HL Deb 05 March 1885 vol 295 cc49-60

rose, in pursuance of Notice, to ask the Under Secretary of State for War, Whether the Government have in their possession any accurate survey of the proposed line of railway from Suakin to Berber; whether there is any contract with the constructors of the said proposed railway; and, if so, whether they would lay such contract upon the Table of the House; whether the Government have reason to believe that it will be possible to complete the said line of railway before the autumn; and if there be no reasonable prospect of the line being so completed, what steps the Government propose to take in order to secure the efficiency and safety of the forces now under the command of General Lord Wolseley in the Soudan; also to ask whether the Government had information of the report that Lord Wolseley had publicly announced his intention to advance on and to take Khartoum? The noble Lord said, that, in putting these Questions, he had no idea of doing anything which would embarrass the Government, or be disadvantageous to the public interests. What he wanted to know by his first Question was, whether Her Majesty's Government had any survey of sufficient accuracy to enable them to tell the House whether by any reasonable means the railway could be completed in time to relieve the Forces now acting under Lord Wolseley? It was clear, for two reasons, that Her Majesty's Government must be in possession of a considerable amount of information as to the line over which it was proposed to take the railway. The first was that, for a long time past, they had been publicly and privately warned that, in the event of any misfortune happening to Lord Wolseley's Force, it would be absolutely necessary to open the Suakin-Berber route; and he could not but think, therefore that they had obtained every possible information as to the practicability of that route; and, secondly, because when the question was before the Government as to which route should be taken by the Relief Force under Lord Wolseley, it was not possible to believe that they had come to a decision without definite and reliable knowledge as to both routes. His second Question, as to the existence of a contract for the railway in question, had been answered in "another place," and the Secretary of State for War had promised to lay it on the Table. Probably the noble Earl would also consent to lay it on the Table of their Lordships' House. He should be glad if the noble Earl would now state the terms of the contract, and whether the contractors were bound to make the railway as a whole? What he wished to say to the Government as to the construction of this railway was this. Are you in earnest? He did not ask impossibilities of the Government; but, if possible, were the Government determined to carry the railway through to Berber, or would they only make a beginning, go, perhaps, as far as Sinkat, and then wait to see what would happen next? Under ordinary circumstances he might have scarcely felt justified in asking them such a Question; but all that was happening now had happened before—only a year ago. Last year, as now, there were soldiers and garrisons in the Soudan, whom we were bound to support and relieve, and besides many thousands of helpless women and children. Last year we sent out troops to crush Osman Digna, as we hope to crush him now. Last year, as now, we sent out plant for the construction of a railway; but the railway was begun, and nothing more came of it. History was repeating itself very fast. He was entitled to ask whether the Government were going to do the same thing now? There was no result from the operations of last year except the shedding of much blood and the lavishing of treasure. The Government said that those battles saved Suakin; but would anybody in this country believe that Suakin would not have been safe except for the battles of Teb and Tamanieb? He would repeat, were the Government in earnest in making the railway from Suakin to Berber? With reference to the third Question, he hoped that the Government would say that it would be made in time to be of service to Lord Wolseley. He should like to know whether this railway would not take two years in construction; for Lord Wolseley himself stated that two years was the time this would be needed for the work. If that were so, it became a question why the railway was to be constructed, or if it should be constructed at all. The matter was of great consequence, because of the position which it seemed intended that Lord Wolseley's Forces should occupy during the hot months. He spoke as one who had had experience of such climates, and he knew how depressing and dangerous enforced inactivity was. He, moreover, was at a loss to know how Lord Wolseley was to get supplies, and how reliefs were to be sent if it became necessary, if the railway were not completed by the autumn. What he wanted to know was, whether the Government had any other string to their bow? He asked the Government to give one some hope—some certainty—that this country would be in a position to relieve Lord Wolseley's Force if necessary. He felt sure that the noble Earl would do both the Government and the country a great service if he would let them know for certain what the Government intended to do. As to the last portion of his Question, as to Lord Wolseley's announcement, he would ask further, if the Government had received this information, whether it was their intention to abide by it? He had himself lived among Orientals, and he knew well that if there was one thing more disastrous than another it was to say anything which they were not prepared to carry out. Were the Government prepared to carry out this intention? He would be very sorry to put any limit to what could be done by British troops under any circumstances, and no doubt it was possible to go to Khartoum and take it; but what would be the advantage of that alone? Her Majesty's Government had announced their intention of destroying the power of the Mahdi at Khartoum. As a Member of their Lordships' House, he entered his protest against this policy of going to Khartoum with the avowed object of retiring from it. There was no more 'fatal policy than this—to fight, and, though victorious, to act as if the battle had been lost. If they went to Khartoum they must stay there; but the Government had no such intention; they proposed to fight their way there through a sea of blood, with no other intention or object than to wade out again, with this additional evil result—that those Arabs, who might have been our friends, would, and must, become our deadly and implacable enemies. He did not wish to criticize the conduct of the Expedition in any way; but he could not help thinking that General Brackenbury had made a mistake in destroying the villages up the Nile, instead of doing all in his power to conciliate the Arabs of the districts through which he passed. Berber, which was the key of the whole position, should be made the military centre of the Soudan; and under a Government such as might be instituted either by, or under the authority of England, it would now become a centre of civilization and commerce. That was, supposing always that it were possible to construct the railway from Suakin. If the Mahdi were determined to continue his hostile attitude and to drive us out of Egypt, we should be infinitely better able to check and defeat him should he advance to attack us at Berber, thereby following him into his own wild and desert country. The last words from General Gordon were striking and characteristic, and he would recommend them to the consideration of Her Majesty's Government. In answer to a message from the Mahdi that Colonel Stewart was killed, and that he had full information as to the state of Khartoum, General Gordon said—"I do not care what you know or what you do. I am made of iron. I shall stop here." If the Government would only act on such a principle, give the country the information they desired, and to which they were entitled, and, having fixed upon a definite policy, stand firmly by it, he felt sure that they would have the approval and support of the country. He asked the noble Earl for a reply to the Question of which he had given Notice.


