HL Deb 26 February 1919 vol 33 cc367-72

LORD ISLINGTON rose to call attention to the statement recently made in the Press that the Conference in Paris are contemplating the sinking of all German naval ships now in British custody at Scapa, and to ask His Majesty's Government if there is any probability of this policy being carried out.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, what has chiefly influenced me in placing this Question upon the Order Paper is the remembrance of a somewhat significant remark made by my noble friend Lord Curzon in the course of his speech in the debate on the Address. In answering certain comments in regard to the lack of publicity of what was taking place in the Conference, the noble Earl informed the House that he was "surprised"—and if I remember right he added "on some occasions even concerned"—at both the amplitude and accuracy of the information obtained and imparted by the journalists at that Conference to the Press in regard to what was taking place within the Conference. When, therefore, I saw last week in nearly all the journals of the Press a statement—and I am bound to say the statement had with it a certain very positive ring—that it was seriously contemplated by the Conference to dispose of German ships now in custody in British ports by sinking them in mid-ocean, I recalled to my mind the remark of the noble Earl, and it appeared to me to be reasonable to ask His Majesty's Government if there was any truth in that statement, and, if so, whether they would give us the grounds upon which that decision has been made.

I have seen it estimated more than once that the ships of all classes and of various calibre that are now in custody in our ports taken from the German Fleet amounts in value to something around £40,000,000. It would therefore appear on the face of it that a policy of destruction of this fleet, unless there was some very good reason for it—taking into consideration the present financial position of this and all the countries concerned—was a policy which might be deemed wasteful in the extreme. I do not desire to suggest by this Question, nor by the remarks that I am addressing to your Lordships, that the preservation of these ships should imply their subsequent use for naval war purposes by any one or any group of the Allied countries. I see in to-day's paper that a demand is being made by the French Government for a proportion of those ships to be handed over to that country. I can quite see—and I am sure that your Lordships will share the view—that there are obvious objections and difficulties in the way of carrying out such a policy, and I certainly do not intend, in the few remarks that I make to the House, to dwell on that aspect of it, because that aspect should, I think, properly be left to the representatives of the Powers to be decided at the Conference.

I am regarding this policy of destruction—if there be any truth in it—from the more immediate and practical point of view, and one which I think may reasonably be raised in the Parliaments of the countries concerned, and certainly of all those countries there is no Parliament in any one where there would be more justification for discussion of this subject than in the British Parliament. The destruction of a great fleet of modern battleships of various classes would appear to entail the destruction of a mass of material which surely could be converted to value of a considerable amount. I have heard it said more than once that these ships cannot economically be converted to commercial use. I am not competent to give an opinion upon that point, and I suppose that there would be only few in this House who would be in a position to do so, but I contend that before so drastic a course as that stated in the paper last week was given effect to, every effort should surely be made to test to the full as to whether these ships and the material of which they are composed cannot be put to useful and valuable purposes.

I submit that, far better than taking the opinion of individuals however expert in that subject, the surest proof and the most reasonable test that could be made to see to what extent those ships could be put to other purposes would be to take each of the various classes of the ships and put them up to public auction. It would then be in the discretion of contractors to decide whether it was worth their while to buy the ships for a commercial purpose, or with a view to scrapping them and utilising the material of whîch they are composed. If such a procedure were given effect to it would be quite easy to impose a condition that no purchaser of any of the ships could utilise them hereafter for war purposes.

My reason for bringing this matter forward, and eliciting if possible an answer from His Majesty's Government, is that this is certainly one of the first and one of the largest tangible assets that has come to hand and is indeed available to the Allies. If there be value in it—and it is difficult to believe that there is not—surely it should not be squandered away unless some very good and unanswerable reason is given for doing so. We have to demand of Germany a vast sum of money to meet the solemn obligations which we, together with our Allies, have undertaken, to see to it at the earliest possible date and as effectually as possible, that the countries of our Allies, Belgium, France and Serbia, which have been laid waste should receive full reparation at the hands of Germany. Surely every £ that can be made available should be collected, and collected at the earliest date, to carry out with promptitude the reparation so urgently needed and anxiously awaited in these sorely-stricken lands. He would be a very light-hearted optimist who to-day can anticipate that a full sufficiency of wealth will be forthcoming from Germany to meet this tremendous and urgent liability to carry out promptly and adequately this indispensable work of reparation.

