HL Deb 27 June 1923 vol 54 cc647-54

My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government whether it is proposed to issue any explanation of the statements and statistics published by the late naval attaché in Scandinavia in his book "The Triumph of Unarmed Forces."

I have put down this Question because I think it is necessary that some notice should be taken in Parliament of the very disturbing book referred to in it, and also because it is not possible now to raise questions of this class in another place. Your Lordships' House in 1915 and 1916 showed very marked anxiety as to what was going on in connection with the so-called blockade at that time, and we were always assured that very little was going through into Germany, and that what did go through did not much matter. In December, 1915, we had an important debate, lasting two days, and on many other occasions attention was forcibly drawn to the very large stocks of cotton, copper, cocoa, and many other necessaries, which were passing to the enemy through neutral countries. Those of your Lordships who took part in those debates knew a good deal of what was going on, but they did not know nearly all that has now been revealed, and, in the light of Admiral Consett's book, those debates now seem painful reading, because they were not successful in averting a terrible disaster.

The main facts which the author sets himself out to establish are four: (1), That Germany was liberally supplied through neutrals with food and necessaries of all kinds for prosecution of the war, the use of British coal being at that time peculiarly important; (2), that we were actually ourselves stinted in supplies, and even in tonnage, to keep this trade going through Scandinavia and Holland; (3), that it was not only a question of a blockade, but of an embargo stopping this lucrative trade through neutrals and that was purely, of course, a domestic matter; and, (4), that by all these means the war was prolonged at least eighteen months entailing the loss of hundreds of thousands of valuable lives and thousands of millions in treasure. Your Lordships, after reading the book, will decide for yourselves how far the author establishes those four propositions. I want to detain the House for a very few minutes longer, and I will only refer to a few of these transactions. Soya beans and copra, both of first class importance as oleaginous products, were brought to Germany from British Colonies in the Far East with British coal. Ceylon tea, which is a very bulky substance, was brought in large quantities to the enemy by the same means. Cotton, which was vital to the manufacture of propellants, and copper, which was essential to the rotation of shells, were both poured into Germany—literally poured. A single cargo of copper of 6,000 tons was consigned to a Swede at Malmo "for orders" and thence it went straight on to Stettin. I calculate that that cargo would have sufficed to make driving bands for 6,750,000 field shells; and your Lordships will see how extraordinarily important that amount of copper was for the purposes of the war.

The noble Viscount, Lord Devonport, stated in this House that in January and February, 1916, 20,000 tons of zinc passed from Rotterdam into Belgium. That zinc was invaluable for the inflation of Zeppelins and also, of course, for many other purposes. How did that zinc find its way to Rotterdam? Then the fishing fleet, which supplied the enemy with thousands of tons of good food, was equipped with gear and run with petroleum supplied from this country. Cement was poured into Holland to make fortifications on the Western Front. Under arrangements which we seem to have permitted beer was supplied to the Germans at a time when our supplies were short, of very poor quality, and very high in price. Factories in neutral countries supplying Germany with military necessities of all kinds were run upon British coal, as were the breweries which ministered to the thirst of the German soldiers. So also were the trains which conveyed these large supplies into Germany. In the control of coal alone we had a most powerful lever which was not used until it was too late. Now all this, and much more, was fully and faithfully reported at the time by a most able naval officer working under very great difficulties. It must have been known at the Foreign Office, at the Admiralty, and at the Board of Trade, and it was really vital information for the use of the Government which was directing the war at that time Admiral Consett was actually reprimanded because he sent some of his reports by the shortest route in order that any delay might be avoided.

His Majesty s present Government have not the smallest responsibility for these most disastrous proceedings, but I think they might wish that something should be said, if possible, in mitigation of the charges in this book—charges which are made with very great moderation. If this is possible, I submit to your Lordships' House that it is eminently desirable. One charge, that of a trade in paper currency, has been explained already in another place as a transaction merely required for purposes of the Red Cross; but that, of course, was in 1918, and it was after all this trading to which I have referred had long been stopped. I say nothing about what might have been done to check the financial operations in neutral countries of the banks which were at the time financing all these operations in favour of Germany.

