§ EARL LOREBURN rose to ask whether the despatch of troops to Salonika was determined upon by His Majesty's Government with the approval of their highest naval and military advisers; and whether His Majesty's Government can give an assurance that full provision has been made for the communications of this force and for its supplies of men and material to the satisfaction of their naval and military advisers.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Question which stands in my name on the Paper refers to a matter which has caused sonic anxiety to a good many people, certainly to myself. I do not ask anything in regard either to the policy of sending an expedition to Salonika or to the general policy of this country in the Balkans. Those are very important subjects, and a statement will certainly have to be made 19 about them before very long; but, as I understand it, His Majesty's, Government deprecate any present debate upon those subjects, both in this House and in the other House, and I cannot doubt that they have solid reason for desiring that there should be sonic delay in discussing those matters. No one can desire less than I do to cause embarrassment, and therefore I shall not advert to any question of that kind.
§ My Question is directed to an inquiry in regard to the safety of, and the proper supplies to be furnished to, our troops. What I desire to know is whether the highest authorities sanctioned this expedition upon military grounds. Have the Government satisfied themselves in regard to their ability to provide for communications and for sufficient supplies to the force? Have they satisfied the military authorities upon those subjects and also that this is a practicable military operation? There are reasons for asking or information on these points, upon which I do not in the least desire to dwell, but they cannot be absent from the minds of those who have thought about recent events. We have witnessed the disappointments of the Dardanelles enterprise. We do not know whether that was commenced with the advice, without, the advice, or against the advice, of the naval and military authorities. Is this new venture to be a repetition of that enterprise? These are reflections upon which one desires to be as reticent as one can, but of which it is impossible not to feel the effect.
§ Nobody will doubt for a moment that His Majesty's Ministers are as anxious as anybody can be for utmost security for the men. But it is right that we should be reassured after what has happened that this new enterprise has been thought out beforehand, and that everything necessary for its success has been prepared. I cannot suppose that help was promised to Serbia, as it was by Sir Edward. Grey, without means being thought out for supplying it. It will certainly remove anxiety from the public mind if we can have a definite assurance that that has been done. Therefore, my Lords, without superfluous comment I ask my Question, and in doing so I would add that the greatest danger which this or any other country can suffer from is the danger of unpreparedness and indecision.20
§ THE EARL or CROMER
My Lords, I fully recognise the force of the argument which was brought forward the other day by the noble Marquess (Lord Crewe) to the effect that there are certain aspects of the diplomatic and military situation which it would not be to the advantage of the public to discuss at, present. But I cannot help thinking that there are other aspects as to which discussion would be not merely innocuous but also of great advantage to the public interest. For my own part. I make a great distinction between discussions on the past, as to which I think recriminations are not only ungenerous but perfectly futile, and criticisms in regard to the present which may be of use in the future. I am perfectly certain that His Majesty's Government have not deprecated discussion in this or the other House of Parliament in order to shield themselves from criticism. They are not, I feel convinced, actuated by any such unworthy motives. At the same time I cannot help thinking that they rather over-rate the harm which may be done by Parliamentary discussion, and that they also under-rate the importance of the consequences which in a democratic country like ours are perfectly certain to ensue if Parliamentary discussion is stifled or discouraged. What have been those consequences? The consequences have been that all criticism and discussion has been transferred to the Press, and there it has been carried on by many men of great ability, but who, after all, are not nearly so responsible as members of either House of Parliament, and who for the most part write anonymously.
I hear it constantly insinuated that many of these Press critics are indiscreet and even unpatriotic. I venture to submit that those accusations, whether true or false, are really nothing to the point. The question is not whether a criticism is discreet or indiscreet, but whether it is true or false. That is the main point. I have been for close on half a century more or less behind the scenes of political life, and I think I may say that during that period I have had my share of newspaper abuse. I am speaking of the Press in England; the conditions in countries such as India and Egypt are totally different. I have known many cases in which Press criticism has caused a great deal of personal annoyance, and even sometimes done temporary harm to the public interest; 21 but I cannot remember a single case of Press attacks against a Government or an individual which have done any permanent or serious harm provided that Government or individual had in the end an adequate answer which would satisfy reasonable and broad-minded people that the attacks were captious and unreasonable. But woe betide the Government or the individual so attacked who has no such answer. They are likely eventually to go under, and they deserve to go under. I cannot help thinking that a good deal of the criticism and friction which undoubtedly exist at present would have been avoided had not the Government at the commencement of this war thrown a veil of such impenetrable mystery over their opinions and plans of action.
