HL Deb 23 July 1941 vol 119 cc924-32

THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government when it is proposed to publish General the Viscount Gort's Dispatches relating to the campaign in France and Belgium; and move for Papers. The noble Marquess said: My Lords I desire to ask a question of the noble Lord who in this House represents the War Office, a question which has been on the Notice Paper in my name for some considerable time without any day fixed. I am sure your Lordships will agree with me that when a matter of this importance is the subject of a question we should ask the representative of the Government to give an answer or the question should come off the Paper. Therefore I ask my noble friend who speaks for the War Office to consider the question which appears to-day on the Paper in my name. I think your Lordships will agree with me that the non-publication of these Dispatches for so long a time after the campaign in Flanders has ended is distinctly unfortunate. Most of your Lordships, like myself, are in the position of being unwilling to embarrass the Government in any way; nevertheless we feel that a duty rests upon us to see that these very important matters are not passed over because of actual pressure being placed upon those who are in a position to answer.

I do not know how the situation stands, but I feel very strongly, as I know many of your Lordships also do, that a full account of that splendid achievement, the Battle of Flanders, which I suppose reflects as much glory and honour on British arms as any feat of arms in the past, should be published. One feels anxious that there should have been no official publication recording what occurred during those terrible weeks. We are fortunate in these days to be able to gain information from the B.B.C. and from the newspapers, but the accounts which we receive from those sources are not actually the official descriptions of what happens, and I am quite sure your Lordships feel as I do that there is an atmosphere of mystery attaching to the campaign to which I am referring. I am quite sure that there should be no atmosphere of mystery about it, and I am also convinced that it is not the desire of the War Office that there should be any mystery at all. It is true that among the immense events which are taking place around us at the present time, the Battle of Flanders is perhaps the most important; in any case it is by no means the least important, and I do feel as one who is particularly jealous of the honour of the British Army, having been a soldier myself, that there should be no atmosphere of uncertainty or mystery attaching to this remarkable and splendid feat of arms.

I do not know what the position of the Government is. I know that the Secretary of State for War has already answered a question in the House of Commons. Still I am wondering whether, if the Government feel it impossible to publish these Dispatches, they can give us the reason for not publishing them. If that were done it would be so much better. On the other hand, I wonder whether some fuller account than that which is already in our possession of the achievements and experiences that our soldiers went through, could not be given to the public before the time when these events will be recorded in the history of the war after hostilities have come to an end. As I have indicated, I feel very strongly on this matter, and regret very much that historical precedent has not been followed in regard to it. Dispatches have always been available, and the account given by the Commanding Officer has also always been available to the public. I think if we go back through history we shall see that this has always been done. While we must admit that the circumstances are very different to-day from what they have been in the past, there are certain cardinal points to which we attach great importance, and I should be very sorry indeed if the great tradition respecting the publication of Dispatches on operations as soon as they can possibly be published were not followed in this case. I do feel, as I believe many of your Lordships also feel, that the time has come when the Government should give us some definite information, and, if there is some reason why the Dispatches should be withheld—some reason which the Government cannot at this time give us—something should be done by the Government to remove a certain air of mystery and uncertainty which attaches to those to whom tremendous credit is due and to whom I feel we owe an eternal debt of gratitude. I beg to move.


My Lords, it is now nearly two years since the war started. During the whole of that time there has been no Dispatch published, and no official communication made to the British public with regard to any one of the campaigns in the various theatres of war which have been undertaken during the whole of the momentous period through which we have passed. I join my voice to that of the noble Marquess who has just spoken. I am not indeed quite sure if he is not joining his voice rather to mine, because as long ago as August of last year, almost a year ago, I raised this question in your Lordships' House. On that occasion the noble Viscount the then Leader of your Lordships' House indicated that Lord Gort was in the course of completing his Dispatches, and the noble Viscount said that he had no doubt that it would be the wish of those responsible that these Dispatches should be published at the earliest possible moment. That was on August 20 last year. I opened the matter again in this House in November of last year, and the noble Lord, Lord Templemore, replied on that occasion on behalf of the Government. He indicated that Lord Gort's Dispatches had then been completed, and that a full and detailed statement was in the hands of the Government, but that it was not proposed at that moment to make any publication, though, in response perhaps to a suggestion which I had myself made when addressing your Lordships' House, he said the Government might publish some more summary statement over the signature and under the authority of Lord Gort, the Commander-in-Chief.

