HL Deb 28 January 1808 vol 10 cc157-62
Lord Hawkesbury

said, he rose in pursuance of notice, to move a Vote of Thanks to the Officers employed in the expedition to Copenhagen, and in doing so he thought it would be only necessary to detain their lordships for a short time. This motion, he would premise, had no relation to the policy of that attack, it merely related to the execution of the service upon which that expedition was sent; and, were that expedition as unjust and unnecessary, as he thought it just and necessary, or as impolitic and unwise, as he thought it politic and wise, still he would contend that that would be no ground of opposition to a Vote of Thanks to those who had so ably and skilfully executed the services which that expedition required. In this case, he would put out of consideration the policy of the expedition, and confine himself to the manner in which its purpose had been carried into effect. The object of that expedition was undoubtedly of great magnitude and importance; that object was obtained by the skill and ability of the officers employed. The circumstances attending it were shortly these: In April last a large force was ordered to be prepared for the general purposes of the war, a part of which was subsequently sent to co-operate with the troops in Swedish Pomerania. When his majesty's government afterwards received intelligence of the circumstances attending the Treaty of Tilset, it was deemed adviseable to send a large force to Copenhagen, for the purpose of securing the Danish fleet, and preventing it from being used against this country. This force was got ready and sailed with the utmost promptitude, with a minister on board to negociate with the Danish court, and thereby prevent, if possible, the painful necessity of resorting to arms. A junction was to be formed with the troops in Pomerania, the commander of which was to take the command of the whole. This necessarily took up much time, notwithstanding which, the fleet was off Copenhagen on the 8th of August. The attempts to induce the Danes peaceably to deliver up their fleet, having failed, the disembarkation of the troops commenced on the 16th. This necessarily took up some time, and was not completed till the 22nd or 23rd. It was effected without opposition, but when disembarked, our troops had to contend with between 30 and 40,000 men in arms, besides the peasantry. Even then, another attempt was made to prevent an appeal to arms, but this also having failed, approaches were made against Copenhagen. The command of the army in the field was given to an hon. friend of his, major-general sir Arthur Wellesley, who upon that occasion displayed all that energy, zeal, and ability, which so conspicuously marked his conduct upon every occasion. On the 1st of Sept. the bombardment commenced, and on the 7th a capitulation was signed; thus, in a period of 14 or 15 days the whole object of the expedition was completed. It was under these circumstances that he called upon the house for a Vote of Thanks. He was perfectly ready to admit that so exalted an honour as the thanks of Parliament, ought not to be made too common, but ought to be reserved for great occasions. He contended, however, that if in this case the magnitude and importance of the object attained was considered, and the skill and ability displayed in the means by which it was attained, it must be deemed one of those instances which highly deserved the thanks of that house, nor did he see on what ground it could be opposed. He did not think it would be contended, that it was only the greater quantity of blood shed in an action, that entitled the commander to thanks, as, on the contrary, thanks were rather due to a commander who, by skilful and judicious dispositions, prevented the effusion of blood. He, therefore, relied confidently on the disposition of the house to agree to a Vote of Thanks in this instance. He could not conclude without adverting to the promptitude and rapidity with which the Danish ships were fitted and brought away, and the stores put on board. His lordship concluded by moving the Thanks of the house to lieut. gen. lord viscount Cathcart, knight of the thistle, for the judicious and decisive measures, which, after exhausting, every means of negotiation, were employed by him for effectuating the surrender of the Danish Navy and Arsenal of Copenhagen.

