2018 04 – Parliament And World War One

Parliament And World War One

by Dick Barry


Sir John Jardine, 1st Baronet (27/9/1844-26/4/1919) was a Liberal MP for Roxburghshire from 1906 to 1918. He had previously contested the seat in 1900.

Sir JOHN JARDINE asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he is in a position to make any statement about the state of affairs in the kingdom of the Hedjaz, the Sultanates of Riad and Hail, and the countries adjoining these?

Lord R. CECIL In reply to the first part of my hon. Friend’s question I will, with the permission of the House, describe as briefly as possible the course which the operations of the forces of our Ally, the King of the Hedjaz, have followed since the declaration of Arabian independence was announced at Mecca in July, 1916.

At that time the Turks had in Hedjaz an army of 20,000 picked Regular troops with a proportional complement of artillery and plentiful supplies of transport, food and ammunition, besides having a military railway in direct communication with their northern bases. The Arabs, who rallied to the standard of liberation, were neither organised nor equipped with modern weapons, nevertheless the towns of Mecca, Taif, Jeddah, Yambo, Wedj, Akaba and Teima were seized at the commencement of the national movement. Consequent upon this numerous Arabian tribes and a number of officers and men prisoners of war in our hands joined voluntarily the army of the King of the Hedjaz and were organised by him into a permanent and disciplined force for the purpose of holding what had been won and extending the area of Arab independence.

The result of the efforts of this national army under the leadership of the Sherifs Ali, Abdullah, Feisal and Zeid, are that the Red Sea coast of the Hedjaz has been completely cleared of Turks along a distance of 800 miles. The military railway has been continuously interrupted and severe losses inflicted on the material and rolling stock. The city of Medina has been blockaded for the last twelve months. The Sherif Feisal’s force has advanced its front from Mecca to North of Tafileh on the shores of the Dead Sea, a distance of some 800 miles, and General Allenby’s recent raid at Ammaw had the effect of assisting the Arabs to maintain their position.

The casualties inflicted on the Turks up to date are very considerable, and it may be safely said from the declaration of Arab independence up to the present time the Arab forces have occupied, isolated, or accounted for fully 40,000 Turkish troops and over 100 guns.

Although engrossed in this difficult military struggle for national liberty, the Government of the Hedjaz have been able to inaugurate a new era of civil order and justice unknown in the Hedjaz since its subjection to Turkish rule.

The national Arab Government have moreover succeeded in arranging for two consecutive pilgrimages to the Holy Places. On these occasions the pilgrims were, as never before, accorded comfort and medical care, and both pilgrimages were marked by a complete absence of epidemics or any of the usual concomitants of robbery, extortion, and disorder.

In Eastern Arabia the Emir of Riad Ibn Saud has proved our unswerving ally, and has established the independence of the greater part of Neid.

The Emir of Hail is still personally under Turkish domination, but has not been in residence in his capital for a year.



The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Lloyd George) I beg to move, “That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision with regard to military service during the present War.”

We have entered the most critical phase of this terrible War. There is a lull in the storm, but the hurricane is not over. Doubtless we must expect more fierce outbreaks, and ere it is finally exhausted there will be many more. The fate of the Empire, the fate of Europe, and the fate of liberty throughout the world, may depend on the success with which the very last of these attacks is resisted and countered. The Government, therefore, propose to submit to Parliament, to-day, certain recommendations, in order to assist this country and the Allies to weather the storm. They will involve, I regret, extreme sacrifices on the part of large classes of the population, and nothing would justify them but the most extreme necessity, and the fact that we are fighting for all that is essential and most sacred in the national life.

Before I come to the circumstances which have led up to our submitting these proposals to Parliament, I ought to say one word as to why Parliament was not immediately summoned. Since the battle began, the Government have been engaged almost every hour in concerting, with the Allies, the necessary measures to assist the Armies to deal with the emergency. The proposals which we intend submitting to Parliament required very close and careful examination, and I think there is this advantage in our meeting to-day, rather than immediately after the impact of the German attack, that we shall be considering these proposals under conditions which will be far removed from any suggestion of panic.

I shall now come to the circumstances which have led up to the present military position. It is very difficult at this time to present a clear, connected and reliable narrative of what happened. There has been a great battle on a front of fifty miles—the greatest battle ever fought in the history of the world. Enormous forces have been engaged. There was a considerable retirement on the part of the British forces, and, under these conditions, it is not always easy for some time to ascertain what actually happened. The House will recollect the difficulty we experienced in regard to Cambrai. It was difficult to piece together the story of that event for some time, and Cambrai was a very trivial event compared with this gigantic battle.

