HL Deb 25 February 1904 vol 130 cc940-4

My Lords, I wish to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty a Question of which I have given him private notice. It is one of great moment to this country, and the points contained in it are now creating considerable interest everywhere. I wish to know whether the noble Earl can give any information as to the following statements which have been made in the Press and elsewhere as to the action of this country in matters affecting the Russo-Japanese war, and which is interpreted as evidence that this country has broken the letter or the spirit of the law of neutrality—(1) in allowing the Argentine cruisers bought by Japan to leave Genoa under the Red Ensign; (2) in supplying naval officers to command these vessels; (3) in escorting these cruisers in the Mediterranean by His Majesty's ships; (4) in not allowing certain Russian destoyers to dock at Malta; and (5) in allowing the Japanese to use Wei-hai-Wei as a base for an attack on Port Arthur.


My Lords, I recognise the gravity of the questions put to me by my noble friend. I am absolutely at a loss to conjecture from what source these stories can have emanated. There is, I fear, some influence at work which is endeavouring to misrepresent the attitude of this country and to show that the Navy is not observing that strict neutrality which is incumbent upon it. I will take each of the points in turn mentioned by the noble Earl. It has been stated that the two cruisers bought by the Japanese Government from the Argentine Government, and which were built at Genoa, were allowed to leave that port under the British flag. My Lords, there is not a word of truth in that statement. An application was made to the Consul that the ships should be allowed to fly the British flag. The request was immediately refused, and they never flew that flag for one second.

Again, it has been stated that the Admiralty supplied two naval officers as captains of these cruisers. Again there is not a word of truth in that statement. Two gentlemen who had been officers in the Navy were selected by the Japanese Government to command these cruisers. They were gentlemen over whom the Admiralty had no sort of control whatever, and they drew neither pay nor pension from the Government. They had, however, some time ago voluntarily placed themselves on what is known as the emergency list of ex-officers who are available for service in time of war. The moment the Admiralty learnt that these officers, over whom they had no control, but who were on this emergency list, had undertaken to command these cruisers, the Board decided to strike them off the emergency list; and this was done before any kind of complaint was made, before the facts had become public, and simply because the Board of Admiralty thought it the wiser course to do that which would leave no room for misrepresentation. The third statement that has been made is that these cruisers, after leaving Genoa, were escorted through the Mediterranean by His Majesty's ships. There is no foundation of any sort or kind for that statement. I do not know what colourable accident may have given rise to it. I do not believe myself, and I have no knowledge, that they were even sighted by any of His Majesty's ships.

It has also been stated that we acted in a discourteous and unusual manner in respect to the docking of certain Russian destroyers at Malta. What are the facts of the case? Some considerable time ago, before affairs between Japan and Russia had arrived at a critical stage, application was made on behalf of the Russian Government to the Board of Admiralty that they would allow a certain number of Russian destroyers—five or six—to be docked at Malta. That request was granted, as usual, with pleasure. When those destroyers went to Malta affairs between Japan and Russia had become critical, and it behoved us to consider what would be the position according to international law if war broke out while these destroyers were still at Malta. As your Lordships will remember, the law in the matter is this—that a foreign ship-of-war must leave within twenty-four hours a neutral port or be detained at that port during the duration of the war. We thought it was only fair to the officer commanding these Russian destroyers that he should be reminded of this fact, or otherwise, if war broke out, he might find himself in the position that he could not leave within the twenty-four hours, and that the ships would have to remain there during the whole of the war. We therefore thought it right to remind him of the state of international law. So that your Lordships will understand that the only inducement we had in giving him this reminder was that we should be quite clear of any future suggestion that we had not given a warning which we might have given. Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding, for which I cannot account. The Russian Consul understood that the destroyers were directed to leave Malta within twenty-four hours, not that they were warned that if war broke out they would have to leave. That has been explained to the Russian Government as a very regrettable misunderstanding, arising, as your Lordships can see, from our desire to be sure that the Russian officer understood the position. I might say, in this connection, that nothing more contrary to the ordinary practice of our Navy than to be inhospitable to the ships of other navies can be conceived. I do not think that foreigners entirely realise the extent to which we extend that hospitality, and extend it gladly. I have had the cases looked up; and I find that within the twelve months ended 31st January of this year, in no fewer than seventy-nine separate cases we have had the opportunity of offering hospitality to Russian ships of war in various ports of our own all over the world. I only mention that to show what, I think, is too little remembered sometimes upon the Continent—namely, the spirit in which we approach this question.

Lastly, it has been stated, and I fear very widely believed, that the attack made upon the Russian fleet at Port Arthur was made by the Japanese fleet from Wei-hai-Wei as a base. My Lords, that is a most wicked falsehood. I can use no language less strong; and the responsibility is indeed great with the source from which such a story emanated. The fact is that not a single Japanese ship has been at Wei-hai-Wei since August last; and at the very moment when this story was being most diligently circulated with the idea of inflaming Russian opinion against this country—at that very moment, I am glad to say, H.M.S. "Talbot" at Chemulpo was engaged in giving up the whole of its accommodation and hospitality to the sailors of the Russian ships which suffered in the recent engagement, for which the Russian Government has thanked us, and in respect to which the late Russian Consul in Korea has testified to the warmth and sympathy with which the Russian sailors were received by the English, French, and Italian cruisers. I need hardly say that the "Talbot" would have most gladly done the same for the Japanese in a similar case, because the attitude of the British Navy towards both the Russian and Japanese navies is one of admiration and respect, and the whole object in view is to fulfil the spirit as well as the letter of the obligations of strict neutrality.


I am quite sure that the statement of the noble Earl will be received with satisfaction: There is only one point as to which there is some reason for hesitation and regret, and that is the communication made to the Russian Consul at Malta. Will he tell us by whom it was made and whether it was in writing or verbally?


I should like to refresh my memory exactly, and if I have to correct myself later I hope the noble Earl will allow me to do so. I believe the facts are these. The Governor of Malta requested the Naval Commander-in-Chief to make a communication to the captain in command of the Russian destroyers. The captain in command could not be found, and the Russian Consul came to see the Naval Commander-in-Chief. The explanation was verbal, and the misunderstanding arose, I think, from the fact that the communication was verbal and not in writing.