HL Deb 13 December 1922 vol 52 cc379-86

My Lords, I desire to ask His Majesty's Government whether the Memoranda on the military situation in Asia Minor, prepared by the late Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson for the information of the Cabinet, can be laid on the Table. I think we can now confidently expect that the Conference at Lausanne will end in a peaceful issue, thanks to the wise and able guidance of the noble Marquess the Leader of this House, but in the best case the appearance of the Turks in the guise of conquerors in Europe, which has not happened for more than four hundred years, must bring about consequences of the most serious kind in the near future. All that has happened seems to be due to some serious misconception regarding the military position in Asia Minor. Whether there was any chance of a Greek victory at the beginning of last year I must not discuss, there was certainly no chance of a victory this year.

The Turks had gained time to collect ammunition and arms, and to consolidate the forces that we had shattered during the war. The Greeks might, perhaps, still have occupied, and been able to hold, Smyrna, but when they struck out into the heart of Asia Minor, 250 miles from the sea, into a roadless and rugged country, they were from that time in a position in which they were practically a doomed force. The Turkish victory which, as we all know, has excited the Moslems throughout the world, was really quite a small military achievement, and even now the Turkish Army is not a very formidable body, as I think my noble friend Lord Newton told us the other clay. The idea that it is a formidable body is one of the many illusions through which we have passed. If that Army had attacked us the other clay at Chanak possibly it would have met with a most disastrous repulse. I feel that the Turkish leaders were well aware of that fact, and, therefore, refrained from making any attack.

The present situation seems to have arisen very largely from military misconceptions and military illusions. The late Government in advising, or encouraging, or not restraining, the unfortunate Greeks—I really do not know which of the three it was—led them practically into a position in which they found themselves a doomed force. I am quite certain that the late Cabinet, during the past few years, must have given careful attention to the military situation in Asia Minor as a whole. The late Prime Minister, on Monday last, said that lie told M. Gounaris on January 12 last that "there would be no peace unless the Greek forces retired from Smyrna." That was a most sound opinion, but it conflicted violently with the remarkable speech he delivered on August 4 last, only seven months later.

He then said that— There is only one way now in which the Greeks can have a decision, and that is by marching through almost impenetrable defiles for hundreds of miles into the country. That was a sound opinion, too, but it partook somewhat of the obvious. But he went on to say— It was a very daring and a very dangerous military enterprise. They [the Greeks] established a military superiority in every pitched battle. They wore barred by the conformation of the country, and the fact that they had to maintain lines of communication that no other army in Europe would ever have dreamed of risking. Finally, notwithstanding that the Greeks were beaten by the weakness of their lines of communication, he went on to say that if we were only holding the ring between them and letting them fight it out, the Greeks would march to the capital and take it in a week. Parts of this speech are said to have been read out as an Order of the Day to the Greek Army in Asia Minor, and it is believed to have hastened, and practically decided, the doom of the widely scattered Greek forces.

When I read that speech I could not help thinking that it afforded evidence of very muddled military opinions somewhere. I well remember other occasions on which bad military advice has led to the most unfortunate consequences; but that was in days when the War Office had no department specially charged with the duty of studying military problems, and when the Government had no formally constituted military adviser, a military adviser provided with the best means of obtaining and analysing information. The Imperial General Staff has existed now for sixteen years, and has had time to become a very useful body, which I believe it is. It has never had a more wise, or more experienced, or more far-seeing chief than the late Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson.

The Cabinet, therefore, in dealing with this military problem in Asia Minor had the great advantage of a particularly able military adviser. Even the finest intellects cannot function perfectly unless they are provided with adequate and accurate information. Of course, it was open to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to disregard the opinion of the Chief of the General Staff, but in doing so they would surely accept a very grave responsibility. It is also possible, judging from recent revelations, that important memoranda may never have reached Ministers for whom they were intended; they may have been held up somewhere or other, or the Prime Minister's large secretariat may have provided him with advice of some other kind. Any of these hypotheses would account for the amazing speech from which I have just been quoting.

In view of the deplorable events which have occurred, and all the troubles which have been quite unnecessarily created, I humbly suggest that Parliament should know what our best military opinion was at this very critical period. I also suggest that it would be an act of justice to the memory of the late Field Marshal, assassinated mainly because he was in the habit of plainly stating what he believed to be the truth. Surely, it is undesirable that our Military General Staff should be believed in any quarters to be so ignorant and so deficient in judgment as to countenance measures which led the Greek Army straight to disaster. Now that the very secret Gounaris correspondence has been made public I think the Government might hold that some other disclosures of a closely connected character might be made with advantage at the present time.


My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend the Secretary of State for War, whose public duties have called him on a visit of inspection to the British Garrison on the Rhine, I have to answer in his name. I am sure Lord Sydenham will not think that I am wanting in respect for him if I do not follow him through all the remarks with which he has introduced his Question. I see no good purpose that would be served by going back into the old history of what happened during the late Government, and it would hardly conduce to the shortness of your Lordships' proceedings. It really does not bear on any responsibility of the present Government. I ought also to say, as a preliminary, that I see no logic in the noble Lord's argument that because there has been an exposure of confidential documents there should be more exposure of confidential documents. On the contrary, I should have thought that what has already happened would act as a warning.