The generals and their staffs are naturally engaged, and have to concentrate their attention upon, the operations of the enemy, and until the strain relaxes it would be very difficult to institute the necessary inquiries to find out exactly what happened, and to furnish an adequate explanation of the battle. However, there are two or three facts which stand out, and in stating them I should like to call attention to two things which I think, above all, must be avoided. The first is that nothing should be said which would give information to the enemy; nothing should be said which would give encouragement to the enemy; and nothing should be said which would give discouragement to our own troops, who are fighting so gallantly at this very hour. And the second fact is that all recrimination at this hour must be shut out. [An HON. MEMBER: “And all prejudices!”] I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no one here afraid of criticism, and he understands the responsibility of the present Government.

What was the position at the beginning of the battle? Notwithstanding the heavy casualties in 1917, the Army in France was considerably stronger on the 1st January, 1918, than on the 1st January, 1917. Up to the end of 1917—up to, say, about October or November—the German combatant strength in France was as two to the Allied three. Then came the military collapse of Russia, when the Germans hurried up their released divisions from the Eastern Front, and brought them to the West. They had a certain measure of Austrian support, which had been accorded then. Owing to the growth of the strength of our Armies in 1917. when this battle began, the combatant strength of the whole of the German Army on the Western Front was only approximately, though not quite, equal to the total combatant strength of the Allies. In Infantry they were slightly inferior; in Artillery they were inferior; in Cavalry they were considerably inferior; and, what is very important, they were undoubtedly inferior in aircraft.

Mr. LYNCH They had unity of command.

The PRIME MINISTER I am coming to all that. The Germans, therefore, organised their troops so as to produce a larger number of divisions out of the slightly smaller number of Infantry and the slightly smaller number of guns. They had fewer battalions in a division—fewer men in a battalion. That is entirely a question of organisation, and it yet remains to be seen that their organisation is better than ours. It is necessary to explain that, in order that the House may realise why, with approximately the same number of men, the Germans have a larger number of divisions on that front. According to all the facts which have come to hand as to the losses of the battle, that roughly represents the relative strength of the combatants on both sides at this moment.

The Germans had, however, one or two important advantages. The first, the initial, advantage, which is always commanded by the offensive, is that they know where they mean to attack They choose the ground, they choose the location, they know the width of the attack, they know the dimensions of the attack, they know the time of the attack, and they know the method of the attack. All that invariably gives an initial advantage to an offensive. The defence has a general advantage. Owing to air observation, concealment is difficult. At the same time, in spite of all that, owing to the power of moving troops at night, which the Germans exercised to a very large extent, there is a large margin for surprise even in spite of air observation, and of this the enemy took full advantage.

I should like to say one word here as to the difficulty with which the Allied generals were confronted in this respect. Before the battle the greatest German concentration was in front of our troops. That was no proof that the full weight of the attack would fall on us. There was a very large concentration opposite the French lines; there was a very considerable concentration—I am referring now to German reserves—on the northern part of our line after the battle began. Immediately before the battle the Germans by night brought their divisions from the northern part to the point where the attack took place. They also brought several divisions from opposite the French in the same way, and brought them to our front; but it would have been equally easy for them, whilst concentrating troops opposite our front, to manœuvre them in the same way opposite the French.

I am only referring to that in order to show how exceedingly difficult it is for generals on the defensive to decide exactly where, in their judgment, the attack is coming, and where they ought to concentrate their reserves.



The PRIME MINISTER The next step to which I should like to call the attention of the House is the material and dramatic assistance rendered by President Wilson in this emergency. It is one of the most important decisions in the War. In fact, the issue of the battle might very well be determined by that decision. In America there was a very considerable number of men in course of training, and the Allies look forward to having a large American Army in France in the Spring. It has taken longer than was anticipated to train those soldiers into the necessary divisional organisations. If America waited to complete these divisional organisations, it would not be possible for these fine troops, in any large numbers, to take part in this battle—in this campaign—although it might very well be the decisive battle of the War. This was, of course, one of the most serious disappointments from which the Allies have suffered. It is no use pretending it was not one of our chief causes of anxiety. We depended upon it largely to make up the defection of Russia.

