HL Deb 21 February 1946 vol 139 cc852-66

5.15 p.m.

VISCOUNT MAUGHAM asked His Majesty's Government whether their attention has been called to the urgent need in the interests of the Fighting Forces for a number of short illustrated pamphlets (on the lines of the one dealing with the British Eighth Army up to the capture of Tripoli prepared for the War Office by the Ministry of Information) containing a record of the exploits of the British Forces in the various theatres of war so that those who have fought in those theatres and their relatives may possess at small cost a permanent record of the achievements in which they took part.

The noble and learned Viscount said: My Lords, I am conscious that the proposition which I have embodied in my question involves a new departure, and it may, therefore, require a few words to explain the special reasons for such publications as those I am advocating. In the first place, it must be remembered that this war (which came to a rather sudden end last year) lasted for some six years. We might usefully consider what that means to the people who have been fighting in it, because they are most of them young men. Not only as the war lasted for six years, but demobilization, as we know, has also lasted, and will last, a considerable time. Therefore for most of them it means that for six or seven of the most important years of their lives they have been fighting and undergoing all sorts of hardships away from their homes, very largely in foreign lands. They are coming home now and it is very desirable that during the years that are before them, while they are doing their best to get other jobs going, they should feel they are being remembered and that everything is being done to evidence the gratitude of the country towards them.

The second point I want to make is this. Unlike the first great war, this recent Fear has not been a static war, a trench war, but a war of movement; the people who have been fighting in it have travelled thousands of miles over great spaces, in, in some cases, remote countries. There must be some soldiers who have travelled more than 4,000 miles in actual combat, and that excludes the vast distances over which they have often been transported by sea. It has been a war of machines in many lands, with a great diversity of scene, and, as we all know, many very stiff battles. Their combat experience began at a time when the forces against them were superior, not only in numbers but in all kinds of machines. It was not, as your Lordships will remember, for nearly three years after the commencement of this war that the Allies, and in particular the United States, were able to come to our assistance in actual fighting by landing on the coast of North Africa. That was on November 8, 1942. Up to that time we had not had that particular assistance, and our men were showing the most unexampled courage and fortitude in very depressing circumstances.

It so happens that in the end every single one of the operations undertaken by the Allies was successful and they ranged over almost the whole world—in Africa, in the Pacific, in Asia and finally in Europe. I imagine no one in this House would doubt for a moment that these great exploits call for a suitable record in the sort of documents which I have suggested in my question. I would mention a further reason for making an effort to produce such records. Great technical improvements in relation to printing or the making of reproductions of photographs have been made since the last war, and we know very well how successful they are by one or two of the publications for which His Majesty's Government is responsible. I mention particularly the one or the Eighth Army, with regard to which I want to make some special observations later. Those are the reasons why this is rather a special case and why there are special grounds for such documents as I want. But the great thing is to answer the question for ourselves: What does the soldier, sailor or airman want in the way of a record at the termination of hostilities? I know, of course, that a final history of the war is being written I do not know of how many volumes it will consist, but it will probably run to fifteen or twenty, and so it must cost a sum of money which the ordinary fighting man—and, in fact, I may say some of us in this House—will not be able to afford. There will no doubt be one or two shorter histories similar Lo the one volume book by Mr. Crutwell, concerning the last war. But that again must be a fairly expensive book and it is not the sort of thing that these fighting men really want. They know that they can get a history of the war, but what they are anxious to have is some record of the activities of their own regiment, their own unit, their own squadron or their own fleet, in the war.

I have received one or two letters upon this, and I have talked to numbers of soldiers, all of whom support me, from three or four Field-Marshals down to ordinary fighting men—sometimes not accurately described as "common soldiers." They all want something of the sort that I have indicated. I had a letter yesterday from a member of this House, Lord Polwarth, who is a captain in the Lothian and Border Regiment. He writes that he is very sorry not to be able to be here to support strongly what is suggested in the letter I wrote to him. What he tells me, in forceful language, is that the soldiers do not want a history of the war—what they do want is an account of the activities of the ordinary Tommy, or persons of corresponding status in the other forces. The soldier wants a record of the exploits of his own battalion, regiment, division, or unit, whatever it may be. That would be of great interest—not only to the servicemen but to their relations. To a serviceman, in time to come, it will afford the means of answering a question which became a stock phrase during the last war. It was supposed to be put by a child and it ran: "What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?" There should be some work which will provide an adequate answer to questions of that kind.

