HL Deb 27 February 1919 vol 33 cc419-24

THE MARQUESS OF CREWE rose to ask His Majesty's Government when they will be in a position to issue any further Despatches regarding the operations of Imperial Forces in Southern Persia for the maintenance of order and the protection of life and property.

The noble Marquess said: My Lords, in putting this Question to His Majesty's Government I have no desire to ask for any full information on the whole subject of Persia, or to institute a debate on that subject, although it is one which sooner or later will doubtless be discussed in your Lordships' House. My Question relates only to those forces of His Majesty's Army which have been for some time past engaged in operations in Southern Persia. As your Lordships are aware, the southern part of Persia has been that in which we have taken a special interest since the AngloRussian Agreement was made, by which a zone specially interesting to Russia in the North, a zone in. the South specially interesting to ourselves, and a neutral zone were formed.

There is no need to labour here the question of our interests in Southern Persia. Our interests in the Persian Gulf have been recognised as paramount for a great number of years, and finally since the declaration made by Lord Lansdowne some fourteen years ago. The trade routes in Southern Persia are of great importance, both to us here and especially to India, and without desiring in any way to impair or prejudicially affect the independence of the Persian Government we have felt it our duty so far as possible to ensure the safety of life, property, and trade on those routes. As your Lordships know, from time to time the condition of Persia has been little short of a welter of anarchy, and in the course of the war those southern areas in which we were especially interested became so utterly disturbed that the trade routes were closed and the interests of British subjects were seriously affected.

It became, therefore, necessary to intervene there on strictly limited lines so far as our power admitted. Two years ago our power in this direction was not very great. Our commitments in other parts of the world were enormous. A very large—what would have been thought an impossibly large—proportion of the Indian Army Was engaged first in France, after- wards in Mesopotamia and Palestine, and to some extent in East Africa in operations of war. Therefore, even had it been so desired, it would not have been possible to send a very large force to Persia. But a force which in former times might have been thought substantial was sent for these police purposes to Southern Persia, and it was to the proceedings of this force, among others, that I called attention in the speech I made on the Address, when I said that perspective regarding some of His Majesty's forces engaged in the war had become wrong in the sense that public attention had been far more closely called to some than to others, which had been neglected in the public estimation.

Very little, I think, is known to the public of what has happened in Persia. During the very last few days, owing to the enterprise of The Times newspaper, some important articles describing the feats of His Majesty's forces there have appeared; one I think was in the issue of to-day—a full and interesting account. And I can assure your Lordships that when all the facts are known it will be found that, both in the undertaking of long and arduous marches through difficult country and in holding exposed positions against largely superior forces of the enemy, the feats which have been performed by the Indian troops there will bear comparison with any which can be cited from operations in other parts of Asia or Africa and of Europe itself. Some of the operations which took place in the neighbourhood of Shiraz were of great importance in themselves, and exhibited high military qualities both on the part of the very able commander of the force, Sir Percy Sykes, and of the troops, mainly Indian and from different parts of India, which were engaged.

For some reason which I do not profess to understand, no Despatches regarding this force have appeared for a considerable time. I do not think—the noble Earl will correct me if I am wrong—that the operations of the last year and a-half have been described in published Despatches. The whole subject of the issue of Despatches is something of a puzzle to a civilian observer. Perhaps the noble Earl will again correct me if I am wrong, but my impression is that some rule exists whereby Despatches though sent in and prepared for publication are withheld until it is possible to issue other Despatches referring to quite unrelated operations in different parts of the world. The noble Earl will, perhaps, tell me if any such rule of the Army Council exists, and, if so, what is the purpose of it; because it is not clear to an outsider why Despatches from any theatre of war should not, be published as soon as they are available.

As your Lordships will see, it is, or at any rate may be, exceedingly hard upon those who are engaged. It may happen that some officer, honourably mentioned in Despatches, does not receive until the lapse of considerable time some honour or promotion for which he is recommended. If a long delay takes place such an officer may be incapacitated by wounds or even lose his life and at any rate some of those dear to him who would be most deeply interested in the publication of those Despatches may themselves pass away before the facts are known and circulated. It does seem desirable, therefore, that as much expedition as possible in the issue of such Despatches should be made.

The operations, of course, have been on so vast a scale that it is difficult for anybody, even those who are able to make a complete study of the subject, to keep clearly in their minds a focus of the different fights and the differents victories in all parts of the world. But one feels that it is a real loss if much time is permitted to elapse before the publication is made. I trust, therefore, that the noble Earl will be able to tell us that, a complete history of these particular operations minor, indeed, but in themselves most important and most gallantly carried through will appear.


