HL Deb 18 November 1918 vol 32 cc159-67

My Lords, I now rise to make the second Motion that stands in my name upon the Paper. It runs as follows— That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty to congratulate His Majesty on the conclusion of the Armistice, and on the prospect of a victorious peace. My Lords, the curtain is fast descending on one of the most stupendous dramas of history, and we are met here this afternoon to witness and to record one of its closing scenes. They have followed each other with almost bewildering rapidity. At this Table, in less than three weeks, there have been read out the terms of the Armistices that have been successively imposed by the Allied Powers upon Turkey, Austria-Hungary, and the German Empire; and with the acceptance of those terms in their completion, the great fabric of overweening ambition and towering pride reared by the Sovereigns and the peoples—for I decline to distinguish between them—of the Central Empires, has toppled over and come with a crash to the ground. Rarely, my Lords, in history has there been a fall from a pinnacle so high to a pit of such irretrievable disaster.

In a few weeks, or at most a few months, thanks to the skill of the Allied Commanders and the bravery of their men, the objects for which we and they have endured more than four years of sacrifice and suffering have been attained. The lands upon which the enemy had laid his cruel and predatory hand are in course of being evacuated. The exiled peoples are returning in joyous crowds across the war frontiers to their homes. The military power of the enemy is broken. His resources are spent. His armaments are in course of being surrendered. Hope breathes again in the souls of the unhappy peoples whom he has trampled in the mire. The impious spirit that claimed that Might was superior to Right and that there was no law but that of successful violence in the world has been exorcised, let us hope for ever. The conflict for international honour, righteousness, and freedom has been won, and the authors of this vast and wicked conspiracy against the liberties of mankind are fugitives on the face of the earth. My Lords, this is a great hour. It has been a wonderful victory. Are we presumptuous if we see in it the judgment of a Higher Power upon panoplied arrogance and enthroned wrong?

On the previous occasions when the successive stages of this drama have been unrolled in your Lordships' House no comment has been passed from either of these Benches on this astonishing series of events. Even now I have no intention of analysing their casues, tracing their history, or attempting to award to the victors the praise which is their due. Those words will more properly fall from other lips. To-morrow we understand that the Sovereign, in reply to the Addresses which are to be voted to him this afternoon by both Houses of Parliament, will speak in the Chamber adjoining to this to the members of both Houses of the Legislature, to the peoples of this country and of his Dominions throughout the world, and will tell the tale. We shall hear from him of the skill and valour, the endurance and the heroism, that have brought about this great deliverance. On a later occasion also, when a new Parliament has assembled, and when no doubt there may be expected a larger attendance on the benches of both Houses, a better opportunity will present itself of offering the formal thanks of Parliament to those who have deserved so well.

To-day I am charged with the simpler task of offering our congratulations to His Majesty the King. We speak, in the terms of this proposed Address, of the Armistice which has already been concluded and of the peace which is to follow. The Armistice is not only the precursor but it is the sure guarantee of peace. Though some months may elapse before the stage is cleared of the débris that encumber it and the final conclusion is reached, peace is in no danger whatsoever. The rejoicing crowds who filled the streets of London and Paris and Rome last week saw this in a flash. The Armies have already won peace: it will remain for the statesmen to see that it is honourable and lasting.

