HL Deb 19 February 1885 vol 294 cc849-57

My Lords, although, for reasons of a domestic character, I should have preferred not being present to-night, yet I feel that in the present critical circumstances, on which, the attention of this country and of Europe is concentrated, it would not be respectful for me not personally to lay Papers affecting Egypt on your Lordships' Table, and not to make a brief statement on behalf of Her Majesty's Government to your Lordships. Among the complicated questions in connection with Egypt, two have been pre-eminent in their importance and their urgency. One is the financial difficulty, and the other the military operations undertaken to relieve General Gordon—that heroic soldier, that great Englishman, in whom genius and virtue and disinterestedness were combined to an extraordinary degree, and whose struggles and whose loss have excited an enthusiastic sympathy and an unanimous regret. My Lords, as late as the first day of this very month we had some hope that both these subjects were in the course of practical settlement. With regard to the financial difficulties, we hoped that, in concert with the Powers and with Turkey, we were approaching a settlement. That hope has not been destroyed. Although it is impossible to speak with any certainty until all the final details are settled, yet I do expect in a very short time to lay before Parliament Papers which will show that we have come to a settlement advantageous and even necessary to Egypt, consistent with public engagements, and honourable to this country—an arrangement which, we trust, will find favour with Parliament, without whose sanction it cannot be carried out. Three weeks ago we also had hopes of a practical settlement of the military ques- tion. We had cheerful messages from General Gordon, with whom at last we had got into somewhat closer communication, and our troops were triumphing over many material and military difficulties. It was on the 4th of this month—at a moment when we were expecting to hear of the meeting between Sir Charles Wilson and General Gordon—that the dreadful news arrived that what military attacks and attempts to starve the garrison had failed to do was accomplished by an act of treachery against one of the greatest of our countrymen. This danger had hung over General Gordon's head for weeks and months. It could not have been averted by any precipitate action on our part; indeed, it appears to have been accelerated by the approach of our troops. I have been in the Public Service for many years, and in my own experience I do not remember such painful circumstances in which a Government was called upon to form a very serious and grave decision. Before stating that decision, perhaps your Lordships will allow me very briefly to refer to the character of General Gordon's mission. When that distinguished man, in a spirit of perfect unselfishness, volunteered to go to Egypt, his instructions were to go to Suakin and report. He was also authorized to comply with the wishes of the Egyptian Government, which might be communicated to him by Sir Evelyn Baring. It was also left to him to decide whether either he or Colonel Stewart should proceed to Khartoum. On his arrival in Egypt, with the full concurrence of Sir Evelyn Baring and the Egyptian Government, and in consequence of his own suggestion, he received full powers from the Khedive as Governor General of the Soudan. It was understood that the operations were to be of a pacific character. The General expressed himself confident that the power of the Mahdi had been exaggerated; and he believed that with time and patience it was possible to evacuate, the garrisons and also to establish some form of Native Government in the Soudan. He telegraphed that he considered there was no danger of the massacre of women and children. He was asked whether the report of the sending of an armed force to Suakin would be of use? His reply was that he valued much more the rumour of the force than the force itself. His first Proclamation was of a pacific character; but he soon afterwards sent to us a proposal that Zebehr Pasha, to whom he had been formerly opposed, should be sent to the Soudan. I have always myself been of opinion—and I know that that opinion is shared by some of his family—that that request was probably prompted, or, at all events, greatly strengthened, by a chivalrous feeling towards one whom he had considered his greatest foe. We knew that Zebehr Pasha was the deadly foe of General Gordon—we knew it from his own words. We also knew that he was a great General, and we considered that his appointment would have constituted a danger to General Gordon of a very urgent character, a menace to Egypt, and a great encouragement to the Slave Trade. My Lords, we agreed to any other form of assistance which he might prefer; and we placed at his disposal a Bum of money which might be required for any purpose he deemed necessary. There was an alternative suggestion made—namely, to send Native soldiers to Wady Halfa—and he also suggested the opening of the Berber route by some Indian troops. It was the unanimous opinion of the Military Authorities, including Sir Evelyn Wood and General Stephenson, that, although the Expedition to Berber might take place, it was one of great danger on account of the climate, and also one of extraordinary military risk. It would have been quite possible to send out a few hundred men—Cavalry—who might arrive at Berber; but I venture to ask your Lordships what would have been their position if they had arrived? With regard to General Graham's Force, it was impossible at that time to send that Force for the purpose. When it was finally decided, in August, to send out an Expedition for the relief of General Gordon, the great preponderance of military opinion was in favour of that Expedition taking the Nile route. This opinion was confirmed by many eminent men, among others by Mr. Stanley, the African explorer, and by others who were competent to speak on the subject. There were not only military advantages, but political advantages, connected with that route. The object of sending the Expedition was primarily to rescue General Gordon and those to whom General Gordon considered himself in honour bound, and also to provide for defence against an attack on Egypt. There were other aims—namely, the evacuation of the garrisons, the establishment of some form of orderly government, and the checking of the Slave Trade. The fearful news of the 4th of this month required the whole consideration of Government. There is hardly any doubt as to the loss of General Gordon; and, supposing that to be true, there were three ways in which we could deal with the matter. In the first place, we could instruct Lord Wolseley to retreat; in the second, to concentrate his troops for the purpose of negotiating with the Mahdi. As to the first alternative, it seemed to us that there were overwhelming objections to it, both military and political. It would not only have exposed Egypt, which we are bound in honour to defend, to great danger of invasion, but it would also have exposed us to injury and insult probably in different parts of the world. We rejected that course. Well, with regard to negotiations, we never shut the door to them either through General Gordon or Lord Wolseley. But what overtures has the Mahdi ever made towards negotiations? And even for the purpose of negotiation how could we have taken up a worse position than, notwithstanding our military successes, to have shown ourselves in a position of collapse in consequence of one act of treachery far from our troops? My Lords, the decision we came to, after grave consideration, was that we were bound to toll Lord Wolseley what our political object was. We told him that it was to check the advance of the Mahdi, and for that purpose to destroy his power in Khartoum. We desired to give Lord Wolseley the fullest discretion as to the military means which he might ask for, and as to the support which we were to afford him. We have certainly not exposed ourselves in doing this to the just censures which in Croker's Memoirs the Duke of Wellington is said to have passed on the Government of the day for not having consulted him when in responsible command in Spain. We have left entirely to Lord Wolseley the discretion of either attacking Khartoum at once, or, what more probably we believe will be his decision, making the attack at a later period in the autumn of this year. I am not able to tell your Lordships what decision Lord Wolseley has come to. We have given him, at his request, a large Force to be sent to Suakin; and a railway is being made from that port to Berber. And I cannot help alluding to offers which have been made by some of the greatest of our Colonies—offers which, I believe, in many ways, will have a very great effect. My Lords, we believe that if these military operations succeed we shall be in a position to carry out some of the principal objects which we have always had in view. Before sitting down I wish, perhaps with an unnecessary degree of caution, to guard myself against any misconstruction of the strong words which I have used as to the great disaster at Khartoum. That disaster, great as it is, does not, in the slightest degree, affect the military reputation and honour of the British arms. An act of treachery concocted ^in the centre of Africa, far from our troops, can have no such effect at all. I venture to say that that comparatively small Force under skilful Leaders, whose names I will not mention because they are in everyone's mouth, have shown a power of endurance, a steadfast courage, and a brilliant dash, which have never been surpassed in the military annals of this country. No words of admiration from me can have any real weight. I prefer repeating the opinion of the most competent judge in Europe, who, I am assured, has given as his opinion that the British Army in the Soudan is not an Army of soldiers—it is an Army of heroes.


