HL Deb 02 May 1912 vol 11 cc917-28

LORD NEWTON had the following Question upon the Paper—"To ask His Majesty's Government whether they have addressed any representation to the Italian Government with reference to the closing of the Dardanelles."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, since I put this Question on the Paper I observe in the Press that a temporary arrangement has been arrived at by which the Dardanelles are partially reopened, but this is obviously a merely temporary arrangement because it is quite clear that it is liable to be upset in consequence of any additional action being taken by the Italian Fleet. As no Parliamentary Papers have been laid with regard to this particular question and as no general statement has, so far as I know, been made by His Majesty's Government, it occurred to me that they might, perhaps, be glad to take the present opportunity of making one. At the same time I do not think there is any harm in pointing out in a very few sentences how the present situation has arisen. It is now more than seven months since the Italians sent, practically simultaneously, an Ultimatum and a large Expeditionary Force to Tripoli, and that action was followed shortly afterwards by a somewhat premature declaration of annexation. The military operations in Tripoli have proved to be considerably more difficult than was anticipated, and events have marched very slowly. So far as one can gather, a condition of stale-mate exists at the present moment. The Italians are unable to advance—they have not advanced outside the range of the guns of their ships; and the Turkish and Arab force is incapable of turning them out from the towns which they occupy.

In consequence of this state of things the Italian Government have carried the war into different parts of the Turkish Empire in opposition to what I believe was their original intention. In pursuance of this policy they have bombarded various places in the Red Sea; they have sunk a certain number of Turkish ships; they have made demonstrations on the Syrian coast; they have seized and occupied some islands in the Archipelago, and, as a climax, they have attacked the Dardanelles. There are, apparently, various versions as to this particular attack. It has been said that it was a mistake and was not intended. I do not think that, as a mater of fact, there can be very much doubt as to what the intention was. It must be fairly obvious that the intention was not to make a serious and determined attack upon the Dardanelles, but to create a considerable amount of confusion in Europe, to cause a great deal of inconvenience, and so to bring about the coercion of the Turkish Government by the action of the Powers which were inconvenienced. International morality may not be on a very high level at the present moment, but, at all events, this apparent attempt to prevent people front defending themselves when they have been attacked in an entirely unprovoked way has not met with success.

It will probably be said that the Italian Government, being a belligerent, have the right to make war in any way they choose, and to attack any part of the Turkish Empire which they may feel inclined to do. In principle they are obviously entitled to carry out this course, but I desire to point out that in practice they are doing nothing of the kind. The natural point of attack for the Italians would obviously be the Albanian coast. Italy has long nourished ambitions with regard to Albania. Italy considers that she has important interests there. It is an open secret that Turkey has not been attacked on the Adriatic in consequence of the action of the Austrian Government. The Austrian Government have warned the Italians off the Adriatic and off the Gulf of Salonica, and this action has been taken, so far as we are able to judge, without impairing the relations between the two countries. Those relations apparently continue to be friendly. The Ministers of the two respective Governments make speeches in which they allude to their respective countries in friendly terms, and Italy remains a party to the Triple Alliance. What I desire to ask is why, if the Austrians have been able to obtain this concession, we and other Powers are not able to obtain the same for ourselves. We are all neutrals. All these Powers are neutrals. Why should the Austrians he placed in a privileged position, and why should not all neutrals be treated in the same way?

