HC Deb 05 March 1918 vol 103 cc1873-6

Hitherto, as the House knows, the Government has taken the view that it was not in the national interest to publish the tonnage figures of mercantile losses or merchant shipbuilding, but as the Leader of the House indicated the other day, that question has been further considered, and we are now in consultation with our Allies on the matter. The House will recollect that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Herbert Samuel), in addressing it last week, quoted certain figures of the numbers of British ships lost during recent months, and also during recent weeks, and from these figures he deduced that our losses were pursuing a straight line. He accused me in no indefinite terms of making a reassuring statement which was not in accordance with facts. I am sure that my right hon. Friend criticised my statement on the best information which was available to him, and it is, of course, the responsibility of the Government that he had not the information upon which I had based my statement. I wish, however, that it were possible that before doubts—which, if there is no foundation for them, must do great harm both at home and abroad—are publicly cast upon the bona fides of a statement made by me on this important matter, the views of the right hon. Gentleman could have been discussed between us.

It is within the recollection of the House that I have emphasised on several occasions the view that in dealing with a question of this kind it is not possible to obtain a proper perception of the course of events by taking the results of isolated short periods. I think that this view has been generally accepted as reasonable. I have stated clearly in this House and elsewhere that the curve of the losses of merchant shipping is continuing in a downward direction. That statement is as true to-day as it was on the occasion when previously made. It is quite true, as my right hon. Friend has pointed out, that there have been bad weeks and bad months. February was, in comparison with recent standards, a bad month, but, on the other hand, January was a good one. This fluctuation can be affected both by fortuity and design, the latter both on our part and on the part of the enemy. I have, before making this statement, again examined the curve of the loss of world's tonnage. Only two months of the' current quarter have elapsed, but, assuming the rate of loss in March to be as high as the rate of loss during the bad month of February—and this is a very fair assumption, because February was a bad month—I find that the falling curve to which I have previously referred is continued. I have with me a copy of this diagram—and I trust I am not infringing the Rules of the House in displaying it— from which it will be seen that the angle of depression experienced last year is continued for the first quarter of this year practically unaltered. As I have explained, it is necessary to make an estimate for the month of March in order thus prematurely to show the result on the quarterly diagram previously issued. The black line on the diagram shows the position up to the end of the last quarter. The red attachment is January and February, and adding the third month and assuming it is equally bad as the month of February, the curve is still going down.


Does that show the net or the gross loss?


This shows the gross loss of world's tonnage due to enemy action—the gross number of ships that have gone.


May I interrupt for one moment? I was dealing with British tonnage, and my figures were based solely upon the published figures of the Admiralty. These arc the only figures we have to go upon.


I said that, but I could have wished that we had talked the matter over before the right hon. Gentleman made his statement. I have dealt throughout with the curve of the world's tonnage, which is really the thing that matters. As illustrating the improvement in the rate of loss, the House will, I feel sure, be interested to learn that if, during the past five months ending the 28th February, the rate of loss had been maintained at the same level as for the immediately preceding quarter—that is, the third quarter of last year—not the second quarter, which was far higher—the shipping of the world would have been nearly 600,000 gross tons less than it is to-day. That shows, as I said, that I was perfectly correct in asserting that the curve is going steadily down. I maintain, and submit to the judgment of the House, that my statement was correct and justifiable. The main point is that the general trend of the figures of loss by enemy action is steadily improving. The loss of world's tonnage during the month of February is little more than half the loss sustained during the month of February last year. During the five months ended the 28th of February, 1918, the loss of world's tonnage is 10 per cent. less than the loss during the corresponding five months ended 28th February, 1917, and the House will remember that during four months of that period unrestricted submarine warfare had not been proclaimed by the enemy. So much for mercantile losses due to enemy action.

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