§ MR. LAMBERT (Devonshire, South Molton)
I want to bring before the House the necessity of inquiring into the surrenders that have taken place in 1070 South Africa, so that by the lesson there learned we shall prevent a recurrence of them in the future. There is no subject which has more profoundly moved the British people than the continual list of surrenders in South Africa. They have not said much about them, because "surrender" has rather a bitter taste in an Englishman's mouth. For my part, I do not mean to impugn the bravery of our officers and soldiers in South Africa. I do not think that any man, however hostile he may be to the war, can say that the officers and men in South Africa have not behaved with the greatest gallantry and courage, and I do not want in the smallest degree to gloat over the disasters that have taken place. I do not intend to follow the example of hon. Gentlemen opposite who during the election placarded the walls with the word "Majuba." For my own part I would prefer to leave in oblivion any disasters to the British forces, but if hon. Gentlemen opposite intend to follow the course to which they frequently had recourse during the election, they will have to considerably increase the number of the placards, because one placard would not contain the tale of surrenders in South Africa. In the casualty lists published in January there are lumped together some 8,703 men and 329 officers, a total of over 9,000, who have surrendered to the Boers, and in addition about 30 of our guns have been captured.
I contend that we are entitled to information on these points, seeing that it is granted on the highest authority that the bravery of our officers and men in South Africa is unchallenged. If they are brave, and if the army in South Africa has shown the greatest courage, as I am glad to say it has been shown, there must be something wrong in connection with the surrenders that have taken place. They began at the commencement of the war, and they have been going on almost continually ever since. No greater humiliation has been inflicted on the British forces since the great war of last century in America, That is a sufficiently ominous parallel, and we do not wish to carry it further. The Prime Minister said we wanted to have pointed out the defects of the system. That is my view. We know there must have been defects, because 1071 the British have an army of 250,000 men in South Africa, and the Boers have never been able to bring into the field more than 50,000 men. We have suffered the losses I have mentioned in men taken prisoners. Supposing we had been at war with a first-class Power, why, of course, these 9,000 who were taken would not have been released again. Now that they have been released, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to assure us that he will give publicity to this inquiry, so that if we should ever be engaged in war with a first-class Power we shall never have to undergo the humiliation we have undergone during the last fifteen months. The information at our disposal is of the most meagre and unsatisfactory character. We know that the press censorship in South Africa is extremely severe. It cannot be exercised with more courtesy, but I hope it will be exercised with a little more leniency. We have not been able to get that information about the disasters to which we are entitled.
Some people will say that this is a question of washing dirty linen in public. I do not quite agree. These matters have been published, and it is far better for our Army and our strength that this linen should be thoroughly cleansed, rather than tied up with red tape and hidden in some obscure corner of the War Office. The right hon. Gentleman told us it was his object to lay before the Parliament as full and frank a declaration as possible in these matters, and he hoped it would be contained in the despatches recently published. That, however, is hardly so. I have gone very carefully through the despatches, but the information they contain does not carry us much further. Take the case of Nicholson's Nek, which occurred on 30th October, 1899. Thirty-seven officers and 917 men were taken prisoners—more than the effective strength of many regiments now in South Africa. What is the information Sir George White is able to give us? He says—My information has been obtained from subordinate officers who, being severely wounded, were sent into my camp by General Joubert.Is it reasonable to suppose that we can be satisfied with such information upon a disaster of this magnitude? It really 1072 gives us no information at all. When we consider that the names of all these officers and men were mentioned, it is most important, not only for the credit of the Army and the bravery of the soldiers but also for the credit of these officers themselves, to show where the true blame lies. Another case is that of Stormberg, on 10th December, when two guns and 630 prisoners were taken. These men were twenty-four hours on their legs, and if the Boers had been more active they would have captured the whole force. Upon whom does the blame rest? That is what we want to kow.n Have sufficient precautions been taken that no such occurrences shall take place in future? Then there is the Sanna's Post disaster, on 31st March last, when seven guns and 426 prisoners were taken. That was the result of an ambush, and Lord Roberts says that the disaster—was mainly due to the failure of the patrol from Bolsman's Kop to warn their comrades of the ambush.We should like to know who instructed I the four men composing that patrol, and why they did not fire their guns to warn their comrades, especially as by so doing at that point this disaster would have been prevented? I do not pose as a military expert, but I think this illustrates one of the defects of our Army training. We do not give sufficient attention to field training; we think far too much about marching past in barrack square and pipeclaying accoutrements. I mention this not to cast blame upon anybody, but in order that the authorities should draw conclusions which will make the British Army more efficient in the future than it has unfortunately proved to be in South Africa. There is not the smallest doubt that field training is one of the most important questions, and we are told in drill book and elsewhere that the question of outposts and reconnoitring is among the most important in the training of the private soldier. We had another case just afterwards. Encouraged by this success the Boers went out and captured more than 400 officers and men at Reddersburg. These men were sent to Dewetsdorp by General Gatacre, but withdrawn by Lord Roberts's orders. Here again, why were they sent to Dewetsdorp? What was the reason of their surrender? Was it want of am- 1073 munition or want of water? We have no information whatever. I do not want to know for the purpose of impugning the gallantry of our soldiers, but I believe they must have been led by some person or other into a death-trap and obliged to surrender. It has been stated in the public press that though they surrendered at twelve o'clock, in the morning of that day they heard volleys of firing from the relief troops, and yet they were unable to hold out until relief came. Unfortunately it has been only too common in South Africa that the relief forces have arrived a day too late, and that is a point which I think is well worth the attention of the War Office. Then I come to a series of disasters connected with the name of Lindley. On the 31st May last a force of Yeomanry surrendered to the Boers. All we know is that they were ordered to join the Highland Brigade at Lindley; that on their arrival, instead of finding the British there, they found the Boers, and that General Colvile had marched with them. Colonel Spragge halted three miles to the west of Lindley; there were very few Boers in front of him, but they immediately assembled on hearing of the defenceless position of his force. Colonel Spragge was able to send messages to General Rundle, General Colvile, and Lord Methuen, and it is extraordinary that, while he apparently was in the centre of this triangle, neither of these generals was able to relieve him, nor was he able to take his troops to the nearest British force and so prevent this surrender to the enemy. General Rundle, we are told, tried to relieve the pressure, but did not succeed. Lord Methuen marched forty-four miles in twenty-four hours, but arrived too late. What we should like to know is, whether these troops held out as long as they could. The force was composed of the very highest type of British chivalry, at any rate, and it has been stated that the troops composing it were mainly millionaires. I do not wish in the slightest degree to impugn the conduct of millionaires. We know that when my right hon. friend below me passed his Budget in 1894 they were not willing to pay for their country, but I am sure they are willing to die for it; at any rate, millionaires should not have the undeserved reflection left upon them that 1074 they surrendered before they should have done. It is also stated that these battalions were seen to march away under the escort of eight armed Boers without making any attempt to escape. These are points which the right hon.-Gentleman would do well to clear up in the interests not only of his own Department, but also of the Army at large.