If we attempt any thing in the nature of the action which has been taken by the Austrian Government, is there any serious danger of our imperilling our present friendly relations with the Italian Govern- ment? It seems to me that we have given the most unmistakable evidence of our friendliness to the Italians during the present contest. Perhaps we have gone even further in that direction than many persons would approve. His Majesty's Government, so far as I know, have never made any sort of protest against Italian action, although we have been considerably inconvenienced. They have never condemned that action. The Press of this country has, upon the whole, been entirely upon the Italian side; and we have stretched our friendship to the Italians even to this point, that as far as I can gather we have prevented even unarmed or unorganised bodies of men passing through Egypt in order to serve as volunteers with the Turkish and Arab forces, Egypt being, it must be remembered, still a part of the Ottoman Empire. I do not think it would be possible to stretch friendship as a neutral further than we have done in this particular case. Surely in view of what we have clone, and putting aside, for the present at all events, all questions of morality, we are entitled to ask that the war should not be conducted in a way which has become almost intolerable, as far as we are concerned, and that it should be localised as much as possible in accordance with the original intention. This I venture respectfully to submit can be best secured by asking the Italian Government to make a plain declaration of its policy, and asking that Government at the same time whether it will agree to totally exclude the Dardanelles from the area of war. And if it is suggested to me that Italy is a friendly Power and that therefore we are not entitled to make a request of that kind, my reply is, and I think it is an obvious one, that Turkey is a friendly Power too, and that this is not a war which has been of her seeking.

LORD NUNBURNHOLME also had the following Notice on the Paper—"To ask why His Majesty's Government do not take steps to ensure the free passage of British ships through the Dardanelles."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps it will be convenient that I should put the Question standing in my name before the noble Viscount replies on behalf of His Majesty's Government to the speech of the noble Lord opposite. What I should like to call the attention of the Government to is the very serious losses that are being caused to the trade and commerce of the whole of Europe, especially to the trade and commerce between Turkey and South Russia and England—apparently because the Italians have come to a deadlock in their war with Turkey. Of course, it is not for us at the present moment to go into the merits of this disastrous and unhappy war, but I cannot press too strongly on His Majesty's Government that they ought to obtain from the Italian Government some pronouncement that the sphere of operations is to be limited. The day before yesterday I took the trouble to telegraph to Constantinople to ascertain how many ships were held up, and I received a reply saying that there w ere 185 vessels inside and outside the Dardanelles unable to move. It is unnecessary for me to point out to your Lordships the enormous value of the cargoes on board those ships. Many of those cargoes are at present deteriorating. Further than that, it is a well known fact that all bankers have stopped making advances on bills of lading, and the whole of the trade in that part of _Europe has come to a state of absolute chaos. We are still a great Naval nation, and I think that we ought to make some show of protecting our own interests in this matter and give proof that there is some use in being the predominant Naval Power, if there is no other way of bringing about a solution of the difficulty.


My Lords, I am sure my noble friend will not suppose for a moment that His Majesty's Government have been indifferent to the disastrous state of things—it deserves no less serious a word than that—which has been existing for several days in the Black Sea and the Dardanelles. The figure of 185, which my noble friend said was the information he got yesterday, does not quite correspond with our own. It is rather higher than we should put it, but it is not worth while arguing for a moment as to whether it is 185 or 135. The root fact remains that we are suffering huge damage. In the matter of the grain trade, and perhaps the oil trade, Russia suffers more than we do, South Russia being greatly dependent on our market, but we are suffering peculiarly in shipping. In shipping our predominance is extraordinary; shipping ordinarily passing through the Dardanelles is largely British. The total tonnage of shipping arriving at Constantinople in 1909, the date of the latest Consular report, amounted to 15¾million tons. Of this 6¾millions were British, 2¾millions were Greek, 1¼millions were Austrian, and 1 million was German. We have no information at the Board of Trade as to the shipping now, but the foregoing figures of the ordinary traffic show satisfactorily our supremacy in commerce in the Black Sea and how the relative effects of this disastrous closing of the Straits were distributed.