But although it would ill become me this afternoon to anticipate anything that may fall from the gracious lips of the Sovereign to-morrow, there are certain reflections in which in the hour of victory we here may pardonably indulge. First, may we not congratulate ourselves on the spirit of our own people? From the first it has never wavered. In those fateful days in August, 1914, the inhabitants of this country, and indeed of the Empire all over the globe, with quick and unerring instinct, grasped the true nature of the struggle upon which they were about to embark. They saw that it was not merely a question of our fidelity to Treaties or of the security of our own shores, but it was a struggle between two great methods or principles of governing the world. It was the old, historic, secular conflict between Ormuzd and Ahriman—between the principles of good and evil—in the governance of men. It is quite true that our people, or at any rate many among them, did not think the struggle would last so long, but they had no doubt that it must be waged, at whatever cost, to the end. In the darkest hours, when the blood of their dear ones was being spilled like water, when homes were made desolate, when military success seemed to be remote, when reverses were encountered, when even it might almost be said that at moments serious danger overhung the State, there was no faltering on their part. The nation resolutely refused to listen to counsels of faint-heartedness or to the whisperings of an inglorious compromise. They fought stedfastly for the only possible peace; that is, a peace that would be based on the surrender—whether forced or voluntary it did not matter much—of the enemy, and the assured triumph of the Allied cause. And they fought to win this peace not for the love of fighting, still less for the passion of revenge; they fought for it because they knew it to be the only kind of peace upon which the new order could be built, and because they were resolved that the next generation should live its life, rear its children, and do its work in immunity from the menace of the intolerable suffering by which this generation has been scourged and all but destroyed.

May we not also congratulate ourselves on the unity that has animated and knit together our own people? The existence of a Coalition Government—or rather, I should say in fairness, of two Coalition Governments, because one has succeeded the other—has only been the emblem of a co-operation that has permeated every rank of society, and has united men and women of this land in a league of patriotic enthusiasm that has resulted in the most amazing output of moral energy and material production that this country has ever witnessed. But few discordant voices have marred the harmony of this great. effort, and millions of both sexes can truthfully say that they have contributed their mite to the national cause, and have done their best in spheres of humble, but useful, activity to support the incomparable services of the fighting forces by land, in the air, and on the sea.

We may also, I think, congratulate ourselves on the part that the British Empire has played in this struggle, and on the position which it fills at the close. Among the many miscalculations of the enemy was the profound conviction, not only that we had a "contemptible little Army," but that we were a doomed and decadent nation. The trident was to be struck from our palsied grasp, the Empire was to crumble at the first shock; a nation dedicated, as we used to be told, to pleasure-taking and the pursuit of wealth was to be deprived of the place to which it had ceased to have any right, and was to be reduced to the level of a second-class, or perhaps even of a third-class Power.

It is not for us in the hour of victory to boast that these predictions have been falsified; but, at least, we may ma say this—that the British Flag never flew over a more powerful or a more united Empire than now; Britons never had better cause to look the world in the face; never did our voice count for more in the councils of the nations, or in determining the future destinies of mankind. That that voice may be raised in the times that now lie before us in the interests of order and liberty, that that power may be wielded to secure a settlement that shall last, that that Flag may be a token of justice to others as well as of pride to ourselves, is our united hope and prayer.

There are two messages which I think you will expect me to give this afternoon. The first relates to a class of our fellow-countrymen in whom this House during the last four years has never failed to take an honourable and a tender interest—I allude to the prisoners of war. My Lords, we give a welcome home to those prisoners, streaming in driblets and sometimes in crowds, wasted but happy men, across the devastated frontiers of the fight. Theirs in many cases has not been the long excitement of the struggle or the glory of final victory; but their patience, their endurance, their sufferings silently and uncomplainingly borne in circumstances dispiriting, monotonous, often appalling in their cruelty, have made them the heroes as well as the martyrs of this war. Many, I fear, have perished from the barbarous treatment and the hideous privations to which they have been exposed; they lie in remote and perhaps unknown graves; but their names and their services are treasured by their countrymen. To those who have returned—in some cases it is to be feared shattered and enfeebled—we extend the right hand of fellowship and admiration. We will endeavour to wipe out the sufferings that they have endured, and to bring the light of happiness again into their lives. That is our duty as it is also our desire.