Another question is, what is the value of the patriotic but untrained soldiers who volunteer to go and fight the enemy in South Africa or elsewhere? We are undoubtedly largely relying at this moment upon the patriotic but untrained men sent out to the Cape, and we want to know whether these forces are really capable of sustaining — not by their courage, that is beyond doubt, but by their training—the credit of the Empire in foreign countries. Would they be sufficient to meet the trained armies of Continental nations should they be called upon to face them? But to-return to this matter. There must have been some mismanagement somewhere, because two days after the capture of this Yeomanry detachment a convoy consisting of fifty wagons, with an escort of the Highland Brigade, left Rhenoster River station. Surely, after the capture two days before of' 500 Yeomanry, this convoy should not have started, as Rhenoster River station is not more than twenty-five miles from the scene of the disaster. However, it started on the morning of one day, and on the afternoon of the next it was captured by the Boers. That made the Boers still more militant, and they attacked Rhenoster River station itself, where there were immense stores. There is not a single word in the despatches of Lord Roberts about these stores, but we know from reports in the press that the stores were there, and that they were guarded by the Derbyshire Militia. In this case Lord Roberts says, after five officers and thirty-two men had been killed and one hundred wounded out of a total force of 700, that "further resistance would have been useless." He does not say that of any other force to which a disaster occurred upon which he has reported. I hope that may lead the right hon. Gentleman to believe that the Militia has a right to claim more 1075 attention from his Department in the future than it has received in the past. I do not want to go through the whole of this list, but there is the occurrence at Dewetsdorp, on 26th November, when 500 men and two guns were taken by the Boers. That place had been in our possession for months. Why was that outpost not entrenched? Why were the British not able to reply to the Boers? Why had 500 men to lay down their arms to a force of 2,000 Boers with six guns? We used to think that one British soldier was equal to four foreigners, but at present it looks very different indeed.
Here I may show how injustice may be done to British officers by these surrenders. In many of the disasters of the past the greatest heroism has been displayed. At the small post of Helvetia, a very strong position reported on by Lord Kitchener, 200 prisoners and one gun were taken. Here is an extract from the Morning Post special correspondent's account of this incident (dated 12th February)—The capture of the Liverpools at Helvetia some time before was executed in a similar manner. Descriptions of that affair have no doubt reached home already, but it may not be known that after—" (I will not mention his name—a certain major) "had surrendered with his men and the 4.7 in. gun the Boers sent to Captain—, who held a detached position with fifty men, demanding his surrender also. This he indignantly refused, and successfully beat off the enemy.This is a direct imputation of cowardice against the major in command of this detachment, because the correspondent says he had 200 men and a gun at his disposal.
§ MR. LAMBERT
I know; I am coming to that. This is an imputation of cowardice; but if you refer to Lord Kitchener's telegram you will see that the officer was severely wounded, and ought not to have this reflection on his courage cast upon him by an uninformed correspondent of the Morning Post. It is therefore in the interest of the officers themselves, as well as of the Army, that I bring forward these matters. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the information for which I ask? I think it is reasonable, and I hope he will give 1076 it. At any rate, the country will not be satisfied unless we have it.
As the hon. Member for North Islington said just now, one of the great questions at issue at the last election was the reform of the War Office. In the address of almost every hon. Gentleman opposite that question took a very prominent part. The War Office has not the confidence of the country. In my opinion, that is undoubted. It may have the confidence of the right hon. Gentleman. I believe he is the only man who really defends it through thick and thin, but he has appointed a Committee to tell him whether even he ought to have that confidence. Undoubtedly grave miscalculations have taken place which have shaken the confidence of the country with the War Office. We were within an ace, as is shown by General Buller's despatches, of the greatest calamity that has ever occurred to a British garrison in the history of the Army—we were within an ace of the surrender of Ladysmith, with 10,500 men and about thirty-six guns. If Ladysmith had fallen it would have been a disaster the like of which has never been suffered by the British Army. The War Office were able to send out what they thought to be a sufficient force in October, 1899, but a really sufficient force did not arrive until January or February, 1900. If we were at war with a foreign Power the enemy would not wait for us; they would not wait for Lord Roberts to get out there, or until reinforcements arrived; they would strike at once at our vulnerable points. Therefore we ought, in the light of our past experience, to get some information which will guide us in the future, and prevent such risks as we have run during the last twelve months. We on this side of the House do not think the War Office reputation was raised by that dream of last September that the war was over. At that time it was a ridiculous fallacy to state that the war was over, though possibly this military perspicacity was more worthy of and would do honour to the Primrose League. It is extraordinary that this military perspicacity came in at the exact moment to suit the electoral exigencies of hon. Members opposite. I do not think that has raised the War Office in the eyes of the country. We do not feel 1077 justified in giving the War Office a blank cheque. The right hon. Gentleman claims credit for the War Office that not a single man went hungry and not a single man suffered through want of supplies being landed at Cape Town. That may be true. Precisely the same excuse was put forward during the Crimean War.
§ MR. LAMBERT
Then I will quote the authority of Lord Palmerston, who said, after the inquiry had taken place into the Crimean War, and after all the evils which our soldiers had suffered had been disclosed—It is true that ample supplies were sent from this country to the Crimea, but from want of arrangements on the spot the troops there derived no advantage from them.It is just the same in South Africa. The Government have sent ample supplies to Cape Town, but from want of arrangements on the spot the troops derived no advantage from them. Of course, the War Office can send any amount of supplies to Cape Town, for it has at its disposal the whole of the mercantile marine to send supplies and the unlimited credit of the British Empire.
§ MR. BRODRICK
I rise to a point of order. I wish to know whether the hon. Member is in order in bringing in the question of the whole of the supply of the troops in the war upon an Amendment which applies only to the surrender of certain troops?
§ MR. LAMBERT
I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that I have not yet moved my Amendment, but I was endeavouring to show that the War Office was not, by its previous action, entitled to take credit for this or be trusted in regard to these matters.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
It is quite true that the hon. Member is speaking to the main 1078 question. He is not out of order, because he is not confined to the terms of any Amendment before the House.
§ MR. LAMBERT
I can quite understand that the right hon. Gentleman would rather not go into the question of supplies.
§ MR. BRODRICK
I am perfectly ready to go into the question at any moment, but I wish to do so upon a motion on which I am entitled to reply.
§ MR. LAMBERT
And I hope the right hon. Gentleman will reply with more accuracy than he did upon the last occasion. This sort of thing has a very bad effect on the recruiting for our Army. It is impossible to get men of high intelligence if recruits have an inkling that they may be led into death-traps. [Ministerial cries of "Oh, oh !"] Will the hon. Gentlemen opposite say that they have not been led into death-traps? In former days the British soldier thought it a disgrace to lay down his arms, and British soldiers to-day do think it is a disgrace to lay down their arms to Boer forces. You will not get the highest standard of recruits if you have not the fullest assurance that the state of organisation and training of the troops is of the highest possible efficiency. The country will very cheerfully meet any demands made upon it for increasing the efficiency of the force, but they will not pay money without considerable demur unless they are perfectly certain that it is going to be well spent. It is in the hope that this Amendment which I now move may have some effect in that direction, and that the publication of the explanation of these disasters may have some effect upon public opinion in the country, and show that the right hon. Gentleman and the War Office are endeavouring to remedy these defects, that I move this Amendment.
