HL Deb 05 February 1918 vol 28 cc380-9

LORD RIBBLESDALE rose to call attention to the case of Lady Angela Forbes's canteen; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am sorry to say that in an evening paper last week I saw it stated that I was embarking on an errand of chivalry. I have lots to do and lots wherewith to occupy myself, without riding abroad redressing the wrongs of a fallible world. I have put down this Motion on the Paper of your Lordships' House for two reasons. One, perhaps, is in a sense a personal reason, for since my youngest days I enjoyed the friendship of, and met with much kindness from, Lady Angela Forbes's father, and all my life I have known the members of her family well. From that personal point of view it is a pleasure to me, even in rather difficult circumstances, to call and even direct the attention of the House to the good work which has been done by Lady Angela Forbes's canteen and huts since the very first beginning of the war. Secondly—and this is the serious and real reason why I have put this Motion on the Paper—I am anxious to try and clear away the unfortunate and unwholesome atmosphere by which this matter seems to me, at all events, to be depressed and surrounded. That some real clearing away of this kind should take place is, I think, desirable, both in the interests of Lady Angela Forbes and also of the great Department for which my noble frend Lord Derby is responsible in his place in Parliament. I hope that in his reply he will be able to bring this about—this clearing away of what I have called a depressing and miasmatic atmosphere in such a way as to dispense altogether with that part of my Motion in which I intimate my intention to move for Papers.

The Department over which the noble Earl (Lord Derby) presides has lately been the object of some critical attention. Much, if not most, of this criticism has seemed to me of a vague, irresponsible, and undesirable character. Only last week, on an occasion of a semi-convivial character, the noble Earl met and dealt with his critics in an able and a good-humoured way, and he faced, I think quite fairly and squarely, various charges which have been levelled against himself and his flock—that is, against G.H.Q. abroad and in Whitehall. I read wth care and commendation what he had to say. I might say that I have always followed his utterances with a particular interest. Whatever the noble Earl's attitude may be in private his public attitude is always the same, and it always appears to me to be irreproachable. The noble Earl's public attitude is based on this—that hearsay is not evidence; that to charge or to allege is not to prove. I more than agree. Last week he even went further, if I may say so. He was almost Baconian. He told his audience at Aldwych that a person set in a great place—in addition to being a servant of the State, he might have added a servant of Fame and a servant of Business—becomes also of necessity a target of all kinds of irresponsible criticism. Now to-night I have no sort of desire or intention to criticise the noble Earl or those whom he represents here. I would only remind him that a person—or persons, if you like; I want to get off the personal ground—that persons not set in great places, but who have done their best, given their help and their time, and given their energy to try and serve their country and its brave soldiers in any way they can, may with some justice be equally entitled to the consideration which he claims for himself. So much for that.

The rest of what I have got to say is very short, because, as to the canteen itself, I do not want to anticipate or to stand between your Lordships and some one who will speak in a moment and who knows all about its working and administration from direct knowledge. I will only say this, that it is a considerable thing, having started as I said at the beginning of the war, to have ministered to four and a-half millions of our brave soldiers overseas. The scheme was started in a very small way on the Gare Maritime, Boulogne, and from that it reached the large activities and operations which the canteen carries on now. I will also say this, that many of these brave men have passed into the shadowland where these voices cannot reach them; but I believe that if those men were here, most of them—all of them—would attest and acclaim the benefits and the comforts which they have received from the Etaples and Boulogne canteen and buffets.

Be that as it may, it is now common knowledge that on a certain day—I have not the date here, but it does not matter; I unfortunately left a large bundle of dates behind—the canteen and the huts were taken over by the War Office. I believe they have been taken over on perfectly fair terms. There is no question of that. Let me say at once that I recognise that this action may well have been taken and dictated by many reasons of military expediency. It is obvious that the necessity of centralisation and control of things cannot be ignored and put aside, and must, in fact, be carried into effect. Yet, my Lords, you will hardly believe that this prosaic action of the War Office has given rise to all kinds of fantastic and ridiculous tales. I must not further occupy your time, and I will only say one thing in conclusion. I hope that in the noble Earl's reply he will be able, in the interests of all concerned, to place this matter on a plain, common sense foundation. No man, I venture to say, can do that better than the noble Earl. I beg to move.