Let me instance one case in point, the question of compulsory versus voluntary service. I am not, of course, going into the merits of that case, but merely mention it to illustrate my point. It was quite certain that on that subject there would be a wide divergence of opinion in this country. The main facts of the situation from the very first were perfectly clear. At one end of the scale there was a certain body of influential opinion which had declared positively for compulsory service long before the outbreak of war. At the other end of the scale there was another section of influential opinion—I do not know how numerous—which was entirely opposed to compulsory service on any conditions and under any circumstances. Between those two extremes there was a large mass of public opinion who were undecided, who did not like t he remedy, but who were perfectly prepared, I believe, to adopt it if they could be shown that it was absolutely necessary. In these circumstances it appears to me that it was the duty of the Government from the very first to make a perfectly clear statement of what they wanted, and to declare with boldness that if they did not get under the voluntary system a certain number of recruits within a certain time they would resort to compulsion. We have never had any clear statement on the subject. We had a number of half-hearted perfunctory statements, the main object of which always appeared to be to avoid giving a definite opinion on the main issue involved. Then there were, a number of—shall I call them?—whispers that the democracy would not stand compulsory service, and 22 would not stand a good many other things. I have been a moderate Liberal all my life, but I do not suppose that any one would class me as a democrat. At the same time I have more faith in democracy than appears to be entertained by many of its most stalwart advocates. The feeling that is uppermost in the minds of the democracy is that they want to win this war, and I believe they would have stood almost anything if only the Government had come forward and told them what they wanted and informed them frankly what the situation was. And that is what has never been done.
What has been the result of this reticence on that particular point? The result was that a dangerous and mischievous agitation was got up which seemed likely to degenerate into a class warfare, the sort of thing we want most to avoid at this moment. That danger has happily passed, because the Government have now done what they ought to have done many months ago. They have put the whole matter of recruiting into the hands of a member of this House, Lord Derby, who has a business head on his shoulders and inspires universal confidence. I hope that before long he will tell us exactly how we stand. But I think it is not an unreasonable criticism to ask why all this valuable time has been lost, and why some action of this kind could not have been taken months ago.
We are now threatened with a considerable divergence of opinion on at least two other subjects of vital importance. Within the last few weeks the whole character of the war has manifestly changed. The Germans, it is true, still occupy a portion of France and practically the whole of Belgium, and they have checked the Russian offensive which originally looked very promising. On the other hand it should not be forgotten that they have entirely failed in their two main objectives. They have not crushed the Russian Army; they have not penetrated to Paris or to the coast of the English Channel. What, therefore, have they done? They have carried out a. programme which has been always dear to the hearts of Pan-Germans; they have transferred the main operations of the war to the East. In these circumstances no one expects for one moment that His Majesty's Government should divulge all their strategical plans and indicate the forces that are engaged, or precisely what they intend to do. But I do think they 23 might make some general statement showing at all events, what I believe to be the case, that what I may call the centre of gravity of the war has been transferred for the time being from the West to the East, and give some general indication of how they intend to meet the situation, without going into details which might do harm.
Let me in connection with this point allude to one other thing. I know perfectly well the very onerous duties which are now being performed by my noble and gallant friend Lord Kitchener, for whom have the greatest personal regard and respect; but considering the importance of the noble Earl's position and considering the public feeling which everybody knows exists on this subject, I cannot help thinking that the noble and gallant Field-Marshal might have found time to come down to the House and tell us a little of what he thinks. The noble and gallant Field-Marshal has been singularly parsimonious in his utterances in this House, and although he has been frequently complimented on his important speeches I must candidly say that his statements have never contained much more than we could read in the daily newspapers. It cannot be too clearly understood that this House and certainly the country will no longer listen with much patience to these typical official statements of the kind to which we were accustomed in the past. We want something rather more, something to show that there is a real grasp of the situation, and something to give us the general outline of what is intended to be done to meet it. A very general impression exists that there has been what the Germans themselves call an absence of "directive" in the war—that is to say, that the measures we have taken are isolated steps rather wanting in cohesion, and that there has been no proper or real appreciation of the relative importance of events. I hope that impression is incorrect: but it exists, and will continue to exist in growing volume unless some of His Majesty's Ministers come down to this or the other House and give us some indication of the state of things and of their intentions so far as they can divulge them without, doing harm to the public interest.
I suppose it, is possible that there May be some people outside this House and the other House of Parliament who wish to upset the Government. If there be any such people, I wish as earnestly as I can 24 to dissociate my self entirely from them, and I doubt, whether there is a single member of your Lordships' House who does not feel the same. But in point of fact the whole situation is much too grave to allow that old Party ties or personal feelings or personal wishes should for one moment weigh in the scale. They must all be put aside. But for all that, and notwithstanding that every one recognises the truth of that very homely proverb of Abraham Lincoln that it is not the right time to swap horses while crossing a stream, there is a very strong feeling in the country, particularly amongst thinking politicians, that it, is quite impossible to conduct the war efficaciously with a Committee or a Cabinet, call it what you like, of twenty-two persons, many of whom are engaged in work wholly unconnected with the war itself. There is also an opinion that that evil cannot be rectified or that want of efficiency remedied merely by having a War Committee of the Cabinet, sitting outside the Cabinet but responsible to them, and liable to have their opinions overruled by the Cabinet. What I think is urged is that, we should have, not a change of Party particularly—we have a Coalition Government, though I think it Was a mistake ever to have had one, but that is gone and it is no use talking about that— but a small, strong Executive body chosen without any reference to Party, and chosen from men representing the best talent in the country in financial, political, naval, military, and Eastern affairs. That, I believe, is the opinion of a very large number of people. I do not, of course, for one moment expect any member of the Front Bench opposite to state now what the Government intend to do about that, but I do most earnestly press upon His Majesty's Ministers that a very strong opinion exists about it, and I think they would do wisely to take the matter into consideration and take an early opportunity of stating what they intend to do.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
My Lords, I noted with satisfaction the admission made by my noble friend who has just sat down that, if we on this Bench appear sometimes to be a little secretive or a little reluctant to give full information to your Lordships' House, our action is not to be attributed to any desire to screen ourselves. My noble friend is much too well versed in public affairs to be ignorant, of the undoubted fact that there are 25 moments when it is impossible in the public interest that questions relating to the conduct of a great war should be freely discussed in Parliament. We have to think not only of the effect of what may be said upon our enemies, but, what is not less important, of the effect at certain moments upon our Allies; and I can assure my noble friend that if we have been a little slow to respond to the invitations that have from time to time been made to us it has been solely from the conviction that we could not speak as fully and frankly as we should desire for reasons of that kind.