At the end of the Question, to add the words, ' But we humbly suggest to Your Majesty that there should be published as early as practicable the proceedings of full
inquiries into the circumstances that have occasioned the surrender of considerable bodies of Your Majesty's troops in South Africa."— (Mr. Lambert.)
§ Question proposed, "That those words be added."
§ * SIR E. ASHMEAD-BARTLETT
I think that the House generally will feel that the speech which the hon. Member made in introducing this motion was not one which was animated by party feeling, and that he has raised a subject which deserves the deep attention of the House. I have myself contended that during the whole course of this war one of the most serious questions which faces this country, and which deserves the close interest of the authorities of the Army, has been this question of the surrender of such large bodies of troops during the war. I do not think it would be fair to accuse those who take the view that some, at all events, of these disasters might have been avoided by the officers commanding the troops, of imputing want of courage to British troops in the field. There is ample evidence to show that, wherever our troops have been well and intelligently led—and on many occasions where they have not been intelligently led—they have displayed during this war an unfailing and remarkable courage. I agree very largely with the hon. Gentleman who moved this motion when he said that it is not fair to expose troops who have shown such splendid courage, as our troops have shown throughout the war, to the conditions and the risks to which they have been on several occasions exposed in regard to these surrenders. I think it is a fair argument for him to use that such unjust exposure shakes the confidence of the men. It is most unfortunate that more notice of these surrenders was not taken earlier in the war. This want of attention on the part of the military authorities in regard to these surrenders has tended to make some of the officers in command on subsequent occasions careless both in choosing their positions and in fortifying them.
Perhaps the most remarkable of all these surrenders was the first, which took place at Nicholson's Nek. It is a very extraordinary thing that, so far as 1080 I know, no criticism has been passed by the War Office upon that important event. It is hardly possible to blame the officers in command upon that occasion, but I think that it is a most extraordinary thing that the general who commanded the whole army should have allowed this force to remain so long in an exposed and critical position without making any attempt to relieve it. When I find that some generals have been severely condemned by His Majesty's Government, and some of them even removed from the Army, I ask again the question which I asked the other day, Whether the same treatment would be meted out to most highly placed generals, which is apparently to be meted out to those who have committed even less faults, but who are not so highly placed? The condition of our troops at Nicholson's Nek was known to the general in command during the night, and yet that unfortunate force, which had lost its guns and ammunition waggons in consequence of an accident, was allowed to remain in a most precarious position, without any serious attempt being made to relieve it, until two or three o'clock the next day, when it was forced to yield. Two of these disasters— Sanna's Post and Reddersburg—had a most injurious effect upon the whole course of the war. I believe that there was a great chance of the Boers surrendering after the successful march of our troops to Johannesburg and Pretoria had it not been for those two disasters and others which followed. Those two surrenders greatly encouraged the Boer Government and President Kruger and his friends, and we owe a great deal of the continuation of the war to these disasters. The defeat at Sanna's Post was probably one of the most extraordinary events which has ever happened in the history of warfare. A considerable force was retreating, with a large convoy in front of it, and there was absolutely no advance guard to the convoy to see that the way was clear. The enemy were actually allowed to conceal themselves in a spruit or donga on the Bloemfontein side, and they were not discovered by our scouts, because there were no scouts. When Burnham, the famous American scout, was asked for his explanation he humorously 1081 replied that this disaster "came of scouting with buck wagons." The affair at Lindley has been referred to very often, and it was a very astonishing case, for which a general has been brought home. So far as one can judge, the means of defence of this force were not completely exhausted by the officer in actual command before surrendering.
I pass over Dewetsdorp and Rhenoster River, though at the latter place the Derbyshire Militia were compelled to surrender, because their camp was placed close under a commanding kopje on which no guard was placed, and also one or two other events which have been referred to. I come to our last heavy loss, which occurred at a place called Nooitgedacht, some twenty-five miles north-west of Pretoria. Here is an extraordinary case, in which a force, under the command of a general officer who has had a brilliant career, was left for five days without any entrenchments being thrown up, or without any efforts to fortify a circular hill which commanded the camp, and without any attempt being made even to construct sangars, although it was known that the enemy were in the neighbourhood in force. We have not had any official reports of this disaster, and all we know is what we have been able to gather from the accounts given by officers and men and by the newspaper reports. If it be true that that position was occupied for five days without any attempt being made to entrench it or to erect sangars, I say that it is a discreditable case, which calls for the closest investigation on the part of the War Office. When we think of the loss and the suffering which have been caused by this want of preparation and want of military knowledge on the part of our generals; when we consider the long list of killed and wounded which has accompanied these surrenders, we are fully justified in asking the War Office for a complete inquiry, and for a very full report upon these disasters. I do not propose to trouble the House further on this question. It is a question which demands the fullest investigation in the interests of the Army itself, and I sincerely hope that this investigation will be specially made, and that some steps will be taken on the one hand to mete out justice to those who are responsible 1082 for these very severe blows to the strength of the Army, and on the other hand to fairly reward those who have done well.
I believe that this war will lead not only to a great reform in the Army, but also to a reform of the instruction given to our officers and men, as well as to the drastic reorganisation of the Army. I believe that this war has proved before the world the courage and the endurance of our troops, the resolution of our generals, and, I hope, the tenacity and determination of the Government; but there are great lessons to be learned from this war which this country must learn, if it is not to meet a series of catastrophes, in the event of our ever being-engaged in a great war with a Continental Power. Happily for us we have received our lessons where we are able to deal with our difficulties and overcome them; and I believe it is almost by the direct blessing of Providence that these tremendous lessons have been taught our country when our Army and people were not in the presence, as they might have been, of force majeure. I sincerely hope that these disasters will result in the great improvement of the instruction of our officers and men. I am confident that there are no troops in the world who will fight so well as our troops, and that there are no officers that are more capable of leading their men with skill and courage than British officers, when properly trained and properly experienced.
§ MR. COURTENAY WARNER (Staffordshire, Lichfield)
I do not wish to detain the House or to prolong the debate. Indeed, I look upon it as about the most hopeless debate which the House could enter into—where civilians, as most of of us are, venture to discuss the points where our generals have failed in the field. I hope we shall not be treated to a repetition of the series of disasters of which we have had a long list—many more, indeed, than I at first thought.
There is one remark that civilians as well as soldiers would like to make to the War Office, and that is that the result of the proceedings of courts of inquiry should be published, and whenever an officer leads his troops into disaster there should be a public inquiry, 1083 just as when a captain loses his ship. If a court of inquiry sits on an army officer the public do not know whether he has been acquitted or not; and in the interest both of officers themselves and the Army, there should be a public inquiry, so that no blame should attach to the innocent.
