HL Deb 24 February 1915 vol 18 cc557-90

*THE EARL OF SELBORNE rose to move to resolve—

That this House is of opinion that the established custom of the Navy by which a Court-Martial is held to investigate the loss of any of His Majesty's ships is founded on the best interests both of the Navy and of the public, and that it is expedient that it should be maintained.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the subject of my Motion is one, I venture to think, of great importance, and your Lordships must bear with me if in the course of my speech I read a certain number of quotations. But before proceeding to my argument I wish to refer to some remarks which the First Lord of the Admiralty made on this subject in the House of Commons a few days ago. He pleaded that Parliament and the country should repose confidence in the Board of Admiralty. I have said before, and I wish to repeat to-day, that we have confidence in the Board of Admiralty and wish to support that Board to the best of our ability The Board of Admiralty contains some very distinguished men. I suppose no member of your Lordships' House has had a better opportunity than I have of gauging to the full the great ability of Lord Fisher, and I wish to say without any reservation that we are conscious of the very special and immense responsibility which rests on the First Sea Lord in time of war, and desire to give him and the whole of the rest of the Board of Admiralty all the help we can in the fulfilment of that great responsibility, for which his most singular gifts so admirably fit him in a time of national crisis.

But, my Lords, if we have misgivings, they have been entirely caused by the conduct of the First Lord of the Admiralty. If he [Mr. Churchill] had been content, if he was now content, to fill that great, part which is his own as a member of the Board of Admiralty—as Lord Goschenput it, primes inter pares—he would have far less criticism than he has to meet. But it is because he has so often separated himself from the Board of Admiralty, because he has so often made pronouncements in which his own personality alone appeared and in which the Board of Admiralty was never mentioned, and because we know he has made weird excursions of his own to Belgium in semi-naval uniform that we feel in doubt sometimes whether he is speaking as Mr. Churchill or as First Lord of the Admiralty. If we could be reassured when he speaks and acts that he is only speaking and acting as part of that, great body, then he may be assured of our constant confidence. We do not pretend to have the same confidence in his private individual judgment as we have in the collective judgment of the Board of Admiralty.

When the noble Marquess who leads the House was referring to this question of naval Courts-Martial, I think in the beginning of January, he said that there was no statutory obligation to hold a Court-Martial in the case of the loss of a ship; that it was more a custom than a legal obligation. He was perfectly correct. But the best continent upon that which I have seen was written to me by a distinguished Admiral. This is what he wrote— The British Navy is cry much like the British Constitution. Many of its most important customs are unwritten. There is a very wide field for research into this matter, wide in its bulk though not wide in the multitude of authorities. As your Lordships know, the historian of the Navy was the late Sir William Laird Clowes. His work extends, I think, into seven bulky volumes, and he is the only man, I suppose, who has read through the records of all the naval Courts-Martial. Therefore there is no authority extant, either in the Admiralty or outside, greater than that of Sir W. Laird Clowes on this question of the custom of the Navy in the matter of Courts-Martial.

Let me state to you the effect of Sir W. Laird Clowes's views on this matter. I do not think any one could study his works without coming to the conclusion that the Admiralty has made a complete departure from the established practice of the Navy in declining to hold a Court-Martial in the cases of the loss of His Majesty's ships since the outbreak of the present war. An examination of the naval records by Sir W. Laird Clowes reveals the fact that since 1652 the rule was established that in the case of every ship lost, captured, or surrendered, a Court-Martial should be assembled to deal with the captain or other survivor of the vessel. I will give your Lordships two illustrations to show how, in Sir W. Laird Clowes's mind, this rule practically did not admit of an exception. There was a ship called the "Jack," which struck her colours on July 21, 1781, and upon which no Court-Martial was held. Sir W. Laird Clowes infers from that fact that she was not a King's ship at all, but probably a merchantman. Again, in referring to the case of the "Blanche," a 44-gun frigate which in 1805 surrendered to a French force of four ships and one hundred guns and sank within a few hours, Sir W. Laird Clowes writes as follows on the subject of the Court-Martial held over Captain Mudge— In this ease it is clear that the 'Blanche' was in a desperate condition when she surrendered. The usual Court-Martial on the loss of the ship honourably acquitted Captain Mudge and congratulated him on his able and gallant conduct.

I find, from the same authority, that from the Revolution of 1688 down to the year 1901, when he finished his researches, there was a total of 1,008 of the King's ships that were lost, and no one can find in Laird Clowes any evidence whatever that any one of those in which there were survivors was not the subject of a Court-Martial. I do not say there were no such cases. I am not in a position to prove that. I say that any one studying Laird Clowes, who is the greatest authority, cannot find that he thought that there were any exceptions in this great list. I see that the Attorney-General the other day, speaking in the House of Commons, said there were twenty ships, all I think of a date somewhere between 1815 and 1840 or thereabouts, that were lost in which there was no Court-Martial. I dare say he is quite right, but I should be glad if the noble Lord who is going to reply on behalf of His Majesty's Government would give me the names of those ships, because it would be a very interesting matter for investigation to see what Laird Clowes said about them and what the explanation is. Of course, there never were Courts-Martial in cases of ships of which there were no survivors; but Laird Clowes certainly thought that the custom of the Navy was practically universal in cases of ships lost where there were survivors.

I should like next to quote the Admiralty Regulations on this subject, because they entirely bear out the contention which I am trying to advance. I will first read No. 177 of the King's Regulations— When one of His Majesty's ships shall be wrecked, or otherwise lost or destroyed, or taken by the enemy, the command, power, and authority given to the captain, and to the other officers and the crew with respect to each other, shall remain and be in full force, as effectually as if such ship were not lost, until a Court-Martial shall have inquired into the cause of the loss or capture of such ship, or the officers and crew shall be otherwise disposed of and separated, as directed by the Naval Discipline Act. Then there is Regulation No. 616. It is a long one and I will read only half of it; but the second half, which I shall omit, has no bearing on the argument. The Regulation is headed "Lives, Stores, Books, and Papers," and runs— If a ship is wrecked or otherwise lost or destroyed, the captain will use every exertion to preserve the lives of the crew; and when as many of them as possible have been saved, he is to use his utmost endeavours to save the stores, provisions, and furniture of the ship. He is to give his particular attention to the saving of all books and papers relating to the ship's accounts, that be may be enabled to cause the necessary books to be made out for transmission to the Admiralty immediately after the Court-Martial to inquire into the loss of the ship has taken place. Then Regulation No. 1,355, which is headed "When Ship has been Wrecked," runs— In the event of a ship being captured, wrecked, or otherwise lost or destroyed, the officers and ship's company shall, subject to provisions of the Naval Discipline Act in force at the time, be entitled to full pay until the time of their being discharged, or removed into other of His Majesty's ships, or of their dying, unless the sentence of the Court-Martial held on the loss of the ship shall otherwise direct. I do not think anybody could read those extracts from the King's Regulations without coming to the conclusion that the Admiralty have always hitherto contemplated the continuance of the custom of holding a Court-Martial in the loss of any one of His Majesty's ships.