My Lords, I wish to associate myself with the statement which has been so well made by my noble friend. I am in a position rather different from him, because from the inception of these canteens I have acted as treasurer to them. I made an appeal three years ago in the public Press for funds for them, and I have taken some part in their work. I, therefore, consider that my honour is bound up in the good name and the good repute of the management of these canteens, and I am well content that it should be so. I hope, with my noble friend Lord Ribblesdale, that the noble Earl to-night will once and for all put a stop to the lying tongues of slander that have been busy about the good name of a woman who has certainly done as hard work, and who, as far as the limitation of her opportunities permitted, has done as good work, as anybody else in this war.

I must ask your indulgence if I tell you what that work has been, and I may be compelled to make my remarks somewhat in the form of an eulogy. I am quite sure that there is no one in the world to whom that form of address would be more repugnant than it is to the subject of the eulogy. If I may say so, I think that Mr. Macpherson, in the House of Commons the other day, showed how little those in high authority—I do not blame them, for they have other things to think about—know of the work that this woman has done. He said that she had "kept a canteen at Etaples." It is quite true that she kept a canteen at Etaples. I believe it was by far the most popular canteen in France. She managed it on business principles; and I believe it is also true that, with more courage than discretion, she increased the not inconsiderable number of her enemies by proclaiming, urbi et orbi, that it was absurd to ask for funds to keep up these canteens when they ought to pay for themselves. She published a balance sheet in the early part of 1915, and wrote to the Army Council asking them to take over her profits as she made them. There was no machinery for them to do so, and she determined, instead of doing what other interests are doing—namely, keeping them to be disposed of in some way at some time when the war is over—to devote her profits as she made them to objects which, as far as she could make them, would directly beneft the soldiers who contributed to make those profits.

But, my Lords, a canteen like this can be run by anybody of business capacity, of integrity, and energy, and if the canteen at Etaples were all that this woman had done, I do not think her case would excite the sympathy that it has, nor do I think that my noble friend and I would take the active part in it which we do. I will try and prove to you what a very small part of her work that canteen was. May I quote an extract from a letter of the gallant and brilliant son of the noble Lord who last addressed you, and tell you what he said of the wonderful work which Lady Angela Forbes was doing in France, and how he supposed it was due to "her promptitude in understanding human needs." He had, with many other gifts, a genius for expression, and I think he showed it there.

I will give you an example. In the winter of 1914, at the beginning of November, when war work was not the fashion and when the arrangements for the wounded were very far from their present state of perfection, she landed one day at Boulogne—a wet day. She saw the wounded lying in rows on the platform and on the quay—the rain was beating on them. They were without shelter and without food. She went back to London that very same day, collected a few stores, made an appeal in the newspapers, and was back again in Boulogne the next morning. She made arrangements with the keeper of the buffet, and that very evening she met the train with the wounded coming in. I think this showed that she was prompt to understand human needs; and from that day, throughout those winter months, through all weathers, all night and all day, sometimes working for twenty-four hours at a stretch, every train that came in was met and the wounded men given drink and food by her and her workers. I venture to say that this was work a great deal more valuable than running the most successful canteen in the world. After that the wounded were treated differently. They were detrained at the central station, and that part of the work was taken out of her hands.

But soon afterwards the men on leave began to come in. There was no one to feed them; they came long distances, sometimes having to wait for boats that did not arrive, and for trains that did not start. For months she fed these men, and I believe that in no single instance, although she was never sure whether she would have to feed 2,000, 3,000, or 4,000 men, did the food run short, or the men ever go home dissatisfied or hungry. I venture to say that this was not bad work. Again, she kept her canteen open at Boulogne for stranded soldiers who went by, all day and all night, for three years; and the other day, when the wounded survivors of the "Sussex" were brought into Boulogne, her canteen was the only place to which they could be taken. I believe that Mr. Macpherson, when he spoke of her canteen at Etaples, did not know what she had done at Boulogne, or that the people of Boulogne think she has done a considerable part in this war.

