HL Deb 21 February 1871 vol 204 cc573-81

My Lords, I wish to ask my noble Friend the Secretary for Foreign Affairs a Question upon a subject that has excited a great deal of comment not only in the Press, but in private circles in this country, and which has elicited, I am afraid, some very unfavourable expressions, both in England and abroad, as to the Department of which my noble Friend is the head, and has led to unpleasant reflections upon our national character. The Question I wish to ask him is this—Why the English Consul was absent from his post at Paris during the greatest part of the siege; and if, for a considerable period, the English population were not left there without any British official protection? That Question has been asked in "another place," and the reply returned by my noble Friend's subordinate (Viscount Enfield) was an eminently unsatisfactory one. He said that Lord Lyons was intrusted with discretionary powers, and that he told the Consul to leave Paris, but not to quit France, and to remain within reach. What he meant by remaining within reach when Paris was closely beleaguered I do not understand; as a matter of fact he held no communication with Paris during the siege. He also said that Lord Lyons warned his countrymen of the risk and danger that they incurred by remaining. Mr. Wodehouse remained for a time and then left also. But before I proceed with the case of the Consul, I wish to state openly, as Lord Lyons has been attacked by a right hon. Friend of mine (Sir Robert Peel) in "another place" for having quitted Paris and going to Tours with the French Government, my opinion that he could not have done otherwise, and that he would have acted wrongly if he had remained. His post was one requiring great freedom of action, and it would have been impossible for him to have fulfilled his duties towards his own country if he had remained shut up in Paris during a close siege. Recollect, however, that during all the unparalleled misery of this great siege, lasting four and a half months—for it began in the middle of September and did not close till the end of January—there were no less than 2,000 British subjects starving in Paris; and if ever British subjects required the consolations and assistance of their Government, it was under such awful circumstances. And yet the man whose peculiar duty it was to remain in Paris in the absence of the Ambassador—I express the opinion formed from my own experience at the Foreign Office—and to look after our countrymen, had, as stated by Lord Enfield in "another place," permission to leave Paris during that time. Other persons attached to the Embassy were also allowed to leave; so that no one remained except Mr. Wodehouse, whose business was to take care of the archives of the Embassy. The siege went on, and the miseries increased. I do not wish to harrow the feelings of your Lordships by describing what the sufferings of our countrymen, as well as of the French, have been; but I may say that I received a letter from an old servant of mine in Paris, in which it was stated that she and her husband, upon the 14th of January, had left off eating cats, and dogs, and rats, and were actually reduced for sustenance to eat sausages made out of the entrails of dogs. Tallow candles had long disappeared, having been eaten, and oil also had been consumed for purposes of food; so that light in the houses during the long winter nights was impossible. This was the state of the poorer English in Paris, who found it impossible to follow Lord Lyons' advice, inasmuch as they had not the means of coming over to this country. Perhaps my noble Friend opposite will tell me whether the Government sent out any assistance in the shape of money to those persons to enable them to leave Paris, and whether those who remained did so out of sheer obstinacy or from a false feeling of courage. Quite at the end of December the bombardment began. And I must say, in passing, that, in my opinion, the bombardment of Paris will remain a blot and a stain on the escutcheon of Prussia; for, although, according to the rules of war, Prussia had a complete right to bombard Paris, as a first-class fortified town, yet it is necessity alone which supports the exercise of such rights. The city would have submitted to the moment as soon if there had been no bombardment; and from those in the city we learn that the bombardment rather roused the temper of the French and lengthened the resistance. In the bombardment I believe not more than three military men were killed; but women and children suffered in great numbers, and it is a fact that one shell killed seven children at once. And so deep was the feeling which the event excited when it was proclaimed in Paris that M. Jules Favre actually followed their remains to the grave. When that event occurred, was there any Englishman in Paris to represent this country? Why, not even the military and naval Attachés of the Embassy were there. I suppose they did not leave without the orders to that effect of the noble Earl himself or of Lord Lyons. And what could possibly induce the giving of such orders? To be there at such a time was to be at their proper place and post; it was their raison d'être. Such men are sent out, as I have always understood, to learn everything that relates to foreign armaments, to become acquainted with every new invention, and to watch the performance of every new weapon. Why, it was a