I might strengthen my argument by reminding the House of what happened not many nights ago. We had a short discussion, in the course of which Lord Morley of Blackburn addressed your Lordship. Ho, too, complained that the House was not taken sufficiently into our confidence, and he mentioned several points upon which personally he would have been glad to have information. What were those points? The number of troops that were likely to be employed in these Balkan operations; the terms upon which we expected to obtain Russian cooperation; the terms upon which we expected to obtain Italian co-operation; and, finally, what was the prospect of obtaining Greek and Rumanian adhesion. I venture to say that upon every one of those points it would, particularly at that moment, have been absolutely out of the question to make a. full and complete statement to the House without giving to the public information which we had no right to give.
I will not attempt to follow my noble friend who has just spoken—and I know he does not expect me to do so—into the question, not perhaps strictly relevant to the Notice upon the Paper but one of great interest to all of us, as to the proper strength of an efficient Cabinet. I will take my courage in both hands, however, and I will tell him that up to this point I agree with him—that personally I am strongly of opinion that the efficiency of any body of that kind is apt to vary inversely with its numerical strength.
I pass to the interrogatories which the noble and learned Earl below the Gangway (Lord Loreburn) addressed to us just now. He wishes to elicit whether we have been advised that the operations in progress or in contemplation in the Balkans are 26 practical military operations, and whether we have been told by our naval and military experts that that is their opinion. There is an impression in the minds of some people—I am sure it does not exist in the mind of the noble and learned Earl—that we civilian politicians are in the habit not only of devising great strategical plans and combinations of our own but of imposing those plans upon the persons to whom we ought to look for advice upon naval and military problems. I suppose that most of us have indulged in the amusement of making plans of our own, but I can assure the noble and learned Earl that neither ill this Government nor in any Government with which I have been connected has it been the practice, nor has it been possible, for amateur strategists to impose their plans upon the responsible professional advisers of the Government of the day. And I will add this, that in this Government in particular it is specially unlikely that anything of the kind should have occurred. The present Cabinet includes among its members Load Kitchener, who was called. to the office of Secretary of State for War almost by public acclaim. Lord Kitchener is present at every meeting of the Cabinet; he is a party to all its decisions, and it would be almost grotesque to suppose that he allowed himself to be deflected from his course by the pressure of his civilian colleagues. Quite apart from that, the present procedure of the Government—I mean its procedure by Committees and Councils—is of a kind which gives far greater opportunities to the military and naval experts of asserting themselves and making their views known than was the case in the days when I first entered public life.
There is another general consideration which your Lordships would do well to bear in mind. These great problems which from time to time confront the Government of the day are as a rule what I might describe as mixed problems—that they are problems into which not only political but military and naval considerations enter, and it seems to me just as necessary, having that in view, that the expert advisers of the Government should have opportunities of considering the political aspects of the case as that the civilian members of the Government should take into account the naval and military side of the problem. In deciding whether an operation shall be undertaken at all, or 27 whether one operation is preferable to another operation, or whether, as the war goes on, it is desirable to modify the plans originally arrived at—these are all questions which should be considered not only from the purely naval and military point of view, but from that of the broad moral and political considerations with which they are connected. But I should like to enforce this further point, which is that whatever the opportunities you give to your naval and military advisers, the ultimate responsibility for the decision must rest with the Government, and not with them. I have heard that question discussed more than once in your Lordships' House, and so far as I am aware the view has always prevailed, and I think rightly prevailed, that no Government can be allowed to shelter itself behind the advice of its military and naval experts.
Let me now say a word with regard to the Salonika Expedition. I can quite enter into the apprehensions which possess the mind of the noble and learned Earl below the Gangway. I can quite understand that having before him our commitments in the Western theatre of war, the position in which we find ourselves in the Gallipoli Peninsula, our interest in Egypt and in other possessions of the Empire, it should be to his mind profoundly distasteful that matters should be complicated by our entering into new entanglements in a new theatre of war.
