HL Deb 06 October 1915 vol 19 cc994-1004

THE EARL OF CROMER rose to ask—

  1. (1) Whether His Majesty's Government have received any information confirmatory, of the statements made in the Press to the effect that renewed massacres of Armenians have taken place on a large scale;
  2. (2) Whether the statements made that German Consular officials have been privy to these massacres rest on any substantial evidence; and
  3. (3) Whether any further communications have recently been addressed to the Porte in connection with this subject.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Questions down in my name, of which there are three, require but very few words of explanation. During the last few days the country has been shocked by renewed accounts of Armenian massacres which appear to have begun again on even a greater scale than those which horrified the whole civilised world a few years ago. In one newspaper I read that the number of victims amounted to as many as 800,000. The figure appears incredible, and, I should hope, is very much exaggerated. What I want to ask His Majesv's Government is whether they have any reliable information and can tell us what has actually occurred.

Again, it has been stated in the public Press that some of the German Consular officials have been privy to these atrocities to the extent even of organising and encouraging massacres. It seems almost incredible that any Government calling itself civilised, or its agents, could be party to such proceedings. On the other hand, we know from the Report of the noble Viscount, Lord Bryce, whom I am glad to see in his place this afternoon, what was the conduct of the German Army in Belgium; and we also know, from the scathing indictment which has been levelled by the French Government against the conduct of the German troops in France, what has been their conduct there. Moreover, apart from what may be the opinion of the German Government we have some evidence of what is the opinion of distinguished Germans. Just before I came to the House, I happened to take up an evening paper, and there I saw an extract from a letter addressed by the notorious Count Reventlow—with whose name many of your Lordships must be familiar—to a German newspaper, and it is so remarkably characteristic of the German view on this subject that I will read a short portion of it. This is what Count Reventlow says— If the Turkish authorities believe it opportune to take vigorous measures against unreliable, bloodthirsty, riotous Armenian elements, it is not only right but even their duty to do so. Turkey can always be assured that the German Empire will always be of opinion that this matter only concerns Turkey. When Count Reventlow wrote those lines and called the Armenians bloodthirsty, he had, I think, forgotten the moral pointed by the fable of the wolf and the lamb. I do not suppose that there will be any trustworthy evidence to prove the complicity of the German Government or their agents in these massacres. But when we consider the commanding influence which is now wielded by the German Government at Constantinople, any one who knows the East will be of opinion that the German Government cannot be acquitted of a vast moral responsibility unless it can be shown that knowing the practices of the Turkish Government in this matter they took most vigorous and energetic steps to stop these proceedings.

As regards my third Question, your Lordships may remember that shortly before the recess a brief discussion on this Armenian question was initiated by the noble Viscount, Lord Bryce. The noble Marquess the Leader of the House, in the course of a very sympathetic reply which he gave to the noble Viscount, after stating, what was obviously the case, that not much could be done under present circumstances to stop these proceedings of the Turkish Government, went on to say that some communications had been made to the Ottoman authorities in the sense of warning them of their responsibility and telling them that they would at sonic future occasion, if a favourable moment arrives, be called to account for their conduct. And I think it was suggested in the course of the discussion—either by the noble Viscount or myself, I forget which—that perhaps it would be advisable to make some further communications to the Ottoman authorities on this subject, either through the medium of the American Embassy or some other channel. I should like to ask His Majesty's Government whether anything of this kind has been done, and, if so, with what result. I should be the last at the present juncture to wish to ask any questions about foreign affairs which would be likely to cause embarrassment to His Majesty's Government, but I feel certain that the noble Marquess the Leader of the House and his colleagues will agree with me that in this particular case the utmost publicity is highly desirable.

There are many special reasons why the facts should be made public. In the first place, it is very desirable to lose no opportunity to let the people of this country know for what we are fighting. We are fighting for a great many things, and one of the objects which I hope we may attain by the end of this war is that Armenia shall no longer, as it has done in the past and as I fear it does in the present, constitute a sort of Turkish shambles. In the second place, we have to remember that we have some 70,000,000 Mahomedan fellow-subjects, who naturally have a certain amount of sympathy with their co-religionists and would be unwilling to believe ill of them unless they have positive proof. My belief is that all the educated Mahomedans of India would look with as great a horror as we do ourselves upon the proceedings of the Turkish Government.


Hear, hear.


