Parliament And World War One
by Dick Barry
Debate On The Address—(Second Day)—(11th November 1914).
Speech By Arthur Henderson MP.
Arthur Henderson was one of a small group of senior Labour politicians who supported Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. The others were George Barnes, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett. On 12th November 1914, in a long response to the King’s Address to Parliament of 11th November, Henderson spoke about his reasons for supporting the war effort, but these amounted to no more than patriotic support for Britain and its Empire. More interesting are his references to ‘Kitchener’s Army’, the treatment of volunteers at the Aldershot army camp, the extension of the area of the War to include Turkey, and the plight of the women left behind. The latter forming about one third of his speech.
Henderson was present at the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 and three years later was elected its Treasurer. In 1906 he chaired the conference at which the LRC became the Labour Party. By this time he was a Member of Parliament, having been elected to represent Barnard Castle in 1903. When Ramsay MacDonald, who opposed the war, resigned as chairman of the Labour Party on 5 August 1914, Henderson once again became leader of the party. He had previously been chairman from 1908 to 1910, resigning due to a lack of full support from members. When he spoke on 11th November 1914 in favour of the war, he did so as leader of a party divided on the issue.
Arthur Henderson’s speech was one of a number in response to a short address to the House of Commons from King George V. Read by the Speaker of the House it said:
“My Lords, and Gentlemen.
The energies and sympathies of My subjects in every part of the Empire are concentrated on the prosecution to a victorious issue of the War on which we are engaged. I have summoned you now in order that sharing, as I am aware you do, My conviction that this is a duty of paramount and supreme importance, you should take whatever steps are needed for its adequate discharge.
Since I last addressed you, the area of the War has been enlarged by the participation in the struggle of the Ottoman Empire. In conjunction with My allies, and in spite of repeated and continuous provocations, I strove to preserve, in regard to Turkey, a friendly neutrality. Bad counsels, and alien influences, have driven her into a policy of wanton and defiant aggression, and a state of war now exists between us. My Mussulman subjects know well that a rupture with Turkey has been forced upon Me against My will, and I recognise with appreciation and gratitude the proofs, which they have hastened to give, of their loyal devotion and support.
My Navy and Army continue, throughout the area of conflict, to maintain in full measure their glorious traditions. We watch and follow their steadfastness and valour with thankfulness and pride, and there is, throughout My Empire, a fixed determination to secure, at whatever sacrifice, the triumph of our arms, and the vindication of our cause.
Gentlemen of the House of Commons,
You will be asked to make due financial provision for the effective conduct of the War.
My Lords, and Gentlemen,
The only measures which will be submitted to you, at this stage of the Session, are such as seem necessary to My advisers for the attainment of the great purpose upon which the efforts of the Empire are set.
I confidently commend them to your patriotism and loyalty, and I pray that the Almighty will give His Blessing to your counsels.
The announcement made by the Prime Minister with regard to the White Paper scheme of Pensions and Disablement Allowances, relieves me, for the present, of the necessity for dwelling on that subject. I want to thank the Prime Minister and the Government for having acceded to the suggestion that we made that this was a subject that ought to receive the attention of the House at much greater length than could be given in the Debate on the Address. I hope that the day will be fixed very early, as all sections of the House will admit that there is a great amount of interest in the country on this important subject.”
“In the few observations I have to make I will endeavour to emulate previous speakers by seeking to avoid anything in the nature of party controversy. It appears to me to be altogether impossible to overestimate the advantage that has accrued to this country and to the very serious cause it has in hand, both on land and at sea, from the splendid unity which has characterised all sections of the community since the War began. I want to say that, so far as we are concerned on these benches, we have come to the conclusion that everything ought to be done to preserve, right to the end of this great trial, that valuable asset, the unity of the entire Empire.”
“The brevity and substance of the Gracious Speech from the Throne remind us that there is only one supreme consideration upon which Parliament must concentrate its attention. All our energy, all our capacity and experience of the nation, both civil and military, must be so applied as to enable us to prosecute this War to a successful issue; and may I say the more expeditious the issue the more every one will be pleased. In making the statement that we must prosecute the War to a successful issue, I think I am expressing the view of the entire organised labour movement of this country. We feel that whatever differences of opinion there may have been prior to the opening of hostilities, there is no other course left open to us as a nation, there is no alternative that presents itself to us, than that we must go straight through with this very serious business. In fact, we feel that everything must be done to enable our allies and ourselves to crown their efforts with a complete, and, I hope, a final victory.”