§ COLONEL LOCKWOOD (Essex, Epping)
It is always difficult to discuss in this House, while we have been remaining comfortably at home and not fully aware of all the circumstances of the case, the question of the behaviour of our troops in the field. I confess when the hon. Member for South Molton first opened his remarks was in considerable sympathy with him; but when he proceeded with his comments as to the conduct of the War Office, and the reorganisation of the War Office, I felt it impossible for me to go with him if he went to a division. There is no doubt that the surrender of large bodies of troops in South Africa has left an extraordinarily painful impression, not only on our soldiers and sailors, but on the public generally. The inconvenience of discussing the question in this way was shown when the hon. Member for South Molton went on to discuss matters of strategy.
§ MR. LAMBERT
I beg pardon; I did not discuss strategy at all. All that I asked for was that information should be given to the House in regard to these surrenders.
§ COLONEL LOCKWOOD
There I am with the hon. Member; but when he goes on to say "Why was not this or that done?" when he acknowledges that he is not in possession of information, and yet lays down what ought to have been done, or rather inquires why so and so was not done—then I say he is not capable of discussing questions of military tactics or strategy. I agree that in all cases of surrender of troops, as in all cases in which ships are lost, the officers ought to stand a court of inquiry. I noticed in the remarks of both the hon. Member for South Molton and the hon. Member for Ecclesall that each of them seemed to drift away from the terms of the motion to discuss why such and such things were or were not 1084 done. We cannot possibly discuss why such surrenders took place until we have got full information from the War Office, and therefore I hope the right hon. the Secretary for War when he conies to make his statement will give us more information than we have at present in regard to all these surrenders, but especially the most painful of all, that at Nicholson's Nek I would say, possibly many of these surrenders are due to the want of education, not only on military matters, but on other matters as well, amongst both officers and soldiers. When a man is in a difficult place, if he is thoroughly educated, he will be able to act on his own initiative. Hon. Members may say that we shall have to wait until the country is thoroughly well educated until we can recruit men from the higher educated classes rather than from the class of men we have to look to at the present time.
The hon. Member for South Molton and the hon. Member for Ecclesall alluded several times to what might have taken place if we had been at war with a first-class Power; but it would have been much easier to have taken the field against such a Power than against the nation whom we are fighting in South Africa, because of the enormous extent of country in which the operations are being conducted, and because our enemies there are masters of a knowledge of every pass in the mountains and of the whole topography of the country. On the other hand, if we were engaged fighting against a first-class foreign Power it would never be our lot to invade their country, but we should be able to make a choice of the ground on which the encounter was to take place. I have no doubt that the Secretary for War will see that the demand from both sides of the House for inquiry is reasonable, and that it is absolutely necessary that the House and the nation should be informed of his opinion on a subject upon which the Government has been pledged for a long time.
§ * SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT (Monmouthshire, W.)
This is a question in which I quite agree with my hon. and gallant friend opposite who has just spoken, that the country is deeply 1085 interested. We all know that for twelve months past, when there has been extreme anxiety throughout the country with reference to our military position in South Africa, the Government promised and vowed to the country that there should be a full inquiry into all that had taken place in the war. They said so in the House of Commons; they said so in the country; and by giving those pledges they diverted for the time an inquiry that might be considered inconvenient. I therefore am not speaking merely on the question of surrender, because that is only a part of the whole, but I think we are entitled to-night to have from the Government a categorical statement of what they intend to do with reference to inquiries as to what has occurred in the war. We have only had a vague statement on that subject, and I know that the impression has gone forth that, now that the difficulties have been surmounted, the inquiry is not to be granted, or, at all events, is to be granted in a very limited manner. I am happy to hear from the Leader of the House that that view is unfounded; but I hope that through the mouth of the Government to-night we shall have a distinct statement of the inquiry that is intended to be made, when it is to be made, and in what form it is to be made. They have had quite time enough to consider that, and I hope we will have a statement on the subject.
With reference to the particular matter that the hon. Member for South Molton has raised, no doubt it is one of the most painful incidents in the whole of this war. I do not suppose that in any war—I do not speak of wars where British forces were opposed by enemies five or six times their numbers—such a series of continuous surrenders has ever been recorded. In all foreign armies, so far as I know, such inquiries are made as a matter of course. I remember perfectly well when the great court-martial upon Marshal Bazaine took place it was founded upon the fundamental principle of the discipline of the French army that a surrender of troops in open campaign is necessarily a subject of court-martial or other form of inquiry. As my hon. and gallant friend opposite has said, we know no- 1086 thing officially about the circumstances. I cannot say I know nothing at all about the circumstances. We know from the public press and newspaper correspondents, as far as the censor permitted, that circumstances occurred which led to surrender. They may or they may not be accurate, but the circumstances which have been made public are such as appear to be utterly insufficient to justify the surrenders. Therefore, when it is said that we ought not to allude to them, I say we must allude to them because the public both in this country and abroad have been supplied with information as to the circumstances which led to these surrenders, and I do not think I am wrong in saying that, at all events to an unprofessional opinion, those circumstances have seemed in many cases not to justify those surrenders.
That is a state of things which makes it absolutely necessary that we should have an official and public inquiry into a thing which, I venture to say, has not been to the credit of the military reputation of this country. That being so, without professing to examine particular cases, which I feel totally incompetent to do, I share the opinion which I believe is generally spread throughout the country, that surrenders of this character ought not to have taken place, that there must have been miscarriage somewhere, and that we ought to know where that miscarriage has been. I hope and believe that we shall have an assurance that there shall be such an inquiry instituted as shall repair the mischief that has been done to the credit of British arms by surrenders the circumstances of which have never been explained, and which, as far as we know them, require a very clear and satisfactory explanation.
§ MR. BRODRICK
Nobody will complain of the tone taken by the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken in dealing with what is, after all, a very important subject, and one on which the Government recognise no division between themselves and the vast majority of the Members of this House.
The hon. Member who introduced the motion was, I think, if I may say so, very ill-advised in mixing up subjects of general attack with a matter of this kind. While, in one way, every Member 1087 of the House will desire to arrive at a right conclusion as regards the surrender of these large bodies of troops at different times, there must, obviously, be a difference of opinion on some of the topics which he introduced; and I think it is not only unusual under the orders of the House, but, at the same time, extremely undesirable, to accompany these questions of mistakes made by officers in the field with sneers at the War Office, which could not by any possibility have interfered, and would not have the right to interfere, in regard to the action of officers in the field. The hon. Member went further than that, and indulged in what I thought was a most ungenerous suggestion with regard to the surrender of the Yeomanry under Colonel Spragge. They were not too willing to pay taxes, but, he said, with an irony which was unmistakable, probably they were willing to give their lives.
