HL Deb 10 December 1912 vol 13 cc151-6

LORD NEWTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government what number of Indian troops are now in Southern Persia and where they are stationed, and whether it is intended to retain or to withdraw them.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question which stands in my name is intended to refer specifically to a number of Indian Cavalry troops who left India some time ago and who are now, I believe, in Shiraz, and who, so far as I am able to gather, are likely to remain there for an indefinite period. Towards the end of 1911, in consequence of the disorder prevalent in that part of Persia, the interference with the trade routes and the general inconvenience which prevailed, His Majesty's Government determined upon sending an Indian force there. That force, which I believe consisted of three squadrons of native Cavalry, proceeded to Bushire, and went up country in different detach- ments at different times. One squadron penetrated as far as Ispahan. It remained there for some time, and has now rejoined the others, I understand, at Shiraz. During these marches the troops were subjected to occasional attacks, and on one particular occasion the Consul of Shiraz, whom they were escorting, was wounded. The Indian force was worsted in the fight that took place, and, if I am not mistaken, the Consul himself was made a prisoner. Owing to the insufficiency of the numbers of these troops, so far from being able to keep any order in the district, for which purpose, I presume, they were originally despatched, they have been practically—I do not think I am exaggerating when I use the expression—prisoners in Shiraz ever since they got there. At all events, they have been unable to leave, and unless I am greatly mistaken—I hope I am mistaken—I am under the impression that they are waiting for a favourable opportunity to get back to the coast.

I have not the smallest doubt in my own mind as to how this humiliating state of things arose. When the Russian troops began to pour in by thousands into the north of Persia—those troops which, according to Sir Edward Grey, are only there temporarily but who will certainly remain in Persia just as long as, for instance, the French troops remain in Tunis or our troops in Egypt—and when in addition to that the state of things in the region of which I am speaking became almost intolerable, it is evident to me that some members of the Government thought it was necessary that something should be done, and it is equally evident to me that there were certain other members of the Government who were determined that nothing should be done, and that being the case the wretched compromise was arrived at that this particular force should be sent which was too large for an ordinary Consular guard and not large enough for any practical police purposes. I am well aware, as presume everybody is, that neither Bushire nor Shiraz, nor Ispahan is in what is called the British spheres. Ispahan, of course, is in the Russian sphere. One of the humours of the Anglo-Russian Agreement is that practically none of the particular districts in which our interests are supposed to predominate are in our sphere at all. But it is equally evident that His Majesty's Government consider that they have some responsibility attaching to them in that part of the world, because otherwise these men never would have been sent at all.

I do not expect for a moment that the Government are going to make any comprehensive statement upon this or upon any other question in connection with Persia; but as the Persian Government are obviously quite unable, in view of what has taken place, to keep order in this part of the world, and as there does not appear the slightest possibility of their being in a position for some considerable time to exercise the ordinary acts of an independent Government, I think I am justified in asking what is going to happen to the particular force to which I have referred. Are we going to withdraw them altogether, and thus signify that we are, in so many words, going to clear out altogether from that part of the country? Or are we going to take steps to insure that some sort of order shall be re-established there by whatever means may be thought best? Or, finally, are we going to leave things just as they are now, and thus continue a course of action which may have more to be said in favour of it than I see at the present moment, but which, I confess, appears to me to be not only useless but humiliating as well.


I am not sure to which set of opinion as to our duty to Persia the noble Lord belongs. There are those who say that if we were to leave Persia alone she would soon develop resources and capacity of her own quite enough to restore order, and that the obstacle to the restoration of order is the intervention of European Legations, and so forth. The other school insist that we do not interfere half enough. The noble Lord used the term "clearing out" as though that would be an operation not very much to our credit. On the other hand, does he mean that we are falling short in not saying we are there and are going to remain there? I wish the noble Lord had stated more clearly which view he charges the Government with neglecting to act upon. The noble Lord has laid far too much stress upon the despatch of this military force to Shiraz being due to the disturbed condition of Southern Persia. The point in the original despatch of the force was that it was necessary not generally to restore order, but to reinforce the ordinary Consular guard. The total number of officers and men, about which he asks, then and now in Southern Persia is 1,286. They are distributed in the main at three stations—at Shiraz, where there are 12 British officers and 491 native ranks; at Bushire, where there are 5 British officers and 420 native ranks; and at Jask, where there are 5 British officers and 236 native ranks. I have only to say further and generally that His Majesty's Government have no desire to retain these additional troops a single moment longer than the situation requires, and the question of withdrawing them will be considered as soon as ever, in the view of the Government and their advisers and agents on the spot, the situation will permit their withdrawal.