Now I pass to the reasons given in the House of Commons the other day by the First Lord himself why this custom of the Service has been suspended. I must say that this part of his speech was very poor stuff, quite unworthy of his intelligence; and I think I can show your Lordships that those words are not unjust. First of all, the First Lord of the Admiralty said— To hear the talk in some quarters, one would suppose that the loss of a ship by mine or submarine necessarily involved a criminal offence.… One would suppose that it involved a criminal offence for which somebody should be brought to book. Again he said— Losses by mine and submarine must frequently be placed on the same footing as heavy casualties on land. They cannot be treated as presumably involving a dereliction of duty or a lack of professional ability. Those are the words of a man who knows what the naval view of Courts-Martial is, but who is trading on the ignorance of the public and throwing dust in their eyes; because there never has been connected with the holding of a Court-Martial any presumption of professional incapacity or of dereliction of duty, nor has it ever cast a slur on the officers tried. If the First Lord did not know that, then all I can say is that he was ignorant of a fundamental principle of naval discipline of which he ought not to have been ignorant; but if he knew it, then it was not an honest argument to attempt to cast discredit on the suggestion that Courts-Martial should be held by saying that the loss of a ship necessarily involved a criminal offence or a lack of professional ability.

The First Lord's next argument was concerned with the altered conditions of naval warfare—a perfectly legitimate point to discuss, but, as I think I shall be able to show, not really germane to the question. The First Lord said— The circumstances and conditions of modern naval warfare are entirely different from all previous experience. In old wars the capture or destruction of ships was nearly always accompanied by an act of surrender, which was a proper and very necessary subject for investigation by Court-Martial. There were quite as many cases of Court-Martial when ships were lost by wreck. The real fact is that the particular cause and the circumstances of the loss have nothing whatever to do with it. The only question is that the ship has been lost. How or why it has been lost has nothing whatever to do with the principle that because the ship has been lost it ought to be the subject of a Court-Martial. Therefore however much the conditions of naval warfare change, those conditions may have some effect on the expediency or convenience of the time of holding the Court-Martial, but they have no bearing whatever on the principle whether or not a Court Martial ought to be held. The First Lord's next argument referred to that particular point. He said that the conditions of naval warfare now are such that sometimes the actual holding of a Court-Martial might be very difficult and inconvenient. I concede that at once. No reasonable person would ever say that it should be other than a matter entirely at the discretion of the Admiralty when the Court-Martial is to be held. And with regard to the losses, there is a long list of which we know, beginning with the "Amphion" and ending with the "Formidable." I am quite prepared, if the Admiralty say so, to bow to their decision and admit that the time may not yet have Come when a Court-Martial can be held in all these cases with convenience, or possibly without advantage, to the public service. But I am not prepared to believe that in the case of none of these ships could a Court-Martial have been summoned with out grave loss to the public service.

The First Lord went on to say— Nothing could be worse for the Navy or the Admiralty than for public attention or naval attention to be riveted on half-a-dozen naval causes célèbres. That is a quite deliberate erecting of a figure of straw in order to be able to knock it down. In the whole history of the Navy there has been no case—except the case, perhaps, of Admiral Byng, which I think became a cause c*élèbre after Admiral Byng ceased to exit—that I know of in which public attention was riveted on a naval cause célèbre when it was going on. The proof of the absurdity of the First Lord's argument lies in the fact that only the other day Admiral Troubridge was tried by Court-Martial by order of the Board of Admiralty in connection with the escape of the "Goeben." Was public attention then riveted on a naval cause célèbre? Why, the public never knew that the trial was being held. The evidence has never been published. The Admiralty had it entirely in their power to keep the matter secret, and they have the same power with respect to any Court-Martial that may be held. So that the First Lord's argument will not stand examination for a moment. The fact is—and this is what I wish to lay particular stress upon—that this question of the holding of a Court-Martial in the case of ships that are lost in war or in peace is not merely a question between the Board of Admiralty and the captain or officers concerned. It is a much wider question even than that. It is a question between the officers involved and the rest of the naval service, and it is a question between the Navy and the public. The officers who are involved in the loss of a ship have the right that they should be cleared of responsibility before the rest of the great Service to which they belong, and the nation has a right to know under what circumstances the valuable ships that belong to it have been lost.

I will now quote Sir W. Laird Clowes to show your Lordships how this matter has been viewed for many generations past by the Navy, and how false is the impression on this subject which the First Lord attempted to give. This is the substance of Sir W. Laird Clowes's observations— It was understood that a Court-Martial on the loss of a ship need not necessarily imply any charge against the captain or other survivor. The whole story of the British Navy makes it clear that a captain and his ship are always associated for administrative purposes, and the captain has, of course, always been held absolutely responsible for the safety of his ship. If a ship is lost, no matter in whatever circumstances, the incident must be accounted for by the captain; and if the captain has been lost the Court-Martial is held upon any survivor with the object of determining, from such facts as are available, the causes of the disaster. Again— The attitude of mind of officers of the Navy towards the supreme importance of Courts-Martial will be gathered from the action of Captain Pakenham, of the 'Crescent,' who, when his ship struck to the Dutch in 1781, refused to resume his command, considering that a Court-Martial was necessary to clear him from guilt. And further— The principle of holding Courts-Martial achieved in its fulfilment two practical results—(1) Ascertaining the cause of the loss of the vessel and fixing responsibility of those concerned; and (2) providing for public information such facts relating to the destruction of public property as the taxpayer.3 of the country are entitled to be made acquainted with. I had a letter from a distinguished Admiral, and these were the words he used— Courts-Martial are not at all meant as a slur on the captain or surviving officers and men, but a public opportunity for them to clear themselves. And lastly I would give you the opinion on the same subject of two distinguished naval correspondents who write to the daily Press. It is necessary to make this evidence cumulative because I want the public to understand that the attitude of mind of the Navy to Courts-Martial has been quite different from what was suggested by the First Lord. The first of these naval correspondents writes— When a ship of His Majesty is lost, it is the rule that the captain of the ship is tried by Court-Martial, or, if he is lost with the ship, the survivors are tried. The assembling of a Court-Martial does not necessarily imply that an offence has been committed. The principle is that the reason why the ship was lost must be made clear. And the other naval correspondent writes— The institution was maintained in olden days quite as much for the protection of officers who lost ships innocently as for the punishment of officers who lost them wrongfully. It was to the naval officer what the verdict of a jury is to the subject—the palladium of his liberties, the final acquittal of his peers. I think in the face of that evidence it will be impossible for the noble Lord who is going to answer me, or for any other speaker or writer on this subject, to pretend, whether these Courts-Martial should be held or not, that the holding of them involves any slur necessarily on the officers who are the subject of the investigation.

