HL Deb 18 November 1915 vol 20 cc407-18

LORD RIBBLESDALE rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are in a position to report effective progress in their consideration of military operations and political plans in the Near East.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that in asking the Question which I have placed upon the Paper I shall not put it in any way which may be inconvenient to the noble Marquess, and that I may not on any side lights belonging to the Question say anything which the noble Marquess may think indiscreet, and to which for that reason he may not be able to see his way to reply. I remembers reading some memoirs the other day in which some one wrote to a friend describing the operations of your Lordships' House, of which he was a member. He said "We live in an atmosphere of cross questions and crooked answers." Perhaps some Back Bench Peers may have asked cross questions, but I think the House will agree with me that noble Lords on the Front Ministerial Bench have never met us with crooked answers but have always tried to do their best to reply. I have some sympathy with those noble Lords. For the last few weeks when a member of the Administration has opened his Notice Paper he must have felt that he was opening a sort of Pandora's box. But, however, they have been very well able to deal with the various matters.

I believe I am to have the honour tonight of being answered by Lord Lansdowne. I am glad of that. Lord Lansdowne is not only a man of affairs, but he is a man of foreign affairs and a man of the world. I have taken the wording of my Question from a speech of the noble Marquess a little time ago, when he told us with the utmost candour—it was an interesting speech on the Dardanelles question—that it was very difficult to say what was going to happen because it was almost impossible to separate military from political considerations, and by "political" he led us to understand that he did not mean political in the Party sense, but diplomatic considerations. And when I ask him to tell us whether he can report effective progress on these two lines, I invite him, if he is able to do so, to give us a broad outline, if possible a coloured outline, that is, an outline divested of the commonplaces about "anxious consideration," "delicate ground," and the rest of it—a broad and coloured outline of the situation in the Near East.

Two questions seem to me to be involved in any such broad outline. First, can we look upon Lord Kitchener's departure to the Near East as "effective progress" in your military and diplomatic plans? The other question which seems to me to be involved in that broad outline is this. By Lord Kitchener's departure are you drawing the lines, as it were, round a new theatre of war in the Near East?—and by a new theatre of war I mean a war conducted on such a scale as involves and must result in either decisive military failures or decisive military successes. I recognise the difficulty; but those are two considerations involved in any broad outline, and I am not sure that we have not reached the time when His Majesty's Government ought to be able to give us such an outline.

I turn for a moment to the Dardanelles, In a speech of animation and interest the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack told us the other night that Europe—I am not sure that he did not say the world—just now was a whispering gallery. It is common knowledge, I believe, that Sir Charles Monro, who was sent out the other day to the Dardanelles, has reported in favour of withdrawal from the Dardanelles and adversely to the continuance of winter operations there. Lord Kitchener, I see, was in that part of the world a short time ago. I think at the time we understood that Sir Charles Monro, when he was hustled from Flanders to a country in which he had never been before, was to go out and report on the position, and that his decision was to be final. But I pass from that. Perhaps his decision was not one that the Government liked very much. I would ask, Has Lord Kitchener been sent out to give a second opinion on the Dardanelles, or has he gone out to act and to withdraw the Expedition.

Several times during the course of this war we have seen Notes from the President of the United States. I do not think it was in one of his Notes but in a speech in New Jersey that he said that contingencies might arise where a great country was "too proud to fight." That expression may, of course, contain all the wisdom of the ages; on the other hand, the phrase may be as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. Every one can make up his mind upon that himself. But there is certainly something ridiculous in the collocation of the two words, pride taking the form of not fighting. If I may do so without offence I should substitute the word "sensible" for the word "proud." Probably the President's real meaning was that in certain conditions a neutral country may be too sensible to fight. Personally I hope that in the case of the Dardanelles the Government will be sensible enough to withdraw if military opinion is in favour of that course. I trust that on this particular point we are not going to be "over-prestiged."