In May of the present year the Secretary of State for War announced that publication would be made in the middle of June, and there was high expectation of learning for the first time, on the authority and from the pen of the Commander-in-Chief, exactly what had happened in France. A little later, on June 24, the Secretary of State for War, having reconsidered the matter, made a statement that the Dispatches were not after all to be published. My first observation on that is that I think your Lordships and the public are entitled to some kind of explanation of this variation in policy and of why the decision made on May 6, after two discussions in your Lordships' House and after long delay, was withdrawn—cancelled only a few weeks later, on June 24. It is not only in France and the Low Countries that British troops have fought. They have fought: also in Norway, in Libya, in Abyssinia, in Somaliland, in Iraq, in Greece, in Crete and in Syria. For the first time, so far as I am aware, in the history of this country, in regard to no single one of those cases has any authoritative statement been made by the General Officer in command which has been published to the British public.

After all, the troops who fought there were sent there by the British public and were drawn from the British public. Yet the public is left in entire ignorance of what has taken place. It is not as if no statement had been made by anyone. I do not refer to the daily communiqués issued during the conduct of operations, but with regard at least to one of these nine campaigns about which there has been this forbidding silence, the campaign in France and Flanders, innumerable books have been written by observers, by journalists who were there—sometimes by journalists who were not there—and by soldiers who took part in the actual operations. One book which I read I remember was called A Staff Officer's Scrapbook. There has been no difficulty in learning from publications made from time to time the opinion of unofficial persons. The difficulty has been to obtain an authoritative statement from any official person. The difficulty has been to obtain an authoritative statement from the one man who alone is in a position to make such a statement.

What can the reasons be? When I raised the matter in August last, when the miraculous deliverance of Dunkirk was only a few weeks past, it might have been said that there was some strategic reason. After fourteen months that cannot apply to the military situation in a country evacuated for so long a period. It might even have been said that there were tactical reasons—I do not think there would have been much foundation for such a suggestion—for not publishing an authoritative statement from the one man capable of giving it. It might have been said that such a statement would disclose deficiencies in our equipment or supplies, but the Germans know all about our equipment and supplies. Most of our equipment in France is actually in their hands. It might have been said that the Government did not wish the Germans to know which British forces were actually engaged in the campaign. That cannot be said now, because the whole of the British Expeditionary Force was there in France and representatives of many units are prisoners of war in the hands of the Germans. The lapse of time since the final phase of the campaign makes it the more inexplicable that no Dispatch should be published, that the long tradition of this country in regard to the publication of such Dispatches should thus have been broken.

There are reasons which I can understand for the change in policy on the part of His Majesty's Government. I do not know whether they are the reasons which actually operate in the mind of the Government; but I believe your Lordships and the public are entitled to a frank statement. I can understand it being said that there are political reasons; that it may be—who knows?—that Lord Gort in his Dispatches had perhaps some criticisms to make of one or other of the Allied Armies, either French or Belgian, and that publication now might lead to some exacerbation of feeling with Vichy. I do not know, nor can I judge, how compelling those reasons may be for resisting publication. It may be said that a Dispatch from any Commander-in-Chief may at any time lead to controversy, more especially when the outcome of the expedition has been withdrawal and evacuation, however heroically carried out and however well designed, and that Lord Gort is at present exercising command at a distant point and is not personally available to advise those who may have to answer criticisms, or indeed to answer criticisms with regard to himself personally. Those are reasons which I can understand. If they be the true reasons, let your Lordships' House be informed; let us know exactly where we stand in this matter. After all, these events are now part of history. Is there any reason why that history—not the least glorious episode of British history—should remain unrecorded? Is there any reason why we should have to rely on perhaps loose statements by anyone who can put pen to paper and find a publisher to print his book lather than have a full detailed authoritative statement from the Commander-in-Chief himself?

There is one final point I should like to make. This, after all, is a matter of interest to every member of the British public who is affected by the operations of war. Most of all it is of interest to those actually serving in the Army to-day, whether they have served in France or not, whether they have been abroad, or whether throughout their war service they have been in this country We are told to do our utmost to sustain the morale of the Army. One of the ways to do that is to teach regimental history and persuade soldiers to take a pride in their regimental traditions. It is difficult to teach them to take a pride in their regimental history and traditions if when the regiment is engaged in battle there is complete silence as to where they were or what they did. The Russians, in the very midst of the great battle in which they are involved, are giving to their public and to the world just those items of individual prowess and of individual interest which strike home to the mind and inspire the spirit of those at home and those behind the lines. I believe that unless there be compelling reasons of which we have heard so far nothing in this House or in another place for withholding publication of Lord Gort's Dispatches, they should be published, and published at once, in order to maintain a splendid tradition in the military and political history of this country, and not least in order to maintain and sustain the morale of the Army itself and every man serving in it.