said, that he entirely acquitted the noble Marquess opposite of any intention to impede the military operations by putting this Question on the Paper. But he thought the noble Marquess had travelled a little beyond the confines of the Question. During the course of the noble Marquess's speech, he had more than once been tempted to regret that he had not had an opportunity on a former occasion of hearing the noble Marquess. He trusted, however, that their Lordships would excuse him if he abstained from following his noble Friend into the somewhat extraneous matter contained in his speech. As to the Question on the Paper, they had no actual survey for the construction of the Suakin-Ber-ber line; but they had endeavoured to collect all the information that was available both in Egypt and in this country; and he believed that they had acquired sufficient information to enable them to state that there would be no insuperable difficulties in its construction. There might be one or two points of difficulty in connection with the engineering of it; but he did not believe that these were such as could not be overcome. With regard to the second point, there was no contract with the constructors of the proposed railway; but there was an arrangement made with them by which they were to act as agents of the Government. The Government proposed to lay the document which embodied the terms of this arrangement before their Lordships; and it would not be wise or prudent, meanwhile, to enter into a detailed statement of what those terms were. As to the third point, the period when the line was likely to be finished, he should be extremely glad to give an answer if he could; but, as their Lordships must be aware, its construction depended upon military as well as engineering considerations. They trusted that the military difficulties would be overcome without any long delay; but it would be extremely hazardous to venture upon any forecast on that point. Those difficulties overcome, they were assured by the constructors that there would be no difficulty in constructing it, or at least a great part of it, by the time autumn set in, in a form which would be sufficient for military purposes. There might be difficulties which they could not foresee, which might impede their progress with the line; but as far as they were aware, and as their information led them to believe, the railway would, if not completed, be made for a considerable way by the autumn, and the making of even a portion of it would be of great assistance in any movement of troops or stores that might be necessary. As to the steps which the Government proposed to take for securing the efficiency and safety of the Forces under Lord Wolseley, it seemed to him that the noble Marquess had been a little confusing two things in his own mind. The question of the actual relief and security of the Forces under Lord Wolseley at present in the Soudan could not be affected, in the slightest degree, by any considerations connected with the making of that line. It would be quite as difficult to convey stores and supplies from Suakin as from Wady Halfa. With regard to the supplies for Lord Wolseley's troops in the Soudan, which were above the Cataracts, between the first and second series, these troops were at present being supplied from Egyptian sources entirely, while large supplies were being sent out from home. Although there were difficulties on the line of communication and transport, all he could say was that every effort had been made locally and at home to facilitate the communications with Lord Wolseley's troops, and to provide them with all necessary supplies of stores, clothing, and food, and everything else that they required. He could assure the noble Lord, if it was necessary to assure him, that every effort was being made locally to provide for the needs of the troops, and that there was no reason to suppose at present that those efforts would not be sufficient and effective. With regard to the last Question put by the noble Marquess, he could only give the simple answer that they had no information whatever as to the announcement which Lord Wolseley was reported to have made at Korti of his intention to advance on and to take Khartoum at once.