My Lords, when the noble Marquess put his Question upon the Paper I was not altogether certain whether the discussion that would arise therefrom would be confined to the subject-matter raised in that Question, or whether it would spread itself out, as is our habit, over a wider area. I realise that if I had formed the former anticipation it would have been correct. In form the Question of the noble Marquess is confined to the operations that have taken place in one area alone in Persia—namely, in Southern Persia; and it is directed solely to inquiring whether any Despatches will be laid at an early date on that subject, and what is the reason for their not having been laid so far. Had the noble Marquess covered a wider area of survey I should have been quite prepared to meet him, because I think he is right in pointing out that it is now some time since we had a discussion in this House upon our policy and events in Persia as a whole. I always welcome the interest that is displayed by several of your Lordships in that matter.

Persia, although perhaps to some extent withdrawn from the public view, has been one of the most interesting minor theatres if not of war, at any rate of military activity; and the history of what has been going on there, of the action we have been obliged to take not merely in the South of the country but on the Mesopotamian side, on the North-West and on the North-East, is a history full of interest, drama, even of romance, which I hope some time to be allowed to say something about to your Lordships' House; and if at any time during the ensuing weeks your Lordships desire to have a statement upon the matter I shall be quite prepared to assist.

The question, however, raised to-day is relatively a minor one. The noble Marquess has confined his attention to the particular operations that have been taking place between the Persian Gulf and Shiraz—the operations that, in the first place, were instituted by the force raised and commanded by Sir Percy Sykes, known as the South Persian Rifles; and, secondly, the force that had to be sent out at a later date from India to relieve him when he was beleaguered at Shiraz. As regards those operations, I believe—although I do not absolutely carry the facts in my mind—that a Despatch was printed and circulated at an earlier date from Sir Percy Sykes himself; and certainly we have no reason for believing that, when any further Despatch is received, it will be withheld. The fact is that the operations to Which the noble Marquess refers are only just over, if indeed they are over now. It was, I think, in the month of May last that the relief expedition from India to which I referred landed at Bushire, in the hot weather, when your Lordships know that not much can be done in the way of military movement, or indeed of any sort, in the areas lying between the coast and the mountains. The time was spent in laying a railway from Bushire across the coastal Hinterland to Borazjun, and then our troops moved up into the hills, penetrated as far as a place called Eazerun, 100 miles from the coast, and there formed a junction with the forces operating from Shiraz, and thus Shiraz was relieved and the object attained. That was only in January last.


As the noble Earl mentioned the subject, my impression was that some Despatches had arrived in India and had not been issued, but had been withheld for some purpose which I do not quite understand.


My noble friend in the India. Office is not aware of that, and I am not either. As regards the general consideration to which the noble Marquess alluded, he said he thought there was sometimes an understanding, if not a rule, that military Despatches relating to operations in one part of the world were withheld in deference to considerations arising out of war-like operations elsewhere. That may be, but I know of no such rule, and I do not think it can apply in the present instance, because these were detached operations, unaffected by the broad issues of the war, and I know of no reason why the Despatches should not be laid, and I hope that as soon as they are received we may satisfy the very legitimate curiosity of noble Lords. If the noble Marquess or any one else likes to put down a general Question I will do my best to satisfy him.


Will the noble Earl state what happened to the force which got to Kazerun? I thought he was going to make a statement, but was interrupted.


What I said, I think, was that the force operating from the coast made its way as far into the interior as Kazerun, which is about 100 miles from the coast, and there effected a junction with the troops from Shiraz; Shiraz ceased to be beleaguered and was relieved, and the object of this force was attained. Consequently I hope that military operations may be regarded as closed, and therefore it is not necessary to keep a force in that part of the country longer than is required.


Was the force, which I understand consisted of 15,000 men, levied entirely in Persia?


I think I can answer the question. When the South Persian Rifles were instituted originally, the idea, in agreement with the Persian Government, was to institute a force in the South corresponding somewhat in character and numbers to the force then organised under the old conditions by Russian officers in the North. The idea was to have two forces of gendarmerie, of about 11,000 each. Then great changes occurred with the revolution in Russia, and Sir Percy Sykes's activities in recruiting were limited, I think, to raising a force of between 5,000 and 6,000 men. That I believe, was the maximum strength to which the South Persian Rifles at any moment attained.