, "Oh, I did not mean that. All I meant last Tuesday was: Could you not give us some more facts about the various regiments and divisions in which we are all interested and in which some of us have relatives or friends or constituents? That is the kind of thing that I meant, and that ought to be given regularly." I remember when the ex-Prime Minister sat on this side of the House and refused to give the same kind of information for which I thought he was asking, and which the Prime Minister refused to give to-day. Why should we discuss anything at all in this House if it is going to be discussed in that artificial way? It is either true or false, as was stated by the ex-Prime Minister and by the Leader of this House here a week ago. If it is true, then to debate the subject as it has been debated this afternoon and for the House to be content to leave it there is absolutely ridiculous. It is all very well to ride away on the Italian success. I am very glad that the Italians have succeeded on this occasion, and I would like to see their success as complete as possible, but if the facts are as stated to the House by these two responsible Members it will not help us on the West. It is not worth discussing it in an empty House, and when the responsible Ministers are absent, and I do not mean to discuss it. I only rose for a 803 few minutes in order to get the protest on to the Notes of the House, so that subsequently those of us who do take an interest in these matters, and who are not connected with the Government will be able to point to the fact that we were dissatisfied with the position taken up both by the Prime Minister and by the ex-Prime Minister, and that we at any rate were not bluffed by the legerdemain exercised by both Benches with regard to the essential facts of a very serious situation.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the third time, and passed.