It is not in the public interest to publish these memoranda which are given by confidential advisers of the Government to the Government for the time being, and I think that my lamented friend the late Field Marshal, had he been alive, would have been the first to re-echo that observation. The statements which a document of this kind contains are secret—secret in themselves, and secret also in the sources from which they have come—and it must be evident that if they were revealed it would act as a complete deterrent upon all other sources of the same type from giving any information to the Government. They are given under the strictest seal of confidence, and it would be most unwise to take a course which would dry them up.

I think that is almost sufficient. These matters deal with very delicate subjects of foreign policy, which had much better be avoided. In addition to these general observations I have to say that Sir Henry Wilson's Reports and opinions regarding military developments from day to day during the last year in Asia Minor naturally and obviously connected themselves with problems which are still with us, and which at this moment are the subject of anxious consideration. I am sure my noble friend will not press me any further on the matter.


My Lords, at the beginning of the late war either M. Viviani or M. Briand (I forget which) laid it down that war was much too serious a business to be conducted by military and naval men, and there has been revealed a good deal inure truth in that aphorism than appears on the surface. In any case, whether that statement was well founded or not, there can he no doubt that it was extensively acted upon not only in this country but in many others, and that the politicians not only took charge of military and naval operations during the war but, as we all know, have taken a considerable share in the events of what are euphemistically known as the times of peace. If Mr. Winston Churchill had been a Greek politician, he would have been condemned to death for what he has done since the war on no less than five or six separate counts.

I am one of those persons—I expect very few of your Lordships will agree with me—who hold the view that successful military and naval officers are disproportionately rewarded in this country. I always think that they receive extravagant rewards in the shape of honours, places and vast sums of money—a practice in which no other civilised country indulges. But if the politicians of this country reward successful military and naval officers disproportionately, in view of the fact that the latter have got them out of trouble which the politicians have themselves created, then it must be admitted that the politicians get their own hack in another way, because it is a well-known fact that the opinion of scientific, military and naval authorities has been frequently, indeed consistently, treated with contempt, not only by the British Government but by other European Governments.

There must be noble Lords present here who are old enough to remember the France-Prussian War. They will also remember, no doubt, that after the collapse of the French Armies, and after the war was over, it was shown that the French Government had received ample warning for years past from their Military Attaché in Berlin, Colonel Stoffel, regarding the tremendous strength of the Prussian military machine and the danger to France from that quarter. That correspondence was ignored, much in the same way as the Gounaris correspondence disappeared the other day.

Now let me take a case nearer home; let me take the case of the Boer War. Everybody present will remember the wave of indignation that swept over this country and the fury with which the Government of the day, and especially the War Office, were attacked for the ignominious reverses which we experienced at the beginning of that campaign. But when the war was over it was discovered in the War Office that the Intelligence branch of the War Office had furnished the Government of the day with every kind of information upon the subject, and had predicted literally what was likely to occur. There never was any more complete vindication of a Government Department than that which transpired when investigation was made into the position of things before the war broke out.

Let me take a last case, the case of the late war. I am absolutely convinced in my own mind that if you go back ten years, or even as much as fifteen years, you will find in the archives of the War Office and of the Foreign Office any number of representations and warnings from Berlin and other cities with regard to the German danger and the preparations which were being made in Germany with a view eventually to waging war against this country. Yet, with all this information at their disposal, the Government of the day had the audacity to pretend that the war came upon them unawares. I have no doubt that these warnings existed, and that there are hundreds of Despatches dealing with this particular point which have always been conveniently ignored by Governments, and which are never likely to see the light.

The case brought by my noble friend, Lord Sydenham, is, I. admit, not an exact analogy, but I should like to point out that there is no one in this House who speaks with greater authority than my noble friend, because he has occupied a position in this country which I do not think has been occupied by any other noble Lord sitting in tins House at the present moment. What my noble friend says—and it has not been contradicted—is that the policy which led to the present state of things in the Near East was exposed and condemned by the late Chief of the General Staff. He apparently pointed out, not only the danger of the course which we have encouraged Greece to take, but also the extreme danger in which the British forces would be and are at present placed in view of this particular policy. On that point I may be allowed to say that I have never encountered either a naval or military officer in the Near East who did not desire to clear out, not only from Constantinople but from the Straits, as soon as a possible opportunity arrived, whilst at the same time they were unanimous in approving the policy of tile Government in standing firm against the threats of the Turks and in practically ordering them out of the place.

But that really is not the point. The point is this. Is my noble friend correct in stating that documents exist at the War Office or elsewhere warning us of the danger which we were incurring? If these documents do exist—and I imagine that there is no doubt whatever on the subject—then it scents to me only fair and reasonable, in justice to this man who is no longer alive, that the facts should be made known, and that the Papers should be published. I am not in the least convinced by the argument of my noble friend who is leading the House. I know perfectly well that, if these documents are withheld, it will only be for the purpose of saving the reputation of Party politicians.

The tragedy of the situation in the Near East appeals to me perhaps more vividly than it does to any one present here this afternoon, because I have been an eyewitness of it. Nobody can deny the fact that the present terrible situation is in a large measure clue to the policy which we have pursued. When I think of this tragedy, when I think of the chaos and the misery to which that portion of the world is reduced, and of the ultimate consequences, I confess that I feel strongly that the responsibility which rested on the politicians, whether they belong to this country or to any other country, should be exposed, and should never be concealed on account of some misplaced idea that its publication would detract from the reputation of Party politicians.