Only they ought to have information laid before them on which to form an opinion, and when they have that information I do not doubt that they will see that it would be almost tantamount to an insult to the Mahomedan religion and to the feelings of all right-thinking Mahomedans if they in any way identified the cause of Islam with the cause of the existing Government at Constantinople. Also I think it would be very advisable to enlighten Egyptian opinion. The generation of Egyptians which suffered from Turkish rule is now dying out, and I think it would be advisable to remind the present generation of what Turkish rule means.

There is vet one further reason why I urge publicity. We have heard within the last few days that a very important Near Eastern Christian community under the auspices of a Prince of foreign extraction and of strong pro-German proclivities, is apparently about to commit what is not only a grave political error but what I also venture to say constitutes one of the blackest acts of political ingratitude that the history of the world has ever known. I do not suppose that anything we can say either inside or outside this House is likely to reach the Bulgarian public. If I am rightly informed, the greater part of the Press of that country is in German bands. At the same time I think we ought to do all in our power at all events to show the Bulgarians what measure is being meted out to another important Christian community by those with whom they are apparently about to enter into what I must characterise as a most unnatural alliance. The Bulgarians themselves suffered, in a past which is not very remote, so severely from Turkish rule that it is almost inconceivable that they should not extend some sympathy to these poor Armenians who are suffering in parts of the Ottoman dominions.

Before I sit down I wish to make one further remark. I am not, and never have been, what is generally called a Turcophobe. I recognise the manly, virile qualities of the Turkish nation, and I think in this juncture many of them are greatly to be pitied. My own belief is that if the Turks were left to themselves they would wish to live on peaceful terms with the Western Powers, and more especially with England. Unfortunately they have fallen into the hands of a narrow clique who have not the foresight to see that by entering into this war they have for ever doomed the real independence of the Ottoman Empire; for, my Lords, I am not quite sure but what that independence would not be more threatened if the Germans were victors in this contest than if, as I hope and believe will be the case, they are ultimately vanquished. But whatever there is to be said to palliate the errors which have been committed by the Turkish nation, not one word can be said in defence of the Turkish Government, either that of the present or that of the recent past. There were many people in this country who, when the late Sultan was deposed and the Young Turk Party Came into power, were charitable enough to think that a great change would come over the character of what I think Carlyle called "the unspeakable Turk." There were others, who spoke with greater knowledge of Eastern affairs, who were rather sceptical on that point and thought that the change was only skin-deep. Unfortunately the latter have turned out to be the truer prophets. Let me end by saying this. It appears, as far as I can make out, that the present Turkish Government, equally with their predecessors, have made government by massacre part of their political system. If that be so, if we cannot do anything else, at all events we may denounce their conduct to the whole of the civilised world, and we may warn all other races, whether Christian, Mahomedan, or Hindu, that by in any way associating themselves or sympathising with the Germans and the Turks they will in the eyes of posterity secure a taint and a stain which can never be removed.


My Lords, as my noble friend reminded the House, it was late in July that this question of the Armenian atrocities was last mentioned by my noble friend Lord Bryce, and I am happy, in reply to the noble Earl opposite, to give such information as I can in continuance of what I then said. I entirely agree with the noble Earl that it is advantageous that so far as we are in possession of officially confirmed facts they should be made known to the world at large. There have been communications from the British Consul at Batoum, largely founded on statements which have been published in the newspapers at Tiflis, where there is, of course, every opportunity of ascertaining what the actual facts really are, and they are of the most deplorable character.


May I ask the noble Marquess the dates?


That was the first week in September. The Consul described the appalling horrors which had taken place in the district of Sassoon, where the population were absolutely exterminated except so far as some few of them were able to escape. The whole country was completely ravaged. A certain number of well-known inhabitants succeeded in escaping to the mountains, but the slaughter of those who could not so escape was universal. Then there has been a great influx of Armenian, Chaldean, and other refugees into Urumiah and the Caucasian provinces. A vast number of refugees have arrived at Etchmiadzin and at other points of the Government of Erivan. They came chiefly from Melazgert, the Achesh districts and Van. The Consul states that about 160,000 of these have passed through Igdir and Etchmiadzin. He gives a most terrible description of their condition, ravaged by disease, many of them starving. They have been dying at the rate of at least a hundred a day. Nothing can be said in too high praise of the efforts which have been made locally to cope with this hideous condition of things. The Moscow Armenian Committee, helped by a great number of young voluntary workers from Tiflis and the other towns, hastened to the district and have done everything that they possibly could to relieve the misery of these poor people. But very large supplies of medical comforts and of medicines and also of foodstuffs, as may be well believed when one considers what the numbers of the refugees are, are needed if their condition is to be materially alleviated. Then at Elenovka and Ahti, two other Caucasian districts beyond Mount Ararat, there are about 9,000 refugees who are in no better case than the others. It is said in one report that unless relief is forthcoming for these it is expected that some half of them will probably die. There is also a miserable account of the refugees in Urumiah. I have not got a figure of their supposed number, but I fancy they also must be very numerous. The Russian Consul there is doing what he can to get a sanitary detachment to come down and assist them.