I do not want to weary your Lordships with extracts, but I have some interesting cases here which I should like to cite because they all bear on and illustrate the subject and enable one to understand what the custom of the Navy has been. I have taken them as particularly interesting cases extending over a great period of years. After the action of the Dutch on July 26, 1657, William Howe, of the "Virgin," was tried by Court-Martial and shot. The captains of the "Blacknose," "John Elizabeth," and the "Blessing" were dismissed the Service. The next case is that of the captain of the "Cumberland," which was lost on October 10, 1707. He was court-martialed on his release from captivity—I ask your Lordships' particular attention to that fact—and honourably acquitted. Captain Wyld, of the "Royal Oak," whose ship was lost on the same occasion, was dismissed the Service; and Captain Bolton, of the "Chester," was absolved from all blame. I pass on to May 8, 1744, when the "Northumberland" was lost. The captain, Thomas Watson, was killed. The first-lieutenant, Thomas Craven, and Allison, the master, were court-martialed. Craven was honourably acquitted, but Allison was condemned for surrendering the ship and was sentenced to imprisonment for life. In 1756 the "Warwick" was taken by the French. This is a very remarkable case. Captain Molyneux Shuldham was a prisoner of war for two years, and on his release was tried by Court-Martial and adjudged to have done his duty. The officers of the "Berwick," taken by the French on March 7, 1795, were court-martialed as soon as prisoners were exchanged, and they were honourably acquitted. On August 18, 1812, the "Attack" was forced to strike her colours to Danish gun-boats. Lieutenant Simmonds and his officers and men were most honourably acquitted by Court-Martial. H.M.S. "Tiger," which was run ashore at Odessa on May 12, 1854, was the subject of a Court-Martial which sat on board the "Victory" at Portsmouth in April, 1855—very nearly a year afterwards. The president of the Court was Rear-Admiral W. F. Martin, and the surviving officers and men of the ship were put on trial. The Court-Martial sat on the 12th, 13th and 14th of that month, and resulted in the acquittal of the lieutenant, Alfred Royer, and the reprimand of Francis Edington, the master.

I have given cases from every war, from the time of the Dutch wars and the wars of Cromwell right up to and inclusive of the Crimean war, to show how constant and how absolutely unbroken has been this custom. The last case that I am going to cite is that of the "Captain," which, as your Lordships will remember, was lost, I think, off Finisterre on September 6, 1870. Her captain, Captain Burgoyne, and the designer of the ship, Captain Coles, were both lost. Out of the ship's crew 475 were lost, and 18 saved. A Court-Martial was held on the survivors. I do not think there was a single officer among them; there may have been a warrant officer, possibly there was a Gunner, but certainly there was no higher officer. On June 16, 1871, Lord Lauderdale used these words in your Lordships' House— The Court-Martial that had sat to inquire into the loss of the 'Captain' found that the ship capsized by pressure of sail, assisted by the heave of the sea, and that the sail carried at the time of her loss, regard being had to the force of the wind and the state of the sea, was insufficient to have endangered a ship endued with a proper amount of stability. And they added: 'The Court, before separating, find it their duty to record their conviction that the "Captain" was built in deference to public opinion, expressed in Parliament, and in opposition to the views and opinions of the Controller and his Department, and that the evidence all tends to show that they generally disapproved of her construction.' Those are remarkable words to be found in the finding of a naval Court-Martial, and they show, I think, the extraordinary value of investigations of this kind. Here was the "Captain" lost, and the Court-Martial had the courage to say that she was lost because of her defective design, and that her defective design was not due to the fault of the Controller of the Admiralty but because there had been political and Parliamentary interference with the Controller and the ship had been built to this design in spite of his remonstrance. You could not have a clearer case of the great value to the public of Courts-Martial in order that they may know why their ships are lost.

Now I come to the words used by Lord Crewe in this House, in which he stated the circumstances under which in the opinion of the Admiralty, as voiced by him, Courts-Martial should be held. The noble Marquess said— The general view which the Admiralty take is that, where there is any question of a failure on the part of an officer to obey orders, to act with due sense of responsibility, or to take proper precautions, or in cases in which misbehaviour on the part of a crew or any portion of it is alleged to have led to disaster, it is advisable that a Court-Martial should be held; but in cases where those considerations do not in any degree arise, speaking generally the Admiralty hold that a Court-Martial may not be necessary. I do not want to dwell now on the fact that those latter words, if that is the final view of the Board of Admiralty, imply a complete departure from the established custom of the Navy for more than two-and a-half centuries; but I wish to lay stress on the words which Lord Crewe used as to the circumstances in which the Admiralty think a Court-Martial should be held. Take the case of the "Formidable." I know nothing whatever about the circumstances of the loss of that vessel, but I have read in the public Press allegations in respect of the loss of the "Formid- able" that exactly comply with the conditions laid down by Lord Crewe. The mere fact that these allegations have been publicly made seems to me a very strong argument indeed for holding a Court-Martial in this case; and I would apply exactly the same argument, though perhaps in a lesser degree, to the loss of such ships as the "Cressy," the "Hogue," and the "Aboukir." It is not a question merely between the Admiralty and the officers concerned; it is a question between those officers and the whole of the Navy, and between the Navy and the public.

I have laid down what I believe to be the undoubted custom of the Navy, a custom practically unbroken in peace or war for 250 years. Because even if the noble Lord can give me the names of ships where there were survivors and where there was not a Court-Martial, he certainly cannot give me the names of many; and the proportion that they can possibly bear to the number of cases in which Courts-Martial were held must be so small that my contention that this has been the unbroken practice of the Navy in peace and in war remains literally and actually true. I have tried to show what the attitude of the Navy to this question has been, and to dispose altogether of the suggestion that a Court-Martial necessarily involves a criminal offence or a slur on the character of the officers tried. I have, I think, succeeded in disposing of the arguments of the First Lord, which really were, as I have already said, quite unworthy of his powers and his intelligence. And I have shown also that the Admiralty, by its own Regulations, has always contemplated the holding of these Courts-Martial.

Having said that, I wish to state quite clearly that the responsibility in this matter can rest only on the Board of Admiralty. The Board of Admiralty can hold these Courts-Martial when they choose. There is no obligation, on them to hold the Court-Martial the week after the ship has been lost. From the cases I have read, I have shown that even at the time of the Crimean War a Court-Martial was held a year after the ship was lost; and in the case of the Napoleonic wars Courts-Martial were held on the return of officers to England after years of captivity. Therefore the argument of immediate inconvenience, although it may be quite sound for the moment, cannot be held permanently valid as a reason for never holding a Court-Martial on the loss of these ships. Again, I can quite understand that evidence might come out in the course of some of these Courts-Martial which in the interests of the public service the Admiralty might not think should become public property; but that, again, is entirely within the power of the Admiralty to control. They have controlled it; not one single word has been published in respect of the Court-Martial on Admiral Troubridge. They could preserve exactly-the same secrecy in respect of the evidence given at any Court-Martial.

But I have one word to say about that. When the Admiralty hold a Court-Martial, although they have the right to withhold the evidence if they think it would be to the detriment of the public service to publish it, they have, in my opinion, no right to withhold from publicity the result of the Court-Martial. They have no business to bring an officer to trial and not publish the result. I say this with special reference to the case of Admiral Troubridge, because although it was announced with the authority of the Press Bureau that he had been ordered to haul down his flag and come home to be tried by Court-Martial, there has never been, so far as I know, any official announcement that he has been acquitted by that Court-Martial. The whole of the public knowledge on that subject has been derived from unofficial information in the public Press, and I say, in the most emphatic way, that although the Admiralty have the right to withhold the evidence in the interests of the public service, they have no right to suppress the result of a Court-Martial when once an officer has been tried.

In this connection I wish to read an extract from the First Lord's speech the other day, and I do so because whereas I have been obliged to differ from his attitude in respect to his other statements I am in a position entirely to endorse and support this one. The First Lord said— I must respectfully claim, on behalf of the Board of Admiralty, an absolute discretionary power with regard to holding Courts-Martial or Courts of Inquiry. I have conceded that, though I think that the discretionary power would be very ill-used if the whole practice of holding these Courts-Martial is abrogated. The First Lord went on to say that the Board of Admiralty must also have absolute discretionary power as to "the removal without trial of officers who have forfeited the confidence of the Board." I entirely agree with that. In a period of great national emergency like the present there is no question that the Admiralty should have and must exercise the power of removing an officer from his command even without trial if he has forfeited their confidence. Again, the First Lord said that the Admiralty must reserve an absolute discretionary power as to "the publication of particular information on particular incidents." I have already said that I entirely concur with that. That, again, must be left to the judgment of the Board of Admiralty.