I think my noble friend will feel that it is not worth while to go further into the details of the transactions between ourselves and the Governments of Turkey and Italy. But let me assure him that, since the Straits were closed, we have been in constant communication with both those Governments, and he has seen to-day in the public prints that, after no unreasonable length of time, considering the difficulties of the Porte in coming to a decision, after we had taken prompt and friendly steps to call their attention to the mischief which is being done to the great interests of ourselves, and, after taking reasonable time for consideration, we heard from our Ambassador, last night, I think, the intelligence which has already, in a less formal shape, been given through the public Press. Yesterday the Porte informed the Ambassador that it had been decided upon to open the Dardanelles under the same conditions as existed before its closing, namely, that vessels must pass with pilots. The opening will take place as soon as ever the mines can be removed, but the Ottoman Government—it may be of interest to the noble Lord opposite—maintains its absolute right to close the Dardanelles completely in case, and as soon as, the necessity should arise.

The noble Lord opposite was, I think, rather unreasonable in asking His Majesty's Government here to make a general statement surveying all our relations with the Porte and with the Italian Government at Rome and other Powers. I think unreasonable because—and no one in the House will understand, it better than the noble Lord himself—it cannot be expected that, when you are in the middle of a war in which you are maintaining an absolute and firm neutrality, the Government should be called upon to produce all the Despatches, all the telegrams, all the interchanges of views. I am sure he will feel in his conscience that that is not a fair thing to expect. Nor can the noble Lord expect me now to get up and follow him in the criticism he made of something that Austria-Hungary is supposed to have done, what the relations are between Austria-Hungary and Russia and Italy, what promise or undertaking has been given by Italy to Austria, and so on. Then the noble Lord, having assumed that there has been an undertaking by Austria-Hungary to Italy and vice versa, asks why we do not approach Italy to exact from her the same kind of undertaking in our own regard that he assumes she has given to Austria-Hungary. That is not at all a reasonable position to take up. Then he says plainly that we ought to protest to Italy that we cannot endure, being, as my noble friend said, the supreme Naval Power, these roving operations of war. I wonder that he with his diplomatic experience thinks it possible for a Government that is firmly neutral to say to either of the two belligerent Powers, "You shall not carry on the war in the way you are doing."


I am sorry to interrupt the noble Viscount, but that is precisely what the Austrian Government has done.


It is what the noble Lord says Austria has done, but I submit that nothing could be more inexpedient than that we should in this House assume that the Austrian Government has done this or that, and on the basis of that assumption we are to be catechised and interrogated as to whether we will not undertake the same step. You cannot. I am amazed that the noble Lord does not agree with this. He must agree. Could we in reason be asked to say either to Turkey or to Italy, "We will prescribe to you the limits within which you shall carry on your military operations"? If they came into the Thames then we should have something to say. But to say that Turkey is not to defend herself and that Italy is not to follow her own plans of military operations would be a serious departure from an attitude of non-intervention. There are those, I know—I am not sure that there is not a member of this House—who, by way of speculation to avoid the evils of war, wish that the Powers of the world at The Hague or elsewhere should agree to the acceptance of some sort of principle to the effect that the area of a war should be strictly localised and limited. That may or may not prove ultimately a step towards the civilisation of war and the conveniences of war, but it is no use for us to-day who have practical business on our hands and who have the difficulties and the inconveniences of the hour to settle, to assume any realisation of a speculation of that kind. When the correspondence and telegrams are, in the fulness of time, published in a Blue-book I will undertake to say that the House and the country will find that we have thoroughly and assiduously followed the full duties of a firmly neutral Power between these two belligerents.

The noble Lord said nothing about the Turkish case. We have done full justice to the Turkish case. The Turkish Government have a right to take all legitimate means for the defence of their own territory. No treaty can oblige Turkey when her actual and immediate safety is concerned to open the passage giving free access to the destruction, if necessary, of her own capital. You could not expect that. Another point. This is rather against those who are impatient—some, like the noble Lord, at our being so patient with Italy, and others at our being so patient with Turkey. We hold a completely equal balance. With regard to the Turkish case, when their military authorities tell them that to abandon the defence by mines would be an equivalent to a reduction of their power of defence by about 50 per cent., such a consideration a neutral Government like ourselves is bound to take into account. I will say this. Neither the noble Lord nor anybody in the House will deny the obligation by which Turkey is bound to keep open the Straits under the Treaty of Paris, 1856, the Treaty of London, 1871, and the Treaty of 1878. She is bound to keep the Straits open for neutral commerce unless some immediate and direct necessity for her own safety should arise. We have held that in full regard. But now I think we might say that, while the principle that the Straits are to be kept open to commerce unless danger is actual or imminent imposes an obligation on Turkey from the point of view of international morality, it carries with it the corresponding expediency—

