HL Deb 07 February 1878 vol 237 cc1198-204

who was very indistinctly hoard, was understood to say that the news which had reached England within the last 24 hours regarding the state of affairs in and near Constantinople was of so grave a character as to lead to the suspicion that the British Government had been duped and hoodwinked. He thought the House was entitled to be informed, Whether any intelligence had been received at the Foreign Office confirming or contradicting the rumours as to the arrival of the Russians at Constantinople, and whether the Government considered such entry consistent with British interests?


My Lords, I understand my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs is going to make a communication to the House on the matter referred to by the noble Lord, and I think it would be more convenient if the House would wait for that statement.


It is not usual to make a statement without Notice, and therefore I will ask my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs a Question, of which I have given him private Notice. My Question has reference to certain rumours which were rife last evening, and which are also current to-day, which are of a very important character. I allude especially to the report of the movements of the Russian troops on Constantinople. It is stated that Gallipoli and also Constantinople are occupied by Russian troops. I wish to ask my noble Friend, Whether he has received any information in reference to those rumours, and whether he has received any communication on the subject from the Russian Government?


My Lords, I was quite prepared for the Question which has been put by the noble Earl, and, in the state of excitement which undoubtedly at this moment prevails, I think it is very desirable that your Lordships should be informed of the precise position in which matters stand, according to the last intelligence received at the Foreign Office. We received yesterday afternoon from Mr. Layard a telegram of the date of February 5, at night, which is to the following effect:—That, notwithstanding the Armistice, the Russians are pushing on towards Constantinople; that the Turkish troops have been compelled to evacuate Silivria, notwithstanding the protest of the Turkish Commander, which the Russian General refused to receive—Silivria, I should say, is a port on the Sea of Marmora—the Russian General declared that, according to his orders, it was necessary that he should occupy Tchataldja that day—I will refer to the position of Tchataldja presently; that the Porte is in great alarm, and cannot understand the Russian proceedings. Representations have again been made to the Grand Duke Nicholas. The Servians have destroyed a place called Vranja and are advancing on Uskup. Five days have elapsed since the signature of the bases of peace and the convention of the Armistice, but the Proctocol has not yet reached the Porte, which is in ignorance of the real terms. Another telegram, dated yesterday, and received last night, states that the Russian Government has insisted, as one of the conditions of the Armistice, that the Tchekmedje lines should be abandoned, leaving Constantinople wholly undefended. The Russians have occupied Tchataldja in considerable force. Tchataldja, I ought to mention, is a part of the Turkish lines of defence extending across the Peninsula, of which I understand it is an outpost. It is on the line of railway from Adrianople. The distance from Constantinople, as well as I can judge by the map, is less than 30 miles. Your Lordships will see by a telegram from St. Petersburg, which is included in the Papers laid on the Table this evening, that the Grand Duke Nicholas telegraphs from Adrianople on the 31st of January, that the Porte has accepted the conditions of peace, and the Protocol has been signed; that the Armistice has also been concluded and signed, and orders to suspend all hostilities given. It appears, also, by a telegram from Belgrade of the 4th instant, that orders had been given by Prince Milan of the suspension of hostilities. I cannot undertake to reconcile that statement with the information given above as to the continued advance of the Servian forces, except that it may be possible that the order did not reach them in time. It will be seen by the Papers that the Turks had given orders to suspend operations on the 2nd instant. My Lords, I wish to put the case quite fairly, and will, therefore, add that it may be the case, as I have seen it said that the various steps which I have related, are not in contravention, but in pursuance of the conditions of the Armistice. That may be so, because we do not know what conditions there may be in the Armistice of which we are not aware. But it would appear that the Porte is equally in ignorance, and is perplexed as to the meaning of these movements. We have, in a telegram of this day, asked the Government of Russia to give us some explanations on the subject, and we have called attention to a declaration made by the Emperor of Russia in July last to Colonel Wellesley to the effect that "His Majesty will not occupy Constantinople for the sake of military honour, but only if such a step is rendered neces- sary by the march of events." Considering that the Turkish resistance has ceased, it would not appear that any such necessity can now exist. I ought to add, my Lords, that the Russian Ambassador, whom I have seen within the last two hours, was entirely without information confirming or contradicting the statement I have made. I hear from Lord Lyons, with whom I communicated by telegraph, that the French Government is equally uninformed, and I have similar reports from Vienna and Berlin. But the date of the latest intelligence received at those capitals is not very recent, and it is possible that telegraphic communication may have been suspended. I ought also to say that our latest telegram has come to us by the not very direct route of Bombay.