I have detained your Lordships at great length, I fear, but to make my case it was necessary to build it up with some kind of historical sequence. I make the Motion with which I shall conclude my speech because I have a deep conviction that this custom was for the best interests both of the Navy and of the public service. I think the Government are in danger of confusing two different principles in their policy of secrecy. There are matters which in a time of war like this should be kept from the possible knowledge of the enemy at all costs. With that I quite agree. But there are other matters which it is more important that our people should know than that the enemy should not know, and I think the Government have sometimes forgotten that and gone too far. After all, the strength of the nation at this time is based on its unity, on its confidence in the public service, and in its belief that the Government trust it. No greater blow could possibly be given to our national strength than that the public should have any cause to believe that the Government was wavering in its confidence in their patriotism or in their power of endurance. It is because the complete screen of secrecy which has been shut down on these naval disasters is bad for the national temperament, because I believe it proceeds mainly from a want of confidence in the public which the public have not deserved, and because I believe also that the suspension of this practice is injurious to the naval service, that I make this Motion.

Moved to resolve, That this House is of opinion that the established custom of the Navy by which a Court-Martial is held to investigate the loss of any of His Majesty's ships is founded on the best interests both of the Navy and of the public, and that it is expedient that it should be maintained.— (The Earl of Selborne.)


My Lords, the noble Earl has spoken with his usual ability in introducing this Motion, and he has been dealing with a subject of which he has evidently made a considerable study. I can assure him, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, that we have no complaint to make of his introducing this subject of debate to the House or the length of the speech which he has delivered on this important matter. He certainly has the advantage of me in one respect. He was for a considerable time First Lord of the Admiralty, whilst I have never had the advantage of being associated with that Board. In the debate last week Lord Curzon said, with perfect truth, that a Department is better defended by a Minister who is familiar with the daily working of the Department than by someone who gets up the case for the occasion. I am sometimes inclined to wish that it were possible here to adopt the practice which obtains in some other countries of allowing a Minister to defend the policy of his Department in either House of Parliament. I wish it particularly to-day, for the noble Earl made a rather violent attack on my right hon. friend the First Lord of the Admiralty, and I think it would have added to the reality and to the liveliness of this debate were my right hon. friend able to, come here and speak for himself on this occasion.


I entirely agree.


However, that is not possible; and I have been asked by the Government to reply in the first place to the noble Earl. If the noble Earl will allow me, I shall dismiss the personal part of the case and deal entirely with the matter on its merits. The Motion which the noble Earl has moved asks the House to express the opinion that it is the established custom of the Navy that a Court-Martial should be held to investigate the loss of any of His Majesty's ships. The noble Earl, I noticed, did not claim that it was illegal not to hold a Court-Martial; but that has been said by some critics. I must in the first place state, in the most positive manner, that there is no law and no regulation which necessitates the holding of a Court-Martial in the case of the loss of any ship. I state that not only on my own authority but on the authority of the Judge Advocate of the Fleet, whose knowledge of the law in regard to this matter is, I am sure, unquestioned by anybody.

When the noble Earl proceeded to prove his point, I confess that I did not altogether follow him. The first Regulation which he read—Regulation No. 177—does not seem to me to bear out his point in the least degree. That Regulation says— When one of His Majesty's ships shall be wrecked, or otherwise lost or destroyed, or taken by the enemy, the command, power, and authority given to the captain and to the other officers and the crew with respect to each ether, shall remain and be in full force, as effectually as if such ship were not lost, until a Court-Martial shall have inquired into the cause of the loss or capture of such ship, or the officers and crew shall be otherwise disposed of and separated, as directed by the Naval Discipline Act. There is nothing in that to indicate that it is an invariable custom to hold a Court-Martial.

Although during the long history of the Navy the line has never been very clearly drawn between them, there are, as a matter of fact, three methods of formal investigation which can be used in regard to casualties in the Navy. The first is a Court-Martial where it appears that there may be a primd facie case for a charge against an individual officer or individual officers. If, for instance, an officer is accused of not having used his utmost exertions to bring his ship into action when ordered to do so, or if he has failed to encourage inferior officers or men to fight courageously, or if he has surrendered his ship without sufficient reason or has improperly withdrawn from the fight—in such a case a Court-Martial may be held in regard to a specific charge of breach of statute against the officer impugned. In that case, of course, the charges are formulated and delivered and the officer has every Opportunity of knowing beforehand the case which he has to meet, and the Court-Martial is held under Sections 2, 5, and 29 of the Act. The second case of a Court-Martial is a different one. In that case a Court-Martial is held to inquire into the loss of a ship and to ascertain whether or not there is reason to believe that any one is to blame. Sections 91 and 92 of the Act refer to this kind of Court-Martial. It is usual in that case for all the survivors to be nominally before the Court, and sometimes during the course of the investigation it is found that a case is made out for blame against a particular officer, in which event the other kind of Court-Martial may be held later in order to investigate the specific charge. The third kind of formal investigation is a Court of Inquiry held under the King's Regulations. That is necessarily private; no evidence is taken on oath, and in nearly all cases nowadays a Court of Inquiry precedes a Court-Martial. Those are the three methods of formal investigation that are adopted with regard to losses in the Navy. So far as the law goes, the Admiralty has a complete discretion which, if any, of these methods of investigation should be adopted, or whether all of them should be dispensed with. It is quite evident that this must be so, for certainly the Admiralty has discretion which of the three should be adopted and there is no law or regulation which says that any one of the three must of necessity be held. Neither has any officer in the Navy a right to demand a Court-Martial of his own will.

I shall be told, of course, that it is not claimed that a Court-Martial is a legal necessity, but that a custom has grown up of holding a Court-Martial in the case of every loss of a ship—a custom so universally observed that it has become a recognised practice, whatever the circumstances, whether we are at peace or at war. If so, I am not quite clear how far this custom is supposed to go. I presume that it only refers to cases of ships that are lost, and that it does not refer to all ships that are stranded or hazarded or to innumerable smaller accidents that occur. I gather, too, that it does not refer to a great many of the breaches of the Naval Discipline Act, as to which, again, the Admiralty has always decided whether or not a Court-Martial should be held. In regard to all these, the Admiralty decides on the merits of the case put before it. I gather that this discretion is not impugned.

