HL Deb 18 July 1916 vol 22 cc732-7

My Lords, I beg to ask the noble Marquess the Leader of the House whether he is now in a position to make a statement to your Lordships on the subject of Mesopotamia, which has been a matter of question and answer in this House on several occasions.


My Lords, it is desirable for several reasons that I should reply as fully as I can to the question which has been put by the noble Marquess. In the first place, as he has stated, this subject has been often before us of late, and, in the second place, I understand that my right hon. friend the Prime Minister is going to make, or has made, a statement upon it in another place, and it is therefore due to your Lordships that something should also be said here. As regards the presentation of Papers concerning Mesopotamia, the House knows what our intentions have been on that matter, because they have been stated here, and it has been informed that the Papers have been fully prepared. That is so. But when the Papers were in a complete state of preparation they were finally examined by the Army Council, and the conclusion which the Army Council reached was that the effect of their publication would be to give information to the enemy concerning future operations, and that the information thus acquired would be prejudicial to the future action of our troops in that country. The House will see that the Army Council could not reach this conclusion until they had the Papers before them as a whole, because the kind of deduction which can be made for the benefit of the enemy from such Papers as those may depend, indeed often must depend, upon the general effect produced by them on a large scale, more than on the single pieces of information contained in any particular document. The War Committee considered, this deliberate opinion having been expressed by the Army Council, that for the time being—I lay stress on the phrase "for the time being"—the withholding of the Papers must be regarded as a chose jugée—that it was not an opinion which it was possible to combat. Therefore for the time being we are not prepared to present Papers on the subject of the military operations which have taken place since we first went up the Persian Gulf. I may say in passing that, also for military reasons, though obviously for military reasons of a different character, the publication of Papers regarding the military operations at the Dardanelles must also for a time be withheld.

The House will realise that, so far as the Mesopotamian operations are concerned, there are two subjects of profound interest both to this House and to the country—two subjects which may be regarded as distinct, although they are in various ways connected. In the first place people may ask, and do ask, how it was that we ever went to Mesopotamia at all. Were our objects in doing so mainly military or were they largely political? Allied with those questions are those concerning the conduct of the military operations from the opening of the campaign until now; and it is on that side of the question that the Papers of which we have so often spoken were prepared, and those are the Papers which for the time being we are compelled to withhold. But there is also another side to the question, closely allied, as I have said, although distinct, and it is upon this, I understand, according to the questions put to me on the last occasion by the noble Viscount, that information is specially desired—I mean questions relating to the transport service, to the medical service, and to some extent also to the general supply services of that Army. To some extent, and to a degree which perhaps might not appear at first sight, some of the same objections apply to the publication of Papers on this subject as also to those of a more purely military character. But, on the other hand, it will be possible at any rate before long to give fuller information on this branch of the subject than upon the other.

As regards the transport service, which has been the subject of much animadversion, and to the difficulties of which, speaking broadly, the greater part of the troubles which have occurred in. Mesopotamia may be ascribed, various inquiries and endeavours at improvement have taken place. As the House knows, it was at the beginning of this year that the conduct of the operations in Mesopotamia was taken charge of by the War Office in the place of India; and without attempting now to enter into anything like a general review of all the circumstances, I may remind your Lordships that it was only at the very end of last year or the beginning of this that complaints began to come home of the working of the transport and medical services, and since then the Departments have made, as I shall describe in a moment, such inquiries as they could with a view to meeting the difficulties. To take the matter of transport first, Sir George Buchanan, a very distinguished engineer, has been examining the whole matter of river transport on the Tigris. No Report from him has yet come home, but there is every reason to suppose that his examination is complete. In March last an experienced officer, General Gilmour, went out, and has since been inquiring into the circumstances both of the river and of railway transport, and the results of those inquiries will be, so far as possible, communicated to the public when they have been received.

What, however, I think has cut deeper into the public mind has been the series of difficulties connected with the medical service and the needless sufferings which are alleged to have been inflicted on a number of our sick and wounded through the failure to carry out that service in a proper manner. At the beginning of the year, when reports were first received in India that the medical service was not being carried out with full efficiency, it was desired to send the best possible gentleman who could be found in India to make a Report. For that purpose Lord Chelmsford, who was at that time serving as an officer, was selected to go to report on Mesopotamia, with two others. Before Lord Chelmsford, however, could undertake this duty he was offered the Viceroyalty of India and accepted it, and consequently the scheme fell through. In his place a medical officer went to Basra and made a Report which did not entirely satisfy the Government of India by its fullness and the amount of information which it contained. Accordingly, late in February—I think on the 20th—the Commission was despatched of which mention has already been made in this House. That was conducted by Sir William Vincent, General Bingley, and Mr. Ridsdale, who is closely connected with the Red Cross Association. That Commission made a full examination of all the conditions. It has presented its Report in India, but the Report has not yet arrived here; nor are we, indeed, cognisant of its general tenor, still less of the details of its contents, and clearly it is impossible to attempt to discuss it until it arrives. In addition to that, a very capable medical officer, Surgeon-General O'Donnell, who is now the Medical Director in India, has been carefully inquiring into the conditions on the spot.