Now I come to the second half of my Question, which has to do with the Government's political plans in the Near East. If Europe ever emerges from the state of convulsion which it is now in, I am not sure that all the old treaties will not find their best places in scrap-books. It is quite clear that Europe will have to emerge with a brand new set of arrangements and implements of every kind. But be that as it may, can the noble Marquess tell us anything about the state of diplomatic affairs in Greece? Sir Edward Carson—in his letter of resignation, I think it was—said that you have made a great muddle of affairs in Greece; that what you ought to have done was this—you ought to have intimidated Greece, to have frightened her out of her wits, and then she would have given in. I do not suppose that anybody knows much about the position in Greece. We know most of it from the foreign newspapers. We see accounts of the interest with which the landing of the troops has been effected, and the admiration which the inhabitants of Greece, standing about the quays, feel when they see our efficient and handsome soldiers, and all that kind of thing. We have not yet had the Daily Mail article with local colour, describing the picturesque costumes of the brigands and the flower sellers; but all that will probably come in good time. Meanwhile, taking Sir Edward Carson's point, I should like to hear from the noble Marquess whether anything we have done has excited welcome apprehension in the mind of Greece.

When things do not go comfortably, as they have not gone comfortably either in Greece or in Bulgaria, and things are very uncertain, I suppose, in Rumania too, it is usual and almost proper to blame somebody. Now we are blaming diplomacy for all this. Diplomacy is in great disgrace. As I remarked just now, the noble Marquess has been trained to diplomacy; he is, as I said a man of foreign affairs, and also a man of the world; and I think he would be the first to defend diplomacy on this ground—that really we are all living, every country in the world is living, on a terrain of voies de fait; and I do not know that diplomacy, unless it is backed up by force—by men, by munitions, by Generals—will do very much for you.

If I may say a word about our diplomacy, I think the mistake we have made in the last—shall I say?—twenty-five years or so is that we have not been civil enough abroad. England is "over-prestiged." We have gone on in the same old way. We have treated these new nationalities, with their large armies and growing wealth and ambitions, in the same sort of way as the England of fifty years ago, which considered that she could hold the balance of power in every part of the world, treated them. You have not been sufficiently civil to them. You remember that Samson, on his way to visit his relations—he was going to have luncheon with them—came across the carcase of a lion he had slain, and in the carcase a swarm of bees had settled themselves and made a honeycomb; and by way of making the luncheon more agreeable Samson asked his relations the riddle, which you probably all remember— "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." His relations did not seem able to expound the riddle and he explained it. I think that has been, if I may say only as an observer, the defect of our diplomacy. We have given these people neither strength nor sweetness. We have not been very civil to them. I believe that if the King of Bulgaria had been given the Garter, and if some notable, like, for example, the Duke of Devonshire, whom I see in his place, had taken it out to him, the King of Bulgaria might have been put in quite a different frame of mind ten months ago from what he appears to be in now. I pass from that. As I say, I do not think that diplomacy is quite so much to blame in the very difficult days in which we are living as people are trying to make out.

I see sitting on the Front Cross Bench a noble Lord (Lord Courtney) who a night or two ago—I was not here myself—made a speech which has led to various comments in the German newspapers about "peace talk." The German newspapers seem pleased with the noble Lord. I approach the verges of the frontier which the noble Lord, perhaps, sometimes oversteps. I was brought up in the strict traditions of Mr. Cobden and Mr. Bright. I do not think they would have minded fighting if they were in it. But we were brought up to dislike anything like wars, and we thought that the way to manage our affairs best was to live in unity with our neighbours as much as possible, to cultivate the self-interest which comes from com- merce. That may have been a good view or it may have been a bad view; but I am bound to say that when I read the noble Lord's speech on which all this peace talk was founded I could not see very much in it to encourage our enemies.

Speaking for myself, I dismiss altogether the idea that we are going to hove peace imposed upon us, and I dismiss altogether the idea that we could ever go into a peace which we were talked into. But I go this length with the noble Lord (Lord Courtney), that I think it is possible to find a half-way house so that Europe may yet see a peace arrived at out of this unfortunate state of things which is not exactly imposed by anybody. At the begining of the war there was, I think, too much said about never sheathing the sword and about beating Germany to her knees. It may have been right or wrong, I feel strongly that we shall outstay every other country in this war. We must carry through the war at any cost. I hope that things are getting better for us every day; I think they are. I think also, and have always said, that if we can make peace on grounds of reason, dignity, and honour, it would be a good thing for us all; but I consider that we are getting on so well that it is better not to talk about terms of peace at all. I now venture to put to the noble Marquess the Question standing in my name on the Paper.


