Parliament And World War One
by Dick Barry
Previous issues of Labour Affairs have covered the contentious subject of compulsory military service. On 28 September 1915 it was raised again in the House of Commons by Captain Guest. (A short biography of Captain Guest appeared in the Dec/Jan Labour Affairs). Guest’s speech was followed by an interesting contribution from Leo Amery who supported compulsory service. Amery covered a range of conflict areas from Russia to the Balkans through to the Dardanelles, Mesopotamia, Turkey and Asia Minor. Throughout his speech he referred to Germany, the enemy, as the menace. The following extract of a long biography of Amery is taken from Wikipedia. The extract concludes with Amery’s role in the First World War and his views on the League of Nations.
Leopold Charles Maurice Stennett Amery (22 November 1873–16 September 1955), usually known as Leo Amery or L.S. Amery, was a Conservative Party politician and journalist, noted for his interest in military preparedness, India and the British Empire. He was born in Gorakhpur, India, to an English father and a Hungarian Jewish mother. His father was Charles Frederick Amery (1833—1901), of Lustleigh, Devon, an officer in the Indian Forestry Commission. His mother Elizabeth Johanna Saphir (c. 1841—1908), who was the sisater of the orientalist Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, had come to India from England, where her parents had settled and converted to Protestantism. In 1877 his mother moved back to England from India and in 1885 divorced Charles.
In 1887 Amery went to Harrow, where he was a contemporary of Winston Churchill. Amery represented Harrow at gymnastics and held the top position in examinations for a number of years, also winning prizes and scholarships. After Harrow he went to Balliol College, Oxford, where he performed well: he gained a First in classical moderations in 1894; in literae humaniores in 1896; he was proxime accessit (runner-up)to the Craven scholar in 1894 and Ousley scholar in Turkish in 1896, also winning a half-blue in cross-country running. He was elected a fellow of All Souls College.
During the Second Boer War Amery was a correspondent for The Times. In 1901, in articles on the conduct of the war, he attacked the British commander, Sir Redvers Henry Buller, which contributed to Buller’s sacking. Amery was the only correspondent to visit Boer forces and was nearly captured with Winston Churchill. He later edited and largely wrote The Times History of the South African War (seven volumes; 1899—1909). The Boer War had exposed deficiencies in the British Army and in 1903 Amery wrote The Problem of the Army in which he advocated its reorganisation.
In The Times he penned articles attacking free trade using the pseudonym “Tariff Reformer” and in 1906 he wrote The Fundamental Fallacies of Free Trade. He described this as a “theoretical blast of economic heresy” because he argued that the total volume of British trade was less important than the question of whether British trade was making up for the nation’s lack of raw materials and food through exporting surplus manufactured goods, shipping and financial acumen. He was a member of the Coefficients dining club of social reformers set up in 1902 by the Fabian campaigners Sydney and Beatrice Webb.
Amery turned down the chance to be editor of The Observer in 1908 and The Times in 1912 in order to concentrate on politics. He narrowly failed to win a by-election in Wolverhampton East in 1908 by eight votes. In May 1911 he was elected unopposed as the Liberal Unionist Member of Parliament for Birmingham South, a seat he would hold until 1945. One reason why Amery agreed to stand there under the Liberal Unionist label (they were to fully merge with the Conservatives in the following year) was that he had been a long-time political admirer of Joseph Chamberlain and was an ardent supporter of Tariff Reform and imperial federation.
During the First World War, Amery’s knowledge of Hungarian led to his employment as an Intelligence Officer in the Balkans campaign. Later, as a parliamentary under-secretary in Lloyd George’s national government, he helped draft the Balfour Declaration (1917). He also encouraged Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the formation of the Jewish Legion for the British Army in Palestine. Amery was opposed to the formation of the League of Nations because he believed that the world was not equal and thus a League of Nations that granted all states equal voting rights was absurd. He instead believed that the world was tending towards larger and larger states, making up a balanced world of inherently stable units. He contrasted this idea favourably with what he called President Woodrow Wilson’s “facile slogan of self-determination”.
For my part I confess that I cannot understand why there should be all this dread of a discussion on this subject. Is the House of Commons so poor and useless a thing that whenever serious matters arise it should shut up, or is it so mean and irresponsible a body that it cannot be trusted to deal with grave matters in this crisis without introducing party rancour? In spite of the condemnation of the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, it does not seem to me that the earnest and sober speech made by the hon. Member who opened this Debate could possibly afford any encouragement to our enemies or discourage a single soldier serving at the front. This ancient House, which has been responsible for the government of this country for so long, has a duty to perform to the country and the Government is soberly and temperately discussing with care the grave questions which are before us. I do not believe the House can do any harm by discussing these questions.
