HL Deb 18 March 1879 vol 244 cc1144-8

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, Whether it is true that a Message has been transmitted by the Secretary of State for War expressing Her Majesty's sympathy with Her troops in South Africa and Her entire confidence in the Commander-in-Chief, when a Court of Inquiry was still pending; and, whether this Message was duly considered by, and met with the entire concurrence of, Her Majesty's Government? The Question, he said, had been asked in somewhat similar terms in "another place," and had been replied to with an alacrity and an acceptance of responsibility not usual with a Cabinet Minister. It would not be supposed that any subject of Her Majesty would feel otherwise than grateful for the expression of sympathy which was at all times accorded towards the subjects of the Sovereign when cases of distress or suffering occurred. Therefore, it was not to the first part of the Message that his Question was specially directed—it was directed rather to that expression of entire confidence in the Commander-in-Chief, and at a time when a Court of Inquiry was still pending. He could not but question whether that expression of entire confidence could have been made without the direct sanction of Her Majesty's Ministers, who were responsible for all the acts of the authority to whom the Message was addressed. He would therefore inquire whether that Message ever had been sent, and, if it had been, whether it had been sent without the knowledge of Her Majesty's Ministers? It might have been sent, he presumed, by order of the Commander-in-Chief through the Minister for War; but it would be new to him to learn that such a Message—affecting, he might say, the command of Her Majesty's Forces—had been sent without being submitted for the approval of the Cabinet, or without having met with its sanction. The object, he presumed, of the Court of Inquiry was to obtain such an account of the circumstances attending the disaster as might furnish a light to guide Her Majesty's Government in the steps which should be taken. When an expression of entire confidence was accorded by one man to another it was founded universally on success, and it was new to him to find it accorded in a state of danger. If, as he was led to believe, it had been sent without any direct sanction on the part of Her Majesty's Government, then such a step was certainly unusual; but the knowledge which they all had that no Sovereign who had ever sat on the Throne of this Realm had a more profound acquaintance with Constitutional usages than was possessed by Her Majesty induced him to think that there could not have been in this instance such a departure from what was usual. He wished to ask Her Majesty's Government, Whether it was true that a Message was transmitted by the Secretary of State for War expressing Her Majesty's sympathy with Her troops in South Africa and Her entire confidence in the Commander-in-Chief, when a Court of Inquiry was still pending; and, whether this Message was duly considered by, and met with the entire concurrence of, Her Majesty's Government? He would be the last man to say anything whatever to reflect on the professional capacity of an absent man, or on the capacity of a distinguished officer who had been always regarded by his compeers as a man remarkable for his military talents and as being singularly prudent in all military measures; but he believed he was not wrong in saying that the great mass of military opinion in this country did not lead to the belief that in this unhappy disaster every means had been taken to prevent the unfortunate massacre which had occurred. On the contrary, it inclined to the belief that there were certain omissions, if not commissions, which military men did not approve. He was not for a moment complaining that any other course had not been pursued; but he said that this expression of entire confidence where there had not been complete success was a departure—in his judgment, an unhappy and unfortunate departure—from the ordinary rule, and would not give satisfaction to military minds in the country. He would have been perfectly satisfied if the matter had been allowed to rest without any such expression of confidence. He hoped to receive a full and candid reply to his inquiry.


My Lords, I need not assure your Lordships, who are acquainted with the Constitution of this Realm, that no public act on the part of the Sovereign is ever done except on the responsibility of Her Ministers. Therefore, I shall not dwell on that point, except to make the remark that I think the manner in which the noble Lord has made his inquiry is not one consistent with the Constitutional usages which are generally observed. At the same time, I would observe that there is one great peculiarity in the Question. The noble Lord makes an inquiry respecting a certain Message, the purport of which he criticizes in general language, but totally avoids placing before your Lordships what that Message, which is the subject of his controversy, really is. If the noble Lord had only alluded to it, I might, perhaps, have passed it over slightly, or even unnoticed; but the noble Lord, in asking his Question, has entirely misrepresented the question. The noble Lord referred to a Message which was sent by Her Majesty, on the responsibility of Her Government, to the Commander-in-Chief and the troops in South Africa. Now, my Lords, what was that Message? Her Majesty, on learning what had occurred, unhappily, in that part of the world, immediately expressed her sympathy with Her Army in the great disaster and loss which they had incurred and suffered, and, at the same time—to use, I believe, the exact language—expressed still Her confidence in the Commander-in-Chief and Her troops to maintain the honour of Her name. Now, my Lords, such a Message was most becoming in one occupying the exalted station of Sovereign of this Realm, and that Message was transmitted under the responsibility of Her Advisers. The custom thus adhered to was one which has been pursued in innumerable instances; and to hold that such an expression of feeling on the part of the Sovereign, thus constitutionally expressed, should be submitted to the Cabinet, and even to the discussion of Parliament before it is transmitted to the troops, in whose sufferings it sympathizes, and in whose future exploits it expresses confidence, would be to destroy all that spontaneous grace of consolation which such Messages to our brave troops, in circumstances of disaster, are so eminently calculated to convey. My Lords, there is nothing in what has occurred but what is regular and Constitutional, and the interpretation which the noble Lord—of course, unintentionally—has placed on this Message—the language of which, I may repeat, he never quoted—conveys to my mind, and I should think to the minds of your Lordships, a completely erroneous impression of the meaning which it was intended to express. In the circumstances which existed, an expression of confidence by Her Majesty, after an expression of sympathy with their misfortunes and disasters, in the Commander-in-Chief and Her troops to maintain the honour of Her name was, to my mind, most becoming and proper, and is not to be tortured into a formal expression of unlimited confidence in the Commander-in-Chief, in the manner which it has been by the noble Lord. The noble Lord says that no expression of this kind on the part of the Sovereign, even with the approbation of Her Ministers, should have been made in consequence of the Court of Inquiry at that time sitting. My Lords, that Court was not holding an Inquiry into the conduct of the Commander-in-Chief. It was a Court of Inquiry instituted by the Commander-in-Chief himself, in order to obtain facts which might enable him to form an accurate opinion as to the causes of the disaster, and which he might transmit to Her Majesty's Government. Was it to be supposed that in such circumstances an expression of the feeling of the highest Personage in the Realm, calculated to sustain our troops in trials of no common character—an expression of feeling which is looked forward to by Her Majesty's troops either in triumph, or discomfiture with the greatest interest—was it to be supposed that it should be delayed till the Court of Inquiry had come to some conclusion as to facts, in order that the Commander-in-Chief should convey an accurate report to the Government? I am sure your Lordships would never tolerate or sanction such a course as that. Nothing occurred but what was regular and Constitutional. It has been in accordance with regal custom, and it has been done on the full responsibility of the Ministry, as is every public act of the Sovereign. My Lords, I therefore think that the inquiry of the noble Lord might have been avoided on this occasion.


said, he had been completely answered. He was satisfied, because he had succeeded in eliciting a clear and full explanation.

House adjourned at half past Five o'clock, to Thursday next, half past Ten o'clock.