My Lords, in this House we rather pride ourselves, I think, upon the amount of latitude which is given to the noble Lords who ask, and for the matter of that to those who reply to, questions. I certainly have no desire to suggest that a stricter practice should prevail here, or that we should assimilate our procedure to that of the other House of Parliament; but I venture to suggest that when Questions are put upon the Paper, particularly Questions relating to matters of general Imperial moment, the Notice given should have rather more relation to the speech made by the Peer who puts it down than the Notice given by my noble friend has to the speech which he has just delivered. It is not only in fairness to the Minister who has to reply to the Question that such consideration should be shown; it is fairer to your Lordships that when you look at the Orders of the Day and see a Notice given by any member of your Lordships' House the terms of that Notice should be such as to give some idea of the kind of debate which it is desired to raise.

The Question which has been put by my noble friend is couched in somewhat singular terms. He asks whether we are in a position to report effective progress in our consideration of military operations and political plans in the Near East. My noble friend hinted that in framing his Question he had been to some extent inspired by a speech which I made not very long ago in this House. I remember the speech quite distinctly. In it I dwelt upon the difficulty which is sometimes experienced in giving an absolutely categorical answer to the kind of questions sometimes put to us as to the extent to which we have been guided by our military and naval advisers. I said that in my view as often as not these problems were complex problems involving both naval and military and political considerations, and that until a general comprehensive review of those considerations had taken place it was not possible for the Government of the day to arrive at a conclusion.

What is it that my noble friend, upon that slender foundation, invites us to do? He asks us, in effect, whether we have considered the naval and military operations which are possible in the Near East; whether we have considered the political plans which might be pursued; whether we have conic to a conclusion upon these matters, and whether we will indicate it, wholly or in part, to this House and to the public. I do put it to your Lordships that this is not a reasonable request to make at the present moment. Has my noble friend quite taken into account the scope of the Question which he has put? If we were to answer it we should have to tell him all about the present position of things in Serbia—a position of things which is changing from day to day; we should have to tell him what is the situation in Greece, where the situation at this moment is extremely perplexing and, I may add, disquieting; we should have to tell him something about the Gallipoli Peninsula, and something about affairs in Egypt. Let me remind him that it is impossible to discuss these problems entirely apart from the general questions arising in other theatres of war on both the Eastern and the Western front. You cannot consider these local military questions as if they were in watertight compartments.

My noble friend proceeded to interrogate me upon one or two specific points. He asked me a question with regard to Lord Kitchener's mission, and he mentioned in connection with that the despatch of Sir Charles Monro to the Eastern Mediterranean. My noble friend apparently has acquired some knowledge of Sir Charles Monro's Report. All that I have to say about that is that in our opinion the Report made by Sir Charles Monro and the evidence which accompanied it did not seem to us sufficient to enable us to come to a conclusion upon the great questions of policy involved, and that for that reason we determined to ask Lord Kitchener to visit the Eastern Mediterranean. My noble friend asked me whether in my opinion, Lord Kitchener's departure on that mission denoted effective progress. Well, in a sense, yes. Lord Kitchener is not only a member of the Cabinet, but he holds the portfolio of Minister for War. He has wide experience of the East and of India and Egypt, and is thoroughly familiar with the views of his colleagues. It seemed to us, therefore, a reasonable and wholly justifiable arrangement that we should ask Lord Kitchener to visit the Eastern Mediterranean. My noble friend asked me whether Lord Kitchener has gone there merely in order that we may obtain a second opinion or in order that he may act on his own initiative. My answer is that he has gone to the Eastern Mediterranean in order to report and to advise His Majesty's Government.