The admirable pamphlet with regard to the Eighth Army, which does great credit to those concerned, is defective, from my point of view, in two respects. In the first place, published as it was during the war, it begins with El Alamein, and ends up with the Army gloriously taking Tripoli. And there it stops. Of course, as we know, that is only half the record of the Eighth Army. We also know that—again because this work was published during the war—it was thought desirable not to give details of the regiments and other units which were concerned. And these people of whom I have been speaking, this vast crowd of fighting men, want records which contain the names of their regiments, the names of the Commanding Officers and tells them something about them, something to remind them of the people under whom and with whom they served.

In a reprint of this pamphlet relating to the history of the Eighth Army, it would be very easy to add those matters, taking in such parts of this document—for there is no question of copyright involved—as might be thought proper. I do not think that the whole document need, even then, be much longer, for the purpose of a soldier. I feel, however, that in addition to those published with plain paper covers there should be a certain number of these little histories bound with boards, so that they would be of a permanent character. I do not like to mention the names of people with whom I have discussed this matter, but I think I may say that Field Marshal Alexander is very much in favour of this project being carried out. I have spoken so far without attempting to dictate to people who know much more about it than I do—though some noble Lords may perhaps support me in my question—what different units should be the subject of separate pamphlets. Different people, as I say, will have different views on this subject. It is a matter which will require discussion and consideration. The Eighth Army stands by itself in a way. Its exploits form an obvious subject for a story. The same applies to the Second Army and the Twelfth Army.

There are other units that fought in the closing stages of the war which might be separately dealt with. There is the Burma Campaign, and the gallant island of Malta and her people who certainly deserve a separate book. Further there are Australia and New Zealand. I suppose that Australia and New Zealand are looking after this matter for themselves and are bringing out their own publication, but if that is not so, there should certainly be some book published about the marvellous performances of men of those two Dominions in terrain—probably the most difficult in the world in which to carry on warfare—where they encountered all sorts of dangers from disease, as well as from the Japanese methods of fighting. However, all this is a matter, I think, for the discretion of the authorities of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, for I am not forgetting that both the Navy and the Air Force may put in a word asking for the publication of stories of their exploits too.

I am perfectly convinced that those who are living, whether injured in body or in health or perfectly sound, will value beyond anything else a record of the achievements of the people with whom they were engaged in this struggle. And so will their children and their close relations, and, I should imagine, so also will their grandchildren. It will be something to show that they have not fought in vain. Many, unhappily, are no longer with us, and are not able to read any record of what they did. Of them, I may be allowed to quote some lines from Laurence Binyon's beautiful poem: They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.

I think that there is no better evidence of our remembering them in the future than the records which I am so desirous of having published now that the war is over—tlie last great war, perhaps, although we never can tell, in which this country will ever be engaged. If it had not been for the courage and tenacity and fortitude of those men who are no longer here, together with those who were supporting us—our Allies and our Dominions—it is very probable that this country would no longer be what it is now. Although sadly impoverished and injured by the war it is one of the great nations of the world. It is in that belief that I urge His Majesty's Government to give a favourable answer to this question.

5.31 p.m.


My Lords, just in a few words I should like to support what the noble Viscount has said so well. I can reinforce him in his request to the Government and to the War Office to take this step. Over and over again from the various friends I have in the units which have taken part in this wonderful war I have had requests for illustrated records of their doings. At the present moment, General Edwards in the hills of Wales is still writing the records of the last war. Who is going to read them after this war, God alone knows! It is quite certain that the official history of this war, if it is ever written, will certainly take a longer period than that, and therefore I think it is fair to those who have fought so splendidly, in this war that they should have some record of what they did to show to their families and to their friends. Especially is it necessary to reproduce those wonderful photographs which one saw in the illustrated Press from time to time and it should not require a very great effort to add the necessary letterpress.