An hon. Member opposite asked why we had raised this subject again within ten days or so of the last discussion. May I remind the House that in those ten days more than one thing has happened which casts a new complexion upon this matter, and which, in our opinion, reinforces tenfold the arguments we were using only a fortnight ago. We are all proud and glad of the brilliant success that our arms have won in the last few days, and we hope it is not an isolated success. We hope and believe that the German lines have now been broken through for good, and that we are now going to drive the Germans out of Belgium and France. That, however, will only be achieved at a very heavy cost. Those who have seen something of fighting and who have read in despatches of this or that place being taken, retaken, and then recaptured by us, will know what we have had to suffer in casualties during the last two or three days. If we are at the beginning of a great successful movement now, we have to prepare ourselves for half a million casualties in the next two or three months; and does anyone who has listened to my hon. Friend’s speech, which was built on facts and personal experience, believe that under present conditions, we can find the drafts to make good those losses under the present system?
Take the other alternative. Let us suppose this success is followed by only one or two other successes, and that we fail to break the German lines for good. We have then to face the fact that even when losses are made good the Army we have at the front is insufficient for the task of breaking through in the West. We shall want, not only more drafts, but new divisions, which, again, require 100 or 150 per cent of drafts. Where are the men coming from to bring that about? It is not only in the West that things have happened within the last ten days. The course of the War has been moving on in Russia, and we have had very satisfactory victories in Galicia. We have been immensely relieved to know that the Russian Army, by hard marching and gallant fighting, has escaped from the menace which threatened it. But it is no use ignoring the fact that, even if the Germans failed to bring about another Sedan, that during those ten days they have made a most substantial advance, and that they have gained by their menace one of the most important railway junctions in the whole of Russia by taking Vilna.
The gain of Vilna is an immense addition to the fighting strength of the German lines on the Russian front. But more than that has happened. We have seen in the last few days a new menace arising in the Balkans, which, indeed, has not been new to anyone who has had to follow the situation close at hand, as I have during the past few months. I want the House to consider what the menace means in the first instance to our gallant allies, the Serbians. I am sure the sympathy of the whole House must go out to the gallant Serbian Army prepared to face attack both in front and in the rear. It must also go out to the Greek nation, which has responded to the call of danger with such promptitude and in such a fine spirit. If I may digress for a moment from the subject of this discussion, I should like to say a word about Greece, because I believe in this country the attitude and temper of the Greek nation has hardly been fully understood. If there were differences between statesmen in Greece, if there were differences between the King of Greece and M. Venezelos, they were not differences as to the general attitude of Greece, because in this War the Greek nation is at one with us in sympathy and in object. The only difference was as to the reality of the menace threatened from Bulgaria. Once that subject has become clear the Greek nation are as one with us in this matter. The Greek nation has at its disposal an Army whose full value has scarcely been realised in this country. Many of us have had impressions derived from events of fifteen years ago or more which would put the Greek Army on an inferior footing. I do not profess to speak as an expert, but as one who has seen a certain amount of soldiers, and who has had some intercourse with officers. I believe the Greek Army is one which in leadership, in the efficiency of its officers, and the fine spirit of its men is one which is certain to do justice to that country and the ancient renown of the Greek nation.
I ask the House what this menace means not only to Serbia or Greece, but to the whole position in the Balkans if it should be that Bulgaria takes a mistaken step and by that step Germany is able to get into touch with Turkey. We shall then have to face at the Dardanelles not a shortage but a greatly increased supply of munitions. There is scarcely a square yard of ground there that is not under shell fire. Not only in the Dardanelles but in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and in Persia, and in other places the menace we have to confront will be infinitely increased if once Germany could break through and get into touch with Turkey. There are in Turkey hundreds of thousands of able-bodied men who could be made soldiers tomorrow if rifles could be found for them. If Germany breaks through in this way it means that at the very moment when her resources of manhood are beginning to be exhausted she will find fresh resources of manhood in Turkey. But there is another side to this question. If Germany can break through she will have at her disposal the wheat harvest of Bulgaria and the barley harvest of Turkey, and all the economic resources of a great new region.
In the north-east of Serbia is one of the richest copper mines of the world. See what that means to Germany in her present state? From Cilicia and other parts of Asia Minor she will be able to secure cotton. In fact, if she succeeds in what she is attempting to do, it means to a great extent the breaking down of our blockade and neutralising the advantage which we have in the command of the sea. The question naturally occurs as to how far the danger which threatens today could have been averted. It would be an easy but not a profitable thing to discuss the diplomacy of the Allies in the Balkan Sates, and there is only one thing I will mention. The conviction was planted in my mind when I was in the Balkans that the only thing that really affects the attitude of Bulgaria is the question of the strength of the forces on both sides, and the moment the Russian defeats began and our failure at the Dardanelles became manifest the danger with which we are confronted today became an obvious danger and ought to have been dealt with by the Government of this country. There was only one way of meeting that danger. If the British Minister at Sofia could have gone and said, “We are raising another million or two million men and shall use as many hundreds of thousands as are wanted to see that the position of the Allies in the Balkans is not changed for the worse,” then it would have had a most important effect in deciding the attitude of Bulgaria.