The second message which you will allow, and indeed expect, me to give is to those, some of them members of your Lordships' House, who have no returning victors to crown with laurels, no recovered prisoners to embrace and cheer, because their dearest will never return at all. They have passed to the other side. But, my Lords, who shall dare to say that they died in vain, or that in death they have not found a new life as glorious as that which, in dying, they have given to their country? Every soldier upon whose hastily-dug grave is planted one of those pathetic little wooden crosses that fringe the battle roads in France and Flanders—and I dare say equally in all the other theatres of war—has helped to win the war for us. We owe it to his sacrifice that we are celebrating this victory. To each family that has thus lost may we not say that it has also gained in honour, in pride, in the record and example which will be left to those who come after? Their precious dead are wrapped not merely in the soil which has been consecrated by their blood, but in the hearts of their countrymen and in the admiring gratitude of the world. We honour those who have thus died, we, honour the fathers and mothers who gave them to this death; both have ennobled our country—the one by their valour, the other by their sacrifice, and neither of them can we or shall we forget.

My Motion this afternoon in its form is one of congratulation to the Sovereign. I am sure your Lordships will agree with me when I say that this is no mere conventional tribute. We ask leave to present this Address to the King, not merely be, cause he is the official head of the State, but because in a peculiar degree during the last four and a-half years the King has been the symbol and spokesman of his fellow-subjects in all parts of the world. By constant self-sacrifice, by inexhaustible energy, by unfailing sympathy with his people, whether they were fighting elsewhere or working at home, by an example of unswerving purpose and a spirit untroubled by vicissitudes and unmoved by disaster, the King and Queen—for it is impossible to separate the one from the other—have endeared themselves to millions of our race in every part of the universe. They have known where to encourage and to praise; they have also known where to solace and to condole. And what is the result? Where other Thrones are tottering, the British Throne stands secure; where institutions that seemed to defy assault have collapsed almost in an hour, the British Monarchy has driven fresh roots into the hearts and affections of its people, and has acquired a new lease of vitality and influence. When the vast crowds assembled a week ago in the streets outside Buckingham Palace and shouted in unison, "We want King George," declining to separate until they has seen and acclaimed their Sovereign, they were not indulging in a mere ebullition of high spirits or giving vent to a noisy but transient emotion; they recognised the Sovereign as the true and living emblem of the spirit that has drawn together our scattered millions during the past five years, that has fired them in a hundred fights, in a thousand fights, and has guided the common cause to triumph. The King has been one with his people in this long and fiery trial; they are one with him in the dazzling hour of victory.

But one word remains for me to utter. I have spoken of the spirit of unity by which our Allies and our people have been imbued and inspired. That spirit has been our salvation in the past four years; it is also our hope for the future. To it we must look to enable us both abroad and at home to meet and to surmount those tasks, more onerous perhaps than those of war, by which we are now confronted. Great deeds have been done in the past few years, but greater remain to be attempted. The world has to be rebuilt, and a new order to be set up. Without that co-operation and good fellowship, without that spirit of which the King has been the mouthpiece and the pattern, these great ends cannot be accomplished. My Lords, a little more than one hundred years ago our great romantic poet, looking on the birth of a new Hellas, wrote these prophetic words— The world's great ago begins anew, The golden years return; The earth doth like a snake renew Her winter weeds outworn; Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam Like wrecks of a dissolving dream. A similar vision now rises above a far wider horizon. May we see it, under the guidance of Providence, assume form and substance before our eyes. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty to congratulate His Majesty on the conclusion of the Armistice, and on the prospect of a victorious peace.—(Earl Curzon of Kedleston.)


My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to add a few words from this side of the House to those in which the noble Earl has commended this Motion, and I am honoured by his request that I should do so. It is, indeed, hard to credit that it is only a week—just a week—since the burden has been finally lifted front us through the glorious efforts of the Allied Forces. We look back over these four and a-quarter years to that unbridgeable gulf which seems to part us from what now appears to be the unconcerned life of those days, and now in this Christian country the first emotion of the whole people has been one of thankfulness to the Divine Power by whose ordering we now stand where we do.