§ EARL LOREBURN
I never said that or anything about it. I deliberately abstained from expressing any opinion, because I am not in possession of the facts. I did not wish to say for a moment that the action taken was right or wrong, or to discuss the policy. I wished merely to know whether you have sufficient military and naval opinion to justify you in commencing the enterprise. That is the only point I am on.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSD0WNE
Surely I did not mishear the noble and learned Earl when I thought he told the House that he remembered how we had become involved in an entanglement in Gallipoli, and that he was afraid we might inadvertently find ourselves involved in a new entanglement of the same kind.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
did not impute anything to the noble and learned Earl beyond that, and that is the argument to which I wish to address myself for a moment. I can quite understand, if I may put it in this way, that the noble and learned Earl and others should dislike the idea of anything that might be described as the dispersal of effort on our part at a time when we are making so many efforts in different parts of the world. Well, in what circumstances has this little British force been sent to Salonika? I should like to recall to your Lordships' memory the position in which, let us say in the month of September, the Central Powers found themselves in the different theatres of war in which they were engaged. In the Western theatre they had made no progress for a long time: they had, indeed, been successfully attacked and pushed back at several points. On the Russian front their advance, at first so triumphant and overwhelming, had received a serious check, certainly at some points. The Italian forces were pressing their offensive hard, and in the minor and remoter theatres of war, Mesopotamia for example, success was resting with our arms. That being the situation the Central Powers very naturally looked about them to discover some new direction in which to seek for a decision satisfactory to themselves, and their choice fell, as it obviously was likely to fall, upon a great attempt to make a push to the south-east through' Bulgaria, threatening our forces in Gallipoli, threatening Constantinople and perhaps Egypt, to say nothing of vaster aspirations which perhaps lay behind. And that great project became doubly attractive to the Central Powers from the moment that, most unfortunately, Bulgaria threw her influence on their side. To such a thrust to the southeast there was one obstacle and one obstacle only. The key of the situation lay in the north-eastern corner of Serbia, and accordingly we found Serbia threatened by a formidable concentration of troops on the enemy frontier. It is impossible to think or speak of Serbia without paying a tribute to the wondrous gallantry with which that little country withstood two separate invasions and has lately been struggling against a third. She repelled the two first invasions by an effort which I venture to think will form one of the most glorious chapters in the history of this great war.
29 It was in these circumstances that Serbia made a direct appeal to us for help. I do not think the noble and learned Earl will differ from me when I say that there is not a man in this country who, if there had been a good chance of coming to the rescue of Serbia, would not have risked a good deal in order to do so. But it was not only Serbia that invoked our co-operation. Greece was bound to Serbia by geographical propinquity, by common interests obvious to all, and by Treaty obligations. Moreover, it was only through Greek territory that help could possibly reach the Serbian people. It was only by the use of Greek ports that a base could be provided for any movement intended to take the pressure off Serbia. In these circumstances the good will of Greece was obviously of the first importance to us, and we had at that time every reason to feel assured that we had that good will. M. Venezelos was still in power, and it was at his instance that we undertook to provide a force for the purpose of enabling Greece to fulfil her Treaty obligations to Serbia. It was in compliance with that twofold appeal that we sent such troops as were available to Salonika. It was a small force, because only a small force could be collected at the time. The French Government, on their side, despatched the force which is now on the spot, and which is apparently at this moment engaged with the Bulgarian enemy on the eastern frontier of Serbia. At the same time, a larger British force was prepared for service in South-Eastern Europe, and transport was taken up for the purpose of conveying it to its destination.
I suggest to your Lordships that those steps, incomplete no doubt, and taken with great promptitude, because promptitude was of the utmost moment, were the only proper steps which could be taken at the moment to relieve the position in Serbia. Those steps were taken after full and deliberate consultation on the part of the Cabinet with its military and naval advisers. But, as I said a moment ago, the small British force sent to Salonika—I think 13,000 in round numbers—was regarded as the precursor of a larger force which was put under orders at the same time. The noble and learned Earl may perhaps desire me to tell him how we propose that that larger force when it arrives shall be used. My answer to that is that the use to which that force is put must depend 30 upon the situation which exists when it arrives upon the scene. The noble and learned Earl spoke of the "new enterprise," and he asked me whether it was a practicable military operation. I cannot answer that question, because the character of the new operation or the "new enterprise," if the noble and learned Earl so likes to call it, has not been decided, and cannot be decided until we know more of the situation in South-Eastern Europe.
Events have moved and are moving very rapidly in that part of the world. There have been two quite recent developments which profoundly affect the military as well as the political situation. The first of those developments is to be found in the change of attitude of the Greek Government. We all know that M. Venezelos resigned; we all know that Greece has arrived at the deliberate conclusion that her Treaty engagements with Serbia do not require her to go to the rescue of that country in the present momentous crisis. That is one fundamental change which the situation has undergone. But apart from that—I say it with great regret—I am afraid we must admit that the progress of the campaign in Northern Serbia has been such as to render it highly improbable that the Serbian Army will be able to withstand for any great length of time the attack to which it is exposed from the Austro-German forces in the North, aided, as it is, by the stab in the back which Serbia is receiving at the hands of Bulgaria. Therefore my answer to the question, "What are we going to do with the larger force?" is that the military plans must depend upon the military situation; but I may add that upon this point the Allies are of one mind. These matters have been discussed, and both the French and the British Governments realise that when further reinforcements reach the Eastern Mediterranean it will be necessary to take careful stock of the position. It will be necessary that the military and naval advisers of both Governments should consult and should endeavour to come to a conclusion, and it cannot be until those consultations have taken place that we can be in a position to say that we intend to use the British force either for this purpose or for that. What we shall endeavour to use it for will be to counter the movement of the Central Powers across Bulgaria, but the precise mode of countering that attack must obviously 31 be left for further and very careful examination. The discussions are at this moment proceeding with regard to this point, and I may add that the General whom we have just sent out to the South-Eastern Mediterranean, Sir C. Monro who, I think, arrives in that part of the world to-day, has been instructed to report as soon as possible his opinion upon all the aspects of the case. Therefore when the noble and learned Earl asks me, as he did just now, whether I can give him a general indication of our intentions, or, as he said in a later passage in his speech, whether I can describe to him the general outline of the "new enterprise," I am obliged to tell him that I can do nothing of the kind; that that is a question which, is being considered by those who have the best right to consider it.