Various larger units from D-Day onwards were involved, in Italy, Burma, and in the present actions going on in Java and elsewhere. I think it is necessary from an educational point of view for the next generation which is coming along. Through the eye they pick it up much more quickly than they do through the brain by reading. So I plead for good illustrated pamphlets to be sent out, carefully docketed with the various photographs which I know to be in the possession of the War Office. I trust that they will do this. It is wanted and I think from the point of view of the youth of the nation which is growing up, that it is a very admirable thing that it should be done. I am only too grateful, in the name of my colleagues in the Army, to Viscount Maugham for bringing this matter forward and I am sure that it will meet with sympathy from noble Lords opposite.

5.33 p.m.


My Lords, may I crave your indulgence for a few moments as a very new member of this House but as a very old soldier indeed with over 57 years' service? In reference to this idea which the noble and learned Viscount has brought forward, I can assure you that it is one which is wanted. Even as an old soldier, in all the campaigns I have taken part in, I have never seen the deeds of the Army, Navy and Air Force published until it was too late for people to take an interest in them. I do not speak only as a soldier. I do not profess to say that it is only the deeds of the Army which should be recorded, because if this war has taught us anything, it has emphasized the interdependence of the three Services.

But I claim that such pamphlets might bring to the public of this country some possible reasons why they should be ready for war, because there is not the slightest doubt that we are the most unmilitary nation in the world. We are the best fighters when we have to fight, but we have to have our backs to the wall before we produce sufficient forces to give us any chance whatever of winning a war. These pamphlets might help there, and it might possibly result in our not being let down the next time, because we cannot possibly expect a third chance. We have been saved by the gallantry of our Army, Navy and Air Force on two occasions; we cannot possibly expect it a third time. It might induce people to insist on the Government of the day having their Forces ready for war.

You started this war unprepared—obviously the greatest war the world has ever seen—but we on the General Staff did our best to impress on the world that it was coming. You started this war with over 800 officers and 20,000 men short of the number required in our ridiculously small Army. You started with four divisions which went to France, two of which were not completely equipped, while the Germans at that time counted their divisions by the hundred. You have such wonderful men, too. Your Army, Navy and Air Force are really wonderful. Is it not worth while, before it is too late, to publish these illustrated pamphlets and let your own people know how wonderful those men are?

May I conclude my few remarks by quoting what Sir John Fortescue said in his History of the British Army? It matters not. Were the Army to be swept to-morrow into nothingness, it has already done enough to give it rank with the legions of ancient Rome. And it will be remembered best not for its surpassing valour and endurance, not for its countless deeds of daring, and its invincible stubbornness in battle, but for its lenience in conquest and its gentleness in domination. The historian of the future, summing up the story, may quote some such words as these: The builders of this Empire despised and derided the stone which became the headstone of the corner. They were not worthy of such an Army. Two centuries of persecution could not wear out its patience: two centuries of thankless toil could not abate its ardour: two centuries of conquest could not awake it to insolence. Dutiful to its masters, merciful to its enemies, it clung stedfastly to its old simple ideals, obedience, service, sacrifice. Surely it is worth while bringing that kind of thing to the notice of the people of this country? You have the most wonderful Army, Navy and Air Force in the world. Is it not worth while bringing to the notice of every man and woman in this country the possession they have got?

5.38 p.m.