Will the noble Viscount say why a squadron was withdrawn from Ispahan, and if withdrawn from Ispahan why not from Shiraz?


I intervene for a moment to ask the noble Viscount whether it is really the case that the Consulate at Shiraz requires nearly 500 men to protect it.


My Lords, my noble friend behind me has, I think, fully answered the Questions on the Paper and has stated the policy of the Government with regard to them. As to the question last put by Lord Lamington—why it was that the, I think, 100 men who were at Ispahan were withdrawn to Shiraz—their time for returning to India 'was properly due. The state of affairs around Ispahan, as the noble Lord probably knows, has not been altogether satisfactory, and it was thought advisable on general grounds to move these men to Shiraz, with, as he rightly anticipated, the ultimate intention of their returning in due course to India; the Consular guard at Ispahan, the strength of which I cannot at this moment state, will remain on the spot.

As regards the last question put by Lord Newton, I do not happen to know what the ordinary strength of the Consular guard at Shiraz has been in the past. My impression is that it has been under 20 men, as a rule sepoys and not Cavalry. In this particular case we sent Cavalry for the relief and in larger quantity instead of the usual Infantry guard. That was done for two reasons. In the first place, it was thought in the very disturbed condition of the southern roads in November, 1911, when the change was made, that it would be easier and safer for a Cavalry force to get to Shiraz than for half a battalion or whatever it might be of sepoys; and, in the second place, the increased number was due to the reports we received of possible serious danger to life and property of British subjects in Shiraz, which seemed to demand a much larger Consular guard than usual. But like my noble friend I must protest against the supposition which appeared to be in the mind of Lord Newton, that this force went there for the purpose of keeping order in Southern Persia. It did nothing of the kind. It went as a Consular guard. If we had sent a force with the intention of keeping order in Southern Persia we certainly should not have sent less than 5,000 or 6,000 men, quite a different thing from the one Cavalry regiment which went in November of last year.


I do not think my noble friend who put this Question desired to do more than ask for information on a point on which we in your Lordships' House are entitled to have it. I am quite certain he had not in his mind to pin himself to either of those schools to which the noble Viscount opposite challenged him to say whether he belonged. I am in exactly the same position as regards information. I have never been quite able to understand what these troops are doing in Southern Persia, and I had no idea until the noble Viscount told us that as many as 1,200 or 1,300 were there. If I may speak of the time when I had a closer connection with Southern Persia, I do not think at any time did we have more than 300 or 400, or at most 500. There must, therefore, clearly have been something to justify this great increase of troops. One would judge from what the noble Marquess said that the sole object was to put our Consular represent hives in a position of greater security, and he used the argument that if the men had been wanted to restore order clearly a much larger force would have been required. I do not imagine for a moment that His Majesty's Government attempted or desired to undertake the task of policing the country, but if that was not their object, if their object was the more limited one of securing the safety of our Consuls, they did not go the best way about it. They sent a force of 300 men to Ispahan, a place where it is very desirable that some evidence should be given of British influence, but where the British representative, so far as I am aware, has never been in any dancer. This force was shut up in Ispahan, and had eventually to take an opportunity of creeping back to the coast. Then there was a further force shut up at Shiraz unable to move out. The force at Jask on the coast may be removed from consideration—that is a different problem; but far from adding to the security of the Consuls, I believe the exact opposite has been the case. These troops have been unable to move; one of our Consuls was attacked; and I am told from Persia that the presence of this force, whose position is neither one thing nor the other, has been a source of great suspicion, if not of grave offence, to the Persian Government. We are quite justified in putting Questions about the matter, and, what is mo e, I think we shall be justified in raising the matter again at a later date, because this half-and-half state of affairs, in which there is a force in the country unable to move, which the Government want to get out, which is doing no good there, and which, so far as one can judge, is a source of offence to the people, is a situation which we must all deprecate. I hope the Secretary of State for India will not object if at an early date in the New Year we raise the question again with the view, let us hope, of obtaining a more satisfactory statement from him.