The need there as well as on the Western frontier is for more men and greater strength. It is obvious on any consideration that more men can be obtained. I was at a small seaside place recently, and I could have swept up a battalion of young men between eighteen and thirty. None of them were munition workers; all of them were young gentlemen of the commercial class. I do not say that they were short of patriotism. I believe if the call of national duty were put to them that they would come forward as cheerfully as any of those who have volunteered. They are only waiting for a definite summons of the law to come. It is obvious from figures which the Prime Minister has given that not more than 2,000,000 men in addition to those already liable for military service have come forward, and there are more than 9,000,000 men of military age in this country. There must be five or six million men of military age in this country who have not yet been called upon. Allowing for the unfit and 2,000,000 men who ought to be retained for essential services, there must be at least 2,000,000 men who might be drawn upon, and who would not weaken either munition work or a single essential industry.
The fact remains that the men are not coming forward. Could anything be more convincing than the speech of my hon. Friend? I know that when I referred to those facts in the House the other day, and ventured to point out that recruiting had fallen to such a state that recruiting officers were unwisely tempted to let through men who were not fit for military service, I was accused of libelling them. Why should I libel the gallant men who have been fighting at the Front, or the gallant men who have come forward, even although unfit, and are ready to serve their country? The fact remains that there is scarcely a battalion of Reservists, drafting battalions, who have not a large proportion—5, 10, and 15 per cent—of men whom their commanding officers consider unfit for any military service whatever. Many of them, because they cannot walk a mile or two, have been transferred for Home defence to form that swiftly moving field force which is to protect us against invasion! Surely it is not necessary that we should enlist that sort of men, who might be doing very good work in other directions, and who at the present moment are mere burdens upon the National Exchequer.
My hon. friend referred to the enlistment of men who ought to do munition work. What is the use of going down to battalions and asking colonels at great sacrifice to spare their men for munition work, if when they come back to the factory other men refuse to work with them, because they are non-union men? The argument the men are using are Messrs. Thorneycroft’s works, where a strike is going on at this moment against men brought back from France, is this, and it is a most interesting argument: “They ought not to have brought back non-union men; there are a good many union boiler makers and others with the Colours.” Is there any power in the Minister of Munitions to bring back trade unionists rather than non-unionists? There is no such power, and can be no such power under a voluntary system. These men, although they do not realise it, are really striking for compulsory service. They are striking for organisation, and for order and method in our procedure. I believe, if the nation understood this question, that would be the demand of all. I believe we are not doing an unfair or provocative thing if we respectfully press upon the Government the need for an early decision in this matter.
This is not an ordinary political question with regard to which a tiresome and vexatious Opposition is to be kept in its place by being told to wait until the Government decide at its leisure. It is not we who raise this question. It is raised by the situation outside. Is Bulgaria going to stop mobilising her troops until the Government have given full and mature consideration to this matter? Is the Government going to tell Germany to postpone their attack upon Serbia until next Session, or whenever their decision is to be made. Are we to ask Hindenburg to “wait and see” until we have decided? Events are marching every day, and every day we delay to decide this matter the fate of this country is being decided against us, and the internal condition of this country is not being improved either. If there is one thing which will lead to dis-union at home and to defeat abroad, it is this continued indecision of the Government. Let them decide, and we, the people at home, will rally round them, and will see to it that we get victory abroad.
Sir R. Pearce
There is no question at all about the need of men to be debated. The only question which is a really useful one at the present time is whether there are the men. That has never yet been stated by any man of authority, and the Government have refrained from saying anything about the number. It seems to me that a very few words will show that we are really doing all that we can. There are only 47,000,000 people in the country. There are 23,000,000 males, and of the males the infants, old men, idiots, lunatics, criminals and paupers number 13,000,000, leaving 10,000,000 adult workers available for the sustenance and defence of the country. We have it agreed with more or less quibbling about half a million of men that the Army now numbers 3,000,000 or 2,500,000. Putting it at 3,000,000, that leaves 7,000,000. Out of the 7,000,000, 3,000,000 or 4,000,000 are necessarily required for the provision of munitions and the maintenance of fighting men. That leaves 4,000,000 adult males only, from which you can by any possibility recruit, and they are wanted to carry on all the other business of the country and to sustain and maintain the whole fabric of society. They cannot do it, and it is admitted that they cannot do it, because you are already obliged to draw upon the women. I beg of those who are clamouring for Conscription or National Service to remember that at the present time we are doing all that it appears to be reasonably possible with the numbers available for service abroad.
Robert Pearce (15 January 1840—29 September 1922) was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament for the Leek division of Staffordshire from 1906 until January 1910, losing by 10 votes to the Conservative candidate Arthur Heath. Heath did not stand again in December 1910, when Pearce retook the seat, holding it until he retired from Parliament at the next election in December 1918, aged 78.