My Lords, the intelligence which has been generally circulated, and which the language of the noble Earl the Secretary of State does more to confirm than render doubtful, must modify the course of anyone who has now upon a Notice to address you. As there is a time for going at length into a subject, there is a time when, from the gravity, the rapidity, and the appalling nature of events, it would be wholly inappropriate, perhaps impossible, to do so. The Correspondence I refer to, consisting mainly of Numbers 5 and 6, leads up to the events the journals have announced. The excellent Ambassador does not cease to dwell upon the marches by which Constantinople and Gallipoli are threatened. He does not hesitate to sketch the dangers it portends. It is significant to learn—which you may do by collating two despatches, one dated January 27th, one January 30th—that, after the withdrawal of the Fleet, "on all sides the Russians were advancing." We learn now what I ventured to assert on Monday last, that the armistice is not a barrier to the formidable evils which impend upon the world, and which affect so deeply our country and our Sovereign. My Lords, there is but one topic worth discussing, or which the House would be inclined to tolerate at present—namely, by what measures the situation yet admits of being improved. My Lords, one is, whatever tends to secure the perfect union of the Government, of which so much has recently been heard, so little has been witnessed. Another is, the immediate return of the Fleet to the waters it has quitted, so far as that return is not already intercepted. That return is in perfect accord with all the Treaties on the subject. This very day I have taken the precaution of referring to those of Unkiar Skelessi, of 1841, of 1856, of 1871. By none the measure is impeded. A third expedient may present itself—namely, the prompt withdrawal of all resistance to the Vote of Credit in the other House of Parliament—resistance which, although initiated by an amiable and honourable man, was never sanctioned by the body of the Party from which ostensibly it emanates. [Some noble LORDS: It is withdrawn already.] The impressions I am under will not permit me to discuss the Papers any longer. Although the nature of events ought not so far to affect the mind as to disqualify it for reflecting with perfect coolness on the steps which they demand, it may be such as to remove—if it existed—the faculty of complicated argument by which at times a Motion has to be supported. But, like the two noble Earls who came forward respectively on Monday and on Tuesday, I shall not make any. Reserve, however, at a time like this, ought not to go beyond a certain limit. It seems to me that anarchy prevails in our councils, while ruin menaces our honour; that we are moving to the flood of war over the quagmire of discredit; that the occupation of Constantinople, unless prevented by activity, will very soon indeed be remedied by bloodshed. But, on the other hand, I readily admit that it is not too late for both Houses of Parliament to ensure a better prospect to themselves and to the world.


My Lords, a few minutes ago I had to make to the House a communication which certainly was not of a very re-assuring or satisfactory character. Since I made that communication in reply to a Question of my noble Friend, I have received another of considerable importance, inasmuch as it comes from a quarter which undoubtedly is better informed than any other as to what is passing. As the statement I have now in hand modifies to a considerable extent that which I have already laid before your Lordships, I feel bound to communicate it to your Lordships exactly as I received it. The Russian Ambassador within the last few minutes has placed in my hands a communication to the following effect:—The Russian Ambassador, having addressed to his Government an inquiry whether it was true that the Russian Army was advancing on Constantinople, and had taken a fortified position forming part of the line of defence of Constantinople, has received from Prince Gortchakoff the following reply, dated St. Petersburg, February 7:— The order has been given to our military commanders to cease hostilities along the whole line in Europe and in Asia. The reply goes on to say— There is not a word of truth in the rumours which have reached you. What those rumours are is not stated. Literally, the contradiction may only apply to the capture of some fortified position; and therefore it does not, I think, absolutely contradict the statement I read from Mr. Layard; but undoubtedly it does, to a considerable extent, modify what from that statement would appear to be the situation, and having given to your Lordships the one statement, I felt bound to place before you the other.


said, they had heard the statements recently made by the noble Earl the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and yet they had not been informed what course Her Majesty's Government, under the grave circumstances which had been announced, were prepared to take. He should certainly be the last person to wish to make any remarks of a nature to throw any obstacle in the way of or to create any embarrassment to, Her Majesty's Government. He was only anxious for those interests of the country which they had been informed were intimately connected with this question. The whole community, he was sure, would reiterate the hope which had been expressed by the noble Lord opposite, that Her Majesty's Fleet would occupy the Straits and keep the waterway open, which, their Lordships were informed, was the object of sending the Fleet to the Dardanelles. It would be satisfactory to know that the waterway of the Dardanelles was to be kept open, and he believed there could be no better way of doing that than by occupying Gallipoli. He should not venture to express his own opinion; but he would venture to express the opinion of the highest military authorities, that it was of importance to this country, and for the great interests we had at stake, for us to occupy Gallipoli, which, as the key of the position, would give us the command of the Straits of the Dardanelles.


said, that the statement which had been made by the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) left their Lordships in doubt whether the Russian Army had retreated to the point that they had reached when the Armistice was signed, or whether they had advanced after the Armistice was signed and occupied one of the forts, and so turned the flank of the Turkish defences of Constantinople. In the present state of public feeling, if the noble Earl the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, or one of Her Majesty's Ministers, would inform the House on this point, it would give general satisfaction. He did not know whether the noble Earl read the communication, which he had just received, accurately, or whether he (Lord Dorchester) misunderstood him; but it did not appear clear whether the Russian Ambassador had forwarded the statement direct from St. Petersburg or not. He would, therefore, ask whether the communication came from the English Ambassador at St. Petersburg, or from the Russian Ambassador at Her Majesty's Court?


asked the Foreign Secretary whether there was direct communication by telegraph between Constantinople and this country?


Direct communication from Constantinople appears not to be re-established; but there is free communication with Besika Bay. I was for a moment absent from the House when the noble Lord (Lord Dorchester) asked me a Question; but I am informed it was, whether the communication which I read to your Lordships came from the English Ambassador at St. Petersburg, or from the Russian Ambassador in England? In reply, I would state that it came from the Russian Ambassador to this Court.

House adjourned at a quarter before Six o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.