“When the time of victory does come and when this House and the nation have to turn their attention to the question of a permanent settlement, the organised labour movement in this country will use its powerful influence in order to direct that settlement on the lines of the true spirit of nationalism and in keeping with the high ideals of democracy. Believing, as we do, that in proportion to the completeness of the victory will be the permanence of our future peace, and we shall continue, as we have done from the commencement of hostilities, to give the Government our united support, in the hope, as the Gracious Speech says, that we may carry this issue to that desirable success upon which most of us have set our hearts.”
“There is in the second paragraph of the Gracious Speech a reference, a most important reference, to the extension of the area of the war. I am quite sure of this, that all sections of the House must have deplored that it became really necessary to extend that area which, most would admit, was already far too large. The experiences civilisations have passed through since the early days of August I am sure will lead all of us to the conclusion that the more the area of such operations can be restricted the better it must be for everybody. I must say here, having watched as closely as I could the public conduct of affairs, that it seems to me that the Government deserve the credit of the country for the patient way in which they bore what were tantamount to very direct insults from Turkey during the days immediately preceding the declaration of War.”
“It seems to me that Turkey left us no alternative than to take the very direct action which the Government on behalf of the country felt impelled to take. The reference to this part of the Gracious Speech leads me to make an inquiry—I regret that the First Lord is not in his place, but, perhaps, the Prime Minister will convey to him the point I wish to make—to ask him, with all reserve, whether the Government are in a position to tell us a little more about an incident, a very important incident, if not a very powerful factor in compelling the declaration of war with regard to Turkey. I refer to the escape of two German warships, the ‘Goeben’ and the ‘Breslau’.
“The next point to which I want to refer is one that was referred to yesterday by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, that is the conditions, of which there is so much complaint, regarding the treatment of the New Army, now known in the country as Kitchener’s Army, and the conditions under which thousands, yea, tens of thousands of these men are at present placed. Before the House rose the hon. and gallant Member for South Monmouthshire (Sir Ivor Herbert) raised this question, and I took part in the Debate. The right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State for War gave us, in the short time allowed, a little information. He promised, I think, certain reforms. At any rate, he promised that the matters that had been brought to the notice of the House would receive attention. I am not going to say that there has not been an improvement. I think there has been an improvement—a considerable improvement—but I must insist on saying that there is still room for very considerable improvement according to the letters I am receiving. I am quite sure I do not stand alone in this matter, and that all sections, indeed nearly all Members of this House have been receiving such letters from all parts of the country.”
“I am going to quote from one I received two days ago, which was written on the 7th of the present month. It is an extract from a letter from one of my Constituents. He left a fair position and, responding to the appeal that was made, he enlisted in Kitchener’s New Army. (HON MEMBERS: “The King’s Army!”) Well, the King’s Army. I said a little while ago that it was known in the country, and the War Office encourages the idea in its literature, as Kitchener’s Army. I have one of their leaflets here in my hand, which encourages the use of that name. I do not think we need quarrel about it, for the Under-Secretary of State for War knows exactly what I mean.”
“At any rate, my Constituent enlisted at Darlington into one of the new branches of the King’s Army, and this is what he writes on 7th November:— ‘I beg to call your attention to the deplorable conditions under which we are forced to exist.’ This is written from Aldershot on 7th November. ‘The conditions can be described in one word as scandalous.’ It gives as an instance that they are sleeping, in the month of November, in an ordinary summer tent—healthy young men who responded to the appeal, who left good homes and good positions. ‘We come here to be treated more like dogs than men, Sir. These statements are perfectly true, and I ask you if nothing can be done to alter these conditions which are the only cause of slow recruiting.’”
“I should like to call the Under-Secretary’s attention to this further remark:—‘You would be surprised if you could read hundreds of letters that go home to parents and pals, also the deception of the recruiting officers must be stopped at once.’ This latter point about the deception of the recruiting officers deserves the careful attention of the War Office. I have here a leaflet, Army Form B218, and one paragraph opens:- ‘A private soldier in the infantry on joining gets 6s. 8d. a week, clear of all expenses.’ I want the right hon. Gentleman to tell the House whether that is correct or not. If it is not correct it ought never to be published. My opinion is that it is very far from being correct. I think there are all sorts of stoppages, to say nothing about the allotment for the wife and for each child.”