Lord Holland

rose to perform, what he felt to be a most painful duty, for painful certainly it was to him to refuse his assent to a motion of the nature of that made by the noble secretary of state. But as a member of that house he thought it incumbent on him to support its dignity, and not to allow the highest honour it could confer on distinguished merit, to become a matter of course, and to sink into a mere compliment. These were his grounds for his opposition to the motion, and he did not imagine that any man would think so meanly of him as to suppose that his vote on such an occasion could be prompted by any personal dislike to the officers in whose favour the motion had been made. Far was any such feeling from his breast; what acquaintance he had with these noble officers was, indeed, but slender, but it was enough to fill him with esteem for their private character and professional merits. He perfectly agreed with the noble secretary in the propriety of separating the merits of the present motion from the question of the political principles upon which the expedition had been undertaken, and he would endeavour to observe that distinction. What he should offer was on the nature of the service itself, and on the claim it had to the distinction which it was proposed to bestow upon it. The noble secretary of state had dwelt much on the importance of the service, and on the skill, judgment, and promptitude, with which it was performed. As to the importance of the expedition, another opportunity would occur to deliver his opinion of it; but, in the circumstances that attended the execution of it, he could see nothing that was entitled to the honour of the thanks of that house. Granting that service was important; granting that it had been performed with the utmost ability, yet these circumstances alone were not of a nature to challenge and justify so high a distinction. Where, was the danger, where the difficulties that were to be encountered and overcome in the performance of that service? Had it in it any of those brilliant traits that excite admiration and command respect? Had it in it any thing that redounded to the glory of the country, or to render its name and character more respected and memorable? In better times, many of the important victories gained by the duke of Marlborough, during the wars of the succession, were passed over without such a distinction, which was only bestowed upon the more splendid achievements of that great general; and latterly, the taking of the little town of Bastia procured for lord Hood the thanks of that house, although the same honour was not paid him for the capture of Toulon, and of the French fleet in that port. It was not, therefore, the magnitude and importance of the service that always justified the granting of this honour, but rather the circumstances of difficulty and danger through which it was accomplished. It was in this point of view that he objected to a vote of thanks in the present instance. Had it been proposed only to thank the army, he might, although in some measure objecting to it on the grounds before stated, have been induced to give it no opposition; but when it was proposed also to thank the navy employed in this expedition, he felt himself compelled to oppose it, because there was no opportunity for the display of naval skill. He could not sufficiently impress upon the house the great importance of not rendering the high and peculiar honour of the thanks of parliament too common: in order to preserve its value it ought to be reserved for great occasions, for brilliant exploits and splended victories, as in the Roman republic triumphs were never granted but for the most splendid achievements. In the present instance, he thought there were not opportunities given for the display of those qualities; the exercise of which ought to entitle officers to the thanks of parliament; and therefore, viewing the question as he did, entirely upon public principles, he felt himself painfully and reluctantly compelled to oppose the motion.

The Earl of Moira

said, that it was with great regret he felt himself under the necessity of differing from his noble friend. He approved of the manner in which the noble secretary had introduced the motion. Nothing could have been more improper than to have connected it with the political expediency of the attack upon Copenhagen. It would have been highly improper, if the troops employed on any occasion should exercise their judgment as to the propriety of the object. The troops which were sent to Copenhagen went there, under the impression that they were going to combat for the honour and interests of their country. The only question, therefore, which could properly be taken into consideration by the house was, whether they had well performed the duty assigned to them. If that duty was well performed, it would not become the house to refuse their thanks. His lordship was satisfied in his own mind, that every person engaged in that expedition had done his duty, and therefore he would give his cordial support to the motion.

Lord Auckland,

although no man more deprecated the deviation of this country from the sanctioned principles of moral and national justice, was still willing to give his vote of approbation for the energy, promptitude, zeal, and humanity, with which the officers who commanded, had executed that sad and melancholy service.