God-send to these men and the Government who appointed them to have a bombardment going on—they never had such a chance of learning before—and to recall those gentlemen at such a time seems to me a very doubtful proceeding—for I cannot believe that they would have left unless recalled. There can be no more gallant officer, for instance, than Colonel Claremont, who was all through the Crimean War; and I want to know the grounds upon which these two officers were called away from Paris at the very moment when valuable experience could have been obtained, when their services upon the spot could have been of great advantage to this country, and of incalculable value to the miserable English who were suffering in Paris. Thank God! the English were not totally deserted. They were taken care of by three men, whose names will be considered noble as long as the history of the siege is recorded—Mr. Wallace, Mr. Herbert—Lord Carnarvon's brother—and Mr. Blunt, whom my noble Friend afterwards very properly made Consul—and by their means, probably, hundreds were saved from misery and death. The case, however, is one which has led to very severe reflections upon this country. During this great war the acts of this country have been very narrowly watched, and I do not know anything which has made a deeper impression upon the public mind than the belief that something like 1,500 or 2,000 poor English were left without any official assistance in Paris. I beg to ask my noble Friend opposite the Question of which I have given Notice—namely, Why the English Consul was absent from his post at Paris during the greatest part of the siege; and if, for a considerable period, the English population were not left there without any British official protection; and, further, whether Mr. Blunt has been permanently appointed Consul?


My Lords, I am compelled to answer the noble Earl's Question at some length in order to explain to your Lordships what has happened in Paris during this war. In the first place, let me say I cannot go quite so far as the noble Earl in asserting that diplomatic and consular agents are bound to be kept in a besieged city to protect the interests of their fellow-subjects after those fellow-subjects have had every possible warning of the danger of remaining there, and of the difficulty which might attend any attempt to come away at a later period. I feel it right to say this, though it was not the guiding principle of our action as your Lordships will see on referring to the Blue Book. The French demanded that all non-combatants should retire as impeding the defence. On the 14th of September Lord Lyons wrote from Paris— In my despatch of the 29th ult. I reported to your Lordship the steps I had taken to call the attention of British subjects to the notice issued by the Acting Prefect of Police recommending all persons not capable of facing the enemy to leave Paris, and in your despatch of the 1st inst. your Lordship informed me that Her Majesty's Government approved of the steps I had thus taken. Further notices of the same kind have been issued by the French authorities, and I have on my part done all in my power to warn British subjects of the dangers to which they expose themselves by remaining in a town threatened with an immediate siege. Large numbers have departed, those who were unable to provide from their own means the expense of the journey having been aided by the British Charitable Fund, to which most liberal contributions have been made by the public in England."—[France-German War, No. 1 (1871) No. 130.] I am happy to say that during the whole of that period we have been able to advance money to be disbursed in one way or other by that charitable committee for the relief of British subjects. Lord Lyons goes on to say— Finding, however, that notwithstanding the near approach of the invading army, many still linger, I have thought it right to insert in Galignani's Messenger a notice, in my own name, reminding British subjects that if, after the warnings given them, they remain at Paris, they do so at their own risk and peril, and that if they delay their departure any longer they may not hereafter be able to get away. I have also had copies of the notice printed separately for distribution among British subjects, and I have the honour to transmit some herewith to your Lordship. I have felt it right to say this much to show the business-like steps which Lord Lyons took to warn British subjects that it was better they should withdraw. With regard to Lord Lyons himself—though my noble Friend entirely refuses to endorse the accusations which had been made against him—I beg to say that those accusations, which have been repeated in many quarters, are absolutely without foundation. At the same time that Lord Lyons is charged with cowardice in having deserted his post, I have received letters complaining of our want of sympathy as a Government in withdrawing the British Ambassador at such a time; whereas the exact contrary was the case. Let me place your Lordships in possession of what really occurred. In a letter written on the 7th of September Lord Lyons relates a conversation which he had had with Prince Metternich, referring to the representations made by Count Beust, in which the great inconvenience, and indeed impropriety, was pointed out of allowing the diplomatic body to be shut up in Paris during the siege and thus deprived of the means of communicating with their respective Governments. Prince Metternich, in consequence, spoke to M. Jules Favre, and represented to him that it was incumbent on the Foreign Minister to give notice to the diplomatic body in time to enable them to leave Paris without undue haste or inconvenience. M. Jules Favre appeared to take the same view. And what was the reply of Lord Lyons?