§ MR. BRODRICK
I beg pardon. I am in the recollection of the House. I am not going to allow the hon. Member, without protest, to make these observations about a body of men who fought admirably, with a very insufficient allowance of food—they were almost starving —for several days, until they had sustained heavy losses, until all their doctors were either killed or wounded, so that their own wounded could not be attended to, and who, finally, only gave way when, in the opinion of the Court of Inquiry, to which I referred in this House in December, and which the hon. Member might have read if he had taken the trouble to look up Hansard, they could not resist any further. The Court of Inquiry accordingly exonerated Colonel Spragge and his officers altogether from blame.
§ MR. LAMBERT
May I ask what the right hon. Gentleman is quoting from? Have the proceedings of this Court of Inquiry been laid on the Table of the House? If not, why does he quote them in the House?
§ MR. BRODRICK
The hon. Member's repartee is no excuse for making insinuations which, as I have already told the 1088 House, in December last in reply to an interrogation from the Irish benches, on the authority of the Government, were not upheld by the Court of Inquiry. * If the hon. Gentleman, who seems to be very fond of drawing a bow at a venture and is not very particular whom he attacks provided he can, in some way, connect it with the Government, is going to take that line, I think we shall have to revise the arrangements of the usual forms of criticism which we have hitherto employed in regard to the Army. I would much rather enter on the subject in the spirit which has animated the other speakers in the debate.
There is no question whatever that the country has seen with great regret the continual surrender of considerable bodies of men. The reasons I might go into at some length, but I may say that there is no doubt that this war has been a very unusual one. The enormous range of country, and especially the topographical character of it, has rendered the isolation of bodies of men perhaps more frequent than in any other war in which this country has been engaged for a great number of years. The rapidity of firing of modern ammunition, too, lends itself to the exhaustion of the weaker party. But the whole question is whether or not the system of military law which we have at this moment for dealing with these charges is adequate to enable those who are responsible to judge whether the officers immediately in command are to blame, or whether the superior officer who placed them in that position should be made responsible. My hon. friend the Member for Ecclesall made a suggestion as regards Nicholson's Nek. Undoubtedly that disaster sent a thrill throughout the country, but there has been no disaster about which it has been so difficult to arrive at a conclusion. In order that the House may realise what the difficulties are, I would just remind the House of the fact that the men at Nicholson's Nek were taken prisoners at the beginning of November, and were not released for many months afterwards. When they were released, the officers who had been responsible, both in the actual engagement and also in* Refer to The Parliamentary Debates [Fourth Series], Vol. lxxxviii., p. 795.1089 command, were scattered all over South Africa. The attempt, therefore, to arrive at a complete decision by Lord Roberts as to the responsibility in the case was an extremely difficult one. I should like to say, as Sir George White's name has been mentioned, that I think we ought to be careful of carrying too far the responsibility which has been assigned to that officer in this business. He is the last man to put responsibility on the shoulders of anyone else. He did, as a matter of fact, take upon himself the responsibility for the whole, and if any man could redeem a mistake, I think not only the admirable defence which he afterwards made, but the cheerful spirit in which during many months he upheld his own troops and prompted those who were coming to the rescue was, in itself, as great an atonement as any man could make. But, again, we have to decide in a case like that what was the degree of blame attached not only to Sir George White, but also to the officers in immediate command, who, having got into this difficult position and having lost their mules and ammunition, made up their minds to advance rather than retire. As a matter of fact, there have been courts of inquiry held in all these cases where it was possible to hold them. There have been ninety-nine courts of inquiry in regard to about twenty different operations, and in a large number of these cases officers have been made responsible. Ten officers, I think, have been dismissed from the Army or have been put on half-pay, and penalties have been imposed on other officers, and in those cases where a penalty has not actually been imposed, from the military point of view, the result has been to impair the probability of promotion of the officers concerned.
The hon. Member asks that the findings of these courts of inquiry should be laid on the Table of the House. I must say at once that I think the House is as much interested as the Government in considering whether that course would be conducive to military advantage. A court-martial may be fatal to an officer-The finding of a court of inquiry is only a suggestion to the Commander-in-Chief, it is not a sentence. The finding of a court-martial is followed by a sentence. I most honestly agree with what has 1090 fallen from various Members on this subject, and desire to say that, as far as I am concerned, wherever the result of a court of inquiry establishes a prima facie case, I shall insist that the officer be brought to a court-martial. I know that that is the opinion of Lord Kitchener, and I know that the Commander-in-Chief is prepared to recommend it. I think that, in cases which are sufficiently bad to cause an officer to be put on his trial by court-martial, we must not be afraid of publicity. But when you come to the delicate questions that arise under courts of inquiry, where officers are brought under the review of the Court but against whom no charge may be sustained, I am not sure that it would be wise to subject all those cases—it would give infinite pain to those connected with the officers in cases where the decision happens to be unfavourable, or where the Commander-in-Chief notices one and not another—to a retrial at the bar of public opinion.
Before quoting the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief, perhaps I may be allowed to cite that held by the Duke of Wellington with regard to such cases— an opinion which, I think, is not worn out by the length of time which has elapsed since it was given. The question of bravery or skill in the field in difficult circumstances is exactly the same now as it was in the time of the Duke of Wellington. Our national character, I hope, is the same also, and the opinion of the Duke of Wellington was that the less cases of misconduct in the field were brought before the public the better for the Army. I find in the despatch of 29th August, 1811, the Duke of Wellington said—My reason for entertaining this opinion is that the instances of want of spirit among the officers of our Army are very rare, and the example of punishment of crime is not required. This being the case, I should wish to avoid giving soldiers and the world information of an officer, particularly if he belonged to a foreign nation, behaving otherwise than well in the presence of the enemy. If there should be an unfortunate person who fails in that respect I would prefer to allow him to retire to a private station rather than expose his weakness.That is a very strong opinion, and without having seen this despatch, to which I called his attention this morning, Lord Roberts holds identically the same 1091 view. His view is that the Commander-in-Chief must take the responsibility in the field of recommending action with regard to any officer who has failed in his duty. He has, in the course of the last few months, found it his duty to make a large number of such recommendations. I know it to my cost. I have only been in office three months and a half, but not one week has elapsed during which I have not had the duty, on the recommendation of the Commander-in-Chief, either of removing from the Army or of enforcing the resignation of some officer who has failed in South Africa.
I think the House, in asking for the proceedings of these courts of inquiry to be published, should be to some extent swayed by their confidence in Lord Roberts's determination to take action wherever such action is necessary. I do not for a moment ignore the importance of what has fallen from the right hon. Gentleman opposite with regard to a general inquiry into the War Office. The right hon. Gentleman has asked whether the Government will reiterate the pledge that was given with regard to an inquiry. He said that the promise of the First Lord of the Treasury should be made more precisely. I should have said, on the contrary, that the promise which my right hon. friend made in February of last year has been most definitely renewed whenever the occasion seemed to warrant it. We have recognised our obligation, if asked for, to have a full inquiry into the War.