I think it is now clear that the Declaration of London was the fons et origo of the whole torrent of terrible evils. One effect of this most deadly instrument was to exclude the essentials of modern war from the list of contraband, to confer immense additional advantages upon the Germans, and to paralyse our blockade for a very long period. If the rejection of the Declaration, which will stand to the lasting credit of your Lordships' House, had been effective we should not now have been suffering under an almost intolerable strain. Thus, at a time when our sea power was at its zenith and when the British Navy was supremely efficient, the tremendous weapon lying ready to our hands was blunted in advance while the Germans, of course, proceeded at once to tear up the Hague Convention. This trade with Scandinavia and Holland resulted in terrible losses to ourselves and to our Allies which reacted throughout the whole of Europe and are reacting to this day. I hope that His Majesty's Government will see their way in the interests of the national honour to issue such explanations as may be possible or, if not, to institute some inquiry into these transactions, which appear, from what we now know, to be as discreditable as they certainly were disastrous to the national cause. I beg to ask the Question which I have placed upon the Paper.


My Lords, it is not considered that any good purpose would be served by reopening this intricate and difficult subject. I am aware that Admiral Consett was never in sympathy with the policy of the Government when he was naval attaché at the Scandinavian capitals. But I hope the noble Lord will agree with me that it is an improper proceeding for an exservant of the Crown to make use of knowledge which he acquired in his official capacity on which to found an attack on the Allies' blockade policy during the war. I am content to leave the book in question to the verdict of history and to those who are familiar with the difficulties with which His Majesty's Government and the Allies had to contend in respect to the blockade or Germany, especially before the entry of the United States into the war.


My Lords, I should like to say a word or two on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sydenham. I have not read Admiral Consett's book. My sight is so bad that I am really shut off from the reading of books. I can read a certain amount of the current news of the day, enough to keep in touch with some questions, but I have not read the book in question and many other books that I should like to read. I know nothing about it except what Lord Sydenham has said in his speech this afternoon. So far as I remember, I do not think that if the whole story was told by the publication of Papers the Government which was in office at that time in the early years of the war would have anything to lose by such publication. The fact is that when you are engaged in war the man on the spot with a particular duty to perform—and Admiral Consett was one of these—is perfectly right to be zealous to do his utmost, but he takes in only the point of view of the man at one particular spot. Unless there is at the centre some mind which can take in much more than the view of the man on the spot and see all the consequences which are likely to ensue from action which the man on the spot advocates—well, in this case we should certainly have lost the war.

I will give your Lordships an instance. After the United States came into the war—I was not in office at that time—it was quits easy to prevent all these things going in through neutral countries; you simply rationed neutral countries. But if we had attempted to do that in the early stages of the war we should have had such trouble with the United States that it would have been fatal to the future of the Allies in the war. Another instance came to my notice after the war was over, when I happened to go to the United States where I was for about three months in 1919. An American, a man of great intelligence and considerable business position in the United States, said to me: "You know it was very fortunate that Great Britain and the Allies did not declare cotton contraband in the autumn of 1914. The cotton States were suffering very much, and if cotton had been declared contraband the consequences would have been very unfortunate." The question of whether we should declare cotton contraband in the autumn of 1914 was discussed by the Cabinet. It was a very grave question, and we same to the conclusion that on the whole we had much better not declare cotton contraband.

I said to the American friend who was talking to me: "Well, my opinion was at the time that it was better for us not to declare cotton contraband, but I should like to know exactly what would have happened." What I was afraid of at the time was that if we took a very arbitrary line about the import of goods into neutral countries the United States might have adopted the measure of convoy-that is to say, they would have said that copper or cotton going from the United States to a neutral country was entitled to enter that neutral country, and that we had no right to stop it going to a neutral country. If that had happened either we must have fired on the American convoy, which would have meant war with the United States, or we must have given up our blockade, because if we had let goods go through from the United States we must have given up our blockade.