These are terrible facts, and I should like to say that I heartily concur with what fell from the noble Earl opposite when he stated that dreadful excesses such as these are not less revolting to Moslem subjects of His Majesty in India and to enlightened Mussulman opinion everywhere than they are to ourselves. They are, of course, in no way authorised by the precepts of Islam, and they will not be condoned by the judgment of Islam. I am also in agreement with what fell from the noble Earl when he added that these stories may well go to the heart of any European people or section of people who are disposed to bind their fortunes to those of Turkey at this moment.

We have, as my noble friend anticipated, no official confirmation of the statements which have been made that the German Consular representatives in Asia have not merely looked on at but have positively encouraged these horrors. But the statement that that has been the case has been freely made by United States observers who are in a position to form an opinion, and knowing what we know elsewhere, we are bound to state that there cannot be said to be any antecedent improbability that such is the case. The noble Earl, when dealing with the last part of his Question, alluded to the statement which I made on behalf of the Government on the last occasion, that when the day of reckoning arrives the individuals who have perpetrated or taken any part in these crimes will not be forgotten. That, of course, still holds good. There is no object in repeating a statement of that kind which was made once for all, and we have not thought that any advantage would follow from an attempt to make either direct or indirect communications to the Turkish Government on the subject. They are in possession of our views, and to reiterate them would, as we think, serve no useful purpose.


My Lords, His Majesty's Government have, of course, been unable to obtain, except from one or two quarters, official information with regard to what has been passing in Armenia and Asiatic Turkey, so your Lordships may perhaps like to hear some further information that we have been able to glean from various accounts which have come partly from missionaries and partly from various Armenian sources of information and which bear upon the question that is now engaging the House. As the noble Marquess and the noble Earl observed, the time is past when any harm can be done by publicity; and the fuller publicity that is given to the events that have happened the better it will be, because it will be the only possible chance that exists of arresting these massacres, if they have not been completed.

I am sorry to say that such information as has reached me from many quarters goes to show that the figure of 800,000 which the noble Earl thought incredible as a possible total for those who have been destroyed since May last is, unfortunately, quite a possible number. That is because the proceedings taken have been so absolutely premeditated and systematic. The massacres are the result of a policy which, as far as can be ascertained, has been entertained for some considerable time by the gang who are now in possession of the Government of the Turkish Empire. They hesitated to put it in practice until they thought the favourable moment had come, and that moment seems to have arrived about the month of May. That was the time when these orders were issued, orders which came down in every case from Constantincple, and which the officials found themselves obliged to carry out on pain of dismissal. As was said by the noble Marquess, there is nothing in the precepts of Islam which justifies this slaughter which has been perpetrated. In some cases the Governors, being pious and humane men, refused to carry out the orders and endeavoured to give what protection they could to the unfortunate Armenians. In two cases I have heard of the Governors being immediately dismissed for refusing to obey the orders; and the massacres were carried out.

As I have said, the procedure was exceedingly systematic. The whole population of a town was cleared out, to begin with. Some of the men were thrown into prison; the rest of the men, with the women and children, were marched out of the town. When they had got some little distance they were separated, the men being taken to some place among the hills where the soldiers or the Kurds despatched them by shooting or bayonetting. The women and children and older men were sent off under convoy of the lowest kind of soldiers—many of them drawn from gaols—to their distant destination, which was sometimes one of the unhealthy districts in the centre of Asia Minor but more frequently the large desert east of Aleppo, in the direction of the Euphrates. They were driven by the soldiers day after day; many fell by the way and many died of hunger. No provisions were given them by the Turkish Government, and they were robbed of everything they possessed, and in many eases the women were stripped naked and made to travel on in that condition. Many of the women went mad and threw away their children, being unable to carry them farther. The caravan route was marked by a line of corpses, and comparatively few seem to have arrived at the destination which was stated for them. I have had circumstantial accounts which bear every internal evidence of being veracious, and I was told by a friend who lately came home from Constantinople—he belongs to a neutral country—that he had heard many accounts at Constantinople, and that what had struck him was the comparative moderation with which these atrocities were detailed by those who had first-hand knowledge of them.