I will not put it higher than that—that that principle should not be strained and overstrained in case of war by other parties to it.

The noble Lord indulged himself in a rather cynical interpretation of the attack on the Dardanelles. I have seen it in the public prints, and it comes to this, that neither the Italian nor the Turkish Government were averse to inflicting severe inconvenience on neutrals on the chance of hastening the effective intervention of those neutrals in bringing to an end what is certainly apparently an extraordinarily obscure and ambiguous military issue.

As to Italy, I confess I was rather sorry to hear at this stage of things the tone of the noble Lord. I have said it before and say it again, we cannot insist on either of these belligerents foregoing their full belligerent rights or limiting them for the convenience of neutral States. May I add the consideration, and I venture to think it is well worthy of the attention of your Lordships' House, that it would be a very great mistake if in our natural impatience with such transactions as have recently taken place in the Dardanelles we were to leave out of sight the wider elements that affect both the Turkish and Italian cases and our attitude with regard to these cases. It would be a great mistake if we left out of sight with regard to Turkey the enormous Mahomedan interests with which we are concerned. With regard to Italy, on the other hand, it would certainly be an immense, and I will even say a lamentable, mistake, if we were to forget our friendship, our long traditional friendship, with Italy in the past, and, more than that, if we were to forget our concern in her position and relations as a Mediterranean Power. I do not think I need say more. I have disappointed, I am sure, the noble Lord. I could not make, and. I do not think he could expect it, a general statement of all that has been going on in this matter. We, at all events, have got for the time a situation which is better than a few days ago we could have hoped.


My Lords, I desire to offer a few observations about one remark which was dropped incidentally by the noble Lord who raised this discussion. He referred to the neutrality of Egypt, and appeared to think that the enforced neutrality of Egypt was insisted upon by His Majesty's Government on account of their friendliness for Italy. I do not know what has been going on recently on this subject and I am not in the secrets of the Foreign Office, but I conceive I am not far wrong in saying that it would have been a departure from neutrality to have shown any special friendliness either to Italy or to Turkey. I do not think that the reason why the neutrality of Egypt was insisted upon was due so much to friendliness towards Italy as to a due regard for the interests of Egypt itself and of all the people who reside there. It would have been a disastrous thing for Egypt if they had been dragged into this quarrel, with which they have no sort of concern, and I think His Majesty's Government have done extremely well in keeping them out of it. I make these few remarks because if the idea got abroad in Egypt that we were not acting in Egyptian interests but rather in the interests of Italy, it might do some harm, and I think it is just as well to put the matter right.


My Lords, we have all listened with interest to the statement of the noble Viscount, and for myself I am prepared to say that I heard that statement on the whole with considerable satisfaction. The noble Viscount may perhaps have fallen short of the expectations of my noble friend on the Back Bench (Lord Newton). My noble friend certainly favours strenuous methods of diplomacy, which I cannot help thinking might not be found quite so easy of application as he supposes. At any rate the noble Viscount must have convinced all those who listened to him that he and his colleagues fully realise the great gravity of the situation which has arisen in the Eastern Mediterranean. I will not repeat what he has said as to the magnitude of oar interests in the commerce of the Black Sea, or as to the grave menace to those interests which we discern in the recent dislocation of that trade. It is satisfactory to know that His Majesty's Government have spared no efforts to bring about a mitigation of those circumstances, and that they have been able to achieve at any rate a certain amount of success.

