HL Deb 29 April 1937 vol 105 cc84-92

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn.

Moved, That the House do now adjourn.—(The Earl of Lucan.)


My Lords, there is a matter which I desire to raise on this Motion, though I have to apologise for what I understand is rather an unusual course. The matter is the bombing and the destruction of the town in the Basque country known as Guernica. As I understand what happened, it was a deliberately planned operation. The time selected was, we are told by the very well-informed correspondent of The Times, market day, so that the largest number of people from the country around should be present. The attack was made by a considerable number of bombing machines, apparently. The procedure was that there was first a relatively small, slight bombing. That, it is suggested, according to the correspondent, was supposed to be to drive people into their houses. It was followed up by a series, by a repeated series, of very much larger bombs, with a considerable number of incendiary bombs. The result was that the whole town was set on fire.

I understand, for instance, that it contained two or three hospitals which were all burned to the ground, and all the patients within them. One detail mentioned in the account is that a body of women and children who sought refuge in some building or other found themselves trapped and unable to escape, and were all roasted alive. The unhappy inhabitants who tried to escape by running away were shot down by machine guns. I do not gather that there were any soldiers there but, if there were any, the great majority of the people apparently were women and children. Not content with shooting the fugitives from the actual town, according to the same account, the neighbouring farm houses were also destroyed, and I suppose the population within them.

If the account is accurate, this is one of the most horrible things that have ever been clone. The reason I venture to call your Lordships' attention to it is that there are rumours—I do not know how well-founded—that this is to be followed by a similar attack on Bilbao itself. That is a very serious matter indeed. One of the matters on which I should be very grateful if the Government could give me any light is whether they have any idea as to who was actually responsible for this. General Franco, who has recently declared himself supreme ruler of part of Spain—indeed I think of all Spain, but certainly of that part occupied by the insurgents, repudiates liability, according to the newspapers. General Mola has not repudiated, but l do not know that he has accepted it. Moreover, I should like very much to know what is the position of the foreign States. According to the account, all the machines used were German machines, and the correspondent of The Times says that he picked up an incendiary bomb which had not exploded and found it was marked with the mark of German manufacture. So far as I have seen the accounts, it is only an inference that these machines, were manned by German pilots, but it seems to be an inference for which there is a great deal of probability.

So far as I know, there is no precedent for anything of this kind in the history of civilised nations. My noble friend Lord Zetland, who was here a moment ago, might be able to give some instance of the same kind among the savage tribes on the borders of India, but, so far as any civilised country is concerned, you have to go back to such a horrible instance as the Sack of Magdeburg—and even that was not quite so bad as this—to find a parallel. This town is quite a small town of 10,000 inhabitants, and has no military value at all. The only military building connected with it is a barracks and that, I gather, is some distance from the town and was unhurt by this bombardment. Therefore it is perfectly plain that the operation was not designed for any direct military purpose, but was simply designed as a piece of terrorism in order to frighten the opposing party from further resisting the attacks of the insurgents. So far as I know—my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack will know at once—the whole of this is illegal according to any understanding that has ever existed in International Law. To bomb and destroy a perfectly unfortified town without military object is certainly a thing which I should have thought was absolutely illegal.

What I am anxious to press on the Government—and I hope I shall not have any difficulty in pressing it—is that they ought not to allow this to pass without a protest. There ought to be a very strong protest issued by the British Government. They ought to do their best to secure the support of all other Governments in their protest, and they ought, in my humble judgment, to raise the matter at the earliest possible moment in the only international body that exists—the Council of the League of Nations. They ought, in fact, to make a most serious and energetic protest, though I may be asked, "What good do you expect will arise from that?" I do not know that you can be sure of any good arising. I recognise that people who do that kind of thing are not likely to be moved by mere remonstrance, but it is just possible that self-interest will induce them, if they find this action of theirs universally reprobated, to refrain from repeating it. There seems to me just a chance that that may be so. It is even conceivable, if it be true these things have been done by German agencies, that the German Government may feel it owes it to its own reputation to recall immediately all German citizens and, as far as they can do so, all German machines that are being used for such purposes as this.

That is one thing, but there is another thing which is even more practical. If this is admitted to be a normal procedure, it opens up a very serious prospect for all of us. I have never believed you can humanise war in the end. I believe the only way of humanising war is to stop war, but I have also always believed—and I think most of your Lordships will agree with me—that it is very unlikely that horrors of this kind would be enacted at the outset of a war. They would only be possible when the passions of both sides have become very fully roused and when it is thought that anything is better than the possibility of defeat. Therefore it is of importance to try to make it quite clear that we, at any rate, and other countries do not recognise this as a legitimate operation of war. That, I hope, might make it more difficult to do this sort of thing at the outset, and whatever machinery for stopping war is left after the deplorable attacks that have been made recently on the only machinery that exists, will be given an opportunity to operate, when it will only have the chance of operating successfully, at the outset of proceedings. Therefore it is very important to put every obstacle that can be put in the way of the execution of operations of this kind which, apart from their horror and gross cruelty, may indeed inflict on such a country as this, and on any highly organised and developed country, injuries from which it would be impossible to recover.

For these reasons I have ventured to put these questions. I do not suggest for a moment that there is any sympathy on the part of the Government for opera- tions of this kind, but I am anxious to be assured, if it is possible for them to assure me, that they will take every possible action, even if it is not the most regular and proper thing according to diplomatic usages, in order to protest to the utmost of their strength against proceedings of this kind, and to use every possible international machinery they have in order to make that protest successful.


