Parliament and World War One
By Dick Barry
PRIME MINISTER’S STATEMENT. 19 December 1916
Prime Minister Lloyd George moved the Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill on 19 December 1916. In the first part of a very long speech he focused on the offer from Germany of a conference to discuss peace terms.
I am afraid I shall have to claim the indulgence of the House in making the observations which I have to make in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. I am still suffering a little from my throat. I appear before the House of Commons to-day, with the most terrible responsibility that can fall upon the shoulders of any living man, as the chief adviser of the Crown, in the most gigantic War in which the country has ever been engaged—a war upon the event of which its destiny depends. It is the greatest War ever waged. The burdens are the heaviest that have been cast upon this or any other country, and the issues which hang on to it are the gravest that have been attached to any conflict in which humanity has ever been involved. The responsibilities of the new Government have been suddenly accentuated by a declaration made by the German Chancellor, and I propose to deal with that at once. The statement made by him in the German Reichstag has been followed by a Note presented to us by the United States of America without any note or comment. The answer that will be given by the Government will be given in full accord with all our brave Allies. Naturally, there has been an interchange of views, not upon the Note, because it only recently arrived, but upon the speech which propelled it, and, inasmuch as the Note itself is practically only a reproduction, or certainly a paraphrase of the speech, the subject matter of the Note itself has been discussed informally between the Allies, and I am very glad to be able to state that we have each of us separately and independently arrived at identical conclusions.
I am very glad that the first answer that was given to the statement of the German Chancellor was given by France and by Russia. They have the unquestionable right to give the first answer to such an invitation. The enemy is still on their soil; their sacrifices have been greater. The answer they have given has already appeared in all the papers, and I simply stand here to-day, on behalf of the Government, to give clear and definite support to the statement which they have already made. Let us examine what the statement is, and examine it calmly. Any man or set of men who wantonly, or without sufficient cause, prolonged a terrible conflict like this would have on his soul a crime that oceans could not cleanse. Upon the other hand it is equally true that any man or set of men who out of a sense of weariness or despair abandoned the struggle without achieving the high purpose for which we had entered into it-being nearly fulfilled would have been guilty of the costliest act of poltroonery ever perpetrated by any statesman. I should like to quote the very well known words of Abraham Lincoln under similar conditions: “We accepted this war for an object, and a worthy object, and the war will end when that object is attained. Under God I hope it will never end until that time.” Are we likely to achieve that object by accepting the invitation of the German Chancellor? That is the only question we have to put to ourselves.
There has been some talk about proposals of peace. What are the proposals? There are none. To enter at the invitation of Germany, proclaiming herself victorious, without any knowledge of the proposals she proposes to make, into a conference, is to put our heads into a noose with the rope end in the hands of Germany. This country is not altogether without experience in these matters. This is not the first time we have fought a great military despotism that was overshadowing Europe, and it will not be the first time we shall have helped to overthrow military despotism. We have an uncomfortable historical memory of these things, and we can recall when one of the greatest of these despots had a purpose to serve in the working of his nefarious schemes. His favourite device was to appear in the garb of the angel of peace. He usually appeared under two conditions, firstly, when he wished for time to assimilate his conquests, or to reorganise his forces for fresh conquests; and, secondly, when his subjects showed symptoms of fatigue and war weariness, and invariably the appeal was always made in the name of humanity; and he demanded an end to bloodshed at which he professed himself to be horrified but for which he himself was mainly responsible. Our ancestors were taken in once, and bitterly they and Europe rue it. The time was devoted to reorganising his forces for a deadlier attack than ever upon the liberties of Europe and examples of that kind cause as to regard this Note with a considerable measure of reminiscent disquiet. We feel that we ought to know before we can give favourable consideration to such an invitation that Germany is prepared to accede to the only terms on which it is possible for peace to be obtained and maintained in Europe. What are those terms? They have been repeatedly stated by all the leading statesmen of the Allies. My right hon. Friend has stated them repeatedly here and outside, and all I can do is to quote, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House did last week, practically the statement of the terms put forward by my right hon. Friend: Restitution, reparation, guarantee against repetition so that there shall be no mistake, and it is important that there should be no mistake in a matter of life and death to millions. Let me repeat again—complete restitution, full reparation, effectual guarantees. Did the German Chancellor use a single phrase to indicate that he was prepared to concede such terms? Was there a hint of restitution? Was there any suggestion of reparation? Was there any indication of any security for the future that this outrage on civilisation would not be again perpetrated at the first profitable opportunity?