§ MR. BRODRICK
If asked for by the House. It the House feels it desirable to have a full inquiry into the war, a full inquiry there will be. But it will not be an inquiry limited merely to the conduct of the War Office; it must be an inquiry also into the conduct of operations in the field. I say this on my own behalf as Secretary of State, though I cannot help hoping that such inquiry, if made, will have some regard to the desirability of making public all such questions as those on which we are engaged. No doubt those who will conduct the inquiry will have as strong and patriotic feelings in these 1092 matters as anybody in this House. That is not a question as between the Government and the House. I may say that with regard to the date of this inquiry we have not in the slightest degree diverged from what my right hon, friend stated in the first instance —namely, that it must take place when the war has substantially reached its conclusion. Nobody can say at this moment that the war, in which over 200,000 troops are engaged, has substantially reached its conclusion. And I would add to that that any inquiry which was held in those circumstances would, in some respects, fail of its object, because, obviously, many witnesses must be required who are still in South Africa, and it would be impossible for the inquiry not to come to a standstill.
Our position, then, with regard to these courts of inquiry is this. In the first place, if there is an inquiry into the war, then most certainly all these matters and all these Papers will come before the Committee or Commission, if they desire to inquire into them. The second point is, that in cases which are brought before the House on which some special public interest induces either this House or the House of Lords to demand a special explanation, it is always possible for us to produce such Papers as are necessary to give the proper enlightenment. But our general feeling is that it is not desirable, without reference to particular cases but in every case in which there has been a surrender, to put, not before this House merely, but before the country and the world, all I the circumstances which are brought to light in these courts of inquiry. That is a point upon which I would ask the House to have some confidence in Lord Roberts, and also to remember that the Government have nothing whatever to gain by acting too lightly with regard to those who have made mistakes. I can only say this for myself. I alluded just now to the number of cases of, usually, junior officers who have failed in some duty and on whom military discipline has had to be exercised. I laid it down within a fortnight of the time when I took office, that no officer, whatever his rank or whatever his previous record, would be allowed to be re-employed in Great Britain or in any 1093 Home command on his return from South Africa, whether he had held it before or not, unless under the direct recommendation of Lord Roberts, or Lord Kitchener, if now serving under Lord Kitchener. That decision, which must, of course, hit some officers very hard, but will only hit those who have deserved to be suspended from further employment, will be some guarantee to the House that officers who have failed will not be allowed to come home without being actually removed from the Army. We are determined to deal severely with these cases. But I attach the greatest importance, in reference to these operations in the field, not merely to prompt punishment, but also to prompt reward. Cases have occurred in which one man has failed to maintain his post, and a man close by, in perhaps almost as difficult conditions, has maintained himself and driven off a body of the enemy. It is the opinion of Lord Kitchener that prompt reward should be given in such cases, and that encouragement should be given to a man who, having gone through many months of most arduous labours, certainly deserves any recognition that we can give him on such an occasion. I wrote to Lord Kitchener some time ago, and telegraphed to him a few days ago, asking him to put forward at once such names, and assured him that the most prompt reply that was possible would be given.
It is recognised by my hon. friend below the gangway that this war and the experience of it must lead to great reforms in the Army, and not merely in the organisation of the Army, but also in the training of the Army. I can only say that not one of these episodes will be allowed to pass by without giving us some instruction in that respect Whether the officer is immediately to blame or not, not merely the officer but the regiment is brought in review by an episode of this character; and I think the House will believe that Lord Roberts, whose whole life and career have been devoted to the practice of his profession, and who has obtained the confidence of those who have served under him by his intimate knowledge of the Army, is the best man that can possibly deal with it. We ask the House to rest satisfied with this declaration. It is, of course, possible to 1094 urge us to allow a public discussion in each case. I am not sure, from what I have heard of the speeches to-night, whether that would have the effect desired. There must be some feeling excited, some partiality shown, which would not aid in the elucidation of the facts. The one and only consideration which we have before us is how the discipline of the Army can best be maintained, and how we can most satisfactorily prevent the recurrence of these evils. Upon these points we are at one with the military authorities. We desire to see prompt dealing with all these episodes; we are determined that the officers responsible for them, whatever their station, shall not escape. And in asking the House to have confidence in us in this respect, I ask them always to recollect that, should we fail in that duty, at the inquiry which my right hon. friend proposed, there will be ample opportunity for the House of Commons and the country to judge of our performance of the trust committed to us.
§ SIR H. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN (Stirling Burghs)
There are many things that the right hon. Gentleman has said which will be very agreeable to the House and the country, and there are others, I am afraid, which will not be so satisfactory. All that the right hon. Gentleman said as to the expediency and policy of promptness, both in dealing with necessary severity with cases in which severity is required, and also in giving rewards where rewards have been notoriously and obviously earned—all that he said on that subject will be entirely approved. But I was greatly astonished and disappointed at the attitude which the right hon. Gentleman assumed towards the inquiry which has been promised. To begin with, we will put aside the question of the end of the war, which the right hon. Gentleman raised, because, really, his argument is somewhat strange. He says the war cannot be said to be ended now because there are 200,000 men in South Africa. There were 200,000 men in South Africa in October last, when the right hon. Gentleman and his friends were telling us that the war was at an end.
§ MR. BRODRICK
I never said the war was ended. It was the right hon. Gentleman who said so in his address.
§ SIR H. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN
That is a quibble. As that has been raised, let me make this explanation. I am supposed to have been a partner in the guilt of the Government because, hearing them talk of nothing else, I thought they had high authority for it, and I had none. And then I was attacked by the First Lord of the Treasury, who said that he learned the information from me.
§ SIR H. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN
Oh, yes. And afterwards it turned out that, as a matter of fact, he had the advantage of me by about twenty-four hours. But that is by the way. The right hon. Gentleman postpones this inquiry until the mysterious time when the war will be at an end. The right hon. Gentleman now says that the Government were prepared to redeem their promise if such an inquiry was asked for; but that was never the footing upon which it was put. There was no question as to the inquiry being asked for a year ago; it was, on the contrary, explicitly and categorically promised, and, what is more, it was used as the means of stopping inquiry. Questions would have been asked either in debate or in the ordinary course on the Votes, but we were told that all this would come out at the inquiry to be held at the end of the war. But it will not do for the right hon. Gentleman to adopt this attitude. If he cannot redeem his promise, let him give some reason for it, and we will judge; but certainly it does not rest with anybody in this House or out of it to ask for such an inquiry, because it is the Government who have promised without qualification that such an inquiry should take place.
