HL Deb 09 May 1922 vol 50 cc301-10

LORD TREOWEN rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have any information concerning the reported concentration of Soviet troops towards the Russian frontier of Poland, and the effect that the appropriation of rolling stock for the purpose of the movement of troops and military stores has had in the work of famine relief organisations, and on the transportation of imported food; and further, whether they can give any information as to the present conditions in the famine area, and as to the reported extension of that area in Russia.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to put the Question which stands in my name. The first part of it, as your Lordships will observe, refers to reports in regard to military movements on the western frontier of Russia. Those movements have not been much noticed in the Press, but I have received information' from various sources, and I have little doubt that concentrations of troops have been taking place in the neighbourhood of Minsk and Smolensk, and that there have been other movements nearer to the frontier than those places. I need not insist upon the serious character of such reports as those at a time like the present when we know that Europe is looking for some approach to peace. If the reports be true—and I certainly have such evidence as points to their being true—those concentrations are a menace to Poland, and a serious danger to the peace of Europe.

Your Lordships are well aware that I have taken a considerable interest in the fortunes of that gallant little country, Poland, and that I have on more than one occasion been permitted, by your Lordships' indulgence, to bring matters connected with Poland before your Lordships' House. I do not propose now, for obvious reasons, to go into questions which might arise out of such reports as those I have mentioned. One does not wish, at a time like this, to raise controversial questions which are European in their character, but I would say on behalf of Poland that it is very hard for a country which is making grave struggles, is showing wonderful powers of recuperation, and is establishing itself, in spite of the greatest difficulty, in the position in which the Concert of Europe has placed it, that it should be subjected to such a menace as is indicated in these reports. My noble friend the Chief Commissioner of Works is to reply for His Majesty's Government, and I shall be glad if he can give us some assurance that there is no serious intention behind these movements. If there is no truth in these reports, and if he can give evidence that there is no truth in them, that cannot do anything but good.

But apart from those who, like myself, are interested very strongly in the fortunes of Poland—and I think there are many people who are so interested, and who still have a memory for the little countries for which we fought and bled—there is a very large mass of opinion in this country interested in what is being done for the relief of the famine areas in Russia. These areas, as my Question indicates, are being seriously interfered with by the movement to which I have referred. It will be within your Lordships' memory that only a few months ago Parliament voted some £200,000 for the assistance of the British organisation at work in Russia. I am glad to see in his place my noble friend Lord Weardale, who has taken so much interest in, and done so much for, one of those great organisations, and I hope that he may be able to give some confirmation of what I am about to tell your Lordships regarding the interference that has occurred in administering the famine relief. I have heard of this interference from both Englishmen and Americans. The Americans, as your Lordships know, have also taken great interest in the terrible condition of affairs in Russia, and have expended very large sums there.

Reports have reached me to the effect that a very large proportion of the £750,000 worth of goods sent out by organisations in this country in the last two or three months are lying on the quays off the various ports in Russia, and cannot be moved for want of rolling stock, which has been deliberately taken away and is being used, as I am informed, for military purposes. I have also seen a report that no fewer than 10,000 wagons with goods sent by the American relief agencies are stranded for want of locomotives. At one place fifty-eight trains are at the present moment left at a single junction because the locomotives have been taken away, and are being employed in moving the military. The impediments that have been placed in the way of relief by the Soviet authorities are most serious. I am informed that instead of there being an extension of relief such as was hoped for during the present month, the relief for children is being very seriously restricted and that the programme which it was hoped would have been started last month has been altogether stopped. I ask the Government to give such information as they can upon this subject which interests a very large number of people, and to give us an assurance that they will use their influence in any direction that is possible. I do not know in what manner they may do that. I believe there is an international organisation at Geneva, the Red Cross Society, and that the League of Nations itself has been interested in the matter. It may be possible for them to bring some pressure to bear on the aliens who are at present controlling the destinies of the Russian people and enable the work of international charity to be carried out.


My Lords, I do not know whether it would be convenient, before the noble Earl replies to the Question, that some opinion should be expressed from this side of the House. Some of your Lordships may have conversed with gentlemen who came back from Versailles and Spa, and other places where Conferences have been held, and have come up against a sort of constant propaganda to the effect that the Poles are an impossible people and that it is no use attempting to assist them. Not only have you the facts testified to by the noble Lord who has just spoken, but if credible reports are to be believed, far from their being an impossible people they have been making the most efficient and heroic efforts, in great difficulties, to establish the State which has been created out of the fragments of ancient Poland.

The point I wish to press before the Question is answered is that this newly reconstituted State of Poland has been reconstituted by the Powers of Europe not entirely from visionary and idealistic motives, not from the impulse of altruism, but very much in their own interests. It. has been created, reconstructed, and inserted between the two potentially great Powers of Russia and Germany as what is habitually known as a "buffer State." The position of a "buffer State" is not, in history, apt to be excessively comfortable or easy. The history of Belgium shows what is apt to be the condition of what is called the "Cockpit of Europe." It was our interest that made us the guarantors of the independence of Belgium; it was our honour that made us stand by and see to the execution of that guarantee.