My American friend said: "No, I do not think that was the real danger. I do not think that is what would have happened. What I think would have happened was this. There was a very strong party in the United States early in the war working on purely pacific lines, neither anti-British, nor anti-Ally, nor anti-German nor anti-anything, but which, in the war, were very strongly in favour of putting an embargo on the export of munitions of war from the United States." That would have been fatal in the early days of the war to the cause of the Allies. It would have made no difference to Germany. The anti-Allied elements in the United States were, at that time, of course, in favour of such a measure, because it told against the Allies. My friend said: "If you had caused serious trouble with the United States over contraband it is quite possible that is what would have happened in the early days of the war." We could not have protested against it. It was perfectly within the rights of the United States. They would have been breaking no international law whatever if they had chosen to put an embargo on the export of munitions.

But what would have been the consequences of that I Does Admiral Consett discuss that sort of possibility in his book? The noble Lord has read it. Is there any evidence in the book that he was aware of the difficulties with which we had to deal, and not merely difficulties but the dangers which we ran? If the correspondence in the Foreign Office was published as to what went on with the United States, especially in the early days before the United States entered the war, I think people would become aware of this—that there are many things pointed out to us now which were considered at the time to be mistakes, or which appear now to have been mistakes, but which, if we had adopted them, would have led to other indirect consequences which might have been fatal to us in the war. One of the things which was essential to us and the Allies in the early days of the war was that we should not have serious trouble with the United States—the great neutral Power of the day. It would have hampered our operations. It was a very difficult matter to avoid that serious trouble. I think we went as far as we could in the early days of the war in applying the measure of blockade, and we avoided that great danger.

There are three dangers, as I look back at the war, with which we had to deal in the early days. One was that we might have serious trouble with our own Moslem subjects in the Empire. Another was that the wires which Germany could always pull in Russia might excite suspicion of us there and lead in the early days to most serious consequences. The third was that we might have had serious trouble with the United States. The Government in power in the early days of the war avoided successfully and completely all those three great dangers, any one of which, if it had not been avoided, might have been fatal to our success in the war. I would ask people who read books of this kind, written by a man on the spot, rightly zealous for his own particular job in the war, to bear in mind that everybody committed mistakes in the war. The Germans no less than other people made mistakes in the war. There are many things which it seems to have been a mistake not to do which, had they been done, would have exposed us to one of those great risks which I have indicated. Had we made the mistake of doing anything to produce serious trouble of that kind with other countries in the early days of the war it would have been absolutely fatal to the future course of the war from our point of view.


My Lords, the remarks which the House has listened to so far seem to me to deal almost entirely with the question of imports into neutral countries of goods from the United States, but one of the strongest indictments which is brought by Admiral Consett in his book is the trading with neutral countries for the benefit of the enemy which went on from our own country. When one looks at the figures which he quotes of imports from our own country—those millions of pounds of cocoa, those large shipments of cotton, and all the other items which go to make up the necessary stores that an army in the field requires, to say nothing of what the population of Germany required at the time—when one realises the immense profits which these brought, to our own people, and when one remembers more particularly also the coal which went abroad in very large quantities, it makes one rather ashamed of some of the profiteers in our own country who made money out of the war while men were being killed. I should like to know from the noble Viscount opposite, or one of the members of the late Government, whether it was not possible to do something to check the trading which went on from cur own shores, and what, steps were taken for the purpose of preventing these goods from reaching the enemy through neutral countries.


My Lords, I should like to say only one word in reply to the noble Viscount. Admiral Consett does deal at some length with the difficulties, the great difficulties, that the noble Viscount's Government experienced with the United States, but the whole question seemed to me at the time, and I said so in this House, to be comprised in this—that all we had to do was to follow precisely and in detail the policy which the Northern States adopted towards the Southern States in the Civil War. I think the noble Viscount will remember that the whole cotton crop of the United States for the year was offered to us, and was offered to us at a, pries which would have been extraordinarily profitable if we had bought it. Moreover, had we done that it would have prevented the Germans from making an enormous amount of explosives.