My Lords my right honourable friend the Secretary of State had hoped, as has been mentioned by the noble Lord who has just spoken, to publish the Dispatches of Lord Gort in mid-June, as he stated in another place, but he found later that it would not be opportune to publish at the present time. I regret to say that there is nothing I can add to the statement of the Secretary of State for War on this subject. In view, however, of the words that have fallen from the lips of the noble Marquess and the noble Lord who sits opposite, I should like to take this opportunity of repeating that we have every reason to be proud of the conduct and fighting qualities of the Army both in the advance to the succour of our Allies, in the great rearguard actions fought under such difficulties, and in the actual evacuation from Dunkirk. That evacuation was so well conceived and organised and carried to so successful a conclusion, with the co-operation of the sister Services, that it will always remain an epic example of the withdrawal of an Army, intact, from an untenable position with no egress except to the sea, and under great pressure from a superior enemy.


My Lords I would like to say a few words on this matter of the non-publication of these Dispatches. I had the honour, last November, to speak about the Army and I mentioned the fact that I was Colonel of a great regiment of which two battalions served in France. I also mentioned that I thought that for the last twenty years the Army had had a "rough deal." I think that this is also a "rough deal" which is being handed out to the Army today. Surely not only the Commander-in-Chief feels very much the breaking of the precedent in not publishing the Dispatches in which he shows his attitude and his actions—Dispatches which from time immemorial it has been the custom to publish—but the Staffs engaged in these operations must feel it also. This course of action is not fair to them.

The Army cannot have helped hearing and reading many criticisms on this unfortunate campaign. Besides the Commander-in-Chief and the Staffs, all the regiments, the Colonels, the junior officers and all the men feel very strongly on this subject of how they were put into the position in which they were placed. They naturally want to see an explanation—and there is an explanation—put forward with all the weight of their Commander-in-Chief, showing to the world why it was that a great British Army was forced to evacuate a country which the had gone to defend. The whole country and all the relations of the personnel o this great Force are equally concerned at this delay in the publication of the Dispatches. I am not thinking of the public, but of all officers and men in the Army, if I may say so, who feel that they would like to have an explanation published as to why they had to evacuate that country. The Dispatches would explain what was looked upon as a great disaster and, in spite of all the circumstances, would really show that the reputation which the Army has won through the ages of British history is as high as ever.

Sometimes, I feel, too much store is put on what will help the enemy. The noble Lord in his reply said that it would not be opportune to publish the Dispatches at the present time. The statement that they should not be published covers all the reasons. I cannot believe that, after all this time, there is anything in the Dispatches which could help the enemy. All knew that the Army went hurriedly to France before it was fully equipped. By equipment I do not mean water-bottles, haversacks and rifles; I mean the full complement of tanks, guns and aircraft in order to help withstand that very formidable force which had been built up during the last six years by the Germans. There may, of course, be reasons of which I have no knowledge for the Government reversing their decision; but it seems an extraordinary state of affairs that one day it should be announced that we are going to have the Dispatches and the next day that we are not going to have them. One wonders whether it was the War Office who took the initiative in reversing this decision; but into that it would not be proper for me to inquire. I would, however, in conclusion, earnestly ask the noble Lord who replied on behalf of the Government to urge the War Office to re-consider this decision in fairness to the Army as a whole. And may I ask him to remember the difficult circumstances on which the Army has been continually placed in this war by the want of adequate preparation in the years of peace?


My Lords I regret that I cannot feel satisfied with the reply given by the noble Lord on behalf of the Government. Although we fully recognise the difficulties with which he is faced, and realise that there are circumstances of which I for one know very little, I would venture to suggest to him that he should impress on those with whom he is associated the speech of the noble Lord who emphasized that there are publications all over the world in relation to this great struggle. These publications are not official, and, therefore, one would hope that something of an official character under the authority of the Commander-in-Chief might be given to the public here and abroad. My noble friend who sits opposite has emphasized the feeling in the Service itself, and no one could speak with higher authority on such a matter. I hope that the noble Lord will consider this question in the light of the debate we have had to-day. In the circumstances, I have no alternative but to withdraw my Motion. At the same time I would reserve to myself the right to raise this question again, in the hope that the obvious desire not only of your Lordships but of the country as a whole, may be fulfilled by the Government realising the tremendous importance which a very large number of people attach to this question. I beg to ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.