At the moment it is quite impossible for me to add to the noble and learned Earl's knowledge on the subject; but I can assure him that lie need have no apprehension that in this matter or in any other matter of the kind we are likely to be led into precipitate action owing to some hurried impulse or some vague sentiment or desire to achieve this object or that. At every step we shall take the best naval and military advice which is obtainable, and that advice will have reference not only to what the noble and learned Earl calls the "new enterprise,'' but also to all subsidiary questions relating to the safeguarding of the communications of our forces and to the supplies of men and material. That is all the answer which I am able to give to the noble and learned Earl. I trust that he will at any rate acquit me of a desire to avoid any of the points merely because of any undue tendency to reticence or concealment.
§ Loan ST. DAVIDS
My Lords, I had not intended to say anything this evening. I do not want to put any questions to the Government, and they may be quite sure that I shall not say anything that would be indiscreet in delicate circumstances. I have only risen because of a remark that was made by the noble Marquess himself. Lord Lansdowne said that it was only possible to go to the help of Serbia through Greece. If that is so, the Government do not seem to have been very wide awake in the early stages 32 of the war. From the beginning of the war they must have known that to supply even ammunition to Serbia they ought to take every precaution. The noble Marquess has said that there was no other way except through Salonika. Well, there ought to be. There ought to be a way into Serbia through Durazzo; and if there is not I should like to know why the Government have not made one. When the Serbian Army went to Durazzo in the first Balkan War they went at the worst time of the year, when the mountains were covered with snow; and they had the Turkish and Albanian Armies opposing them. The route was difficult, but there was a route. The Serbians went to Durazzo to build a railway. The route is mountainous and difficult. Any one who has read descriptions of Albania knows what the route must be. But I would remind the Government that from Durazzo into Serbia is only about the same distance as from Salonika into Serbia, and the Government have had fifteen months during which they might have made necessary arrangements. I am sufficiently a railway man to be reluctant to say how much railway you could have built in that fifty or sixty miles in fifteen months, but I am certain that if at the beginning of the war the Government had considered this thing seriously—and surely they ought to have considered seriously the question of relieving Serbia if they had built plenty of shed accommodation for stores at Durazzo and had pushed things on they might have had a railway going for twenty or thirty miles into the mountains; and if they could not have taken a railway the whole way, they ought at any rate to have got a good motor route by this time. I do not say that by a motor route you could provide for an army of a million men, but you could take upon it arms and ammunitions for a small affair like the Serbian Army. The Albanians could not make the resistance to movements through their country that they could at the time of the first Balkan War. Then they had arms and ammunition, and were organised. But now a great part of this particular part of Albania is under the influence of Essad Pasha, who is not anti-Serbian and who would work for the Allies; and you also have a position in Albania at the present time when the Albanians could not get the arms to equip any force. They are surrounded by Montenegro, Serbia, Greece, 33 and the Adriatic Sea. They could not get an ounce of ammunition if you did not lot any through. I do not know what the Government have done, but if in the fifteen months since the beginning of the war they have not made any preparation for a route into Serbia viâ Durazzo I say they have not deserved well of the country.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
My Lords, the speech to which we have just listened is an indication that such Questions as have been put by the noble and learned Earl are prone to carry us rather further in debate than I am sure the Government would desire. Nothing could have been more friendly than the first two speeches which were addressed to the Government, and the noble Marquess recognised that fact in his reply. But the point which I would put to your Lordships is that the importance of a debate of this character is not merely what is said in it, but the fact that such a Motion should be put upon the Paper at all. I am not criticising the noble and learned Earl. But look at the position. The noble and learned. Earl has held the highest position in this House, and he asks a Government largely composed of his late colleagues whether the despatch of troops to Salonika was determined upon by his Majesty's Government with the approval of their highest naval and military advisers; and, further, he seeks an assurance that full provision has been made for the communications of the force. I do not think that in our Parliamentary records, except in moments of great trouble, we could lay our hands on any suggestion made by a responsible person so fatal to the confidence which we desire to rest in the Government as the suggestion that they are about to embark upon a most important military operation against the wish of, and without full consultation with, their naval and military advisers.