Well, Sir, as to the matter before us, as to the publication of the inquiries into these disasters, the right hon. Gentleman quoted the opinion of the Duke of Wellington. The opinion of the Duke of Wellington was practically to the effect that many people's feelings might be hurt and much harm might be done, not only to the individuals but to the reputation of our countrymen as a whole, if publicity was given to questions of 1096 this kind. That was in a different state of circumstances, when the public heard little or nothing of disasters that occurred. That was before the days of newspaper correspondents and an active press. We know now, unfortunately, all about these disasters. But we may possibly have a wrong impression of the facts, and this is another reason why they should be perfectly investigated. There is another view. While you are saving the reputation of some men you may be allowing the reputation of others to be injured or ruined—men who did not deserve it. As a matter of common justice as well as the right of the House of Commons for full information, I think my hon. friend and those who support him are justified in pressing for this inquiry. I am well aware that there are many cases where mischief might be done by a full statement of all the facts being published, but we must take the bad with the good in these matters. Undoubtedly the country will not be satisfied if we have not all the information given to us as to this series of disasters, commencing on the first or second day of the campaign, when the greater part of a regiment of cavalry rode off into captivity, and coming down through all the unpleasant gamut. I think we are entitled to know how far the stories we hear are true or not. Let us have the most complete inquiry we can, accomplished in the most pleasant manner possible; but whether it is by Departmental Committee at the end of the war or whatever means are employed, surely we are entitled to go to the bottom of these mysterious events. I will not say more upon this matter than to repeat my surprise at the attitude that the Government have taken up with regard to this inquiry, and all I can say is I think they will greatly mislead Parliament and the people, involuntarily no doubt, if they fail to carry out the undertaking which they gave, unless there is some very good and adequate reason for not completely carrying out their promise.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I do not mean to speak at any length; but I think, from one or two observations which have fallen from the right hon. Gentleman, he would like me, I will not say to answer, but to touch upon the one or 1097 two points to which he referred and clear up any doubts there may be. My opinion is that courts-martial have not been much used in the past in regard to surrenders in the field, and he desires to approximate the War Office practice to the Naval practice of dealing by courts-martial with disasters of that character. But in the nature of the case every court-martial will be held, and so far the desire of the hon. Member will be met; but there may be cases of inquiries which are not courts-martial, and all that my right hon. friend has laid down is this—that he does not think it desirable to make it an invariable practice or even the ordinary practice to make public the results of the military inquiries. Those military inquiries may not have to do with cases of surrender, but these in the main are to be handed over to courts-martial. My right hon. friend and the Government, who agree with him, do not hold that we ought for a moment to lay down the proposition that inquiries are in the nature of the case to be brought before this House and the country. Sometimes they may be and sometimes they may not be. It depends on the circumstances of the case, and whether it is desirable in the public interest. I hope that that is a clear statement of the matter.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I do not think that the view of the War Office is that they should voluntarily, apart from the general inquiry which is promised, make all those inquiries public.
§ SIR CHARLES DILKE
No; the present Chief Secretary for Ireland last year said so. I understood it to be a pro- 1098 mise. I asked the question whether they would be made public, and he said, "Of course they will." I took that to be a promise.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
Of course that was not within my knowledge, or my right right hon. friend's knowledge. But any statement publicly made shall be carried out. Putting that on one side, the Commander-in-Chief was of opinion that with regard to these preliminary inquiries and not on oath no absolute general rule could be laid down in the matter.
§ SIR JAMES JOICEY (Durham, Chester-le-Street)
In the course of his speech the right hon. Gentleman said, as I understand, that in these preliminary inquiries wherever there was a prima facie case there would be a court-martial in the future, although there might not necessarily be publicity in the preliminary inquiry.
§ SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT
Let us have no misunderstanding. It has been laid down that in cases of surrender in the future there would always be a court-martial. Then what I want to know is, how far in cases of surrender in the time of war—there can hardly be surrenders in time of peace—in the past there will be a court-martial? There should be no distinction between the two cases. We are not seeking for anything to take place with regard to the future and not with regard to the past. What we want is an inquiry into the surrenders in the time of the war. All inquiries, to be of any value, will be inquiries into the past. What I desire to know from the right hon. Gentleman is, when the witnesses are available, and when the courts-martial are held, whether the inquiries will be with regard to the surrenders of the past. These are the only inquiries which can be of any value to the discipline of the Army in the future.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
Just so. I understand. My right hon. friend informs me that he has already ordered some courts-martial into past cases, and that he is now engaged in seeing how far that system should be extended. A retrospective system has a somewhat different aspect to the prospective system. I do not think we should be pressed too 1099 far to lay down a general rule. Then the only other point with which I have to deal referred to by the right hon. Gentleman is as to the general inquiry, which, he truly said, had been on more than, one occasion promised. He seemed to think that my right hon. friend had introduced a new principle when he said, "If asked for." Now, if a promise is given to a person who does not ask for its fulfilment. I do not see why it need be fulfilled.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
Of course he could not hold you to a promise if he had absolved you. I have no doubt that my right hon. friend had in his mind when he used these words this fact: that if the Commander-in-Chief considered that it was expedient that these inquiries should be made public, they should be made public. But, after all, it is not a matter for the Commander-in-Chief to decide. It is outside his province. However that may be, I can only say that the pledges which have been given will be adhered to unconditionally.
Then comes the question of the date of the inquiry. It had better begin as soon as the war, to use the phrase of my right hon. friend, is substantially over, and as soon as the necessary witnesses are obtainable. I hope that statement is sufficiently extensive and explicit. There is only to add that the Committee of Inquiry will have the power of bringing before it all witnesses, all documents, and everything material. It is quite clear that these surrenders, in common with everything else connected with the war in South Africa, will come within the purview of the Committee, and no attempt at concealment will be possible in any matter in which, in the interest of the public, that Committee is of opinion that inquiry is desirable. In conclusion, I will say that, in the first place, no concealment is desired, and, in the second place, no concealment is possible. Having given that pledge in those broad and clear terms, I trust the House will allow this debate to come to a conclusion.
§ * SIR CHARLES DILKE
In regard to these promises of inquiry there have been overlapping promises. Since Lord 1100 Palmerston made his famous declaration, contrary to the opinion of theologians, that all children are born good, I do not think any public man has shocked the House of Commons more than the right hon. Gentleman opposite has by his doctrine of promises. Let me remind him that the promise of general inquiry was a volunteered promise by himself, it was not asked for.
§ * MR. A. J. BALFOUR
What difference does that make if the person to whom you made the promise does not want you to to keep it?
§ * SIR CHARLES DILKE
Why, personally, I attach some importance to the point is this: I have never had much belief in an entirely general inquiry. The right hon. Gentleman volunteered a general inquiry in his Manchester speeches and afterwards repeated his statements in the House. There were also specific statements made by the Government with regard to enquiries on specific points, and I ventured just now to remind the House of the promises made, as I understood, by the Chief Secretary for Ireland. We debated the matter of these surrenders here on two former occasions, in February and July of last year, and I distinctly understood, and I believe all present understood, that the result of the inquiries, in so far as it could safely be done, would be given to the House. It was because that was generally understood that specific cases were not pressed on the House, and that several Members who showed a disposition to press specific cases were put off by all of us.
