HL Deb 10 July 1855 vol 139 cc645-52

Seeing my noble Friend the Secretary for Foreign Affairs in his place, I wish to ask him what progress he has made in the inquiry he has instituted concerning the melanchol affair that took place some time since at Hango? When I last brought the subject under the attention of the Government, my noble Friend said he had lost no time in requesting the Danish Minister at St. Petersburg to obtain information and explanations from the Russian Government as to the cause of what appeared to be a wanton and cruel massacre. It appears that in the meantime Admiral Dundas, anticipating the wishes of the Government, has sent a flag of truce to the Commander in Chief at Helsingfors, requesting explanations upon the subject, and the correspondence between Admiral Dundas and the Russian General has been printed in The Times. My Lords, I am glad that that flag of truce arrived safely at its destination, and that the Russian Government did not a second time disgrace itself by violating one of the most sacred international laws ever instituted between different countries. But I cannot find in the answer of General De Berg, any justification of what has occurred; may, I am sorry to say, his reply aggravates the cruelty and inutility of the massacre. I will bring some sentences of his letter under your Lordships' notice. It begins, not by any expression of regret at what has taken place—and there is no expression whatever of a sentiment of regret from one end to the other of the despatch—but by accusing us of following a custom which was certainly common in the last war, and which, I believe, has been followed throughout all wars within the memory of man—it accuses us of sometimes hoisting Russian colours, with the intention of deluding Russian ships and so capturing them. This accusation requires no answer, because it is very well known that it has always been looked-upon as a perfectly fair ruse at sea to hoist the flag of a different nation in order to entice an enemy into our hands, and that this ruse has never been found fault with, and has been employed by the greatest and most generous commanders. General De Berg proceeds to throw doubt upon the statement of Captain Fanshawe, and, consequently, upon the despatch and the accusation of Admiral Dundas, and throughout the letter, in speaking of the intentions of the boat and of the captain of the vessel, he uses the words "pretence" and "pretended." It is hardly possible, however, to conceive how he can justify the argument that we had any hostile intentions in landing upon the coast as we did—because, in the first place, the men were in a single boat; in the second place, they were carrying with them five Russian prisoners whom they generously intended to restore to their countrymen; and, lastly, there were three persons in the boat who were certainly not likely to assist in any hostile demonstration—I mean the ship's stewards, who intended, if they were allowed, to land and obtain provisions. General De Berg proceeds to say that Lieutenant Geneste "pretended" to have had a small white flag hoisted, and this is the second time he makes use of the adjective "small." But, whether the flag was large or small, it was equally a flag of true, just as General De Berg, whether he is a giant or a dwarf, is equally an aide-de-camp to the Emperor of all the Russias. Therefore, if he means anything by this expression, he means that the flag was not visible to the naked eye, and was not perceived by the officers and the troops on shore; but it appears to me perfectly impossible that this could have been the case, because, according to Captain Fanshawe's statement, the flag was hoisted within half a mile of the shore. I am perfectly willing to admit that there was an irregularity in the conduct of our officers, and that we ought not, strictly speaking, to have landed until the flag of truce had been replied to; but that is no justification of the conduct of the Russians. They saw the boat, because they lay in ambush for it; and an ensign (I will not mention his name for fear of making a mistake in the pronunciation), with the body of men he commanded, was ensconced coolly and quietly in hiding, waiting until the landing took place. The boat must, therefore, have been seen; and, if the flag of truce was not to be answered, it was the duty of the Russians, as honourable soldiers and Christian men, to do what is usual upon such occasions, namely, to make signals from the shore that it would not be received. No such signal was given, and no human being was seen upon the quay until Lieutenant Geneste and the boat's crew had landed. If there were any doubt as to the boat having been seen, we have General De Berg's own words upon the point— The crew of Lieutenant Geneste's boat were caught in their own trap; seven men were killed, four wounded, and the remainder made prisoners, as the list I enclose will inform you. The affair only lasted a moment. "Caught in their own trap" is the expression; so that General De Berg still insists that the intentions of Lieutenant Geneste were hostile. "The affair only lasted a moment!" No wonder, when sixteen men, with no arms in their hands, not expecting to be attacked, were fired upon by 200 or 300 people. The statement of the survivor was incorrect as to the number of persons killed; but this inaccuracy may be easily accounted for, because he was struck, and, according to General De Berg himself, seven men were killed and four were wounded. This was quite as much a breach of the law of nations and a cruel massacre as if every one of the crew had been destroyed. What is the evidence of Captain Fanshawe as to this? He says— When the boat got back to the ship, I may here mention the dead body of one man was found. There were two shots through his leg, which he had had time to bind up with a silk handkerchief before he received two fatal wounds, one in the abdomen and the other in the head. This shows that after the unfortunate man was disabled by the shots in his leg, he was, in cold blood, murdered. There is one sentence in General De Berg's letter which I desire that my noble Friend should explain, or, if he cannot do so, make some inquiry about—the General makes the following accusation—that on the 14th of May an English cutter, hoisting a white flag, destroyed a defenceless village. This is a subject that requires some explanation, as it involves a very serious charge against the officers and seamen in Her Majesty's service. There is not, however, one line in his despatch which can justify the cruel massacre which took place at Hango. It is stated in translations from the Russian newspapers that I have seen, that the ensign who was engaged in this outrage has received, in consequence of his great victory, a decoration. If this be so, his general has deeply identified himself with this cruel act; and I should like to know the feelings with which the thousands of brave generals and officers in the Russian army, who have gained medals for their conduct at Alma, Inkerman, and in the conflict on the 18th of last month—I should like to know the feelings with which they will attach to their uniforms the same medal which has been awarded to this ensign. I cannot help contrasting the behaviour of De Berg with that of his countryman and fellow-soldier General Osten Sacken. When the Tiger was cast on shore the Russians might easily have committed an act similar to that which has been perpetrated at Hango, and have murdered every one of the Tiger's crew; but they were spared, and they were, according to the most humane rules of war, treated with kindness and care; and that they were so treated was mainly owing to the good feeling of the general whom I have mentioned. I hope that the Russian Government will feel that the conduct of this ensign, and the despatch of the general justifying and identifying himself with the conduct of the younger officer, are unworthy of the officers of a great Sovereign and of a great nation like Russia.