The very substance and style of the speech constitutes a denial of peace on the only terms on which peace is possible. He is not even conscious now that Germany has committed any offence against the rights of free nations. Listen to this from the Note: Not for an instant have they (they being the Central Powers) swerved from the conviction that the respect of rights of other nations is not in any degree compatible with their own rights and legitimate interests. When did they discover that? Where was the respect for the rights of other nations in Belgium and Serbia? Oh, that was self-defence! Menaced, I suppose, by the overwhelming armies of Belgium, the Germans had been intimidated into invading that country, to the burning of Belgian cities and villages, to the massacring of thousands of inhabitants, old and young, to the carrying of the survivors into bondage; yea, and they were carrying them into slavery at the very moment when this precious Note was being written about the unswerving conviction as to the respect of the rights of other nations! I suppose these outrages are the legitimate interests of Germany? We must know. That is not the mood of peace. If excuses of this kind for palpable crimes can be put forward two and a half years after the exposure by grim facts of the guarantee, is there, I ask in all solemnity, any guarantee that similar subterfuges will not be used in the future to overthrow any treaty of peace you may enter into with Prussian militarism? This Note and that speech proves that not yet have they learned the very alphabet of respect for the rights of others. Without reparation, peace is impossible. Are all these outrages against humanity on land and on sea to be liquidated by a few pious phrases about humanity? Is there to be no reckoning for them? Are we to grasp the hand that perpetrated these atrocities in friendship without any reparation being tendered or given? I am told that we are to begin, Germany helping us, to exact reparation for all future violence committed after the War. We have begun already. It has already cost us so much, and we must exact it now so as not to leave such a grim inheritance to our children. Much as we all long for peace, deeply as we are horrified with war, this Note and the speech which propelled it afford us small encouragement and hope for an honourable and lasting compact.
What hope is there given by that speech that the whole root and cause of this great bitterness, the arrogant spirit of the Prussian military caste, will not be as dominant as ever if we patch up a peace now? Why the very speech in which these peace suggestions are made resounds with the boasts of Prussian military triumphs of victory. It is a long paean over the victory of Von Hindenburg and his legions. This very appeal for peace is delivered ostentatiously from the triumphant chariot of Prussian militarism. We must keep a steadfast eye upon the purpose for which we entered the War, otherwise the great sacrifices we have been making will be all in vain. The German Note states that it was for the defence of their existence and the freedom of national development that the Central Powers were constrained to take up arms. Such phrases cannot even deceive those who pen them. They are intended to delude the German nation into supporting the designs of the Prussian military caste. Whoever wishes to put an end to their existence and the freedom of their national development? We welcomed their development as long as it was on the paths of peace. The greater their development upon that road, the greater will all humanity be enriched by their efforts. That was not our design, and it is not our purpose now. The Allies entered this War to defend themselves against the aggression of the Prussian military domination, and having begun it, they must insist that it can only end with the most complete and effective guarantee against the possibility of that caste ever again disturbing the peace of Europe. Prussia, since she got into the hands of that caste, has been a bad neighbour, arrogant, threatening, bullying, litigious, shifting boundaries at her will, taking one fair field after another from weaker neighbours, and adding them to her own domain, with her belt ostentatiously full of weapons of offence, and ready at a moment’s notice to use them. She has always been an unpleasant disturbing neighbour in Europe, and no wonder that the Prussians got thoroughly on the nerves of Europe. There was no peace near where she dwelt.
It is difficult for those who were fortunate enough to live thousands of miles away to understand what it has meant to those who lived near their boundaries. Even here, with the protection of the broad seas between us, we know what a disturbing factor the Prussians were with their constant naval menace, but even we can hardly realise what it has meant to France and to Russia. Several times there were threats directed to them within the lifetime of this generation which presented the alternative of war or humiliation. There were many of us who hoped that internal influence in Germany would have been strong enough to check and ultimately to eliminate this hectoring. All our hopes proved illusory, and now that this great War has been forced by the Prussian military leaders upon France, Russia, Italy, and ourselves, it would be folly, it would be cruel folly, not to see to it that this swashbuckling through the streets of Europe to the disturbance of all harmless and peaceful citizens shall be dealt with now as an offence against the law of nations. The mere word that lead Belgium to her own destruction will not satisfy Europe any more. We all believed it. We all trusted it. It gave way at the first pressure of temptation, and Europe has been plunged into this vortex of blood. We will, therefore, wait until we hear what terms and guarantees the German Government offer other than those, better than those, surer than those which she so lightly broke, and meanwhile we shall put our trust in an unbroken Army rather than in a broken faith. For the moment, I do not think it would be advisable for me to add anything upon this particular invitation. A formal reply will be delivered by the Allies in the course of the next few days.