My Lords, this question, as your Lordships know, was raised in another place yesterday, and I am afraid that I really have very little if anything to add o to what was said by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State upon that occasion. The fact of the matter is that His Majesty's Government have no official information regarding the bombing of Guernica, and it follows that I am therefore not in a position to confirm or deny the version of it which has been given to your Lordships by the noble Viscount who has raised this question. Nor am I, I regret to say, in a position to tell the House who actually ordered this attack or what machines were actually used in it. As your Lordships will have noticed, my right honourable friend in another place explained yesterday that the Government deeply deplore the bombardment of the civil population in the Spanish Civil War wherever it may occur and whoever may be responsible for it. I think it only right to point out that responsibility for such action in the past does not rest upon one side in the struggle alone.


May I intervene for a moment? Assuming that that is so, that surely makes the thing far more serious, and not less serious, from an international point of view.


I never said it made it less serious, but some people, I think, are trying to draw conclusions from what has happened and to give the impression that one side, and one side alone, is concerned in this particular question of the bombing of civil populations. His Majesty's Government have in the past taken such steps as they thought were open to them to make their attitude on this subject clear to both parties and to the world at large. I repeat that nobody can doubt that they deeply deplore the bombardment of the civil population, and they have to the best of their endevours attempted to promote agreements which would be calculated to safeguard the civil population. Your Lordships will have noticed that as far as the question of the use of gas, which some people thought to be imminent, was concerned, they were successful in seeing that agreement not to use gas was reached. In so far as this question of the bombardment of the civil population is concerned, I can assure your Lordships that they will continue to examine the position from every angle in order to see whether further steps are possible to prevent the recurrence of what are admittedly deplorable events, if the description of them that we have received from various quarters is correct.

I can assure your Lordships that if there is anything that His Majesty's Government can usefully do they will certainly do it. In so far as the threatened bombardment of Bilbao is concerned, which I understand the noble Viscount stated it was rumoured would probably be carried out, I can only say that His Majesty's Government have no official information whatsoever in regard to it. One of the noble Viscount's suggestions was to the effect that action might be taken in regard to this matter under the Covenant of the League of Nations, but the view of the Government is that we do not think that that would be the best way of achieving the object which we all have in view, which is to do everything we can to prevent a recurrence of events such as we have seen described and to safeguard the civil population. I can tell your Lordships with assurance that what has been said this afternoon in your Lordships' House will certainly be reported to the Secretary of State and that if he thinks anything can be done it certainly will be done in the future.


My Lords, my noble friends think it worth while raising this question with the noble Earl on behalf of His Majesty's Government. In the newspapers this morning it is stated that preparations are being made in case of need to evacuate from Bilbao the women and children and utilising His Majesty's ships for that purpose. We all admire the great work done by the Royal Navy in that respect during this terrible unheaval in Spain. Could we be assured that that report in the newspapers is true, and that if the Basque Government desire to evacuate women and children from Bilbao His Majesty's ships will be available? I would remind your Lordships that those ships are on the coast already carrying out the noble Earl's non-intervention blockade and they are, therefore, convenient to Bilbao. Secondly, I presume that we have a Consul in Bilbao. I believe we have one there; we certainly ought to because Bilbao is of immense importance to us as a trading port apart from everything else. When Malaga was threatened for some reason or other His Majesty's Consul-General was withdrawn, I am sure not at his own request; of that we can be certain. As soon as the Franco forces had established themselves His Majestys' Consul-General went back. The presence of a British official in a town that is taken—and this applies to both sides—always has a very calming effect on bloodthirsty and victorious foreign soldiery. I do hope that His Majesty's Consul-General will not be withdrawn if the advance on Bilbao continues.

Whatever we may be told about the rest of the population of Spain, the Basques are a very pious, ancient courageous and altogether an admirable people. Not even the noble Lord, Lord Newton, could accuse them of being Bolsheviks. Therefore that excuse for lack of interest in their welfare and lives cannot be put forward. They helped us when we needed help in the Great War. They were very friendly to us when much of Spain was hostile, and they have helped us in the past. We have never had occasion to complain about them in recent years, and I think they are deserving of what assistance we can give them, of course within the four corners of the Non-Intervention Agreement. That Agreement is so sacred that it must not be broken, unless perhaps we weight the scales in favour of the other side! But that is by the way. We think that these questions are worth putting to the noble Earl. They are practical questions that do not bring in the cumbrous machinery of the League of Nations and I suggest that they are worthy of consideration.


My Lords, I want to interpose only to utter, if I may, a word of caution. Everybody knows, or ought to know, that news from the Government side reaches this country far in advance of news from the insurgent side. Up to now we have heard only from one side, and it is quite possible that before many hours have elapsed we shall hear something quite different. I want to introduce this word of caution because I observe a disposition on the part of my noble friend and of noble Lords on the opposite side of the House to stampede the Government into espousing the cause of the Caballero Government. I sincerely hope that His Majesty's Government will not be led into any step of the kind. We are pledged to the only possible safe course, the course, that is, of non-intervention. If we depart from that it will only make things very much worse than they are now, and the position is sufficiently dangerous already that it ought to make us very careful of running into any further danger.


My Lords, I only want to interpose one word. The Government at the moment have no official information as to whether this bombardment has taken place or not. If the statements made in The Times are corroborated by official information I hope the Government then will be able to make some very strong protest against what, if it is accurately reported, is an appalling outrage against all the laws of civilisation. I do not want the Government to take sides in this war or to rush in where greater trouble would be caused with danger perhaps to the whole peace of Europe. But horror has been piled upon horror in this war, and if the reports are true that this cold-blooded bombardment was going on for hours, that this shooting down by aeroplanes of people fleeing really took place—if the Government find on official information that the facts are as stated in The Times, then I hope that in some way—leaving the Government to choose the way—the Government will express the abhorrence felt by the whole country irrespective of what view is taken of the conflict in Spain.

On Question, Motion for the adjournment agreed to.

House adjourned at eight minutes before six o'clock.