My Lords, everyone present will feel that we meet on this occasion in one of the gravest conjunctures of public affairs that even the oldest among us can recollect. The noble Earl has laid Papers on the Table. I know not what they contain, and he has made a statement which it will become us to reflect upon. I do not propose now to anticipate the discussion which inevitably must come later, or to inquire what course this House will take, although I think it improbable that they will pass over this matter in silence. I only wish to point out that the gravity of our position does not merely arise from the condition of things in Egypt. It arises from the position which the policy of this Government has procured for the country in more than one portion of the world. In Europe we are isolated; and that boasted Concert of Europe, of which we used to hear so much, now appears to be a Concert of Europe against England. In Asia movements deeply threatening the safety of our Indian Empire appear to be progressing; dark and sinister rumours prevail; and there is ground for thinking that the emergencies of the hour may be deeply aggravated by those who know how to make the best use of them, and that the recklessness which five years ago abandoned the forward position which we occupied will meet a bitter Nemesis this day. Of our position in the rest of the world, of the insults which our Colonial fumbling has brought down upon us, it is not necessary that I should speak at length. All these things I have no doubt will pass under your Lordships' review. But I cannot accept some of the observations which the noble Earl has made in respect to the position of things in Egypt at this time. He appears to have shown to his own satisfaction that it was impossible to have relieved General Gordon earlier; that it was impossible to have sent General Graham's Force to advance from Suakin; that it was impossible to have reached him by the Forces up the Nile earlier than they actually did. A year ago we were indeed told that it was impossible for a Force from Suakin to cross the Desert to Berber. But we are relieved from the trouble of considering whether that excuse was correct or not, because Her Majesty's Government are now about to undertake that very work. It might have been argued a-year ago that it was impossible to send an Expedition up the Nile; but we are again relieved from the necessity of discussing that question, because the Government decided to send an Expedition up the Nile; but they only took care to come to what they called the "final decision," at the time when the waters of the Nile were already falling. The noble Earl spoke, and spoke with justice, of the sympathy and the deep regret with which we, all of us, have heard of the fall—I might say of the sacrifice—of our Christian hero. But these are not the only feelings which have been excited in the breasts of the people of this country. There has not only been sympathy and regret, but bitter and burning indignation. General Gordon has been sacrificed to the squabbles of a Cabinet and the necessities of Parliamentary tactics. For these things, undoubtedly, unless the machinery of our Constitution is an absolute failure, unless the people of this country have lost all control over the policy pursued on the nominal responsibility of their Rulers—for all these things an account will assuredly he exacted. What, however, concerns us now mostly is the future. We are told that Expeditions are going out to Suakin. We want some security that they will not return with such a record of useless slaughter and fruitless effort as the last Expedition did. We hear that great efforts are to be made to defeat the Mahdi at Khartoum. We wish to know that these exertions, which, without doubt, will cost us so much in precious treasure and far more in precious blood, will not be absolutely thrown away, and that we shall not retire from Egypt leaving behind no record of our presence, except the mischief and the confusion we have wrought and the bones of the unhappy soldiers who have been slain. My Lords, I will not now pursue this subject further. We are meeting not only in a great crisis, but under pressure of great sorrow. We have lost men belonging to this House, whose presence was highly valued, whose memory will be held dear, whose honour is an honour to the class to which they belonged. We lament their loss and the loss of many other valuable soldiers whose lives are not too valuable if they have been sacrificed really to the interests of their country, but whose fate bears with it a terrible demand of reckoning and indignation if they have been sacrificed to the imbecility of a Ministry, or to the necessity of keeping a Party in power. We shall have an early opportunity of discussing these questions. I will only express the hope that the Papers on which those discussions are to be founded may be circulated without delay, and that we may address ourselves at an early period to the discussion of the question who it is that is to blame for all these things, how these faults have been committed, and, what is still more important, what results are to come to this country from the great efforts we have been making? From the closing words of the noble Earl I drew the conclusion—I know not whether it is just—that the further exertions which this country will be called upon to make will simply be directed towards re-establishing our prestige, and towards punishing the opponents with whom we contend. I do not deny that these are the imperative necessities of the moment; but there is something beyond. There are British interests to secure, there is good government, there is security, there is safety from foreign and external influence hostile to English power which it is our duty, our imperative duty, to ensure; and while I believe this country will grudge no efforts which these objects will demand, I am sure it will visit with bitter censure those who shall make useless and bootless but vast efforts involving the terrible sacrifices which this country has been hitherto called upon to make.