said, he thought that their Lordships could not but take into consideration the tone in which the Government had always hitherto treated that question, and that they must examine rather critically such a statement as that which had been just made by the Under Secretary for "War. The House was in very great doubt as to what the policy of Her Majesty's Government really was. The whole of the debate which took place the other night failed to elicit from them any distinct expression of opinion; and all that could be discovered was that noble Lords on the Treasury Bench did not agree among themselves as to what the real object of the war was. The noble Lord at the head of the Admiralty entirely differed from the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack; and their Colleagues in the other House differed from both of them. Some Members of the Government said they were going to Khartoum, and then immediately to leave, and some said they were to establish a stable Government at Khartoum. Towards the end of the debate it seemed that the Government had wished to convey the impression that they were going to establish some sort of a Government in the Soudan before they left. But what had happened since? He did not wonder that the noble Lord opposite was rather annoyed at the noble Marquess who had put the Question to-night having travelled somewhat far afield. He supposed that noble Lords on the Treasury Bench thought that, the Vote of Censure once fairly over, their Lordships were not to recur to the subject, but were to take the goods the gods provided them, and say nothing. They could not but remember that when the Motion was coming on a state of feverish anxiety to do something strong and positive animated noble Lords on the other side. They sent out that Expedition of our choicest troops which was now on the sea to Suakin, and complete plans for a railway from Suakin to Berber accompanied them. But now it seemed that the cold fit had succeeded to the hot fit, and the noble Lord the Under Secretary for War would not positively state that the railway was to be made. The noble Lord had said, as had been said on several occasions, that a railway could be made; but their Lordships did not know that a railway could be made, although that was the Question which was put by the noble Marquess, and which was not answered by the noble Lord the Under Secretary. If anything like a stable Government was to be established in the Soudan, was it not somewhat extraordinary that the troops that were on the march to Abu Hamad, and going to Berber, should have been ordered away from the forward position they occupied; and if the Expedition to Suakin was to proceed to Berber by railway, there was no cooperation now in contemplation between Lord Wolseley's Forces on the Nile and such an Expedition? Since the Expedition had started from Suakin, a concentration of our troops was taking place on the Nile near Korti, and not in the direction of Berber. The Expedition which left our shores the other day would be enormously costly, not only in money, but in the lives of our best soldiers; and therefore their Lordships had a right to receive some definite expression of the intention of the Government.


observed, that their Lordships were not called upon to give an opinion on military matters now; but he wished to say, on his own behalf—what he was sure would be corroborated by General Officers of great experience—that the health of the Army was likely to suffer more from inactivity than in advancing even under the most difficult circumstances. He pointed out, also, that a retreat, under whatever conditions, must always have a powerful moral effect upon an Oriental population, as well as upon the spirits of our own troops, and he thought no retreat should be made, unless it were obviously necessary. In reference to the allusion made to Brigadier General Brackenbury, he (Lord Ellenborough) felt bound to say that that officer was free from any kind of blame; and if any blame could be attributed, it was to the General Officer who placed the Force in its position previously, and had the Brigadier advanced, or hesitated for the moment to retreat, he would have had the sympathy, one and all, of his fellow-countrymen.


said, he thought they were entitled to demand some fuller explanation. He had heard on good authority that the officer commanding at Suakin ascertained a short time ago that Osman Digna's Forces were nearly starved out, and that he had applied to the Home Authorities for more men to enable him to take advantage of the opportunity thus afforded for dealing a decisive blow at Osman Digna. That request was, however, refused. The time for doing it had now gone by, and Osman's Force had increased, and he had regained his power. If the Government would only put forward a clear and definite statement of what they intended to do, he felt sure they would receive the unanimous support of that House and of the country; while he was equally convinced that it would strengthen Lord Wolseley's position if the Government would state that they were determined to establish a firm Government at Khartoum or at Berber.


said, he had understood, from the answer given by the noble Lord the Under Secretary for "War, that it was the intention of the Government to try to construct a railway running the whole way from Suakin to Berber, and that they had every hope that there would be no engineering difficulty that would prevent that from being done. He had been a little disappointed at hearing from the noble Lord that no contract had been entered into for laying down that line, although the noble Lord had added that there had been an arrangement made, and that its terms would be laid before their Lordships in a short time. The House could, no doubt, discuss the matter more conveniently when they had the terms of that arrangement in their hands; and he would, therefore, now ask the noble Lord how soon they were likely to be laid on the Table?


said, he could not name the day; but the arrangement would be placed on the Table at an early a date as possible.