The claim, as I understand it, is that whenever a ship is lost, and particularly when valuable lives are lost at the same time, a rigid custom has grown up that a Court-Martial must be held into the circumstances. I have occupied such spare time as I have had during the last few days in examining the precedents. I do not want to overstate my case, and I willingly make this concession to the noble Earl—that in the majority of cases of the loss of a ship in the past a Court-Martial has been held; but the rule has been by no means a universal one. The noble Earl referred to a Return dealing with ships belonging to His Majesty's Navy that were lost between 1815 and 1840. My right hon. friend the Attorney-General said in another place that in this Return, which I have in my hand, there, were twenty-one eases of ships lost in regard to which no Court-Martial had been held, and out of those twenty-one only six were cases in which the ship and all on board were lost so that there was nobody to hold a Court-Martial upon. The noble Earl asked whether I would give him the names. I shall be very glad to do so, but he will not expect me to read them out now. In a later Return I find one rather typical case. In 1878 the "Helvetia" collided with a coastguard cruiser, and the latter sank. In that ease a Board of Trade Inquiry was held into the collision. The finding of the inquiry was evidently considered quite sufficient, and apparently no inquiry of any sort or kind was held by the Admiralty into that occurrence. Therefore whilst I admit that it has been usual to hold a Court-Martial, I cannot admit that a rigid custom has grown up. On the other hand, the only case of the loss of a ship during this war which is really comparable to these long lists of losses of which I have spoken in the period since 1815 was the case of the "Oceanic," and in regard to that a Court Martial was held and specific charges were framed against the officers in charge.

When the noble Earl invites the House to say that it is an established custom to hold an inquiry into every loss, he puts his case far too high. He would take away the discretion always hitherto vested in and always hitherto used by the Admiralty, a discretion which certainly ought not to be interfered with at the present time. In opposition to the claim which the noble Earl makes, I venture to put forward another. It is not my own discovery. I have it from other people who have studied this question far more deeply, and who are far more competent to give an opinion upon it than I am. The view I put forward is this. I maintain that the precedents show that it has not been the custom to hold a Court-Martial in time of war unless a ship or some of the men on board were captured, or unless some definite charge was made against somebody. I believe that rule is far better justified by the fact than the Resolution which the noble Earl asks the House to adopt this evening. I have not had time to study every precedent, particularly the precedents of Napoleonic times, but I believe that the view which I have just expressed is a correct induction front what occurred in Napoleonic times. In the Crimean War there were three cases of ships lost—the "Viper," the "Tiger," and the "Jasper." The only Court-Martial held to inquire in regard to those three ships was on the "Tiger," and she was captured by the enemy. In the other two cases the officers were tried on specific charges. In the China War there were three Courts-Martial on the only three ships lost, but they, again, were lost in an action with the Peiho Forts; two of them sank and one was stranded.

I have dealt with the law and custom of this case. The only other question I have to deal with is whether or not the recent action of the Admiralty as to Courts-Martial is justified by the circumstances of the time. I need not remind you that we are at war. We are in the greatest war, as regards numbers and armaments employed, that the world has ever seen. New factors appear in this war, factors different from any that our Navy has had to deal with in any previous war. The torpedo discharged from a submarine is a new factor; the reckless sowing of mines on our trade routes without notice is a new factor, and the fact of those mines being large enough to blow up a huge battleship is a comparatively new factor. In these circumstances I say that the Admiralty is justified in holding that cases of loss may occur in which it may not be necessary to hold a Court-Martial. I speak on this question with some diffidence, for, as your Lordships know, I am only representing the Admiralty for the occasion. But will venture to put, before the House, before I sit down, sonic reasons which seem to me to be very strong and to justify the Admiralty in the course which it has adopted. The claim is that a Court-Martial should be held as to every ease of loss. The Admiralty view is that in a number of cases of loss that have occurred a Court-Martial is unnecessary. But I desire to say on behalf of the Admiralty that, wherever they have felt that it would be useful or that information could be obtained which they had not in their possession, a Court of Inquiry has been held.

My second point is this. The new factors to which I have alluded have fundamentally changed the position of naval warfare. Many more cases must occur under present conditions than have occurred in the past where a ship is lost without any blame being attributable to anybody. We cannot look into the minds of our predecessors, but I think it is abundantly clear that the customs before and even long after 1815 were not conceived in the light of the experience of 1915. In the old days practically no warships were sunk or captured in fight by the enemy except by gunfire or boarding, and at that time all the fighting was above the level of the sea. In this war no ship of His Majesty's has been captured by the enemy; not a single sailor has been captured from one of our ships by the enemy; and therefore the conditions have not arisen under which, as a rule, Courts-Martial have been held in the past.

In the third place, the holding of any considerable number of Courts-Martial—a large number is asked for by the noble Earl—at a time of intense pressure such as this, involving the presence, as they would, of officers of high rank whose services are urgently needed elsewhere at every moment, must necessarily interfere with the main work of the Navy. I do beg that your Lordships will not underrate the practical inconvenience. If an Admiral has to be tried by Court-Martial, the Court must be formed either of senior flag officers or captains who are not. employed afloat at the present time and consequently have very little experience of war conditions—and thus they would make a rather unsuitable Court—or his judges must be the Admirals commanding the battleship and cruiser squadrons and captains commanding battleships and cruisers of the Grand and Channel Fleets. These Fleets have to proceed to sea at a moment's notice. Their squadrons are in constant movement. The difficulties of convening and maintaining a Court under such conditions are enormous. The greatest inconvenience was caused in this respect by the trial of Admiral Troubridge, which, while it lasted, sensibly impaired the mobility of a portion of the Channel Fleet and hampered the naval operations. Again, the witnesses may be very numerous, and they must be collected from ships all over the Fleet, which is in constant movement. Many of these witnesses would be men holding positions vital to the fighting efficiency of these ships. No one can tell how long a trial would last, as in cases of this importance counsel would be employed and every latitude given to the defence. If the Court were interrupted, the whole of the proceedings might have to be recommenced; and as long as the Court sat the whole of the energies of the flag and other officers involved would be employed in connection with it.

I must again remind your Lordships that we are at war, and, furthermore, that the great naval decision has not yet been taken. At any moment the Fleets may have to go to sea, and the work and responsibility of the Admirals in command are of the most exacting and unbroken nature. The speed and scale of modern operations and their complexity are out of all relation to those of former times. But even in the time of Nelson it is not clear that serious military advantages were not lost by the holding of Courts-Martial. I would remind your Lordships particularly of the fact that the Court-Martial on Admiral Calder led to the withdrawal from Nelson's fleet of one of its most important units on the eve of Trafalgar. If the absence of that unit had led to a different decision at Trafalgar the whole course of history might have been altered by the holding of a Court-Martial. Even after the Court-Martial is over the practical inconvenience does not cease, because the members of the Board of Admiralty have to give the closest possible attention to hundreds of pages of evidence and prepare their opinions upon it. All this may be very well or necessary after the war is over or after the enemy has been decisively beaten, but it is not a position which should be insisted upon at the present time.

Every effort has been made from hour to hour and day to day to cope with the dangers with which we are confronted, and the whole of the attention of the Admiralty must be concentrated upon the immediate urgency. It will be time afterwards to apportion responsibility for any mistakes that may have been made. For the time being the interest of this country is in the successful prosecution of the war, and that must be considered to have paramount claims. I desire most earnestly to impress that practical argument upon your Lordships. I think that practical difficulty must have been felt in old times, for I find one record of a Court-Martial held in 1814 on a ship which had come to grief in 1809. Well, that was after Trafalgar. Our command of the sea at that time was unchallenged and unchallengeable, but in this war the great naval battle has yet to be fought. I do not shut my eyes to the fact that this argument is carrying me rather far if it is pushed to its logical conclusion, but I use it for this purpose. It does, at any rate, clearly prove that it is undesirable at a time like this, whatever may be done later, to hold Courts-Martial which are unnecessary and from which the Admiralty feels it has nothing to learn which it cannot learn in other ways. And if there are some here who think that my argument goes too far, I am authorised to state emphatically—and I can give this amount of consolation to the noble Earl—that the action of the Admiralty during the war is entirely without prejudice to any action it may deem desirable to take when the war is over.