My Lords, at a time when troops are being hurried off from almost every part of the country the noble Earl opposite says a few words about General Gordon; but he tells us not a word about the policy which the Government intend to pursue in Egypt. The noble Earl says there are two questions, the political and financial. Nothing, however, was said about the financial question. The noble Earl said that he hoped it would soon be concluded; but if it is concluded on the terms which we have read in the Press it will be a capitulation worse than the fall of Khartoum. Are we going to capture Khartoum, to smash the Mahdi, and then to hand Egypt over to Foreign Powers? No doubt it is a time of great difficulty; but I am sure that real danger to England does not lie in the Soudan, but it lies on the Ministerial Bench. It is their vacillating and half-hearted method of conducting affairs which has brought us to this position of affairs, and now not a word has been said as to any change of policy. One of Her Majesty's Ministers told us the other day that their policy was an unselfish policy. I quite agree that it has been an unselfish policy according to the way in which they carried it out; but if the policy has been unselfish, the expense has been most partial. We have had to bear all the expense, and then it is suggested that we should hand Egypt over to Europe. I think it is against this policy that we are bound to protest. I think the noble Earl might have told us something more with regard to what the Government are going to do in Egypt. I am glad to hear that the noble Marquess intends to take another and a fuller opportunity of having this question discussed in this House. If it is not debated in this House it will certainly be debated very much in the country, because it is impossible for any body of Englishmen to be satisfied with the manner in which our foreign affairs have been conducted, not only in Egypt, but in other parts of the world. It is time that a Constitutional way of having those matters discussed should be arrived at; and I am glad we shall have an opportunity of doing our best to arrest a policy which causes pain and sorrow to many an English home, and which is filling with shame and disgrace the pages of English history.


I wish to ask the noble Earl the Under Secretary of State for War whether the Government have received any information from Lord Wolseley as to the report in several of the morning papers to the effect that General Buller has been obliged to make a retreat from his position on the Nile to Abu Klea?


The only information we have received at the War Office has been already published in the morning newspapers. It is the case that we received a despatch from Lord Wolseley last night stating that General Buller considered it desirable to evacuate the position at Gubat, and we are glad to hear that he has arrived at Abu Klea in safety.


Were any orders sent out from this country directing him to abandon his position?


No; General Wolseley is left absolute discretion as to how he should meet the military.


I wish to ask whether there is any truth in the statement published by The Morning Post to-day that, in consequence of the disturbed state of Ireland, Her Majesty's Government are unable to move those regiments which were to go to Egypt, and that their departure has been stayed?

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