My Lords, I am sorry to say that I am not in a position to supply the further information which my noble Friend has asked for. A copy of the despatch has been received which Admiral Dundas addressed to the military officer in command at Helsingfors, detailing to him the circumstances of this cruel massacre, and trusting that he would be able to give such an explanation of this transaction as would vindicate the honour of the Russian flag. General De Berg, as your Lordship's are aware, has returned an answer to this despatch, but the explanation given cannot be considered satisfactory, and I think that answer has been justly characterised by the noble Earl. Neither has the general vindicated the honour of the Russian flag. He has replied to the despatch of Admiral Dundas by making unsupported charges against us—he has asserted that we have hoisted Russian flags with a view of deceiving them, and that we have, under a flag of truce, taken soundings. The only passage in his letter which can be considered satisfactory is that from which we learn that, instead of seventeen men having been murdered, as we were at first led to believe, only seven were killed. An answer has been sent to this letter by Admiral Dundas, under the instructions of my right hon. Friend at the head of the Admiralty (Sir Charles Wood), very much in accordance with what has just fallen from my noble Friend (the Earl of Malmesbury). Admiral Dundas was desired to inform General De Berg that it was impossible that we could believe the statement that no flag had been hoisted, or that it had not been seen; that it was the known custom in the Baltic, and elsewhere, to make such an announcement of a peaceful and merciful mission; and that, even if the flag was not seen, yet that this was no justification for the cruel massacre which had taken place, for the Russians might easily, with the overwhelming force which they brought down, have taken as prisoners the men when they were standing unarmed upon the pier. With respect to the assertion that the boat could not have come upon a peaceful mission, because there were arms in it, Admiral Dundas was directed to state that the muskets found were those belonging to the boat; that they were lying at the bottom of the boat unloaded, and covered by the tarpaulin on which the prisoners' luggage was laid;—so that the Russians could not have known that the muskets were in the boat until after they had committed their merciless and murderous act. With respect to the assertion that we had hoisted the Russian flag on several occasions, Admiral Dundas was directed to observe that this was a common stratagem, which was resorted to by the cruisers of all nations, and the only limit to this stratagem was that, before the actual commencement of hostilities, it was required that the vessels should hoist their real national colours. As to the charge to which my noble Friend has called the attention of the Government, with respect to one of our ships, under cover of a flag of truce, having made an attack on and destroyed an unsuspecting village, the Admiralty have received no information with respect to such a transaction, and Admiral Dundas was instructed to say that we did not believe, and could not believe, that any officer in Her Majesty's service would have so abused a flag of truce, or have acted contrary to the usage of nations. With respect to the particular point referred to of an English boat, under a flag of truce, having taken soundings at Kertch, on the very day on which the despatch referred to was received, the officer who commanded the boat where these soundings were alleged to have been taken, arrived in England, and he said that there was not the slightest foundation for the charge which had been made. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to say what the real facts of the case are, or in what manner the flag of truce was hoisted, or the possibility of its having been observed by the Russians, until Lieutenant Geneste and the survivors are set at liberty, or allowed freely to communicate with the Admiral. Admiral Dundas has been instructed to demand, the immediate release of the prisoners; founding such demand upon the circumstances of their capture. Instructions were sent on the 23rd of July to communicate through the Danish Government with the Government of Russia; there had not yet been time for the reception of any answer from the Russian Government, and, until the answer is received it is impossible to know what the conduct of the Russian Government has been, and will be, with reference to this matter; and this we must know before we decide on the course which ought to be taken by the Government of this country.


