HC Deb 01 July 1919 vol 117 cc924-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.


I desire to call the attention of the House to the attack made by Lord French upon Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien in his book, 1914, and to the refusal of the Army Council to allow the latter to reply.

In the first official despatch Lord (then Sir John) French, stated that "the concentration of the British Expeditionary Force was completed on 21st August, when our troops took up their position on the Mons-Condé line. On 23rd August they received the first attack, and that evening they commenced to retreat, and by the night of the 24th readied the Maubeuge line. The next morning, the 25th, the retreat was continued to the Le Cateau line, which was reached about six p.m. by the Second Army Corps, under the command of Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien."

It should be remembered that Sir Horace was not originally in command of the Second Army Corps. When the Expeditionary Force left England, Sir James Grierson was its commander, but he died in the train on his way to his corps headquarters. Lord French's book says: His place was taken by Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, although I asked that Sir Herbert Plumer might be sent out to me to succeed Grierson in command of the 2nd Corps. As a matter of fact, the question of Sir James Grier-son's successor was not referred to me at all. The appointment was made at home. Although I knew Sir Horace to be a soldier who had done good service and possessed a fine record, I had asked for Sir Herbert Plumer because I felt-he was the right man for this command. As I have stated, the Second Army Corps under Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien had reached Le Cateau at 6 p.m. on the evening of 25th August. The Official Dispatch states: At daybreak of the 26th it became apparent that the enemy was throwing the bulk of his strength against the left of the position occupied by the 2nd Corps and the 4th Division. At the time the guns of four German Army Corps were in position against them, and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien reported to me that he judged it impossible to continue his retirement at daybreak (as ordered) in face of such an attack. I sent him orders to use his utmost endeavours to break off the action and retire at the earliest possible moment, as it was impossible for me to send him any support, the 1st Corps being at the moment incapable of movement. There had been no time to entrench the position properly, but the troops showed a magnificent front to the terrible fire which confronted them. The artillery, although outmatched by at least four to one, made a splendid fight, and inflicted heavy losses on their opponents. At length it became apparent that, if complete annihilation was to be avoided, a retirement must be attempted; and the order was given to commence it about 3.30 p.m. The movement was covered with the most devoted intrepidity and determination by the Artillery, which had itself suffered heavily, and the fine work done by the Cavalry in the further retreat from the position assisted materially in the final completion of this most difficult and dangerous operation. Fortunately the enemy had himself suffered too heavily to engage in an energetic pursuit. I cannot close the brief account of this glorious stand of the British troops without putting on record my deep appreciation of the valuable services rendered by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. I say without hesitation that the saving of the left wing of the Army under my command on the morning of the 26th August could never have been accomplished unless a commander of rare and unusual coolness, intrepidity, and determination had been present to personally conduct the operations. In a later despatch, dated 8th October, 1914, covering the operations to the end of September, Sir John French made the following statement: I further wish to bring forward the names of the following officers who have rendered valuable service: General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig (commanding First and Second Corps respectively) whom I have already mentioned in the present and former despatches for particularly marked and distinguished service in critical situations. Since the commencement of the campaign they have carried out all my orders and instructions with the utmost ability. Such is the official Report made by Sir John French, as Commander-in-Chief. Let us now turn to the unofficial Report given by Lord French in his book. It agrees with the official Report to the time of 6 p.m. on 25th August, when the Second Army Corps reached Le Cateau. But in the book he withdraws his appreciation of Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and accuses him of having jeopardised the whole retreat to the Marne by his decision to make a stand at Le Cateau. Let me quote from the book: Colonel Ansell, commanding the 5th Dragoon Guards, one of the finest Cavalry leaders in the Army, who fell at the head of his regiment a few days later, gave information to General Allenby at about 2 a.m. on the 26th regarding the nature of the German advance. This seemed of such great importance that the latter at once sought out Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and warned him that, unless he was prepared to continue his march at daybreak, he would most probably be pinned down to his position and would be unable to get away. Sir Horace asked General Allenby what, in his opinion, were the chances he had if he remained and held the position, adding that he felt convinced his troops were so exhausted as to preclude the possibility of removing them for some hours to come. Allenby's reply was that he thought, unless the commander of the 2nd Corps made up his mind to move at daybreak, the enemy probably would succeed in surrounding him. Nevertheless, Sir Horace determined to fight. As to this decision, a commander on the spot, and in close touch with his division and brigades, is in the best position to judge of what his men can do. I had, late on the evening of the 25th, before leaving for my headquarters at St. Quentin, visited several units of the 2nd Corps in their bivouacs and, though tired indeed, they had not struck me as being worn-out troops. By the break of day on the 2Gth, the 5th Division on the right had secured several hours' rest. The same may be said of the 8th and 9th Brigades, which came next in the lino. The 7th Brigade had only just arrived at cantonments at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. on the 25th, after a heavy day's march and some severe fighting, but they could in such an emergency have marched at dawn. The 4th Division on the left of the 2nd Corps was comparatively fresh. The enemy had hurried forward a large force of Artillery, composed of guns and howitzers of all calibres, escorted and protected by four Cavalry Divisions and a limited number of Jager battalions. These troops were pushed forward against the 2nd Corps at Le Cateau as they had been against the 1st Corps at Landrecies, and with a precisely similar purpose. The superb gallantry of the troops, and the skilful leading by divisional and brigade and battalion commanders, helped very materially by the support given by Allenby and, as I afterwards learned, by Sordet and d' Amade, saved the 2nd Corps, which otherwise would assuredly have been pinned to their ground and then surrounded. The Cavalry might have made good their retreat, but three out of five divisions of the British Army with the 7th Brigade must have been lost. The enemy, flushed by this primary victory, would have pressed in on the flanks of the 1st Corps, cut off their retreat, and, continuing his combined front and flank attack, would have almost certainly pushed the whole Allied Army off their line of retreat, and a stupendous repetition of Sedan might well have resulted. The magnificent fight put up by these glorious troops saved disaster; but the actual result was a total Joss of at least 14,000 officers and men, about eighty guns, numbers of machine guns, as well as quantities of ammunition, war material and baggage, whilst the enemy gained time to close up his Infantry columns, marching down from the north-east, at the cost of losses not greater than, if as great, as oar own, but which were, in view of the immense superiority he possessed in numbers and fighting power, infinitely less important to him. The effect upon the British Army was to render the subsequent conduct of the retreat more difficult and arduous. If no further official statement is to be made, the ordinary layman will probably come to the following conclusion: Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was in a position of great responsibility and danger. His men were weary, and the enemy wore pressing him with an overwhelming superiority of men and guns. He decided that a further retreat could not be successfully carried out unless a blow was first inflicted on the enemy, a conclusion which appears undoubtedly true. The blow was successfully administered, as Sir John French stated in the official dispatch, '' Fortunately, the enemy had himself suffered too heavily to engage in an energetic pursuit," and the retreat was continued, after a loss of, Lord French says, 14,000 officers and men, the number according to others competent to judge being under 8,000. It is important to consider how many officers and men would have been lost had the retreat been continued without striking a blow, with an enemy fresh, greatly superior in numbers, and unshaken by gun and rifle fire, at the heels of the weary, footsore men of the 2nd Army Corps. From the fact that Sir John French very highly praised Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien in the despatch sent to Lord Kitchener a week or two later we may conclude that at the time the Commander-in-Chief fully approved of the decision taken, and that it was only after years had elapsed that he became wise after the event. But it should not be necessary for a mere layman to suggest these considerations. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien should either be allowed to speak for himself, or should have his case stated for him by the Secretary of State for War. One can understand that the discipline necessary in an Army does not make it possible for any and every officer who has a grievance to air it or who has been attacked to reply to it in a book or a newspaper article; but here you have a distinguished general, rightly honoured throughout the British Empire for many years of military services of the highest value, and he surely can expect and will receive justice concerning these attacks, which, in the opinion of most, should never have been made.