The noble Earl has told us that we shall be privileged to-morrow to hear from the lips of His Majesty an expression of thanks to those who have won this war, and it would, of course, I entirely agree, be unbecoming to-day to utter any such expressions here; but the noble Earl himself did not refrain from two allusions. The first was to hail the return of those prisoners of war who have been so perpetually, and often so painfully, in our thoughts during the last few years, and also to utter a word of hail and farewell to those who cannot return to the land for which they have laid down their lives. We are, and remain, absolutely certain of one thing—namely, that we were right to enter upon this war when we did, and that we were right to persevere in it as long as we did. It is I am certain a complete error, although it was, I do not deny, a generous error, to suppose that there were occasions in the course of this war in which it was possible to close the gates of the Temple of Janus in peace without, I will not say the risk, but the practical certainty, that they would be burst asunder before very long by some fresh European convulsion. Nothing but military defeat, such as has occurred, could have smashed that monstrous idol of military domination which has ruled over the Empires of Central Europe, and which had secured the adoration of the trained intelligence and the commercial enterprise of those countries not less completely than that of the fighting castes who were its High Priests.

There were moments, indeed, when now it seems to us possible that the war might reached an earlier conclusion. We are told that some further sacrifice might have retrieved the failure to force the passage of the Dardanelles. The result, of course, might have been stupendous. Again, had the "Hampshire" not lit on a small group of mines in that summer gale of 1916, which made escort and rescue equally impossible, who shall say that Lord Kitchener, with his prestige, at that time unequalled in Europe, and with the remarkable diplomatic skill for which he was famed, might not have kept Russia in the war, with the result that the revolution there might have been postponed? But, my Lords, these are the insoluble conundrums of history. As it was, I believe that the final verdict will be that in the allocation of military strength a just proportion was maintained, though only just maintained, between what was required for the indispensable superiority over Germany in France, and the necessary assertion of power east of Germany and of Austria. Also, I believe it will be the verdict of history that unification of strategic control, long felt to be advantageous if the personal equation could be satisfactorily adjusted, was achieved as it was at the right moment, and contributed its due share to the glorious result which we are celebrating to-day.

We reflect that among the goodly fellowship of our Allies and Associates the toll of young lives and of mature lives has been paid by all alike, but we cannot help recognising that some of them have suffered material losses in their homes of which we have had but a faint glimpse here. All honour, my Lords, to the courage and to the steady endurance of those civilian populations, to be repaired, as far as reparation is possible, when we finally determine the terms of peace. It is a common-place of sports and of games that you more often see a good loser than you do a good winner. We have to be good winners. Not that I think we are, any of us, tempted to feel sentimental over the fall of the leading figures in the countries which have been until now our enemies. We do not now witness such a des ent from real grandeur—grandeur not only of position but of achievement—as a hundred years ago made many people in this country sympathise even with the peevish exile of Napoleon; not do I think we are likely to see anything comparable to the simple dignity of the last years of General Lee as President of Washington College. No, my Lords, I do not think that we need waste a great deal of sympathy over these fallen chiefs, but in our general dealings with the Central Powers, even if here and there we have to demand punishment, we can keep clear of vindictiveness, we can exercise humanity towards those who are helpless, and we can see that the final settlement guarantees the permanence of the national life of all the different countries in the delimitation of the new frontiers of Europe.

The noble Earl, in the latter part of his speech, spoke of the special feelings with which we present this Address to the King. His words were applauded by the whole House, and I am sure they found an echo in every heart. The House will present this Address to the King of England, to the Chief of the State, to the central figure in that great association of Commonwealths which is the British Empire. That is much. But, as the noble Earl has pointed out, there is much more. The acts and the example of His Majesty and of the Queen and of their family have made clearer than before, although to most they were clear emough, the beneficial functions exercised by our Royal House in the organic structure of the Empire. Consequently, my Lords, in presenting this Address, behind its formal terms there is a suggestion, if we may say so, of real intimacy with His Majesty and a note of personal regard. These, my Lords, are not to be mistaken, and I believe they will not be undervalued by the Sovereign to whom they are addressed.

On Question, Motion agreed to nemine dissentiente, and the same was ordered to be presented to H[...]s Majesty by the Whole House, and the Lords with White Staves were ordered to wait on His Majesty to know when His Majesty would be pleased to appoint to be attended with the said Address.

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