Ever since the middle ages, since British wool was necessary to Flemish manufacturers, it has been the interest of England to see to the independence and integrity of the Low Countries. It made England keep up her end against Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and twentieth century Germany. Though it was our interest which made us guarantors it was our honour which made us step in and give material aid and assistance. In like manner, as regards Poland, the existence of Poland as a buffer State, its security, and its ability to do the duties which we expect it to do in the interests of European peace, are matters of European concern, and affect our honour as well as our interest.


My Lords, in reply to the first part of the noble Lord's Question regarding the movement of troops on the Russian frontier of Poland, the Foreign Office believes that a slight increase of troops in the west of Russia has taken place since the beginning of the year, and that one class has been partially mobilised in the Western districts, though, I fancy, that this class was, in any case, due to be called up during the spring. The noble Lord also asks for assurances as to the underlying intentions of the Russian Government. It is very difficult for the Government to answer a question of that character, but there can be no doubt at all as to the desire of his Majesty's Ministers, which is to spare no effort in trying to promote pacification between these newly formed countries where the conditions have not yet so stablished themselves as to give an assurance of peace. I cannot follow Lord Stuart of Wortley in the extremely interesting and significant analysis he made of the present situation, beyond repeating that it is common knowledge that the Prime Minister and his colleagues, now in conference in Italy, have been using their utmost endeavours to bring about more peaceful conditions in the Central districts of Europe.

I now turn to the part of the noble Lord's Question relating to internal conditions in Russia. The information at the disposal of the Government confirms what the noble Lord said, that a certain amount of delay experienced by relief organisations has been due to rolling stock being used for military purposes. It is clear, however, that the main cause of trouble in obtaining transport was the decision of the Russian Government that all their available rolling stock, until April 20, should be used for the movement of seed grain down to the famine areas. Lord Treowen mentioned that stocks of merchandise were lying on the quays. I dare say that may still be true, but recent reports indicate that supplies are now going through and reaching their destination much more promptly than was the case a few weeks ago. The fact that the Government concentrated its rolling stock on moving seed grain to the famine areas may clearly have caused difficulty and distress at the present moment amongst those who wanted the actual goods, but from the broader point of view there can be no question that preparation for the next harvest is of incalculable importance.

As to the conditions in the famine areas so far as the Foreign Office is concerned I confess that it is difficult to give information which one can be quite certain is accurate. We received in April a report from one of the affected districts in which it is stated that the famine conditions were actually increasing in intensity, and that fifty per cent. of the population required assistance. That, of course, is inherent in the situation; the further you travel from the previous crop the greater must be the strain upon the balance which remains. Since last summer the famine has spread from the Volga area to the Southern Ukraine, and as far west as Odessa. It is reported that conditions in these areas are bad. It is feared that the loss of life there may be heavy, as most of the foreign relief work has been carried on in the area of the Volga.

It is a good deal too soon to make any predictions as to the prospects for the coming year. The American Relief Association has made great efforts and the Soviet Government likewise has done its utmost to fulfil the programme drawn up last winter for spring sowing, but the-Foreign Office has no reliable figures to show how far that programme has hem carried out. It is, however, feared that owing to congestion on the railways the amount of seed corn which did reach the famine area in time will have fallen short of what was required.


My Lords, I naturally do not propose to say muck about the first part of my noble friend's. Question, which refers to Poland, except that I would ask him to remember that there is something to be said on both sides in that matter. We all welcome the reconsitution of Poland as a State, we hope am increasingly prosperous State; but Poland in its recent acts has not been altogether observant of what might be considered a question of self-determination, and I think we can hardly regard with a friendly eye the action of Poland with regard to Vilna, where she had defied the judgment of the League of Nations. I am afraid, therefore, that I cannot pronounce that entirely favourable judgment upon the present conduct of affairs in Poland which the noble Lord has been able to give us to-day.

I take up more particularly the question of famine conditions in Russia, with which I have some familiarity, and I am glad to be able to say that in the case of the Government of Saratov, in which I am more particularly interested, our supplies, although they have been held up have arrived, on the whole, with fair regularity. But the last two or three months, as the noble Earl very properly stated, brought very great difficulties in dealing with the traffic, in consequence of the movement of seed to the famine districts. This entailed a special call upon the rolling stock not only of Russia but of the Baltic Governments, for, though it was landed chiefly at Riga and Libau, great quantities have been landed in the southern ports on the Black Sea and are being conveyed to the different areas affected. In a letter dated so late as the eighteenth of last month, we have the agreeable intelligence that something like 30 per cent. more cultivable area for the next harvest has now been, at all events, provided for, if not sown, and that the prospects are, therefore, on the whole, better.