I trust that the noble Lord will not allow any unnecessary delay to occur in producing the arrangement, because a good deal of anxiety prevails on this subject; and such documentary evidence would be very grateful to the public mind, to show it what is going on. I confess that this matter has to me rather an Arabian Nights air about it. We used always to be taught that one of the greatest triumphs of Roman courage was the case of the man who bought land that was at the time occupied by Hannibal's Army. He would be a bolder man still who pledged himself to build a railway on land that was occupied by a hostile Army. But that is not the whole extent of boldness shown by Her Majesty's Government. They have not only pledged themselves, as I understand, to make a railway in the teeth of a hostile Army, but to make it on land of which they have not anything approaching to a survey. The idea of making a promise to make a railway merely on what I may call hearsay—on what this or that traveller has told you he has observed in the country—is, I venture to say, an entirely new achievement in the course of railway construction, and would alarm very much my noble Friend the Chairman of the Great Northern Railway, and some of the most distinguished, railway authorities in this country; and I think it is a matter of common notoriety that one of the greatest authorities has expressed very considerable doubt of the possibility of making a railway in the proposed time. I wish to have some test that it is really a bonâ fide railway that is contemplated, whether the Government have taken any measures to supply materials, and how far they have taken those measures. It is a railway of 280 miles, and if there are no bridges on this railway it is the most singular railway in the world.


There are no bridges.


None whatever?


There are no rivers to be crossed.


Well, it is a difficult and mountainous country, and there must be gullies that will have to be crossed by means of bridges. Iron girders must, at all events, be made to order; and. I want to know what orders have been given in that respect, and whether there is anything in the nature of a specification? Then as to the time. The time which is mentioned for construction is certainly very striking to those who have paid any attention to railway business. I suppose that what the noble Lord euphemistically called the military difficulties will not be removed before the end of this month. Before the autumn comes—say the 1st of October—there will be but five months to make 280 miles; and to do this is something like two miles a-day, and this, too, in an enemy's country. I believe that to make a railway, even at the rate of one mile a-day, where an accurate survey has been made, and where beforehand every kind of railway material has been provided, where the country is in perfect peace, and the best organization is at command, is a very considerable achievement. I think it was clone by Sir Richard Temple in the case of the Dacken Railway, and everybody was much surprised at it; but when the Government undertake to make a railway in an enemy's country without any survey, when, apparently, they have not ordered a single bit of railway plant beforehand—when they undertake to make this railway at the rate of two miles a-day, it really suggests that the Government have somehow or other found Aladdin's lamp, and that they intend to make use of it. It is impossible, considering the past history of this question, and considering what the influence of Parliamentary events has been upon our military preparations, not to feel some anxiety for more abundant information, that shall assure us that the intention to make those 280 miles before the autumn is serious, and that some adequate preparation for so gigantic a task is being made. I wish to press upon the noble Lord that, if he cannot give this information to-morrow, he will give us it without delay, and that he will let us have the contract, or something in the nature of a specification, to assure us that we are dealing with a serious matter.


The remarks of the noble Marquess are somewhat discouraging. Her Majesty's Government have been frequently urged to make this railway, and the moment they undertake it the noble Marquess comes forward to represent the enormous difficulty of accomplishing the undertaking.


Of doing it in the time.


I am unable to speak from technical knowledge. The noble Marquess has far greater knowledge of railways than I have. The noble Viscount sitting near the noble Marquess speaks of this railway as if it were a perfect myth, as if no preparations had been made, as if no plant was ready, and as if it were a matter of extraordinary chance that one of the most eminent firms of contractors in the country would be able to carry out the work. But the fact is that all the plant was perfectly ready when the arrangements were made. The noble Marquess does not expect that it is to be made like the Great Northern Railway. It is to be what is called a contractor's railway, its primary object being of a military character; but it may be used in order to be converted into a permanent railway. It will, however, be much more easily managed, and will be constructed much faster than the substantial and expensive railways to which the noble Marquess has referred.


I believe it will be convenient to your Lordships if I explain that the railway, for military purposes, may be of a very temporary character, which could be rapidly constructed. In the invasion of a hostile country, where animal transport is deficient, it is necessary to supplement it by a railway, however temporary, as soon as the advanced posts are sufficiently established. Such a railway will greatly facilitate a more permanent structure, if such should be desired. I have had much communication with engineers connected with railways in Egypt and other Eastern countries, who were quite confident of the possibility of making the railway from Suakin to Berber without any extraordinary difficulty. They are men of experience in the construction of railways in Eastern countries, and their judgment may be relied upon. Another point which I consider it desirable to advert to is an opinion expressed in the Press and elsewhere of the desirability of entering into negotiations with the Mahdi. From first to last, the Mahdi has not shown the least disposition to treat with anyone. General Gordon's overture was met with the message— Put on my uniform, also "become a Mussulman, and I will spare you; otherwise I will sweep you off the face of the earth. I think that evinced the spirit of an irreconcilable fanatic, and as such he ought to be treated. To talk of negotiating with such a man was absurd. We had either to beat him or let him alone; and I hope we shall beat him.