The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Churchill)

The hon. Gentleman at, Question Time said ho intended to raise a certain question on the Adjournment. After listening to his speech, which if I may say so was less an original composition than a judicious selection of extracts. I am at a loss to know to what precise question affecting the practical decision announced to the House he desires me to address myself. The question which he put on the paper certainly raised a point on which the House is entitled to an expression of opinion from the Government. But I think the hon. Gentleman himself has shown the absolute impracticability of our attempting to deal with the kind of highly technical and controversial issues involved in these military events. How are you to go into the relative merits of the action taken by Sir John French or Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien? History is the only tribunal which can be final, and I expect that history will deal with it in rather a lame fashion. I think all history has dealt with matters in a way which would be much disputed by people who were alive at the time. There are quite clear practical issues on this question, but I should like to say that my hon. Friend will not suppose that there is an entirely satisfactory or a complete answer to every question that is raised. Undoubtedly difficulties are found when partial disclosures are made, but the War Office have a limited function in. this matter and discharge it according to rule. We do not consider that a Field-Marshal unemployed is in a different position from that of a retired officer. We are advised— I took the trouble to have the matter carefully investigated—that the Governor of Gibraltar is in every sense of the word a military officer serving under the War Office. He is a serving soldier. We cannot-exercise jurisdiction over the publications of Field-Marshals who are unemployed. If so, the War Office would have quarrelled with Lord Roberts, Lord Wolseley, and otherwell-known and famous occupants of the rank of Field-Marshal. But we do claim jurisdiction over the serving soldier, and we consider, according to the advice that we have received, that Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien is a serving soldier, and we have forbidden him to publish any reply to the criticisms of his conduct which have been made by Lord French. Now we must do that because it is the rule, and if we were to abandon that rule. then you would have officers of every rank—


I rise to a point of Order. Is not Lord French Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in Ireland?