To give your Lordships one instance of the systematic way in which these massacres were carried on it may suffice to refer to the case of Trebizond, a case vouched for by the Italian Consul who was present when the slaughter was carried out, his country not having then declared war against Turkey. Orders came from Constantinople that all the Armenian Christians in Trebizond were to be killed. Many of the Moslems tried to save their Christian neighbours and offered them shelter in their houses, but the Turkish authorities were implacable. Obeying the orders which they had received, they hunted out all the Christians, gathered them together, and drove them down the streets of Trebizond, past the fortress, to the edge of the sea. There they were all put on board sailing boats, carried out some distance on the Black Sea, and there thrown overboard and drowned. The whole Armenian population of from 8,000 to 10,000 were destroyed in that way in one afternoon! After that, any other story becomes credible; and I am sorry to say that all the stories that I have received contain similar elements of horror, intensified in some cases by stories of shocking torture. But the most pitiable case is not that of those who were killed outright, but of those unfortunate women who with their children were driven out to perish in the desert—where they have no sustenance, and where they are the victims of the wild Arab tribes around them. I am afraid it can be said that nearly the whole nation has been wiped out, and I do not think there is any case in history, certainly not since the time of Tamerlane, in which any crime so hideous and upon so large a scale has been recorded.

I should like to add that what little I have heard confirms what was said by the noble Earl—that there is no reason to believe that in this case Mussulman fanaticism came into play at all. So far as I can make out, these massacres have been viewed by Moslems with horror rather than with sympathy. It would be too much to say that they had attempted to interfere, but at any rate they have never shown approval of the conduct of the Turkish Government. I ought also to add, because this is of some importance in view of the excuses which, as we understand, the German Government are ready to give for the conduct of those who are their allies, that there is no ground for the suggestion that there had been any rising on the part of the Armenians. A certain number of Armenian volunteers have fought on the side of the Russians in the Caucasian Army, but they came, as I understand, from the Armenian population of Trans-Caucasia. It may be that some few Armenians crossed the frontier in order to fight alongside their Armenian brethren in Trans-Caucasia for Russia, but at any rate the volunteer corps which rendered such brilliant service to the Russian Army in the first part of the war was composed of Russian Armenians living in the Caucasus. There is no excuse whatever upon any political ground for the conduct of the Turkish Government. It appears to be simply carrying out the maxim once enunciated by Sultan Abdul Hamid: "The way to get rid of the Armenian question is to get rid of the Armenians"; and it has been carried out with far more thoroughness and with far more bloodthirsty completeness by the present heads of the Turkish Government than it was in the time of Abdul Hamid.

There are still, I believe, a few places in which the Armenians, driven into the mountains, are defending themselves as best they can. About 5,000 were taken off lately by a French cruiser on the coast of Syria, and have now been conveyed to Egypt, and they tell us that in the mountains of Sassoon—to which the noble Marquess referred—and in Northern Syria there are still a few bands, with very limited provision of arms and munitions, defending themselves as best they can against their enemies. The whole race, therefore, is not yet extinct, so far as these refugees in the mountains go and those who have escaped into Trans-Caucasia; and I am sure we all wish that every effort should be made that can be made to send help to the unfortunate people who remain.

I have not been able to obtain any authentic information regarding the part taken by German officials in promoting or encouraging these massacres, and therefore it would not be right to express any opinion on the subject. But I think I may venture to say that the only chance of saving the unfortunate remnants of this ancient Christian nation is to be found in the expression of the public opinion of the world, especially that of neutral nations, which may possibly exert some influence even upon the German Government and induce them to take the only step by which the massacres can be arrested—namely, to tell the Turks that they have gone too far, and that there are some things which the public opinion of the world will not tolerate.


May I suggest to the noble Marquess that it would be a very good thing if these Consular Reports were laid before Parliament or otherwise published.


I will inquire for my noble friend whether that can be done.