I think your Lordships must look upon this as the second or third occasion on which some attempt has been made to influence the course of the war by discussion in this House, without the smallest desire on the part of those who have brought matters forward to impair the confidence which is to be shown in the Government. I remember two very remarkable speeches made ten months ago by two of my noble friends who now sit on the Government Bench in which they 34 desired through your Lordships to move the Government to organise the country in the matter of recruiting and the getting of munition workers, and also in relation to providing the sinews for a second year of war. I quite agree with Lord Cromer that it would be ungenerous and futile at this moment to go back on the course of those debates and to the many months which elapsed before the late Government were able to put into full operation the suggestions then made. We had a somewhat similar experience, three months ago with regard to the question of retrenchments on which your Lordships unanimously adopted a Motion which resulted in a Committee being appointed, and in the last few days we have seen its recommendations, which were accepted by the Government, thrown over at the first sign of opposition. I only allude to those things for the purpose of pointing out that they all argue a desire on the part of those outside the Government to press the Government to consider the manner in which the war is being conducted, and I really think that mere force than has been given to it up to now lies in the suggestion of Lord Cromer that the main cause of this want of confidence is not any feeling in regard to the individuals who compose the Government, but the impossibility of working satisfactorily under the system in which the Government is now carried on.
My noble friend Lord Lansdowne, with his usual skill, talked of the advantage of Committees of the Cabinet and of the large infusion of military and naval opinion which was possible through those Committees; but he pointed out with irresistible force that in the last resort the ultimate responsibility for decisions must rest with the Government. I would ask your Lordships, who, like myself, can only have outside information, what is the confidence we can feel in a system which one day tells us that there was a meeting of the Defence Committee at which some members of the Cabinet were present; the next day that there was a meeting of the War Committee or Council with some members of the Cabinet, and some who were not members; the third day that there was a meeting of the Dardanelles Committee; and the fourth day that a sub-committee of the Cabinet met in Downing-street, enterprising newspaper critics giving us the names of two or three 35 of those who walked in on that occasion. Such a continual shifting seems to argue a want of continuity, and, secondly, we have no security whatever, however these Committees are composed, that when their decisions are brought to the Cabinet as a whole they will not be overruled.
I pin my noble friend Lord Lansdowne to that remarkable admission of his that we are not to take it that the decisions come to in the presence of and in consultation with the naval and military advisers must, or indeed ever can, rule the decisions of the Government. What I would press is that the Cabinet of twenty-two—an unknown number in the whole history of this country—is not a carrying out of the will of the country; it is the reversing of what I believe most of us think was the will of the country last May, which was that the most eminent and useful members of any political Party should be brought together to conduct the war, not that they should be brought together in various small batches to sit on various Committees and then refer to a much larger body who could not have heard half of the arguments. That seems to me a most unfortunate position of affairs, and one which strikes at the root of the confidence we ought to feel.
I should like to say that I am not now designing to attack any individual or to suggest that any individual who is consulted ought not to be consulted, but I think what you want is a small Committee, that is to say, a Cabinet which is responsible, which is chosen not by offices but by men. It is commonly said that the Cabinet might consist. of the First. Lord of the Treasury, the Lord Chancellor, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the high Secretaries of State, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, but that would not be a body particularly well calculated to carry on the war. Lord Cromer said just now that the pivot with regard to the war had shifted to the East, and it happens that with the exception of Lord Kitchener, who is outside all political considerations, not one of those men I have named happen to have any acquaintance with the East. But there are sitting in this House four members of the Cabinet not holding the offices to which I have referred, three of whom have a great acquaintance with Asia and a fourth with Africa—therefore men whose opinions would be of great value in that particular case.
36 I desire to occupy your Lordships' attention for but one moment longer. I happen to differ from my noble friend Lord Cromer with regard to the Coalition, I want to see the Coalition outlast the war, to see it re-establish conditions under the most difficult circumstances which will occur in this country when the war is over. But if it to be a Coalition it must he the focussing of all the best opinions of all Parties, not merely a collection of gentlemen who in normal times would be the best to carry on the Civil Departments or the most expert in Parliamentary discussion. My observations have been made not with a desire to criticise, but because I want the Government to take the course now, when it is not too late, that will most strengthen their deliberations and enable them, in this most tangled condition of our diplomacy and this great strain of our military affairs, to retain, as I think they ought to retain, the confidence of the country.
§ THE EARL OF CROMER
With the indulgence of the House, might I offer a remark with reference to what fell from Lord St. Davids as to making a railway from Durazzo? Perhaps I am the only member of this House who has travelled from Durazzo to Serbia. The noble Lord's suggestion may be a possible one, but I can only say that a more difficult country through which to make a railway could hardly be imagined.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
My Lords, my noble friend has asked me to say a word or two in reply to the speech which we have just heard from the noble Viscount opposite. I do not complain for a moment that our debate this evening has travelled rather far from the somewhat circumscribed issue which was raised by the Question of the noble and learned Earl. He himself, if I may say so, adhered strictly to the terms of his Question. But even one who has been a short number of years in your Lordships' House, as I have, knows perfectly well the licence that is assumed by noble Lords, and when I heard the strength of the Cabinet and the road to Durazzo discussed on this Question I realised once again that I was in the House of Lords.