There is one other reason why in the middle of a war, if it can be avoided, it is not advisable to have Courts-Martial which call for great public attention. The experience of Courts-Martial in the 18th century shows that they led to great bickerings, to constant dissatisfaction, and not infrequently actually set the nation by the ears when the energies of the nation were badly needed for the war in hand. The case of Admirals Matthews and Lestork in 1774 was one; the famous case of Admiral Byng in 1757 was another; and an even more famous case was that of Admirals Keppel and Palliser in 1879. In all those cases there were pamphlets written and debates in Parliament, some of them of a highly personal character. There was a great stir in the country, and it cannot be said that this did other than harm to the prosecution of the war in hand. On all these grounds I ask the House to pause before it adopts the Resolution of the noble Earl. In matters of the greatest possible importance, in questions of the highest strategy, in the disposition of the Fleet, in everything that is vital to the safety of these islands at the moment we are bound to trust the Admiralty. Ought we to try to force on the Admiralty now, in regard to the loss of ships and even the loss of brave men who, alas! have gone to their deaths, the holding of Courts-Martial from which they are convinced they have nothing of impor- tance to learn which they cannot discover by other means?

I have shown—indeed, it is not disputed—that no law has been broken. I have shown, I hope conclusively, that no invariable custom has been disregarded. In these circumstances the Board of Admiralty claim full and free discretion as to whether they hold Courts-Martial or not. This is a decision to which they have come after giving the matter their mature deliberation, and which they consider indispensable to the prosecution of the naval war in which they are engaged. In this matter they earnestly desire that the House will support them with its confidence and goodwill. I have stated the case to the best of my knowledge and ability, and I am now content to leave it in your Lordships' hands.


My Lords, I desire to say a few words on this matter, and having regard to the speech to which we have just listened what I had thought of saying may be reduced to extremely small proportions. I do not think Lord Emmott would suggest that there was anything in the speech of the noble Earl or in the Resolution itself which would necessarily affect the absolute discretion of the Admiralty in any particular case to take the course they thought fit. If it were so, I can only say that I should not support the Resolution. But it does appear to me that a great part of the noble Lord's speech was directed to meeting a case which was not made at all by the noble Earl. The noble Earl appeared to me to concede to the full that there was no absolute legal or statutory obligation on the Admiralty to hold a Court-Martial. Notwithstanding that he urged—I venture to think rightly—that the custom was so nearly general as to be practically universal, but that in particular circumstances the Admiralty might exercise their discretion and abstain from holding a Court-Martial. I venture to think that there is no word in the Resolution that necessarily fetters the Admiralty's discretion. The words of the Resolution are— That this Home is of opinion that the established custom of the Navy by which a Court-Martial is held to investigate the loss of any of His Majesty's ships is founded on the best interests both of the Navy and of the public, and that it is expedient that it should be maintained. The noble Earl himself was at pains to say that he could conceive that at the time of or immediately after a disaster which might render a Court-Martial desirable it might be quite inexpedient to hold a Court-Martial; and he gave instances in which Courts-Martial had been postponed to a convenient and proper time. The effect of this Resolution, therefore, would in no way be to force the hands of the Admiralty to hold a Court-Martial at a time when the holding of it could in any way affect the movements of the Fleet or the interests of the Service.

I am not quite clear what the Government's position is. It will be remembered that with the exception of the case of the "Oceanic" there have, in fact, been no Courts-Martial in respect of the losses of ships. I am not making and do not intend to make any complaint of that. I think that every one in the country is prepared to support the Admiralty to the utmost, and I can assure the noble Lord that I speak to-night in no spirit of criticism. My desire is to understand exactly the position which the Government take up. There having been no Courts-Martial held, it was not unnatural that this fact should be the subject of inquiry. In my opinion the noble Lord went too far if he contested—I am not quite sure that he did contest—the statement that the holding of Courts-Martial in these cases was the custom of the Navy. I think he must have overlooked some words contained in Section 91 of the Naval Discipline Act, 1866. It is a very short section, and I will read the whole of it— When any one of Her Majesty's ships shall be wrecked or lost or destroyed, or taken by the enemy, such ship shall, for the purposes of this Act, be deemed to remain in commission until her crew shall be regularly removed into some other of Her Majesty's ships of war, or until a Court-Martial shall have been held, pursuant to the custom of the Navy in such cases, to inquire into the cause of the wreck, loss, destruction, or capture of the said ship. I think that the words "pursuant to the custom of the Navy in such cases" can only mean one thing—that the draftsmen of that Act and the Parliament that passed it assumed that the holding of Courts-Martial was a general custom. I am not going to say it was invariable, for I think there were a good many exceptions.

But the real point is that attention was called in Parliament to the absence of these Courts-Martial, and I think that if the answer then given had been the answer that has been given to us to-night, it is quite possible that this debate might not be taking place. The First Lord of the Admiralty, in his interesting statement to the House of Commons, and the Attorney-General, in the course of the same debate, said that as a matter of principle during the war disasters to His Majesty's ships would not form the subjects of Courts-Martial; that it should be the rule that there should not be Courts-Martial, and the exception that there should. That seemed to me exactly the converse of the true proposition, and I think the statement led to misunderstanding.

An officer may meet with a disaster at sea in which to all appearance, as far as the public can judge, perhaps as far as his brother officers can judge, there may have been some want of caution or apparent negligence on his part. That may or may not be true; it may or may not have been the result of superior orders; but unless and until the officer in question has the customary opportunity of a Court-Martial he remains not only with his career damaged but with his reputation at stake. As regards the employment of officers, nobody would dispute the absolute discretion of the Admiralty; but there is something besides employment. The reputation of an officer is of great value to him, and the way in which he can reestablish his reputation, if he can, is by appealing to his brother officers who are the most competent tribunal to try the issue and to pronounce upon it. It is, in fact, the trial by his peers to which he is entitled. I do not for one moment contest that it might be extremely unsuitable to hold a Court-Martial at a particular moment. If the answer given by the noble Lord to-night means that in important cases or in cases where there is any real reason for it, investigation will at some time or another be made, then speaking for myself and myself only I should say that, both as regards the public and as regards the Service, it ought to be a fairly satisfactory answer.

But I still think there is some ambiguity in the speeches of the First Lord and the Attorney-General. Secrecy and silence, however right at the moment, is not right for ever, and at some time things may be disclosed which it might not be right to disclose at this time. In that connection there is one point that does rather press upon me. It is true that the law—because it is the law under the King's Regulations, which are statutory—provides that a Court-Martial should be open. I can conceive circumstances in which it would be most undesirable, certainly during the war and very likely after the war, that all the evidence produced before a Court-Martial and even perhaps the technical findings should be disclosed. I speak only for myself when I say that I should not be disposed to offer any opposition to an alteration of the Regulations which would empower the Government or the Lords of the Admiralty in suitable cases and on their own responsibility to publish merely the finding—the conviction or acquittal, or something which would indicate the general result of the finding—without details. That would get rid of one difficulty. But I am certain that no member of the Government would desire to withhold anything in the way of justice from those who by their great gallantry are at this moment shielding us and providing us with relative immunity from the consequences of war, and I am sure that no action they may take or word they may say will lead any naval officer to think that at some time or another in a serious case he may not receive at the hands of his brother officers that justice which I contend with some confidence should be afforded him by the custom of the Navy over a period of certainly more than one and a-half centuries. I am sorry to have troubled your Lordships at this length, but it seems to mc most important that we should know to-night what is the real position taken up by the Government on this matter. I can assure them that in everything they do in the interests of the great Service for which they are responsible, they will have the support not only of this House and of the other House but of every man in this country.


