HL Deb 01 February 1900 vol 78 cc244-8

My Lords, the Notice standing in my name—"To ask the Secretary of State for War whether the experience gained during the South African campaign as to the armaments and the numerical strength of the enemy in the field has tended in any way to throw doubt either upon the accuracy or the completeness of the information obtained as to these matters by the Intelligence Department before the outbreak of hostilities; and whether it is proposed to lay before Parliament the despatches of Lieutenant General Sir William Butler while in command at the Cape; and to move for papers"—was put on the Paper before the speech of the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for War on Tuesday; and as to the first part of the question I am perfectly satisfied with the statement he then made. At the same time, I hope the noble Marquess will not consider that I am unduly critical if I say just one word or two with regard to the delay which has occurred before the noble Marquess did what seems to me to be only a simple act of justice to the Intelligence Department. In putting this notice of motion on the Paper I acted absolutely on my own initiative. I did not consult any member of the Intelligence Department, and I do not appear in this House as the mouthpiece of any member of it. Owing to the silence of the noble Marquess and every other member of the Government on this subject for nearly three months, the public have been led to believe—and I think the very great majority of the public have believed—that the Intelligence Department has been scandalously inefficient. As long ago as 6th November the ball was set rolling with regard to the Intelligence Department. On that date no less a person than the noble Viscount the Commander-in-Chief is reported in the newspapers to have made use of these words— We"—presumably the Government—"found that the enemy were far more numerous and powerful than we had anticipated. Naturally, my Lords, these words were taken as an indication that the noble Viscount had no great confidence in the Intelligence Department, and the public distrust in that Department was intensified as, day by day, checks, reverses, and disasters were heard of, seeming to show more and more clearly how entirely the Government had been deceived with regard to the strength of the Boer forces. Not only did no member of the Government say one single word in exoneration of the Intelligence Department, but while the newspapers were full of these insinuations the Leader of the House of Commons went down to Manchester and made his "man-in-the-street" speech; and it was also reported in the newspapers, whether true or not, that Mr. Kruger had stated that he had entirely deceived our emissaries with regard to the importations of guns and ammunition. Parliament was not in session, truly, but to every one of Her Majesty's Ministers the platform and the press are open, and, if the noble Marquess did not wish to rush into print or to appear himself on a platform, the task of exonerating the Intelligence Department might easily have been delegated to one of his colleagues. I think the noble Marquess will agree with me that it is unfortunate he did not find time and opportunity at an earlier period to exonerate the Intelligence Department. It is clear that the principal colleague of the noble Marquess, the Prime Minister, was perfectly unaware that the Intelligence Department was not to blame, for the noble Marquess said on Tuesday last that it was very probable the Intelligence Department had not got a great deal of information because they had not a great deal of money.


I do not think I used those words. I stated that getting information necessitated the use of a great deal of money.


I think the noble Marquess implied that he was not confident that the Intelligence Department had given to the Government that in- formation which it was desirable the Government should have. As to the despatches of Sir William Butler, the question has been raised in the House of Commons, and I ask for the production of those despatches on the two grounds that were stated in that House by my right hon. friend Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman—first, on the ground that the public have a right to know what advice Sir William Butler had given to the Government; and, secondly, on the ground that Sir William Butler has a right to have his character cleared of the grave charges which have been made. I must confess that it does seem to me rather strange that these despatches have been so long withheld. I beg to move my motion.

Moved—"That an humble address be presented to Her Majesty for the despatches of Lieutenant-General Sir William Butler while in command at the Cape."—(The Lord Monkswell.)


My Lords, I understand the noble Lord regards the few words which fell from me the other evening in reference to the Intelligence Branch as, upon the whole, a sufficient answer to his question. But he added that he was surprised to notice my tardiness in defending that department of the War Office. He told your Lordships that so long ago as November last, the Commander-in-Chief himself had, in effect, pleaded guilty on behalf of the Intelligence Branch.


No. What I said was that the Commander-in-Chief had used words which induced the public to suppose that the Intelligence Department had been scandalously inefficient.


I accept the noble Lord's correction. The words of the Commander-in-Chief were that we had found the Boers more numerous and powerful than we had anticipated. Those words were spoken, I believe, without very much preparation, and may not have been as carefully weighed as if they had formed part of an official statement. But the Commander- in-Chief's meaning was perfectly clear. What he intended to convey to his hearers was that we had found opposed to us in the field a larger number of the enemy than we had anticipated; and that was, I think, a perfectly correct statement. I am under the impression that at this moment the Boers have placed every man in their country in the fighting line. In most of our forecasts we had anticipated that part of the Boer forces would be detailed to watch the frontier at other points. We believe that that has not been done, and that the enemy have put in the fighting line in Natal and on the western border of the Orange Free State, one may almost say every soldier that they possess. That was the meaning of the Commander-in-Chief. But then the noble Lord went on to suggest that it was my business, if I had noticed—as I presume he thinks I should have noticed—the attacks made upon the Intelligence Department, to exonerate that department in the press or on the platform. All I can say is that, if the head of a department, which, as the noble Lord knows himself, is somewhat hard worked even in ordinary times, were to take upon himself in a time like that through which we have been passing to reply to every attack in the press on himself or on his subordinates, he would not have much leisure left for the legitimate work of his office. With regard to the Intelligence Branch, I repeat what I said the other day, that although they make no pretence to infallibility, and although they are ready to admit that there may have been cases in which either men or munitions of war have found their way into the Transvaal without the knowledge of the department, yet, on the whole, their information has been carefully and accurately collected, and has been as sufficient as we could reasonably expect. Then I pass to the second question of the noble Lord. He asks me whether it is proposed to lay before Parliament the despatches of Lieutenant-General Sir William Butler while in command at the Cape. My Lords, we do not intend to present those despatches to Parliament. It is clear from what has been said by the noble Lord that he desires information as to the circumstances which led to Sir William Butler's resignation, and, I imagine, also as to the allegation that Sir William Butler constantly supplied her Majesty's Government with advice and information as to the military strength of the Boers, which advice and information Her Majesty's Government are supposed to have neglected. Now, my Lords, as to the correspondence and despatches for which the noble Lord has moved, I am afraid they could not, with advantage, be presented to the public at the present time, but I am perfectly ready to tell the noble Lord that Sir William Butler's resignation was placed in my hands, and accepted by me, on the ground of divergence of opinion between himself and the High Commissioner—a divergence so great that Sir William Butler himself came to the conclusion that his presence in command in South Africa had become a source of embarrassment to the High Commissioner. That statement was made frankly to me by Sir William Butler, and it was upon that statement that I accepted his resignation. I also desire to add this, that in the Papers for which the noble Lord has moved, and which I am unable to present to the House, there is nothing whatever which has reference to any estimate which Sir William Butler may have formed of the strength of the Boer forces or of the strength of the forces which it was our duty to oppose to them.


Do I understand the noble Marquess to say that in all these despatches Sir William Butler expressed no opinion as to what measures ought to be taken for the safety of Natal and the conduct of the war, if war broke out?


There were despatches, no doubt, containing plans of defence for the colonies—plans of considerable minuteness—and for that very reason I object to presenting to Parliament Papers containing very confidential matter, and which, moreover, it is not usual to present to Parliament.

On Question, resolved in the negative.

House adjourned at Five of the clock, till To-morrow, a quarter past Four of the clock.