Let us go to Etaples—not to that modern creation, that wonderful example of the industry and the power of our military machine, but to the old Etaples that some of us know, the dirty squalid town by the sea. She lived near there, and when she was going home one day she saw that the potential values of Etaples as a camp and training ground were being discovered. There were a few base details there, and also the workmen from Holloways, who were building the huts. She saw them hanging about, and spoke to them. They told her that they had nowhere to go except the lowest possible public houses in Etaples. Again she was prompt to recognise human needs. That very day she took the biggest house in Etaples and started an institution there which was crowded be day. The workmen had nowhere to get breakfast. She and her children cooked breakfasts for the workingmen every morning at five o'clock.

Then came the time when her hut was built. To show your Lordships how very little importance she attaches to her work at that hut. I will tell you one thing. I notice that Lord Rhondda is not present; but in January, 1917, when she saw that there was a food shortage approaching, she went to her head officer and said, "In my opinion these canteens are a mistake in view of the shortage of food. They ought to be turned into recreation rooms, and I am ready, as the persaa running the most successful canteen, to offer mine as a first sacrifice if the other institutions will follow in my footsteps." Rut there were other more powerful institutions. Perhaps the late missioner for food economy will tell you about them. Anyhow, her idea was not carried into effect. There was a great camping ground at Etaples where 10,000 men were drilled even, day. They came long distances. There was no food for them, and it was considered right that they should have rations. The difficulty was how, in half an hour, to feed 10,000 men. Being supposed to be somewhat of an authority on catering, they asked her advice. She suggested that, though they could not feed them altogether in one place, they might quite easily feed them in parties of 1,000 in ten different places. Feeling that she could not devote the profits that she made out of the men in the evening better than to their welfare in the morning, she offered to build fourteen huts where these men could be fed and entertained. Her offer was accepted, and she organised and started the scheme, and I believe that the whole system was admirable for discipline.

One other point, my Lords. At Etaples the work she has liked best, and the work that she has done best, is, I think, the work that she was asked to do by the authorities because nobody else could do it—and that was the feeding of the men who were going on that tragic journey up the line to the Front. She and her workers have been there every morning; and I do not know how many thousands of men, as the trains moved off, have waved a farewell to the workers, and as they did so, looked upon the faces of Englishwomen for the last time. I do not think that any work that she has done is nearer to her heart; and at the present moment even her daughter and two workers are still carrying on that work. Only the other day the railway transport officer there, the man who is in command of the station, said that before Lady Angela came there with her canteen he used to lose men every day; since she had come there, he had not lost a single man.

My Lords, I could tell you a great deal more, but I do not wish to weary you. I could tell of the workshops that she has built and fitted up in different camps. I could tell how she has organised boxing and other recreations of the camp. I could tell how one day, driving along the road, she met an old hunting friend, and heard that he belonged to a Remount Camp where 1,000 men, many of them perhaps retainers of some of your Lordships, were quartered quite alone. She took them under her wing. Each Christmas she has given to 1,000 of these men a Christmas dinner and an entertainment. I have given you a sketch of the work she has done. It is work that I think is not known by the higher authorities. She has not tried to work in the limelight. She has had no share—she desires no share—in that shower of fantastic titles which fall with spasmodic profusion on the deserving. The only recognition she has worked for has been the appreciation of the men for whom she has laboured. It has been given her with lavish generosity. It has been shown to her and her children in countless ways. I am told that it is quite impossible at the present moment even to go into the wards of any military hospital in this country where you will not find men who will speak with appreciation and gratitude of her work in France. An officer, whose misfortune it is to have had to read more letters probably than anybody else has ever read before, said the other day that the greatest tribute that any man or any woman could get Lady Angela had received in the daily letters which the men had sent to their homes. She has worked under four commandants. She has been repeatedly thanked by each of them. There is not one single officer under whom she has worked and who knows of her work, from Generals to the chaplain who was appointed by the noble Earl, who is not prepared to testify to her work and to herself. It is, I think, her regard of their good opinion and her wish to justify it, that has made her face the odium of publicity.