My Lords, perhaps before the noble Earl on the Front Bench opposite replies to the extremely temperate observations of my noble friend who has just sat down I may be permitted to say half a dozen words. I rioted with pleasure that the noble Lord who speaks for the Admiralty told the House that he made no complaint of my noble friend (Lord Selborne) for having brought this subject before us. Indeed, it would have been impossible for His Majesty's Government to complain of the course which my noble friend has adopted, because if one thing has been established clearly by these discussions it is this, that His Majesty's Government have introduced a very marked change of policy with regard to the granting of Courts-Martial. It was our duty to call attention to that new departure. We have never claimed that the old practice was founded upon the letter of any Act of Parliament, but we do point to the fact that the custom of the Navy is referred to again and again in various Statutes, some of which have been quoted this evening. My noble friend Lord Desart, in particular, quoted with great effect a clause from the Naval Discipline Act referring to the established "custom of the Navy." We have never contended that the custom was absolutely invariable, but we have contended, and we contend still, that it was a well established custom; and I think the noble Lord who spoke for the Admiralty himself admitted that it was the general custom although there were exceptions, upon some of which he dwelt during the course of his argument.

That there was to be a new departure was made clear by the noble Marquess who leads the House when he made a short speech upon this subject the other day. We gathered from him that the old custom was to be abandoned, and that Courts-Martial were, to be granted only in certain cases which the noble Marquess specified with great clearness. He mentioned, in particular, cases where there had been a failure on the part of the officer in charge of a ship to obey instructions; eases in which there had been a failure to take necessary and proper precautions; cases where the officer had failed to assume responsibility which it was his duty to assume. Those were cited as the exceptional cases in which Courts-Martial might be granted, the rule being that trial by Court-Martial was no longer to be granted according to the old usage of the Navy. I think, if I may say so, that His Majesty's Government have made a mistake in attempting to minimise the extent of this change of policy. They have tried, by searching about in musty records for precedents, to show that the custom was not invariable. But beyond doubt this policy is a new departure, and a very conspicuous new departure which has attracted a great deal of attention both in and out of the Service.

I was not greatly impressed by the reasons adduced in support of the change. The noble Lord who speaks for the Admiralty ran over them this evening. I confess that it struck me, as he proceeded, that most of his arguments had been anticipated by my noble friend behind me (Lord Selborne), and that some, at any rate, of the reasons which he mentioned were of a singularly inconclusive character.

I take, in the first place, the plea that the conditions of naval warfare have been profoundly altered. No one will dispute that. The mine and the torpedo are new features in naval warfare. But is that really a reason why an officer who loses his ship should not have the right of claiming a Court-Martial? The argument is founded upon what I believe to be a fallacy—I mean the fallacy that a Court-Martial involves an accusation against a particular officer. That, I think, is not so. A Court-Martial is instituted for two reasons—in the first place, to give the officer in charge of the ship an opportunity of clearing himself of any suspicion with regard to the manner in which he has handled her; and, in the second place, to give the public an opportunity of knowing something of the facts of the case. Surely for both of those reasons a Court-Martial is not less necessary because a ship has wandered into a mine-field, or otherwise got into difficulties, than it was in the days when mines and torpedoes were unknown.

Another reason that I have seen alleged seems to me also a most inconclusive one. I have seen it said that the apprehension of a Court-Martial would lead officers to "play for safety" and not take risks when in the interests of the Service they ought to take them. I believe that to be a profound misconception. Let us take the case of an officer who is hesitating whether he shall take a risk or not. What is it that makes him hesitate to take it? Not because he is thinking of a Court-Martial when he comes home, but because he is thinking of the precious lives on board his ship, of the value of the ship itself, of the injury to the defences of the Empire if that ship should be lost. Those are the things, if anything, that would make him think twice, and not the fear of being tried by Court-Martial. If there is any doubt upon that point I believe that it can be resolved if His Majesty's Government would make it their business to ascertain how this matter is regarded by naval officers themselves. I am assured that in the great majority of cases if they had to set upon one side of the account the liability to be tried by Court-Martial and on the other the denial of the opportunity of clearing themselves and the risk of being, perhaps, subjected to penalties without a Court-Martial—which is a thing that may happen—they will infinitely prefer to face the Court-Martial rather than to abide the issue in another way.

Then comes a reason to which I am inclined to attach more weight than to the others. The noble Lord opposite (Lord Emmott) dwelt with great force upon the detriment which would be occasioned to the Service if, at a moment when all the energies of the Navy are concentrated upon the great naval struggle which is in progress, officers were withdrawn from their ships and made to serve upon Courts-Martial. I think that argument is entitled to weight if you are to assume that it follows of necessity that the Court-Martial must be convened at once. But I think the noble Lord himself gave us cases—certainly my noble friend Lord Selborne did—where the Court-Martial did not take place immediately but took place months or even, perhaps, years after the loss of the ship, and when, consequently, there would not be the same difficulty in convening the Court. If we are to accept my noble friend's Motion, I should do it with the mental reservation that I did not for a moment contemplate that a Court ought always to be assembled immediately, but that it could be assembled at whatever time the Board of Admiralty in their discretion thought convenient.

Another reason that the noble Lord advanced was the danger that in the course of these proceedings secrets might be revealed which it was desirable to keep from the public generally, and especially-from the enemy. Cannot that difficulty be overcome by the simple expedient of carrying on the inquiry with closed doors and denying the publication of the evidence to the public? The very thing happened in the case of the Court-Martial on Admiral Troubridge. That gallant officer was acquitted, but so far as I am aware the proceedings of the Court have been carefully kept secret. I own, therefore, that I am not greatly impressed by the reasons which have been brought forward on the part of the Board of Admiralty. But what impressed me much more is that I thought I detected throughout the speech of the noble Lord a desire to take a much less rigid view of the case than has hitherto been taken by the Department for which he speaks. He claimed that we must allow the final discretion to rest with the Board of Admiralty. We none of us dispute that. On the contrary, we recognise to the full that the ultimate decision in all these cases must rest with the Board of Admiralty; and my noble friend went out of his way to guard himself against any claim to deny that discretion to the Board. But we venture to suggest that this new policy—for it is a new policy—should be applied with great care and tact; and unless I misunderstood the noble Lord I gathered from him that he was prepared to admit that what was being done to-day was to be regarded as a special measure, justifiable while the war was in progress, but, without prejudice to what might happen when the war was over. That is, I think, a not unimportant admission on the part of His Majesty's Government; and if I have not misinterpreted the noble Lord, I am not sure that if I were in my noble friend's place I should not be content with that assurance. But if he desires anything more, I venture to suggest—and I think that what I am suggesting is not out of accord with what was said by my noble friend on the Cross Benches (Lord Desart)—that my noble friend's Resolution might end with the statement that it is expedient that the established custom should be maintained, with the insertion of the words "subject to any necessary exceptions." That would concede to the full that liberty of judgment of which we do not desire to deprive the Board of Admiralty; and if the noble Earl (Lord Beauchamp) who is for the moment leading the House saw his way to accepting the Motion so amended, I am able to say that my noble friend behind me (Lord Selborne) would gladly insert those words.