That is not n point of Order. If we were to abrogate that rule-we should undoubtedly find officers of every rank publishing and arguing matters of military and professional significance. But, Sir, at first sight this may appear to impose an undue hardship on Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. But does it, really? Someone has said some time ago, "Oh, that mine enemy would write a book !" and when I read some of the books which are published by officers of the naval as well as the military service—everyone is very ready to criticise Lord French, but Lord Jellicoe has also written a book which deals with very controversial topics—[Hon. Members: "Weekly Dispatch !"] An article is not a book. No one ever said, "Oh that mine enemy would write an article." Nearly all our enemies write articles, they hardly ever stop writing articles. But, broadly speaking, I say, is Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien injured by the fact that he is a serving soldier and that the War Office will not allow him to embark on a controversial discussion of this kind" I say, without hesitation, "No." He has an opportunity of laying his case before the Army Council and of asking whether they will allow him to publish his reply, and that we have communicated to him. But I do not think it is desirable at present that serving soldiers should take part in controversies of this kind, even if they have received what they call some provocation. But that is a matter in itself which deserves discussion, because books have been published greatly reflecting on the conduct of Lord French, which, it is alleged, have in some way derived their inspiration from General Smith-Dorrien. Further I am of the opinion that we must stick to the rule, even if it appears to work somewhat inequitably, and we must say that an officer who is a serving soldier must not take part in these controversies or make any publication which has not been previously approved by the War Office. I do not think the matter can end there. I am sure it is not going to end there if history comes along and will require to be informed of all sorts of facts that the public have received very erroneous impressions of during the War. Nothing has impressed me more than the number of points on which our nation has been entirely misled in regard to military and naval matters, and I dare say political matters too, in connection with the War. [An HON. MEMBER: "Antwerp !"] That is a matter in which I personally take a great deal of interest, but I am quite certain that those who will wait with patience and allow other people to write books will not be those who will suffer most severely from the premature judgment of contemporaries. As for history it will not care who got in first. It will come along on a much broader survey of these events. 1 am strongly of opinion that the proper course to adopt is to publish, when the moment arrives, which need not be long delayed, a definite series of publications laid on the Table of the House of Commons. consisting of authentic documents bearing on naval and military matters and episodes annoted and explained by the general staff of the Army and Navy, which shall provide for the whole nation the raw material, the basic dator to enable fair comment to be made. There is nothing better than authentic documents. Nobody cares or ought to care a row of buttons what a man said after the event or what he says he thought before the event. We should have the authentic documents which have governed the actual operations by land and sea and the propriety of such a. publication is at the present time being considered by the Government.


This was considered long ago.


The pressure of business has prevented this being arranged so far. The hon. Member always takes an unfavourable view of the Government. That is obvious. It is his special point of view—almost his unique point of view.


Is it not a fact that as long as two years ago questions were put and answered in this House that there is a body in existence which is actually producing, and has produced, the documents, the publication of which my right hon. Friend says the Government are considering?


They are in a box.


I know nothing about that. I do think the only way to deal with these difficulties is to stick to our rule that serving soldiers must not take part in these controversies, and, secondly, to publish at the earliest proper opportunity the authentic documents governing these important events; and, thirdly, I think we should remember in all these matters whatever documents are subsequently produced will not be docu- ments which throw blame or censure on this or that actor in the great drama which has now closed. They will all be documents which, however you may view them, will only relate to a series of events in which the British race and nation are entitled to take the greatest satisfaction, and in regard to which they may attribute to the actors in them the highest possible service that has been rendered to this country.


The time is almost gone, but there is sufficient for me to say that the answer which has been given by the right hon. Gentleman is thoroughly unsatisfactory. A charge has been made against an honourable officer who at present has the confidence of the Army Council and the country. He has no chance of reply. The Army Council have the facts before them, but they do not say, a word on his behalf. They allow the whole question to go down to the pallid shades of history.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes after Eleven o'clock.