I shall therefore proceed with the other part of the task which I have in front of me. What is the urgent task in front of the Government? To complete and make even more effective the mobilisation of all our national resources, a mobilisation which has been going on since the commencement of the War, so as to enable the nation to bear the strain, however prolonged, and to march through to victory, however lengthy, and however exhausting may be the journey. It is a gigantic task, and let me give this word of warning: If there be any who have given their confidence to the new Administration in expectation of a speedy victory, they will be doomed to disappointment. I am not going to paint a gloomy picture of the military situation—if I did, it would not be a true picture—but I must paint a stern picture, because that accurately represents the facts. I have always insisted on the nation being taught to realise the actual facts of this War. I have attached enormous importance to that at the risk of being characterised as a pessimist. I believe that a good many of our misunderstandings have arisen from exaggerated views which have been taken about successes and from a disposition to treat, as trifling real set backs. To imagine that you can only get the support and the help, and the best help, of a strong people by concealing difficulties is to show a fundamental misconception. The British people possess as sweet a tooth as anybody and they like pleasant things put on the table, but that is not the stuff that they have been brought up on. That is not what the British Empire has been nourished on. Britain has never shown at its best except when it was confronted with a real danger and understood it.
Let us for a moment look at the worst. The Roumanian blunder was an unfortunate one, but at worst it prolongs the War; it does not alter the fundamental facts of the War. I cannot help hoping that it may even have a salutary effect in calling the attention of the Allies to obvious defects in their organisation, not merely the organisation of each but the organisation of the whole, and if it does that and braces them up to fresh effort it may prove, bad as it is, a blessing. That is the worst. That has been a real setback. It is the one cloud—well, it is the darkest cloud—and it is a cloud that appeared on a clearing horizon. We are doing our best to make it impossible that that disaster should lead to worse. That is why we have taken in the last few days very strong action in Greece. We mean to take no risks there. We have decided to take definite and decisive action, and I think it has succeeded. We have decided also to recognise the agents of that great Greek Statesman, M. Venizelos.
I wanted to clear out of the way what I regarded as the worst features in the military situation, but I should like to say one word about the lesson of the fighting on the Western front, not about the military strategy but about the significance of the whole of that great struggle, one of the greatest struggles ever waged in the history of the world. It is full of encouragement and of hope. Just look at it. An absolutely new Army! The old had done its duty and spent itself in the achievement of that great task. This is a new Army. But a year ago it was ore in the earth of Britain, yea, and of Ireland. It became iron. It has passed through a fiery furnace, and the enemy knows that it is now fine steel—an absolutely new Army, new men, new officers taken from schools, boys from schools, from colleges, from counting-houses, never trained to war, never thought of war, many of them perhaps never handled a weapon of war, generals never given the opportunity of handling great masses of men! Some of us had seen the manoeuvres. What would now be regarded as a division attacking a small village is more than our generals ever had the opportunity of handling before the War. Compared with the great manoeuvres on the Continent, they were toy manoeuvres. And yet this New Army, new men, new officers, generals new to this kind of work, they have faced the greatest Army in the world, the greatest Army the world has ever seen, the best equipped and the best trained, and they have beaten them, beaten them, beaten them! Battle after battle, day after day, week after week! From the strongest entrenchments ever devised by human skill they have driven them out by valour, by valour which is incredible when you read the story of it.
There is something which gives you hope, which fills you with pride in the nation to which they belong. It is a fact, and it is a fact full of significance for us— and for the foe. It is part of his reckoning as well. He has seen that Army grow and proved under his very eyes. A great French general said to me, “Your Army is a new Army. It must learn, not merely generals, not merely officers, but the men must learn not merely what to do, but how and when to do it. They are becoming veterans, and therefore, basing our confidence upon these facts, I am as convinced as I ever was of ultimate victory if the nation proves as steady, as valorous, as ready to sacrifice and as ready to learn and to endure as that great Army of our sons in France. That is all I shall say at the present moment about the military situation.
“WHY MUST THE WAR GO ON?” 31 December 1916
Captain GANZONI asked the Home Secretary whether he is aware that a leaflet entitled “Why must the War go on?” written by the hon. Member for Stirling Burghs, and published by the Union of Democratic Control, has been distributed from house to house in the city of York; and whether he intends to take any action in consequence of the statements and imputations contained therein?
My attention has been drawn to this leaflet, and it is receiving my consideration.
Before the right hon. Gentleman answers, may I ask whether he is aware that this leaflet was submitted to the Censor before publication?
No, Sir, I am not aware of it. My attention has been called to this leaflet. I will consider it.
In view of the pestilential character of this leaflet, will you take steps to prosecute the hon. Member?
Are we to understand that a leaflet which is passed by the Censor is of a pestilential character?
Are there pro-Germans in the Censor’s office?
Note: Francis John Childs Ganzoni (19 January 1892-15 August 1958) was a Conservative MP for Ipswich a seat he won in a by-election on 23 May 1914. He served in the First World War with the 4th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment where he rose to the rank of Captain.