My Lords, may I congratulate the noble and gallant Field-Marshal Lord Chetwode on his maiden speech, in which he stated so movingly why it is necessary to support the Motion of Viscount Maugham. I should like to support the Motion, but I should like to go a little bit further. Reference has been made to the history of the last war. I know about that—I have had correspondence about this matter—and it is not yet published. In fact, it is 25 years late. If you are going to wait for the official history of this war, a lot of the people who fought in it will not be here to see it. Therefore, it is not only a question of the cost of the official history. I should like to go a good deal further and suggest that besides the pamphlets which the noble Viscount has advocated the War Office should give every assistance to regiments (I happen to have the honour to be Colonel of a Regiment) in writing their own regimental histories. We do not get that assistance very much. I know that they want to give us that assistance, but there are difficulties. Paper, for instance, is in very short supply. There is also the question of secrecy, but now secrecy has been withdrawn. I have read a wonderful book called "Coastal Forces" produced by the Admiralty, which is full of details of secret matters. I have not seen any official history by a regiment, and it is the regiment which can produce these histories. My own regiment can, and I am trying to get it going, but I want to see that every facility is given, especially in providing the paper. It is a vital question of time to get this out so that the parents can see what their sons have done all over the world. I beg to support the Motion.


My Lords, I rise only for one moment to add my support to this Motion. I make the further suggestion that if, as I hope, the Government will deal kindly with the idea, and will make preparations for these pamphlets to be forthcoming, there should be a very generous allocation of them to all public libraries throughout the country, to all school libraries and libraries where the public have access.

5.41 p.m.


My Lords, having listened to what the noble Viscount and Lord Chetwode have said, may I suggest that the men who took the soldiers and the ground staff of the Royal Air Force overseas, the men of His Majesty's incomparable Mercantile Marine, might also be included? I would mention the convoys. I shall never forget those slow-moving squadrons of tramps; looking out from my bridge on a clear night, if ever we had one, and seeing the phosphorescent bow waves and the wisp of smoke from their funnels; and, what is more important, at the end of the watches, at eight o'clock, at midnight and at four in the morning, hearing the metallic clang of an iron door which told us that on deck were coming the engineers, the firemen and the greasers of the long heated watches down below, men who had run the gauntlet far four or five years of torpedo, of mine and in this last war of bombing, right out in the ocean highway. Those men never struck. They had most uncomfortable lives and their casualties were terrific. I think those who took the soldiers overseas should be included in such works. Their story should be written by men like Joseph Conrad and John Masefield, men who knew the language of the sea.

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, it must have been a matter of profound satisfaction to the noble and gallant Field - Marshal that his first speech in your Lordships' House, upon which I would respectfully congratulate him, should have been made upon this subject, in praise of the superb exploits of the men of the Forces, with one of which he has served for a lifetime with such great distinction in so many quarters of the globe. There is not one of your Lordships who will not have been touched by the moving speech made by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Maugham, who submits this Motion to your Lordships. The Government of the day were not insensitive to those considerations to which the noble and learned Viscount directed attention.

Throughout the war the Government were keenly sensible of the desirability of keeping the relatives of fighting men informed of their exploits and conditions of service and arranged for the issue of popular booklets at a price within the reach of all. To one of those booklets the noble and learned Viscount has directed attention. There were some thirty in number issued by the Ministry of Information at the request of the Service Departments. Up to the beginning of this year thirty-two booklets about the fighting Forces had been issued, and, with regard to what has been said by my noble friend Lord Mountevans, two about the Merchant Navy, at prices ranging from 6d to 2s., all of them published by His Majesty's Stationery Office. These have gone in very large numbers to members of the Forces and their relatives, and the combined sales in this country and the Empire overseas exceed the astounding figure of 24,000,000 copies.

I will content myself with mentioning only those dealing with the Army. The early part of the war, before the fall of France, was dealt with in "The Defence of Calais" and "The Highland Division"—two pamphlets. The long drawn-out campaigns in Africa were dealt with first in "The Destruction of an Army" which described the first campaign in Libya from September, 1940, to February, 1941. The Abyssinian campaigns had a booklet to themselves, and then the later campaigns in North Africa were covered by "They Sought Out Rommel," "The Eighth Army," the particular pamphlet to which the noble and learned Viscount has drawn attention, and another called "Tunisia." The Northern Garrisons, including Iceland, were dealt with in one booklet, and the campaign in Greece and Crete in another, while at home the story of Britain's antiaircraft defences from 1939 to 1943 was given in a pamphlet called" Roof Over Britain."