— I have said to all, that, in principle, Count Beust's view appears to me just and reasonable; but that, for my own part, I do not desire to hasten my departure from Paris without very good cause. I shall, I have said, be disposed to act in concert with my colleagues in the matter, and shall feel no difficulty about leaving Paris if I am requested or advised to so by the French Government; but I shall be content to leave the matter as it stands, without making any special representation to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I should add that it is thought to be probable that some of the Government functionaries, and among them the Minister for Foreign Affairs, may determine upon removing from Paris. In this case, the diplomatic body would naturally follow the Minister through whom they communicate with the Government."—[No. 84.] I am sure my noble Friend will see that, in cases of very exceptional difficulty, it is wise for a Government not to fetter a man too much, but to leave him with considerable discretion as to the course he should pursue. On the 19th of September, Lord Lyons wrote to me as follows:— Prince Metternich, the Austrian Ambassador, came to me at Paris on the 17th inst., and told me that the Comte de Chaudordy, the head of the Cabinet of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, had brought him a message from M. Jules Favre which made him think that it would be desirable that the Representatives of the principal European Powers should leave Paris at once, in order not to be cut off from communication with their Governments. M. de Chaudordy had, the Prince said, informed him that the French Government expected from one moment to another to hear that the enemy had rendered the only railroad still open (the Western) impassable; and that, this being the case, M. Jules Favre, knowing that Prince Metternich was particularly anxious not to have his communication with his Government interrupted, had thought it courteous to warn him that the danger of this occurring appeared to be imminent, and that, in fact, it would be prudent for him to leave Paris the following day at latest. I told Prince Metternich that I had, personally, a great disinclination to leave Paris just then; but that, nevertheless, I should, of course, do so if it appeared that I should be more useful elsewhere; and I added that I should certainly be unwilling to act in the matter in a different way from my principal colleagues. I must, however (I said in conclusion), see M. Jules Favre before I come to any decision."—[No. 147.] Lord Lyons accordingly went to M. Jules Favre, and related to him what had passed between Prince Metternich and himself. His Lordship said— M. Jules Favre answered that his message to Prince Metternich was specially intended for the Prince himself, who had expressed to him a very marked dislike to the prospect of being hemmed in by the Prussian troops. Nevertheless he thought it only right that other Representatives of foreign Powers should know that the French Government was no longer in a position to secure their communications with the world outside Paris. M. Jules Favre then suggested that his Lordship should go to Tours. Lord Lyons replied as follows:— I said that I still disliked the idea of leaving Paris just yet, but that, of course, I should not hesitate to proceed to any place in which I could have a better prospect of being useful; and that after what he had said, if I found that my principal colleagues thought it advisable that we should go off to Tours in the evening, I would no longer be an obstacle to their departure. The result has been, as your Lordship is already aware, that the Austrian Ambassador, Prince Metternich; the Ottoman Ambassador, Djemil Pacha; the Italian Minister, Chevalier Nigra; the Russian Chargé d'Affaires, M. Okouneff; and I, left Paris the night before last, and arrived here yesterday. Colonel Claremont considered that, in a military point of view, Paris was the point of most interest accessible to him; and, as I concurred with him in this view, I sanctioned his remaining there. At the time I left Paris Captain Hore was too unwell to move. I left a memorandum recommending that, if able to do so, he should leave Paris as soon as he should be well enough to travel; and that if his health should not be quite re-established, he should go to England to recruit it; otherwise, that he should join me here, where he would find the Minister of Marine, and would consequently be at the main source of naval information. Finding that a not inconsiderable number of British subjects still remained in Paris, notwithstanding my repeated warnings of the risk they might incur by so doing, and of the probability that when the danger was actually present they might not be able to get away. I have left Mr. Wodehouse at the Embassy to give them advice, and, if possible, protection. I have, moreover, placed the Embassy-house, and the Government property belonging to it, in Mr. Wodehouse's charge; and I have desired him to take advantage of any opportunities he may have of sending direct to your