The season has been particularly favourable. The snows have melted slowly and the ground has been in quite exceptional condition for seeding. There is, of course, a great lack of the ordinary instruments of agriculture, a great want of horses and of all animals for traction, but, on the whole, there is a better prospect for the future harvest than existed some two or three months ago. With respect to rolling stock, we have advices to the effect that since the middle of last month there has been a manifest improvement in the movements of supplies to the famine area. Certainly, in our own district of Saratov, where we are now feeding 300,000 children and something like 250,000 adults, the food has, on the whole, been delivered with fair regularity, and though I am not in the least a friend of the Bolshevist authorities, we must tell the truth in these matters and admit that the amount of pilferage has been extremely small. When I say that the loss during the whole period has been slightly under 1 per cent. only, I think it will be agreed that it is a very satisfactory record. Very useful support has also been given by the local authorities to the distribution of relief, and consequently we have grounds for the belief that the money which has been so generously subscribed in this country for these purposes is being properly applied, and that large measures of relief are now in progress. Of course, British relief is small in comparison with what has been done by the Americans, who are dealing practically with the whole famine area, and have very rightly monopolised a great proportion of the rolling stock. The chief difficulty, I understand, is the absence of locomotives. Wagons are, I will not say sufficient, but nearly adequate, but locomotives are specially lacking, and many of them, of course, are in a most dilapidated condition.

That is the chief difficulty, but I am assured from the same sources as I have already quoted that it is not quite the case that the movement of these stores has been interfered with to any considerable extent by military objects. There has been, perhaps, the transfer of a certain number of troops to the Polish frontier, but not in a very great degree. The chief obstacle, as has been stated by the noble Earl, has been the movement of seed corn to the famine area and, that movement having now been accomplished, we may, I think, look forward with hope to the supply of food to the famine area without any considerable delay. It is true that some of our stores have taken as long as four months to go from Riga to Saratov, a journey that should, in ordinary circumstances, take six days. But that condition of affairs is happily passing away, and I am very glad to be able to assure the House that, so far as we are able to judge at the present moment, the work of relief is being carried on with, on the whole, hopeful prospects.


My Lords, I should like to support what Lord Weardale has said, because I have had an opportunity of direct information both from the famine districts and from Moscow. May I congratulate the noble Earl who answered the Question on behalf of the Government, regarding what he said as to the necessity of general pacification, which is, of course, what we all want in Central and Eastern Europe? I believe that it is true that wagons and transport were, for a time, not used directly for food transport but for seed transport, but every one must realise that that was a proper use. I am sure the noble Lord who brought forward the Question will feel that.

I had a message the other day from the head of the American Relief Board in Moscow. The Americans are hoping that between now and the next harvest—because, as the noble Earl has said, the nearer you get to the next harvest the further you get from the supplies of the last harvest—according to the figures sent to me, the Americans are hoping to feed no fewer than 10,000,000 people, adults and children. That is, of course, an amount of relief work entirely beyond what we have done from this country, not only Owing to the much larger private funds which have come from America, but also because the Government themselves gave 20,000,000 dollars towards this work. The view which was expressed to me was this. One need not go back to the horrors of the famine, but it is true that there are large famine areas, including probably about nine million people, to whom no relief has been sent. That is owing to the impossibility of extending relief over an area comprising about 25,000,000 inhabitants. I should like to say, in reference to what has been said by a noble Lord, that there is every prospect of a reasonably good harvest this year. That is to say, there has been a very large distribution of seed, and the weather conditions are exceptionally favourable. I should like also to state in praise of the Russian peasant, that although the peasant himself is starving, yet he has sown the seed in order that the conditions may be better in the future; and I am told that if there is a reasonably good harvest this year the famine conditions may come to an end with that new harvest. Of course, that is extremely important.

One word further as regards the action of the Soviet Government. From all the reports that have conic to me I think that the Soviet Government has done its best in difficult circumstances. It has been alleged more than once that there have been losses through the negligence of the Soviet Government as regards goods sent from this country to the famine districts, but in reference to the statistics quoted by Lord Weardale, the percentage of losses in Russia has been far less than the average of losses in the carriage of goods in this country. The reason is that all these goods are sealed up in special wagons, which are only opened under special conditions, and so the opportunity for ordinary pilfering is very limited. I have no doubt that that was quite necessary, when it is remembered that these goods were being sent through famine districts, where the people were perishing from hunger. I wanted to make this statement because I do not think the difficulty arises from the concentration of troops in the Polish area, but owing to other conditions. Although present conditions must to a certain extent get worse before the new harvest, yet there is hope and prospect that with the new harvest famine may be relieved and come to an end.

[From Minutes of May 4.]