The only other thing I wish to say is that all through the debate to-night this has been treated entirely as if it were a question affecting the officers only; but there is a much larger question involved, and that is the discipline and training of the Army, for which the War Office is responsible. So far as I am concerned I feel deeply the responsibility that must attach to anyone on such an inquiry. My fear is that in a general inquiry the essential points may be lost in the enormous mass of detail. We all desire to get at the exact points which really affect the discipline and training of the Army in future, but in the course of doing this there is a danger that we may roam over 1101 a larger field, and that the essential I points on which we ought to learn will be lost. It is perhaps unfortunate that the, only defence against specific attack made here to-night concerns the conduct of the Yeomanry. The only specific defence was made with regard to Lindley. It is impossible to consider such a case as Lindley without considering the light it sheds on the question of employing in the field under similar conditions regular troops along with irregular troops which have not had the same amount of training. I understand that the Secretary of State for War contends that the War Office has nothing to do with this. I hold that the way in which the War Office has sent out untrained men is very largely responsible for a great many of these surrenders. Even now waiters from clubs, men who have never seen a horse before they enlisted, are being sent out at a high rate of pay. What can you expect in such cases? I shall not dwell on this matter, but I am most anxious that it should not be treated as one that concerns only the conduct of officers in the field. The whole House believes that British officers have maintained their past traditions. The question must be treated as one that concerns also the training of the Army and the organisation of the War Office.
§ MR. WINSTON CHURCHILL (Oldham)
earnestly hoped that the First Lord of the Treasury would find some means of escaping from the promise to grant the general inquiry which he had acknowledged he had given. He entirely agreed with the right hon. Baronet the Member for Forest of Dean that a general inquiry would be most unsatisfactory. It would be too vague, it would be immense in its scope, and it would be many months before any conclusion could be reached, and in the course of the inquiry every kind of incident would be dragged up and discussed at inordinate length, and the public would cease to take any interest even in questions that might be of the greatest importance. They did not want that.
He entirely associated himself with the mover of the Amendment in his desire that a full and clear account should be given of the many extraordinary incidents that had happened in the war. There of course had been reports from press correspondents. He 1102 had in several cases himself supplied the only report given to the country on some of these important matters. He felt keenly the responsibility which had thus been placed on him, and he thought it was time for the Government and the War Office to relieve him of some of it. He quite agreed that it would be utterly impossible for the House of Commons to embark on the discussion of any of these particular surrenders. The only point private Members had a right to insist on was that the promise given by the late Under Secretary for War of a full and thorough inquiry into all the surrenders that had taken place should be faithfully and scrupulously carried out. They wanted the opinion of high military authorities on the various "incidents," put forward with the same uncompromising vigour as was displayed by Lord Roberts in his comments on the Spion Kop operations. It would then be a question whether it would be necessary to carry the matter to a court-martial. These committees of inquiry were not regular courts. Officers who were to blame would still be liable to come up for trial. What was wanted was an official verdict on what did happen, which would apportion the praise and blame and leave the country in no doubt on the matter.
§ MR. ASQUITH (Fifeshire, E.)
My hon. friend opposite in the beginning of his speech deprecated a general inquiry into the history of the war. If only to relieve him from a part of that burden and responsibility which at present rests so heavily on his shoulders, I think he ought to welcome a general investigation. I think this debate on the whole has been not only an interesting, but a very satisfactory one, and has amply justified the course taken by my hon. friend behind me in putting down this Amendment. At one moment the First Lord of the Treasury startled the House by propounding a doctrine so novel and revolutionary as to amount almost to a new departure in ethics; but a second and diluted version of the right hon. Gentleman's proposition revealed it to be after all an innocuous and commonplace observation. But what I desire to make perfectly clear is this. We all understand the Government to 1103 have made two promises. In the first place, that wherever it is still practicable to do so they will bring the cases of persons who are prima facie responsible for any of these surrenders before a court-martial, which is an open court, where the evidence is taken on oath, and where you have all the responsibility attaching to persons who are acting in the light of day, subject to public criticism. Secondly, that as regards those cases— I hope they are very few—where, from the lack of a prima facie case against any specific individual it is impossible sin accordance with the practice of military law to hold a court-martial, the Government promise that they will form part of the general inquiry which is to take place at the close of the war, and that the facts, so far as they are ascertainable, will thus be brought to the light of day. On that distinct assurance I think my hon. friend may be well content with the result he has achieved in initiating the debate, and that he should not, in accordance with the general feelings of the Mouse, proceed to a division.
§ MR. LAMBERT
I entirely concur with my right hon. friend. There is one observation I would like to make in asking leave to withdraw the Amendment. I hope that the inquiry will not be prolonged, and that the whole circumstances will be placed before the country as soon as possible.
§ MR. COGHILL (Stoke-upon-Trent)
said he should like to say one or two words on the Amendment before it was withdrawn. Of course they all remembered last September they were told that a General Election must take place before the war would come to an end, and then they were told that the war had come to an end, and it was necessary that the opinion of the country should be taken on the war by the Government. He was surprised to hear the Secretary of State for War allude to certain difficulties which our troops had had to encounter in South Africa. He had referred to the difficulty of the topography there. They all knew that a great many of our misfortunes in South Africa were due to the insufficient knowledge of the country that our officers possessed. He must say that he rather regretted 1104 that the hon. Member for South Molton should have taken the particular shortcomings he had selected to bring before the notice of the House. He was sure that there were plenty of other shortcomings at the War Office the hon. Gentleman might have mentioned that evening. He must say that he had a great deal of sympathy with the officers and men who had surrendered in the war. The difficulties in their way had been enormous, and a great deal of blame had been put on some junior officers which ought not to have been. He remembered a sentence written in a letter by the junior Member for Oldham to the Morning Post, in which he said there had been too many surrenders in the war. Almost immediately afterwards, however, he found himself a prisoner. He thought, therefore, every hon. Member in the House must see the great difficulties there were in the way of our officers, and he for one most heartily sympathised with all those who were taken prisoners.
But there were plenty of shortcomings at the War office for which the strongest condemnation of the House was necessary. Why not put blame on the proper shoulders? Why not put the blame on the shoulders of the man who was principally responsible? That man was undoubtedly Lord Lansdowne, who was at the head of the War Office, and the man responsible for all the blunders in South Africa. Instead, however, of getting rid of him, as the Government ought to have done, they had actually promoted him to the post of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. If the Government were going to blame their officers, let them do it justly. There had been too much favouritism and family influence at the War Office. The British public desired that that state of things should come to an end. Until it did, we should never have a full and fair reform of the War Office. Eighteen months ago the First Lord of the Treasury in a speech at Manchester said that he was—
§ * MR. SPEAKER
, interposing, reminded the hon. Member that the debate was not upon the conduct of the War Office, and that his remarks were therefore out of order.
§ MR. COGHILL
said he bowed at once to the Speaker's ruling. All he had to say was that he welcomed the promise made that night that they were to have an inquiry into the doings of the War Office; but he was afraid that the inquiry when it did take place would come all too late. People would have lost all interest in the subject, and he was afraid either that a great deal of evidence would have become stale, or that a great many of the witnesses would have died or disappeared. He hoped and trusted the inquiry would be held within a reasonable time, because they could not help remembering that Lord Salisbury said only last week that he deprecated even now any inquiry into the conduct of the war. The public were determined to have an inquiry, and that the existing jobbery and favouritism should once and for ever be put an end to.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main Question again proposed.