“There is the stoppage for insurance. I have heard in some cases of a stoppage to provide soap for the washing of the soldiers, and it seems to me if he starts off on 1s.1d. or 1s.2d. a day and has 3s.6d. stopped from his pay and allocated to his wife, if he has 1s. 1d. deducted for each child, if he has 1½d deducted for insurance, if he has so many coppers deducted for soap to wash himself, and so much for the washing of his clothes, there is not going to be very much left. In fact, I have had cases brought to my notice where, after all the deductions were made, the only sum that could be left for the soldier to purchase tobacco or any other thing that he took a fancy to was 11d. per week, or 11½d., to put it strictly accurate. Can the House wonder that there is some delay in recruiting? When we raised this question before the House rose, what was the surprising answer that the Under-Secretary gave? He attributed the check to recruiting to the fact that the War Office had raised the height and chest measurement, and, I believe, the age.”
The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Tennant):
“I think my hon. Friend is mistaken.”
Mr A. Henderson:
“It would have been perhaps better if the right hon. Gentleman had not challenged me on my first statement, because I am prepared to accept the suggestion that it was done to stop the rush. The effect is the same. What was stopping the rush or checking the recruiting, whichever way you care to put it, was mismanagement, the very grievous conditions which were being imposed, shall I go further and say the breach of faith as between some of the recruiting officers and the men who were being enlisted. Some of these men were leaving £3 and £4 a week. We know cases where they have left £5 a week. They have done it for the love of their country. They have done it out of a real sense of patriotism. They have made the sacrifice and they have been told they would receive 6s. 8½d. clear of all expenses. Week after week passes and we find that the magnificent sum of 11d. at the end of the week is their portion.”
“The House, I think, was immensely pleased to hear the statement from the Prime Minister, that notwithstanding all these difficulties, notwithstanding this mismanagement, there has been the magnificent total of something like 1¼ million men raised practically since the War broke out, either in the Regulars or in the Territorials. This is a great credit. The men have enlisted, not because they wanted higher pay but because they wanted to do their duty to their country, and if that was the motive that inspired them the motive that ought to inspire the responsible trustees of the country, namely, Parliament, in this matter, is to see that as speedily as possible the grievances to which I have called attention are permanently removed.”
“Another matter that I should like to call attention to is the position of many of the women of this country. The hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr Middlebrook) yesterday paid a very deserved tribute to the conduct of the great majority of the women. I want to associate myself with that tribute. I think every word that he said was deserved. Many of our women folk, and especially the wives of our soldiers and sailors, have gone during the last three months through the roughest time of their whole lives. Let me try to visualise the position that many of them have been placed in. Their husbands were called to the Colours. Many of them have been keeping their lonely vigil on the sea. Their wives were left at home. In connection with some of the wives of our sailors the only thing they have to depend upon in the early stage is what they received from the pay of the husband. In some cases they did not feel it was sufficient and made application for assistance. I had letters sent to me before any allowance was granted by the Government which proved that some of these women had been most shamefully insulted by relief committees.”
“In the case of soldier’s wives the case was even worse. For the last three or four months they have been almost the victims of an attack by misguided representatives of charitable organisations, and in some cases the representatives of an organisation which had experience and should have known better. I am referring now to an organisation that I have some good opinion of, and that is the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association. These people were entrusted with filling up the gap that ought never to have existed. The War Office, it seems to me in the early stages, if they were not in a position to pay out the money to the wives directly, though their own pay offices ought to have done what I think the right hon. Gentleman had in mind yesterday when he said the War Office had not taken advantage of the organised capacity of this country. We have the finest machinery of local government that there is in any country in the world, and yet the War Office seems to ignore the fact that we have county councils, borough councils, and urban district councils.”