The noble Viscount said a word as to the Treaty obligations of Turkey, and there I entirely agree with him. I think he might have gone back even to the Treaty of Adrianople to show the obligation of Turkey to keep the Dardanelles open for the passage of peaceful traders. The noble Viscount is no doubt correct when he tells us that that obligation must be interpreted subject to the inherent rights of Turkey to take whatever measures are reasonable, necessary, or justifiable to ensure her own safety. The Turkish I Government no doubt in this case claims that the temporary sealing of the Straits was a measure indispensable to secure the Turkish capital, and I think she may fairly add the argument that this unfortunate conflict was not one of her seeking and that it was not due to any action of hers that the area of the warlike operations now in progress was extended in a manner which most of us greatly deplore. But, my Lords, whatever the strict rights of the Turkish Government may be, we all of us feel that they should not be strained, and that the utmost regard should be paid to the interests and claims of all concerned, in the peaceful trade of the Mediterranean. It is, I think, creditable to the Turkish Government that they should have frankly recognised this, as I understand to be the case, and that they should have undertaken to open the Straits to the same extent as they were open before these lamentable events, subject to certain regulations as to pilotage which are no doubt indispensable in the circumstances.

The accounts given in the newspapers of the conditions under which Turkey has agreed to this concession suggest one or two points which are perhaps a little disconcerting. In the telegram published in The Times this morning it is stated that in the Turkish reply which was communicated to the Russian Government the day before yesterday Turkey announces that the Turkish Government is anxious to reopen the Straits as soon as that is possible "without danger." I take it that that points to danger from mines, and I recall a statement that was made in the House a few days ago by the noble Viscount, in which he told us that there were still some mines the whereabouts of which was not precisely known, and it naturally occurs to one that some time may elapse before the Turkish Government considers itself in a position to intimate that no danger can arise to vessels passing through the Straits. Let us hope that the period of suspense may not he too much prolonged. In the same telegram it is said that Turkey will reopen the straits as soon as Italy gives pledges not to repeat her attack on the Dardanelles. I should be glad if the noble Viscount is able to tell us whether there is any truth in that statement, because obviously that would be a very serious limitation to the Turkish announcement and one which might make it much less satisfactory than we now believe it to be.


That assertion in the newspaper is quite inconsistent with the words used to our Ambassador yesterday or the day before.


I am very glad to have elicited that statement. It will give great relief to many who have read this telegram and were a little alarmed by it. This is perhaps hardly the occasion for dwelling upon the larger aspects of the case, but they are very important. We think, of course, of ourselves, and of the£20,000 which we are said to be losing every day during the time when the Straits are sealed. But the real question which will no doubt have to be considered sooner or later is the extent to which a belligerent Power, controlling narrow waters which form a great trade avenue for the commerce of the world, is justified in entirely closing such an avenue in order to facilitate the hostile operations in which that Power finds itself involved. That is a very serious matter. There is a certain analogy between that case and the case of some of those unfortunate trade disputes which we have been lately discussing. It seems to me that just as public opinion in any country would be slow to tolerate arrangements under which a local trade dispute might have the effect of paralysing the whole industrial life of the country, so public opinion amongst the great nations would be slow to tolerate a state of things under which a local conflict involving only two Powers would be allowed to create such serious detriment and disturbance to the whole trading community of the world. I hope I may infer from the words of the noble Viscount that our diplomacy is being directed to obtain the recognition of that principle, and I entirely agree that whatever our policy may be in this matter we should proceed tactfully and without undue impatience, bearing in mind upon the one hand the relations in which we stand to the Turkish Empire Owing to the great number of his Majesty's Mahomedan subjects, and upon the other hand our old friendship with Italy, which should certainly, so far as possible, be taken into account in any diplomatic communications with her at a crisis which affects her so closely as this crisis does.