I think that she has already received, in the letters that have reached her, some compensation for the misery that she has had to go through. A chaplain with the Australian Forces wrote to her and said he had read with amazement in the newspapers what had been said. He could only state that on behalf of his countrymen he thanked her from the bottom of his heart for the magnificent work she had done for the Australians. Colonels of battalions totally unknown to her have written and thanked her for what she has done for their men, and the men themselves have taken the trouble to write to her and express their sympathy, sometimes in rather forcible terms. Surely, my Lords, the light of living tributes like these must search out and kill the morbid growth of slander which malice has engendered. The other day Mr. Macpherson, in the House of Commons, quite rightly according to military law, spoke of her as a "camp follower." I believe that Lady Angela has always recognised her position. She knows that the military authorities have a perfect right summarily to close her canteen at any time they like. She knows that services like hers are accepted by the Government as long as they are wanted, and that when they are no longer needed they can be ruthlessly scrapped and dispensed with. I do not think that she objects to the name of a camp follower. And, my Lords, I think that if the name of "camp follower" can be dignified as it has been in her case by work like hers, there is hope in every name.

Lady Angela Forbes may go down in the archives of the War Office docketed as a "camp follower, who kept a canteen at Etaples," but others will think of her as a woman who was quick to understand and quick to help—a woman who gave all she had to give, her strength and her health, unreservedly to the service of the soldiers. Of this I am sure, that when at last the long-drawn-out agony of this war is over, when balances are finally adjusted, and when individual efforts in human achievement and human endeavour are seen in their proper proportions, the name of this "camp follower" will be remembered in many a home in Scotland, in England, and overseas, long after the very existence of those who conspired to blast her reputation and destroy her work has been mercifully forgotten.


My Lords, I can have no complaint whatever to make with regard to the way in which the two noble Lords have put forward the case of Lady Angela Forbes. Before actually dealing with the matter, may I, however, on behalf of my friend and colleague in the other House, Mr. Macpherson, assure the noble Lords that the term of "camp follower" was only used in answer to a Question—


I quite acknowledge that. I said it was.


It was not meant in any way offensively. The noble Lord who asked the Question was perfectly right in saving that, in the interests of military discipline, it is necessary that the control of huts in big military areas should be centralised. That is an order which has existed for some time, and it is being gradually carried into effect. The noble Lord paid a tribute to the work that Lady Angela has done, as did also the noble Earl opposite from more intimate knowledge of that work. I have had some opportunity myself when in France of hearing of the work that she has done, not only at Etaples but at the landing station before. I quite recognise the valuable and difficult work that she has done. The closing of her canteen is not intended in any way to reflect on her management of the hut, nor upon the zeal and ability that she has shown in running it. It is an onerous task at all times to run a canteen, especially in France, and still more when it is run at a profit. I understand that she is prepared now to take up other war work, and I should regret most sincerely if this incident in any way interfered with her doing so. I am told that there are many wild rumours with regard to this case, and for this I beg to assure the noble Lords that the military authorities are in no way responsible. I hope that the incident may be considered closed, and that those rumours which I deprecate just as much as they do, may cease once and for ever.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Earl for the statement which he has just made, and to say that I accept it on Lady Angela's behalf as a settlement of her case. While I think no one will consider, in view of the nature and extent of her work for the soldiers, that the appreciation of her services has erred on the side of exaggeration, am ready to admit that, in view of the circumstances which have necessitated this discussion of her car, the noble Earl's tribute to-night is not ungenerous. Lady Angela and her friends would, of course, have preferred the investigation for which she has repeatedly pressed, but she recognises that the exigencies of the Service, the critical state of public affairs, and the expense of these inquiries render it extremely difficult for the authorities to grant one. In view of what the noble Earl has said, I ask leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.