HL Deb 23 July 1868 vol 193 cc1661-4

Your Lordships must have seen a short time ago in The Times and other public journals a Circular issued by the Russian Government in relation to the use of explosive materials in war. It is not now the time to argue this question, but it is a matter of very great importance, as coming from so great a military power as the Russian Empire; and it is still more important from the fact that, as we are told, the Prussian Government have come to the same conclusion, and that the French Government are not unwilling to take this new principle into consideration. This is no new principle among civilized nations, which have always adopted the principle of not employing poisonous materials in war. The principle laid down by the Russian Government is, indeed, exactly the same which civilized Powers have acted upon for so many years. Your Lordships will perhaps all agree that nothing should be done to prevent the shortening of the conflict in the day of battle, and the putting as many men as possible hors de combat; but we all feel that we ought to mitigate the horrors of war as much as we can, and that we should not do anything to promote unnecessary suffering after the hour of conflict. It is in that sense that I beg to put the Question of which I have given Notice—to inquire, "Whether the Circular of the Russian Government in relation to explosive materials in war has reached Her Majesty's Ministers; and, if so, whether they are disposed to take it into their favourable consideration?


It is quite true that Her Majesty's Government have received from the Russian Government a communication of the nature to which my noble Friend alludes, and that communication, I think, does the greatest possible honour to the Emperor of Russia. As far as my own feelings are concerned, I hold that nothing can show a more chivalrous nature than that communication from the head of a great military Power. The facts are as follows:—It appears that, among the many military inventions lately discovered, two very formidable projectiles have been submitted to the War Department at St. Petersburg. One consists of a rifle ball containing explosive and poisonous matter, with a cap fixed to it containing a substance which on striking the human body, and that of horses, explodes within them and infuses such a substance as prevents the possibility of their recovery after they have been so mangled. The other is also a projectile which is sent from a rifle, but is intended to perforate and blow up caissons. Now, the latter projectile is, I think, a perfectly fair and legitimate weapon of war; but the other I can only call a diabolical invention, and one which ought to be classed with the poisoned arrows of the wild Indians. That being the case, one can hardly wonder that a noble-minded Sovereign like the Emperor of Russia should have felt horrified at the possible use of such a weapon. It appears that on its being submitted to him by the Minister of War he instructed his diplomatic agents at the various Courts of Europe to propose to the different Governments that they should come to an international understanding that this horrible weapon of war should not be used. Baron Brunnow accordingly drew up a Protocol, which he submitted to Her Majesty's Government, suggesting the form in which these communications should be made. In consequence of this the Prussian Government, I understand, have fully-entered into the humane feelings of the Russian. Government; but they submitted at the same time that, seeing the vast; number of inventions now under the inspection of military Governments, it would be better not to confine the investigation to this one invention, but that a Military Commission should meet at St. Petersburg to consider the whole subject in the spirit which had animated the Russian Government. Her Majesty's Government have entered entirely into the feeling of the Prussian Government. Nothing has actually been settled as yet; but a Military Commission will assemble as soon as possible at St. Petersburg to consider the whole subject. I cannot give any information as to the views of the French Government; but I confidently hope that they will accede to this arrangement. At the same time, we must not take it for granted that these new military inventions and improvements in military projectiles necessarily occasion a greater destruction of life than formerly occurred. The fact is a curious one; but experience would go to show that since arms of precision and projectiles of long distance have been invented the actual number of lives destroyed in warfare has been far less than it was when men used to come to closer quarters. A French officer has put into my hands a statement from which it appears that during the great wars of the beginning of this century there was much larger destruction of human life than there has been since arms of precision and projectiles of long distances have been used. At the battle of Friedland the French lost 14 men per cent, the Russians 30 per cent, and the Austrians 44, or nearly half. At Wagram the French lost 13 and the Austrians 14 per cent. At the battle of Moscowa the French lost 33 and the Russians 44 per cent. At Waterloo the French lost 36 and the Allies 30 per cent. Forty years afterwards, and since these new weapons have been used, the French lost at Magenta 7 per cent and the Austrians also 7 per cent. At Solferino the French and Sardinians lost 10 per cent and the Austrians only 8 per cent. I do not pretend to explain these facts, but it may be presumed that troops do not come to such close quarters as formerly; and the result is that the percentage of men destroyed in war at the beginning of the century was very nearly double what it has been in recent engagements.


said, that all must agree that it was the duty of all civilized nations to abstain from using weapons of a poisonous nature. He trusted, however, that any officers who might be instructed by Her Majesty's Government to represent this country at this Military Congress at St. Petersburg would act with great caution, so as to avoid the possible danger of checking further improvements in warlike materials. Our mechanical skill was one of our great sources of power in the art of war, and it was most important that, while we paid regard to the interests of humanity, we should not debar ourselves by this Commission from the full and unfettered application of the mechanical skill of the country to the improvement of its warlike materials.