My Lords, the noble Marquess appreciates, I am sure, the difficulty, to which he has already called attention in this House, under which we suffer when a debate of this kind is initiated here. It was only the other day that the noble Earl, Lord Curzon, referred to the disadvantage under which your Lordships' House suffers from the absence of any direct representative of the Board of Admiralty when we discuss naval matters. Your Lordships will therefore realise all the more readily the difficulty when I am asked at somewhat brief notice to accept an amendment of or an addition to a Resolution of this important kind. The noble Earl who moved the Resolution realises, no doubt, that the mere passage of it by your Lordships' House would probably not of itself affect in any way the practice of the Board of Admiralty. It would be necessary for a similar Resolution to be passed by the House of Commons before it would become operative. In those circumstances I confess that I should deprecate the passage of this Resolution at the present time, for the reasons which have been put before your Lordships by my noble friend behind me (Lord Emmott).

It seems to me that a large part of the discussion which has taken place has ranged round one, perhaps not the most important, part of the Resolution which is now before your Lordships. Whether it be "the established custom of the Navy" has really been the question which has attracted the attention of the noble Lords who have addressed the House. I feel it would have been of greater use had we been able to devote more time and attention to the other part of the Resolution, and to have discussed whether the discontinuance of this custom was in the best interests of the Navy and of the public. It is true that the noble Earl on the Cross Benches (Lord Desalt) referred to it from the point of view of the Navy, and it is to that I wish to refer. Meanwhile I think it is only fair to point out that we have in the Kings Regulations a perfectly clear Regulation which points out that the present practice of the Board of Admiralty is no sudden or new departure from what was contemplated in the past, because in Regulation No. 666a it is laid down that a Court-Martial should not be called unless upon full consideration of all the available information there is reasonable ground for thinking that any one or more of the survivors is to blame. It is therefore not a sudden decision that has been come to by the Board of Admiralty since the beginning of this war.

The noble Marquess who leads the Opposition was unready to lay the same emphasis upon the arguments which were used by my noble friend behind me with regard to the changed circumstances of modern warfare making any difference to the continuance of the former custom, and he specially said, I think, that Courts-Martial were held not only to find out what might be the cause of the loss of the ship, but more for the sake of the officer himself. To deal for one moment with the first of those questions, it is perfectly obvious that in a great many cases there is not now the same obscurity with regard to the loss of a ship as there very of ten was in times gone by. There does not seem to be any obscurity if a ship has been lost by a mine. Therefore there is less need for an inquiry than there was in days when the loss might perhaps have been due to many other and different circumstances.

Let us take the case of the object for which these Courts-Martial should be held. I do not suppose it would be said that they should be held for the sake of the Admiralty. The Admiralty has the means, by a Court of Inquiry, of obtaining all the necessary information if the authorities do not think they possess it already. For the sake of the public? In a great many cases it was suggested by the noble Earl opposite that some of the information which was collected by the Admiralty should be withheld from the public; and I think we can all see how exceedingly reasonable that course of action would be in cases where matters of a technical kind would have to be given in evidence. On the question of privacy, it is perfectly true that in cases we can call to mind there has been no dispute on the ground that the evidence was kept private and only the conclusions given to the public. But in those cases generally the conclusions have been favourable to the officer. Your Lordships might very well consider that there might be charges, until the full evidence was given to the public, that the officer had not been fairly dealt with if the decision of the Court-Martial had not been in his favour.

But on behalf of the officers, is not there this consideration—namely, whether an Inquiry on a specific charge is not very much fairer to the officers than such a roving inquiry as a Court-Martial to inquire generally into their conduct on this or that occasion. But as the noble Earl opposite no doubt realises, a Court-Martial on a specific charge in a case of any difficulty is always preceded by a Court of Inquiry. Definite charges are framed, and a circumstantial letter—that is the technical phrase, if I am rightly informed—which corresponds to the opening speech of the prosecutor, is given to the accused some days before the trial. The letter so given is generally perfectly clear in showing the particular respect in which the accused officer will have to make his defence. I ask your Lordships to contrast this with the position of those people whose conduct is inquired into under the other kind of Court-Martial. In that case there is no charge; there is no circumstantial letter; the accused has no means of knowing what points are made against him except in so far as he may gather them as he hears the evidence. In those circumstances I believe you would generally find, in a case of this kind, that the naval officer himself would not like the inquiry to be held under the specific paragraph in the Act to which we have been referred by more than one previous speaker.

I do not know that I can usefully add anything more in answer to the observations which were addressed to your Lordships by the noble Marquess who leads the Opposition, except to deprecate once more the passage of this Resolution by your Lordships' House at a time when all our energies are concentrated upon the successful prosecution of the war. I can readily repeat the assurance which was given by my noble friend behind me with regard to the attitude of the Admiralty in these cases—that the decisions which they have so far come to have been arrived at without prejudice. And it is not in my own opinion impossible, as time goes on and we see that the present practice has not had the detrimental effects which the noble Earl fears, that even noble Lords opposite will come to see that the course which has been adopted by the Admiralty is a proper and wise one.


My Lords, I confess that I was more impressed by the opening sentences of the speech of the noble Earl who has just sat down than by the arguments which he adduced at a later stage. He began by saying that it was extremely difficult for him and for any noble Lord on the Government Bench at present to say precisely what view the Admiralty would take of the Resolution if amended as my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition has suggested that it should be. What we on this side of the House feel is this. We do not want at all to interfere with the discretion of the Admiralty. We feel that there may be grave difficulties in detaching from the Service officers of high standing to attend a Court-Martial at the present time. We are perfectly willing to agree that the Admiralty should not be pressed in that matter, and that any Court-Martial that might be thought necessary by the Admiralty should be postponed until such a time as it can be conveniently taken. But we feel that the Admiralty have substituted another custom for what up to the present time has been the custom of the Navy in these matters. That my noble friend Lord Selborne has conclusively proved. In our view it is advisable that that custom, subject of course to exceptions, as every custom must be, should be continued. But the Admiralty have reversed the custom and made it the rule not to hold Courts-Martial, instead of maintaining the rule to hold a Court-Martial when a ship is lost or taken by the enemy.


There has been no case of "taken by the enemy."


Then let me say lost. Lord Emmott mentioned three cases in the China War. I am not quite sure that he did not say that one or more of those three cases was of a ship taken by the enemy; however, they were lost in an attack on forts, and that is precisely the kind of case in this war. Take the "Formidable" and other ships named by my noble friend. There the matters, so far as a layman can express an opinion, really did demand some kind of inquiry. It does suggest itself to me that it is not advisable for us to treat this as a Motion hostile to the Admiralty or to His Majesty's Government. We do not want to ask the House to divide upon it. We feel, however, that, amended in the way my noble friend has suggested, it is a Motion that in substance the Admiralty, after consideration of this discussion, might find themselves able to accept; and in order that an opportunity for further consideration may be given I would venture to move the adjournment of the debate so that the House may not at the present moment, in the absence of the noble Marquess who leads the House, express any opinion at all upon the Motion.

Moved, That the debate be adjourned.—(Viscount St. Aldwyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and the further debate adjourned sine die.