HL Deb 03 August 1882 vol 273 cc563-6

I wish to ask the noble Earl the Under Secretary of State for War a Question of which I have given him private Notice. It is, Whether he has received any confirmation as to the alleged scare in regard to a picket of the 60th Rifles, which occurred the night before last?


My Lords, I have great pleasure in informing the noble Lord that, so far from there being any confirmation of the unfortunate rumour which appeared in one of the daily papers yesterday, we have received a telegram from General Sir Archibald Alison which completely refutes that rumour. The telegram has already been published in the morning papers; but I think it would be satisfactory to the House if I read it to your Lordships— Alexandria, August 2, 6.25 p.m. Left front picket of Ramleh lines driven in by body of Arabi's cavalry at 2 o'clock this morning. Picket maintained its position 80 yards in rear of its original post. Firing continued some time, and Arabi's men shortly withdrew. Post re-occupied. No casualty.


Can the noble Earl give any details of the affair?


Those are the only details which we have received; but I wish to say one word as to the manner in which this report has appeared in the papers. We all acknowledge the great service which newspapers render in time of war. Newspaper correspondents have, I admit, done great services; but in the course of last week, on three separate occasions, rumours of an unsatisfactory character have appeared in the newspapers, which, when explained, were found to be based upon no positive information whatever. The first of these cases referred to an alleged rumour that British soldiers had looted certain houses at Ramleh. The second rumour, to which was given great prominence, was of an alleged British defeat, mentioning the losses which had occurred; and, as the news in this case came from Cairo, it was obviously unreliable. The report of the third rumour was published in one of the newspapers of yesterday. I can only say that these reports, founded, as I have said, upon insufficient evidence, or, as in some cases, upon no evidence at all, cannot but be prejudicial to the Public Service, and must be very disheartening to the gallant soldiers who are made the subject of them. My Lords, I would venture as strongly as possible to appeal to the patriotism of those gentlemen who have the control of these newspapers at home to hold their hands before they introduce into their journals rumours and reports of this kind, without having trustworthy evidence to guide them. I am sure that I need not appeal to them, as my right hon. Friend (Mr. Childers) did in the other House a day or two ago, that, in times like the present, they should, beyond all things, be animated by the same patriotic motives that animate your Lordships and all the rest of the country, and should not do that which I cannot but think must be most prejudicial to the public interest.


My Lords, I am very glad that this Question has been put, and I am very glad to hear the straightforward and manly answer that has been given to it by the noble Earl—an answer which, I am sure, must be most satisfactory to your Lordships. The fact is, that in times of excitement like this, every Englishman has to do his duty. It is not the Army alone that is concerned, but every civilian and everybody who takes an interest in the matter, and who puts himself forward, whether as a newspaper correspondent, or in any other public capacity, in which he gives information, becomes really a participator in what is going on, and he ought to be as careful in what he says and does in his own individual capacity as those more immediately connected with the conduct of the operations. Now, my Lords, as the noble Earl has just stated, on two or three occasions sensational statements have been put forward, which have been proved to be not only exaggerated, but positively false and untrue. I do not for one moment mean to say that gentlemen connected with the Press who put these statements forward were not under the impression when they sent them that they were correct; but in camps and in times of excitement every sort of statement is put forward. A man comes from the front and says that this has happened or that has happened, and if you repeat all this gossip—for it is nothing more—it goes back to the base of the Army; why, every sort of confusion will arise out of it. I contend at the present moment that those gentlemen who have gone out to Egypt to report for the public journals have a very grave and responsible duty to perform, and not only they, but their employers, the gentlemen who are the editors and proprietors of the daily journals. I am one of those who think that it is of great advantage that everything should be made public; but on occasions like this it is of the utmost consequence that nothing should be stated that is not true; and, therefore, I contend that those gentlemen at home who supervise these statements that come from the seat of war are responsible that they should not allow anything to go into their journals on the subject, unless they are convinced that they are based on truth and justice. Take this case, for instance; it was stated distinctly that the Palace of Ramleh had been plundered by our troops. This was a very grave imputation; but there was not a word of truth in the report. Whatever looting took place was done by Native Egyptians. Whether it was done by the Khedive's own servants or by any other Native Egyptians does not signify—but, at all events, it was not done by our troops. What happens when these reports are published? They go all over the world. If they merely came to England it would not so much signify; but they go all over the world, and make it appear that our troops are perfectly undisciplined and unfitted in every respect to take the field. Well, a statement of this kind has been made about a miserable little outpost affair as far as I can make out. From the telegram just read, it appears that there was an outpost, and from that outpost a picket, consisting of a corporal and six men, was thrown forward. It was a very foggy morning, and by some accident the enemy—the Egyptians—approached the picket without being perceived, and the moment they were perceived the corporal and the six men did their duty. They had been sent forward for the purpose of obtaining information; but in consequence of the foggy state of the atmosphere, they had not been able to get that information, and they finally retired upon their main body, and this has been made to appear to be a great defeat. It is perfectly monstrous. If this sort of thing is to be told now, what will happen, supposing these operations to take wide dimensions? If a miserable outpost affair is to be exaggerated into a great defeat, suppose that a whole company happens to be sacrificed—for we must be prepared to hear of these things occurring in war—what will happen then? What report shall we hear then? It is, therefore, important that every Englishman, whether military or civilian, should do his duty by his country; and I do appeal to the editors of the Press who are loyal, and always ready to support the interests of the Crown and country, not to allow to appear in their journals these sensational articles for the mere object of having them sold in the streets by a lot of little boys late at night. I am sorry to say that I have myself sometimes been taken in by them. I hope this little incident may have a good effect; and I would go further and say that if these sensational telegrams are sent home and found not to be correct, the gentlemen who employ these correspondents will be the first to withdraw them from the seat of war, and thus show their dissatisfaction at the manner in which they discharge their duties, which are very important and very serious, and very detrimental to the public interest if not conducted with great care, prudence, and judgment.

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