The Earl of Mulgrave

contended, that the manner in which the service was executed amply deserved the thanks of parliament. With respect to thanks not being voted to lord Hood, for obtaining possession of Toulon and the French fleet in that harbour, there was in that instance no opportunity for the display of naval or military skill, the town having been delivered up to that noble lord whilst he was blockading the port, by one of the contending factions in that place which had obtained the ascendancy. He could not admit that valour alone was a ground for voting the thanks of parliament; were that the case, not a week would pass over his head in the situation which he had the honour to hold, but he should have to call for the thanks of parliament for exploits of the greatest bravery. It was, he contended, the eminent display of skill and science, combined with the magnitude and importance of the object, that more peculiarly deserved that high honour. In the attack upon Copenhagen skill and science had eminently been displayed in the dispositions made for the attainment of the desired object. The noble lord (Holland) seemed to think it possible, that he might have been induced to consent to a vote of thanks to the army, but objected to one to the navy. He could not, however, see upon what ground any such distinction could be made. The most skilful dispositions were made by lord Gambier in the distribution of the fleet under his command; that part of it entrusted to rear-admiral Keats, was extended for 200 miles, and had for its object to cut off the communication between Zealand and the continent. By this means the Danish army in Holstein were prevented from passing into Zealand, which, had they been enabled to do, the great object of the expedition might have been of doubtful attainment; at all events, it must have been rendered a service of difficulty and danger. The skill, therefore, he contended, of admiral lord Gambier, had been conspicuously manifested; but in any case, when the army and navy were conjointly employed, to vote thanks to one and not to the other, could tend to no possible good; on the contrary, it must tend to excite a jealousy between the two branches of our forces. It had, besides, always been the practice to unite them in votes of thanks, where they were jointly employed.

Earl Grey (late lord Howick)

rose and addressed the house for the first time. He observed, that no one felt more strongly than he did the propriety of abstaining from any discussion of the general measure on this occasion. Nothing could be more unbecoming a man than to mix any party feelings with the question. The manner in which the debate had been conducted afforded an example, that it was possible to discuss a subject arising out of a great political question, without introducing invidious or personal observation. He rose for the purpose rather of expressing his approbation of the principles laid down by his noble friend (lord Holland), than in the hope of adding any thing to the arguments by which they were supported. They, as his arguments in general were, were unanswerable. To the conduct of the expedition, or to the merits of the officers employed, he had nothing to object. They had done all was expected or required of them, and they would have done more if more had been required. What he, as well as his noble friend, contended for was, that the object of the expedition to the Baltic was neither of sufficient magnitude, nor attended with sufficient difficulty, to entitle those engaged in it to the thanks of that house. He could by no means accede to the principle laid down by the noble secretary of state, that the magnitude of an object was of itself sufficient grounds for the approbation of parliament. Suppose a Russian fleet, greater than that of Denmark, in a British port, and that orders were sent down to the port admiral to take possession of it, was he to receive the thanks of parlia- ment because he had so disposed the men of war under his command, as to prevent the enemy from getting out, and consequently surrendering? This no man would say was an occasion worthy of such a high honour. When the two cases united; when magnitude of object was combined with difficulty of enterprise—these, indeed, were fit subjects for parliamentary honours. It was far from his intention to detract in the smallest degree from the merits of the officers engaged in the expedition to Copenhagen. They had nothing to do with the justice or injustice of the service in which they were employed. The only question was, whether they had done their duty, and whether that duty was a fit object for the thanks of that house. But, would it be said, that the services performed, and particularly by the navy, were of that character? There were frequent instances of large fleets undergoing great privations for weeks, nay for months, and yet he never heard that such services obtained the thanks of parliament. As to any difficulty in the enterprize, the house had the authority of ministers that there was none. Had they not said, in one of their declarations, or proclamations, that they sent such a force into the Baltic as rendered any resistance impossible? It was most painful for him, rising as he did for the first time in that house, to oppose the motion. He did it, however, on public grounds. He would again repeat, that he had no fault to find with the conduct of the expedition; but he did not think that it was of that importance, or that it was attended with that danger or difficulty, which entitled those who were employed in it to the thanks of that house.

The Resolution was then put and carried. After which, a discussion took place on that part of the Resolution, which thanked adm. Gambier for fitting out the Danish navy. It was opposed by the duke of Norfolk, earls Grey and Lauderdale, and lord Holland; and supported by lords Mulgrave and Hawkesbury; and carried in the affirmative. Resolutions to the subordinate officers, and to the troops and sailors employed, similar to those passed this day in the house of commons, were also agreed to.