It does, therefore, seem to me—and I hope that your Lordships will share the view—that it is of the utmost importance that every resource that comes to hand should be put to this purpose, and that no resource, even though it be modest or insignificant, should be diverted to any other purpose, still less to what would really appear to be a mere spectacular, dramatic demonstration, which might be pleasing to the contemporary militant eye, but which is not to be considered in comparison with the immense responsibilities and the great financial difficulties that confront us. The demands of the times are too urgent, the financial resources of the future are too precarious, and I therefore hope that His Majesty's Government will tell us that the project of destruction is not to be carried out. I feel sure also that if my noble friend is in a position to reply in that sense, it will allay the apprehension of many thousands of people in this country and in the Allied countries as well.


My Lords, I do not find myself in disagreement with anything that my noble friend has said. But I fear it is not possible for me to give him very much information, and if he will consider for a moment the circumstances of the case I think he will understand why that is so. The subject which my noble friend has raised in his question might very well give rise to a long and interesting debate. The question of what is to be done with the German Fleet is one of the utmost interest and of considerable difficulty. But that is precisely the question which those who are now assembled in Paris have come together to decide. It is one of the main conditions of the peace which will be imposed upon the enemy; the decision, therefore, does not rest with His Majesty's Government, but with the representatives of all the nations, who are now assembled to draw up the terms of peace.

My noble friend has read a statement in the newspapers that one suggestion put forward for consideration by the Conference is that these ships should be taken out to sea and sunk in deep water, and he asks me to say whether there is any possibility of this policy being carried out. I am afraid I am not in a position to say whether that—which is one of the various suggestions put forward—is, or is not, likely to be accepted. But I think I can assure my noble friend of this, that if this proposal were accepted and carried out it would only be because all the representatives assembled in Paris came unanimously to the conclusion, after considering all the questions to which he has called our attention this afternoon, that this was on the whole the best course to adopt. That decision must rest with the Conference.

But I understand that my noble friend wants to know what is the attitude which the representatives of this country will take on this question. I do not feel that I have any authority to disclose any instruction which may be given to our delegates upon this or any other subject which will be discussed in Paris. I think, however, I may say that the point to which we attach overwhelming importance is that these ships should not in future continue to form part of any of the naval armaments of the world, that they should not be added to the fleets of any nation. That is an essential question of policy on which the Government feel very strongly. I do not gather that my noble friend takes any exception to that policy; in fact, I think he supported it himself.

If these ships are never again to be used as ships of war, there really remain only three possible means of disposing of them. The first is that they should be taken out to sea and sunk; the second is that they should be broken up; and the third is the course suggested by my noble friend, that they should be put up to public auction and go to the highest bidder—always subject to the condition (and I understood him to apply this condition) that they are not to be used for naval purposes. I do not know whether it is, in fact, an economic proposition to break up these ships. It is a question upon which expert opinion will have to be obtained. It would take a great deal of time and a great deal of labour, and would, consequently, involve a great deal of money. And when my noble friend said that these ships were valued a £40,000,000 he did not, I think, mean to suggest that here was material which could in any way realise £40,000,000. These ships may have cost £40,000,000 to produce as engines of war; they may be worth £40,000,000 as engines of war, but for any other purpose they are only worth what they could be used for, after deducting the cost of breaking them up. But it is simply and solely an economic proposition. If it would pay to use the material in these ships for any other purpose I have not any doubt that the Conference would decide that the ships should be so used.

If I may express an opinion, I should personally strongly favour the course which my noble friend suggests, because that at any rate does offer some opportunity of finding out whether it is an economic proposition. I think it would be deplor- able, if there are persons in the world willing to buy these ships as scrap and to remove them at their own expense and turn them to some use other than that of using them as engines of war, if the advantage were not taken of such a possibility. But, as I said, the matter is one which the Conference must decide. I can only conclude by again assuring my noble friend that all the circumstances in the case will be taken into consideration, and the course which is found to be on the whole consistent with policy and with the general needs of the Allied countries will, I feel confident, be adopted.