Lordship, as well as to me, information of public interest. A few hours before I left Paris, I presented him to M. Jules Favre, who readily agreed to send and receive communications through him. Lastly, I have ordered Mr. Wodehouse to come away from Paris if the place should be threatened with immediate bombardment or other imminent danger, and have directed him, in this contingency, to do his utmost to obtain a safe passage out of Paris for all British subjects. Now, it appears to me that, as these instructions were given, I was quite right in approving what Lord Lyons had done. I am exceedingly glad that he did leave Paris, and that he, as the holder of the dignified rank of Ambassador, went not only to Tours but also to Bordeaux; thus enabling us to say that although we could not officially recognize the existing Government, yet for all practical and business purposes our relations with it were close and intimate. I have no doubt, too, that Lord Lyons outside Paris has accomplished many things he could not have done inside the city. Lord Lyons left in Paris Mr. Wodehouse and Colonel Claremont, as he thought it would be advantageous for them to remain there with his sanction and that of the Foreign Office. Afterwards, in view of Count Bismarck's declaration, that military considerations would compel him to put a stop to all-further communication with persons inside the city, Lord Lyons sent me word that he felt some anxiety with respect to the servants of the Embassy and the other British subjects who had not quitted Paris. Upon this I wrote to Count Bernstorff to obtain permission for those persons to pass through the German lines; and this leave was granted by Count Bismarck, on condition, however, that a nominal list should be furnished of the persons who desired to come out. On the other hand, the French authorities were exceedingly unwilling to let a large number of persons pass out. A month elapsed before Mr. Wodehouse left Paris, and when he did he had not quite completed his list, although he had taken every means in his power to give the requisite notice to all British subjects. He was continuing to make up the list till 12 o'clock of the day when he went away. About 126 persons accompanied him, and the hardships they had to undergo were so severe that it is doubtful whether they had not better have remained in Paris. At that time we were not aware that such a large number had remained, although we had always supposed that there were some English domestic servants, workmen, and others, who did not wish to leave Paris because they had formed connections there, while some had great difficulty in getting away on account of their poverty. With regard to the latter, I may remark that very great assistance was rendered to them by the Charitable Commission to which the Government and many charitable persons had contributed. When Mr. Wodehouse left, the Consul's clerk came away. Mr. Wodehouse was at first unwilling to allow him to come away; but on that gentleman representing that for a considerable time no application had been made to him in respect of Consular duties and the legal advisers of the Embassy having given their opinion that he would not, under the circumstances have any power there, Mr. Wodehouse included his name in the list. Colonel Claremont, however, for the reasons which had actuated him in the first instance, acting in accordance with instructions received from Lord Lyons, remained in Paris; but about the second week in December the Colonel, finding that the only other military attaché in Paris was about to leave, came away with that gentleman in obedience to orders received. The noble Earl seems to think that it was a happy circumstance for Colonel Claremont to have an opportunity of being bombarded and shelled in a town undergoing that process; but the fact is, that Colonel Claremont would not have acquired much military information if he had remained longer in Paris, because there was great jealousy shown in regard to letting strangers go to the front lines, and, consequently, military information was more difficult to procure during the bombardment than it would have been at the head quarters of the army in an open campaign. I cannot therefore regret the course taken by Colonel Claremont. When Colonel Claremont came out, the French authorities had resolved not to let any other person leave the city. We afterwards ascertained, however, by indirect means, that a great many Englishmen and women were suffering very much indeed, as has been described by the noble Earl, and I have already acknowledged in my despatches the aid which was given by Messrs. Wallace, Herbert, and Blount to their poor fellow-countrymen. About £42,000 was expended in giving this relief. I may add that Mr. Clark, a clergyman, also devoted himself to the work in a most remarkable way. Immediately upon hearing this we endeavoured to get our Consul in; but at that time matters had gone so far that permission to enter Paris was positively refused to everybody. We did our best to meet the difficulty by communicating with Mr. Odo Russell. From the statement of facts I have made I hope your Lordships will conclude that there has not been any neglect, but that some of the inconveniences experienced have arisen from unparalleled, circumstances, against which it was impossible to provide at the beginning.

House adjourned at Seven o'clock, to Thursday next, a quarter past Eleven o'clock.