A further booklet covering the campaign in Burma has already been prepared and will be issued before long. There were several other pamphlets covering the work of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as well as one on combined operations. I am proposing to circulate a list of these booklets with the Official Report. It is of some thirty names. Perhaps it is more convenient that I should circulate it. Your Lordships can see, therefore, that the ground has been pretty well covered. The books referred to were, written and published during the war, at a time when censorship imposed some restrictions on the amount of detail that could be given. The end of the war removed all, or at least most, of the censorship restrictions that had previously been in force, and opened the way for the publication of Commanders' dispatches, a large number of which are being prepared for publication and many of which will be published before long. At the same time, the new situation has meant a much greater measure of freedom for war correspondents and those in a position to write books, about the war of their own accord.

Here I think it is only right to point out that even during the war the official series of pamphlets I have mentioned was supplemented by a wide range of books written by war correspondents about the fighting on the various fronts. Then again, the end of hostilities has been followed by a rapid diminution of the staffs which had previously been engaged on the writing and publication of the pamphlets in the official series. There has been a dispersal.

The noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Trenchard, referred to regimental histories. I believe there is great scope for regimental histories and that it is, for many and obvious reasons, eminently desirable that such histories, preserving the regimental tradition and telling the story of the regiment, should be issued by the regiment. I did not know that the noble and gallant Viscount would raise this question—there was no reason why I should have known beforehand—but I will say this at once: that in so far as photographs are available (and there are large numbers of photographs available in the War Office Library of Photographs), I am sure I can give the noble Viscount the assurance that they shall be placed readily at the disposal of those interested in the production of regimental histories.

5.53 p.m.


My Lords, if the noble Viscount will permit me, I would ask your Lordships' permission to say one word on the statement which has fallen from the noble Lord, the Under-Secretary of State for War. I think there was one glaring omission in the list of books and pamphlets published about the record of the Army in this war. We heard that there was one in the early stages about the Defence of Calais. I do not believe anything has ever been published about the fighting of the British Army between Brussels and Dunkirk. Really, that is one of the greatest achievements in history, and why it has never been recorded I have never been able to understand. There was perhaps a feeling at the time that we were going through such straits that to call attention to what our troops had already been through might not be stimulating to morale. At any rate, that has passed, and if ever an army, if ever divisions, if ever regiments, deserved to have their endurance, their fortitude, their magnificent courage recorded, it is the army, the divisions and the regiments which fought under Lord Gort then. Lord Gort's dispatch was published—


Only one.


Only one. While the statement of the noble Lord was satisfactory in some respects, I hope that profound injustice will now be redressed.


My Lords, as the noble Lord has said, Lord Gort's dispatch did cover those glorious incidents in the history of the Army, and, indeed, not the Army alone, because the other Services played a magnificent part. Dispatches relating to later campaigns are in course of publication, as I have said. There are difficulties, which I have indicated, in the way of dispersal of staffs and the like, in publishing a booklet of this type with regard to that campaign. Of course, there is now a great deal of material which observers, as well as those who were participants, can use and are at liberty to use, within the limits of security, for the purpose of producing books on their own responsibility. But I am moved by what the noble Lord has said. He will recognise that I am the spokesman of another Department in this matter, and I will certainly bring it to the notice of the Minister.

5.56 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I should like to thank the noble Lord for what he has said. I wish only to add this: that I am not quite sure that the pamphlets that have been published in great measure are not outside the scope of what is suggested in my question. Such books as the book on the Royal Armoured Corps, and a number of the other books of which he mentioned the name of a dozen or more—I have seen most of them—I am assured are not precisely what the soldier wants. He wants, if he can get it and can pay for it, a regimental history, or something equivalent to it; but if he cannot have that, he wants a smaller regimental history which will, if he was fighting in a regular Corps or, for instance, in the Eighth Army, contain a complete history of what he did when he was in the fighting Forces. He wants something about his exploits which he can show; and something which goes over the whole account of many armies or many different corps does not quite satisfy what I am told is his great requirement.

[The following is the list of booklets to which Lord Nathan referred:

  1. (a) Royal Navy:
  2. (b) Army:
  3. (c) Royal Air Force:

5.58 p.m.