I would like to remind my noble friend that it is not only the result of Lord Kitchener's mission which is still in suspense, but that there has been within the last two or three days another—I do not know whether "mission" is the proper word—another mission of an even more important character. I refer to the visit which has been paid by four members of the War Committee of the Cabinet to Paris for the purpose of conferring with French statesmen and military leaders. There have been comings and goings of this kind before now, but this is by far the most important step that has yet been taken in recognition of what I conceive is a vital principle—namely, that in a great war of this kind, in which several Powers are concerned, there should be the closest possible contact and co-operation both between the states[...] concerned and between their military and naval experts. Our colleagues have not yet returned from France, and that in itself seems to be a sufficient reason why it would be impossible for me, in anticipation of the judgment which they may have formed, to come down to your Lordships' House and give a full answer to the kind of Question which my noble friend has put upon the Paper. He was good enough to suggest that I might give him what he called not only "a broad outline," but a "coloured" outline of the situation. I am afraid that even if I were less inclined to be reticent than I am, any outline which I might attempt to give him of the state of things prevailing at this moment in Greece and Macedonia could scarcely fail to be far from a distinct, if I may not say a rather confused, outline. I may, however, perhaps, reaffirm what was announced by the Prime Minister not long ago in another place, that the maintenance of the independence of Serbia continues to be one of the essential objects which the Allies have in view, and an object of which we shall certainly not lose sight.

My noble friend asked me whether recent events have been of a kind to create in the Near East a new theatre of war, by which he said he meant a theatre of war in which decisive results could be looked for. Well, I should say that as a matter of fact the Near East has already become a new and a very important theatre of war, but as to the extent of that theatre or as to the results which may be expected in that theatre it is surely impossible for us to say anything until we know how events develop; and let me remind him that those events do not entirely depend upon our own will.

I will not pursue the subject which my noble friend touched upon towards the close of his remarks when he referred to the speech delivered the other evening by the noble Lord who sits upon the Front Cross Bench (Lord Courtney). It was a speech containing many passages of great eloquence and sincerity, but I think that your Lordships will agree with me when I suggest that this is hardly the moment when any of us desire to enter into the discussion of the question of peace. This country has entered into a great struggle— a struggle which was forced upon it, and a struggle which it intends to pursue. It has been pursued by our enemies by methods which have aroused the greatest possible indignation, not only in this country, but throughout the civilised world; and we, at any rate, so far as we are concerned, will I hope—nay, I am convinced—not be found wanting either in the material resources or in the moral qualities which will enable us to carry that struggle to an honourable and successful issue.


My Lords, I venture to think that the moment is one not favourable for the continuance of this discussion. I say that all the more because I am strongly impressed with the value of free discussion in this House and the opportunities which we possess here of making suggestions, giving advice, and sometimes eliciting information from His Majesty's Government—opportunities which do not exist in the same degree elsewhere, and the maintenance of which may be of the greatest value to the country in the early future. For that very reason, and because we possess these opportunities, I think all who take part in debates in this House at the present time must do so under a very great sense of responsibility; and while we should be perfectly fearless in our criticism we ought, nevertheless, always to bear in mind the extremely critical situation in which the country is, and to be sure that in any criticism we make, or in any information we ask for, we are not unduly pressing those upon whom rests the heavy weight of carrying on the administration of the war at the present time.

I do not at all object to a Question like that asked by the noble Lord, but I feel that the answer which has just been given by the noble Marquess went quite as far as in the circumstances we could expect a representative of the Government to go. And may I be allowed to say, especially as one who has perhaps strongly criticised, and may again strongly criticise, the Government, that I think we are all sensible that the noble Marquess in particular always meets us very fairly. He has more than once given us information of great value, with a frankness and directness which contrast rather favourably with some official statements to which we have been accustomed. I thank him, if he will allow me to say so, for what he has said to-night, and I really think that in the circumstances no more could be expected. I do not blame the noble Lord for asking the Question, but when a Minister gets up and says for such good reasons as have been alleged to-night that the question is one that cannot be pursued, I think we ought frankly to accept that answer, especially from one who treats us with the courtesy with which the noble Marquess invariably does. I think it would be regrettable if this discussion were to be continued to-night. As—as some would say—one of the chief offenders in these matters, one who speaks more frankly very often than others and more frankly than is sometimes thought wise, I repeat that I do not think that the present is an occasion on which we ought to pursue this subject.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Marquess for his answer. I recognise that he told me quite as much as he could possibly tell me, and if he had told me less I should have recognised his right to withhold the informa- tion. I associate myself entirely with what the noble Viscount has just said as to the frankness and generosity with which the noble Marquess has treated all our inquiries.