The speech of Lord Midleton was, as he assured us at the end, obviously characterised by a desire to add to the public 37 confidence which, he says, ought to be felt in the Government that is conducting a great war at this period of supreme emergency in our history. But I thought he put a rather strained interpretation upon the terms in which the Question of the noble and learned Earl was couched. Whether the noble and learned Earl in putting the Question implied distrust, as the noble Viscount seems to think, it is for him, and not for anybody else, to say. I do not myself imagine for a moment that that was in his mind. It seemed to me that in putting his Question he asked for the kind of information which any member of your Lordships' House or of the House of Commons might reasonably desire to obtain, and it was in that spirit that the noble Marquess behind me answered him. However, I do not desire to lay stress on that, because the noble Viscount in explaining his attitude towards Lord Loreburn's Question went on to say that he really only put that aspect of the case because he wanted the Government to consider the manner in which the war had better be conducted. And then he passed certain criticisms upon the Government as at present constituted.
In some of these respects I think the noble Viscount has been misled by inaccuracies in the Press. He alluded to the fact that some days you read in the newspapers of the assembling in Downing-street of the Committee, or a sub-committee, of Imperial Defence; on another occasion of the meeting of the Dardanelles Committee; on another occasion of the meeting of the liar Committee, and on another occasion of the meeting of a sub-committee of the Cabinet. Surely the noble Viscount has been long enough in public life to know that to these kind of statements in the Press you must not attach too much credence. As a matter of fact I believe it has never been the practice of Cabinets to communicate the composition or the work of their sub-committees to the Press. Whether that is or is not a wise procedure I cannot say, but undoubtedly in the case of the present war we may be held, from the speech of the noble Viscount, to have suffered from it. As a matter of fact all these Committees and sub-committees which he imagines and of which he reads notices in the Press do not, in the form that is suggested by the Press, exist. There has been, at any rate during the time I have been in the Government, a single Committee 38 which has been particularly instructed to direct its attention to the prosecution of the war. When the Government was first formed the military operations that were then uppermost in our attention were the Dardanelles operations. The Committee thereupon began to be called the "Dardanelles Committee." Presently, as the war assumed a wider range the general control of the war passed into the hands of that Committee. You may call it what you like—it is a Committee of the Cabinet, but it is for all essential purposes a War Committee. It sits in consultation with the military and naval advisers of the Government, and, whether it be well or badly composed, it endeavours faithfully to discharge its duties.
Another point raised by the noble Viscount was the responsibility of this Committee to the Cabinet. He has a much longer experience of Cabinets than I have, but unless he would propose to dethrone the Cabinet altogether I suppose he would allow that the responsibility, in the last resort, for all actions of the Government must rest on the Cabinet as a whole. It is therefore not only not unnatural but inevitable that the proceedings of the War Committee should go for confirmation to the Cabinet. But if he raises the question that it would be intolerable if advice given upon the responsible opinion of the military and naval authorities were liable at any moment to be, and he seemed to indicate has been, overthrown by a Cabinet largely consisting of civilians, may I say that he misinterprets the situation as it exists. No such situation has arisen in my experience, nor is it conceivable that it should arise. If you depute particular functions to ten or twelve men it is hardly likely that any Cabinet of twenty-two would assume the responsibility of overthrowing their opinion, particularly if it is based on expert and professional advice.
Then as regards the size of the Cabinet itself. If the noble Viscount were to come to Downing-street and enter those precincts which he once frequented and were to make there the speech which he made to-day against a Cabinet of twenty-two members, I can well conceive that his observations might be received with a certain amount of chastened applause even within that chamber. I will not put 39 it more strongly than that. But when he goes on to advocate that the functions of the twenty-two should be conferred upon a very much smaller number, he raises an issue of greater importance upon which a very great deal may be said, and upon which also I think he would find certain converts in Downing-street. That aspect of the case, is one which I happen to know is under the consideration of the Prime Minister at the present moment. More it would not be possible or desirable for a Cabinet Minister to say, but the full force of the considerations which the noble Viscount has so temperately urged is before us. Although Lord St. Davids did not ask for a reply—in fact, he said he was not putting a question—I may inform him that the question of the road from Durazzo into Serbia, difficult as Lord Cromer said it would, be, is one that has not escaped the attention of His Majesty's Government.
§ LORD WILLOUGHBY DE BROKE
My Lords, the noble Earl who has just sat down made a very interesting remark which I should like to answer. He suggested that it would be well for Lord Midleton not to believe everything he saw in the newspapers, and that an old political hand like the noble Viscount certainly would not be deceived in that manner. Those who have the experience of public life that Lord Midleton possesses will be able to discriminate between the different classes of news—the class to which credence can be attached, and that which ought to be passed by. But the general public, in the absence of any but the very meagre information that we have received from official sources in Parliament, unhappily are forced to form their conclusions about all and sundry from what they see in the newspapers. The debate to which we have listened this evening has been very useful; and as an ordinary member of the general public I welcome it very much indeed, because it will do nothing but good. Our conversations about policy and the position of the Government are not likely to deflect the Germans one iota one way or the other from the course they have determined upon. These questions which are asked—and which will be asked—are not dictated, I can assure your Lordships, with the object of destroying the Government, but of destroying the Germans.