“In the early stages of the War, if they found that they were incapable of paying the money direct through the pay office, or through the post offices, it seems to me that all they need have done was to enter into arrangements with the accountant’s office of the county council, the borough council or the urban district council, giving each soldier’s wives a permit or cheque, or whatever you care to call it, to go to the accountant’s office, and the money would have been paid straight away. What took place? Representatives of charitable organisations took this work up, and they not only meddled unnecessarily, but they muddled most severely. Their inquisitorial methods were a disgrace to everybody concerned. I had a case brought to my notice where a small sum was coming into a sailor’s home. The wife was asked what she did with it. The sum was £2 per month—10s. per week. It is the form of question to which I take exception. The wife has one child. The question was asked what she did with 10s. per week. Did she drink it? Did she go to see the pictures? Mark you, it was this woman’s own money. It is the wages of the husband who is keeping his silent vigil on the sea, and the wife is being insulted by being asked what she does with her husband’s wages.”
“Is this the sort of thing that the Board of Admiralty approve of? Yet this is done in connection with the administration that has been going on during the past three months through the War Office, and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association, which is doing the work for the War Office. I could give some equally telling cases. I think there is not a Member of the House but could do the same. The point I want to make is this: Can we be told now that all the arrears have been overtaken by the War Office paying out the money, and is the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association going to be done with this business? I hold that where these questions of sailors’ pay or soldiers’ separation allowances are concerned, no charitable organisation whatever has any right to be employed as between the Government and the Government employee, and I hope that from every part of the House this question of the unnecessary interference of charitable organisations between the soldier and the sailor and the Government Departments will be pressed until we are told that it is finally and permanently withdrawn.”
“I have another point to make so far as the wives of soldiers are concerned. I am glad to notice that the Home Secretary is now on the Front Bench. I want to bring to his notice what I conceive to be a very important case. I have told the House about the way soldiers’ wives are being harassed by the agents of charitable organisations; but we have gone one worse. I wonder if the House is fully alive to the fact that the latest thing to be done is to move from the agent of the charitable organisations to the police. The Home Office the other day, I think, surprised everybody by issuing a notice. What do I find? I am going to read a few lines from the letter sent by the Home Office. It was headed in the ‘Daily News’, ‘New Police Duty’:—‘I am directed by the Secretary of State to say that the Army Council desire to have the assistance of the police in the measures which are being taken to provide for—I ask the House to notice this:—‘to provide for the withholding of separation allowances payable to wives or dependents of soldiers in the event of serious misconduct on the part of the recipient.’ I am going to pronounce this ‘the limit.’ I will yield to no one in the House in my anxiety to promote good living among the people. I have supported legislation going in the direction of what I conceive to be the promotion of the people ever since I came into this House, but I must say I am going to oppose, so far as in me lies, any intention to put upon the wives of soldiers any such surveillance by the police as that described in the letter I have read.”
“Which Member of this House would like any such treatment if he did not behave himself? And I suppose we do not all behave ourselves at all times to the satisfaction of everybody else, and not always to the satisfaction of the police. But whether it be to the satisfaction of the police or the civilian, I venture to think that the last thing we would ever tolerate would be that someone should intervene and say to us how we have got to spend our money. I claim that the separation allowance is only part of the pay—part of the actual earnings of the soldier, and though it may be regrettable that some soldiers’ wives do not know how to spend the money, they are not alone in this respect. Unfortunately there are other wives who do not know how money should be spent, and there are many husbands who do not know how to spend their own money. Then why, if this be the case, should soldiers’ wives, after being harassed in the way I have pointed out by the representatives of charitable organisations, be handed over to the police in the manner proposed. May I make an appeal to the Prime Minister? I am quite sure my appeal will be realised by him, that we have no right to put the police between the wives and the spending by them of the hard-earned wages of the soldier. I hope this order will be immediately withdrawn.”
“I sincerely trust that the Government, in view of the day for discussion they have promised, and the Committee I understand the Prime Minister to say he was going to set up, will make the terms of reference sufficiently clear and broad that the whole conditions of the treatment of the soldier and sailor, and of their wives and children, will be subjected to a very careful analysis, and that they will report to this House, for I am quite certain that this should be done if the War should go on even for the period the Prime Minister hinted at, and if we have to have another million men recruited. I am doing my little bit in that direction. Since the House rose I think I have spoken at some thirty meetings, and I am prepared to speak at another thirty, but I do say that those who are throwing themselves into this work have a right to have at least a searching investigation, and to have a judgement pronounced upon the conditions I have brought before the notice of the House this afternoon.”