said, that having devoted a considerable portion of his life to the study of the law of nations, he had no hesitation in pronouncing that, even upon the showing of General De Berg, the massacre of Hango was a flagrant and most flagitious violation of that law. The hoisting of the colours of one nation for the purpose of entrapping the ships of another had always been recognised as a legitimate stratagem of war; but firing on a flag of truce was altogether a different matter. Flags of truce were things which had been known and respected for centuries—in fact, they dated even beyond the era of modern civilisation, for the ancient Greeks used to send out their heralds with a flag of truce. The flag of truce was understood and respected by every country of the world that was not sunk in hopeless barbarism. As for the decoration bestowed upon the young Russian officer who had been the first to outrage one, he could only compare it to the mark set upon the brow of Cain the first murderer.


did not doubt that the conduct of the Russians in this unfortunate affair was all that could be imagined of base and unmanly; but he hoped that especial care would at all times be taken to regulate our proceedings, as regarded flags of truce, in the strictest and most accurate manner, so as to preserve the lives of our own men, and to rob the enemy of anything even resembling an argument for their disgraceful conduct. He could not extenuate the conduct of General De Berg, or find any palliation for it. At the same time, he was bound to say that there were circumstances connected with this flag of truce which ought not to have occurred. He hoped that, in order to deprive the enemy of even the shadow of a pretext for disregarding the practice of honourable warfare, care would be invariably taken to conduct the arrangements as regarded flags of truce with the strictest possible regularity—that no persons would be allowed into the boat except those who were specially required for the purposes of the mission, and that arms would not be permitted to be stowed away in the boat. While he made this remark, he wished it to be understood that he did not in any way challenge the conduct of Admiral Dundas, who, he was sure, had acted in an exemplary manner; nor had he any doubt that the conduct of the enemy was base and outrageous.


trusted that we should be able to obtain the depositions of Lieutenant Geneste and the other persons who were taken prisoners by the Russians. While on the subject of prisoners, might he ask the Government whether there was any chance of our having a general cartel for the exchange of prisoners taken on both sides during this war?


replied, that he had the satisfaction of being able to answer the noble Earl's question in the affirmative. A proposal for an exchange of prisoners had been accepted by the Russian Government, and a joint commission of English and French officers had been appointed to sit at Paris with the view of arranging the terms of the cartel.

Back to