40 The noble Earl, Lord Cromer, advised us just now not to swap horses in the middle of the stream. I do not know whether that doctrine is considered to be of universal application, but it rather seems to me to depend on what sort of horse a man has beneath him. If the horse is standing in the middle of the stream and seems as if he is going to lie down, the best thing is to get on to another if one offers. I do not want to introduce a note of levity into this debate, because it is too important. The speeches of Lord Lansdowne and Lord Curzon will be extremely valuable to the public, and I am grateful to both noble Lords for having made them. We have heard something from Lord Curzon which will be read with attention by all those who are taking an interest in the manner in which government by twenty-two rulers is carried on. He has also thrown an interesting sidelight on the opinion that some have that this is a very unwieldy number. We have also had some interesting observations from Lord Cromer, to which weight is bound to be given coming whence they do, as to how the Administration might be altered with advantage.
But from the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, we have had an exceedingly grave admission with regard to the state of affairs in our relations with Serbia. The public has been told in almost every speech which Cabinet Ministers have made since the war began that we were out to defend small nationalities. Every variety of reason has been given for this war, most of them belonging to the category in which is included the idea that we are fighting against something called Prussian Militarism, against one set of ideas and in favour of another set of ideas. But the thing we have had drummed into our ears in, I think, every speech of the Prime Minister is that we are out to support the legitimate claims of small nationalities. If that is so, all I can say is that I hope we shall make a better success of it in the future than we have done in the past. You cannot help people taking an interest in the war and asking questions; they would not be responsible members of the British public if they did not do so. If going through Serbia and linking up with the East was, in the words of Lord Lansdowne, a great project attractive to the Central Powers, and if we have only been able at present to undertake the 41 defence of Serbia with a very small force—and that, if I am correctly informed, in an exceedingly difficult country— the public will want to know why the defence of Serbia and a proper military preparation for that purpose was not decided upon long ago. It would be interesting to know at what date the idea of making plans to help Serbia came before the Cabinet for discussion. We are told that we shall have to content ourselves for the present by sending a small force only to the support of Serbia. Then we are told that a larger force is going to act as military needs may dictate. Everybody will be exceedingly thankful to hear that. We are glad indeed to learn that General Monro to report at the earliest possible date, and there will not be wanting those in this country who hope that that officer has been given at least a comparatively free hand to deal with the situation as he finds it. I do not associate myself for a moment with those who are of opinion that this kind of operation is undertaken by the Government without their having sought the best military or naval advice. But may I just say, with regard to the Eastern situation, that what gives rise to anxiety is the feeling which the people have that we are living from hand to mouth and that there has been no definite cohesive plan.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
Might I ask the noble Earl, Lord Curzon, in view of his correction as to newspaper accounts—for which I thank him—whether it is not possible to ensure that at all events correct statements should be given to the newspapers of such important matters as meetings of these Special Committees? A statement of every Cabinet meeting is sent officially to the Press. In any case I am sure my noble friends opposite must have sufficient influence with the Censor to be able to prevent injurious information on important topics reaching us.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
Tha is a question for the Prime Minister, and if have no doubt lie will read and attach due weight to what the noble Viscount has said on this matter.
§ EARL LOREBURN
My Lords, if this discussion has gone beyond the terms of the Question it is because there has been so much, I will not say suppression, but 42 concealment of what is going forward and so little information given to the public. In those circumstances it cannot be a matter of surprise that some curiosity should be expressed when the opportunity arises. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has very properly, if I may say so, expressed himself on that subject. Nothing could be more disadvantageous than this concealment, and that is no doubt the reason why the debate has travelled a little beyond the subject-matter of the Question on the Paper.
I asked certain questions as to whether certain precautions had been taken in regard to a particular expedition and for the future well-being of the men themselves. The noble Marquess's answer (for which I thank him), though most considerate, did not really answer the questions that were put; and the only conclusions that can be drawn—well, I would rather that every one drew his own conclusion from what has been said with regard to the forethought taken and the preparation made for a situation which must have been foreseen. I need hardly disclaim any intention of desiring to oppose or give trouble to the Government in the state of things in which we are. I do not care in the least who is in the Government provided the business of the country is carried on so as to ensure a successful issue of this war. That is all I am thinking about.
The real point at the bottom of the public uneasiness with regard to preparations is as to our troops in the field. Many things are said, and communications constantly come from men at the Front to their friends in this country. I want to have the country reassured and the men themselves reassured that the highest military advice is taken well beforehand and is acted upon, and that proper preparations are made in every way for the purpose of doing everything possible to support the men who are risking their lives every day. That is my purpose in asking these questions. As I interpret it, the speech made by the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, does not disclose a, wholly satisfactory state of things. It does not bring to my mind the conviction that there are plans well thought out beforehand by an able circle or group of men who are carefully considering these matters. It seems to me that we are liable to surprises. It may be that the remedy lies in the direction 43 which has been pointed out from the other side of the House. But to be unprepared or wanting in decision is a very fatal thing. I think there ought to be constantly sitting a body thoroughly competent and not encumbered by numbers, in order to carry out this most dangerous and delicate business in a satisfactory way.