My noble friend opposite, Lord Wemyss, has a Motion on the Paper for Thursday dealing with the whole subject, or at any rate enabling a debate to be instituted which would deal with the whole subject. I should venture to suggest, therefore, that your Lordships would probably prefer to postpone until Thursday anything like a general discussion on the subject, although, for the reasons I have stated, you will not at that time be in possession of any Papers. On the other hand, I am well aware that many of your Lordships, apart from Papers, have no little information of what has happened in Mesopotamia, and you are therefore probably possessed of the necessary materials for a discussion. I think it is possible that it may be suggested that even upon the materials which now exist it would be right and reasonable to hold an immediate Inquiry into what can only be described as the breakdown, in certain respects, of the arrangements in Mesopotamia. There are obvious difficulties attached to an immediate Inquiry—namely, the practical impossibility of securing the evidence of all those who would be in a position to give it. But it is certainly not the desire of His Majesty's Government to evade or avoid inquiry on the subject, and it will be no doubt for us to consider how soon it will be possible to institute a formal Inquiry of that kind. It is the very natural desire of all observers, on recognising failures in such a business as this, to fix the proper responsibility upon some person or persons involved. Nor can anybody say that such responsibility ought not to be ascribed. At the same time, when inquiring into the burden of blame which has to be borne by individuals it is also necessary to inquire into the conditions under which they have worked and the system under which they have carried on their different duties.

There is one point which I think it is important, to bring out. It might well be said, "It is all very well to postpone a full Inquiry into all the circumstances on the ground of physical or personal difficulties, but what guarantee have we that there may not be a repetition of these failures so long as the same people remain responsible?" That is by no means an unnatural question. But so far as the medical services are concerned, it is reassuring to know that Surgeon-General O'Donnell, reporting quite lately, states that the condition of affairs as regards supplies and so on is now as satisfactory as it can be made. Therefore the House will see that the possible danger to which I have alluded cannot be held to arise in this particular case. I have no desire to pursue the subject further now. I thought it due to the House to make this quite bare statement, and I hope that your Lordships can concur with the view that discussion can more profitably take place on the Motion of my noble friend opposite on Thursday.


My Lords, I might, perhaps, be allowed to say a word or two on what has fallen from the noble Marquess. Although we have pressed for the publication of Papers, I do not think we have failed on any occasion to respond to an appeal from the Government for the non-publication of Papers which might in any way impair the use of our Forces or their position in regard to the war; and I feel sure that your Lordships, on this side of the House at all events, will be willing to acquiesce in the very disappointing decision which has been conveyed to us this afternoon. It is disappointing because it is almost inconceivable that the difficulty which has arisen, and which must have been foreseen from the first, could not have been so arranged between the two Offices, or by the War Council, that your Lordships might not have been kept waiting for three months for the debates which the noble Marquess now admits had better take place. I also think that had this question been faced at the outset, as it might have been, there would have been very little difficulty in providing us with those Papers which, in the interests of the Government, it is highly desirable should be published, exculpating, if possible, the higher officials or whoever is not responsible for the terrible state of things which has been existing in Mesopotamia.

One word as to why it is absolutely necessary for us to proceed with Lord Wemyss's Motion on Thursday. In the first place, to our great regret we have heard for the first time that this Commission which was sent out, instead of being ordered to report at once by telegraph to the Secretary of State what changes were required to prevent the continued sufferings of the troops under these conditions in Mesopotamia, have not only not reported by telegraph, but have gone to Simla, and their Report is only now finding its way to this country by mail. Meantime letters are reaching many of your Lordships, I am sure, as they are reaching me, by every post confirming the view that not only at the beginning of the year, but as recently as late in May, the conditions in Mesopotamia were bad to an extreme which has not been paralleled since the Crimean War. In addition to that, the noble Marquess has not given us to understand that any human being up to now has been made accountable; and in those circumstances I am sure your Lordships will feel that my noble friend Lord Wemyss will be amply justified in going forward with his Motion on Thursday.