For many reasons—reasons, perhaps, of transport, reasons connected with the time it takes, not merely to train troops and their officers, but to complete the necessary organisation—it was quite impossible to put into France the number of divisions which everyone had confidently expected would be there. Under the circumstances, we, therefore, submitted to the President of the United States of America a definite proposal. We had the advantage of having the Secretary of State for War for America in this country within two or three days after the battle had commenced. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Balfour) and I had a long conversation with him upon the whole situation, and we submitted to him certain recommendations which we had been advised to make to Mr. Baker and to the American Government On the strength of that conversation, we submitted proposals to President Wilson, with the strong support of Monsieur Clemenceau, to enable the combatant strength of the American Army to come into action during this battle, inasmuch as there was no hope of it coming in as a strong separate Army. By this decision, the American battalions will be brigaded with those of the Allies. This proposal was submitted by Lord Heading, on behalf of the British Government, to President Wilson, and President Wilson assented to the proposition without any hesitation, with the result that arrangements are now being made for the fighting strength of the American Army to be immediately brought to bear in this struggle—a struggle which is only now beginning—to this extent, and it is no small extent. It has stirred up the resolution and energy of America beyond anything which has yet occurred.

I must also call the attention of the House to another important decision taken by the Allied Governments. It became more obvious after the battle even than before that the Allied Armies were suffering from the fact that they were fighting as two separate Armies, and had to negotiate support with each other. Valuable time was thus lost. Some of us had for some time been deeply impressed by this peril and had done our best to avert it. But the inherent difficulties to be overcome are tremendous. I have repeatedly pointed this out to this House. There are national prejudices, national interests, professional prejudices, traditions. The inherent difficulties of getting two or three separate national armies to fight as one are almost insurmountable. It can only be done if public opinion in all these countries insists upon it as the one condition of success. Versailles was an effort as a remedy. How were the Versailles decisions carried out? The extent to which they were or were not carried out—this is not the time to inquire. I respectfully suggest to the House that no good would come at this stage in discussing that question. If anyone needed conviction as to the wisdom of that policy, this battle must have supplied it. The peril we passed through by establishing that conviction without challenge may, I think, be worth the price we have paid for it.



The PRIME MINISTER There is another matter to which I should like to refer, and it is the suggestion that our forces have been dissipated on subsidiary enterprises. Not a single division was sent from France to the East. With regard to Italy, had it not been for the fact that there were Italian, French, and British divisions there, the Austrian Army would have been free to throw the whole of its strength on the Western Front. If there were not some there now, the Austrian Army would be more powerfully represented than it is on the Western Front. With regard to Salonika, the only thing the present Government did was to reduce the forces there by two divisions.

Mr. PRINGLE You increased them at first.

The PRIME MINISTER The present Government reduced them by two divisions. In Mesopotamia there is only one white division, in Egypt and Palestine together there are only three white divisions; the rest are either Indians or mixed with a very, very small proportion of British troops in those divisions. I am referring to Infantry divisions. I want the House really to consider what that means. There is a menace to our Eastern Empire through Persia, because through Persia you approach Afghanistan, and through Afghanistan you menace the whole of India. Had it not been for the blows inflicted upon the Turks, what would have happened?

Before these attacks, I want the House to remember, there were Turkish armies destroyed. Had we Russia they would have been helping the Germans now on the West, exactly as they helped them in the East. But what has happened? They were attacked in Palestine and in Mesopotamia, and two Turkish armies were destroyed. Had we remained in Egypt, and defended Egypt by remaining there on the Canal, allowing the Turks to hold us with a small force whilst they were putting the whole of their force in Mesopotamia, and menacing our position in India by that means, the Turks could now have been assisting the Germans in the West, as they did in the East.

What is happening now? Instead of the Turks sending divisions to help the Germans, the Germans have sent battalions to help the Turks in Palestine. After all, if you have a great Empire, you must defend it. There was an Empire which withdrew its legions from the outlying provinces of the Empire, to defend its heart against the Goth, and those legions never went back. The British Empire has not been reduced to that plight yet. We can defend ourselves successfully in France, and we can also at the same time hold our Empire against anyone who assails it in any part of the world.

May I, before I leave this topic, say how much gratitude we owe to India for the magnificent way in which she has come to the aid of the Empire in this emergency. It is not the fact that we have got three British divisions in India and Palestine and one in Mesopotamia that has enabled us to hold our own, but that we have had these splendid troops from India—many of whom volunteered since the War—and that they have been more than a match for their Turkish adversaries on many a stricken field.

I regret to have taken up so much of the time of the House on these matters, but I now come to the point put by my right hon. Friend opposite about losses. It is too early to state yet with accuracy our losses, because in the case of a battle over such a wide front, fought with such intensity for over a fortnight, with vast numbers of men engaged, the losses sustained must be considerable. The claims; of the enemy as to prisoners have been grossly exaggerated, and Sir Douglas Haig assured me that they were quite impossible from the figures at his disposal, which he showed me. The enemy’s claims seem quite preposterous from the statement which he made to me. But, still, our losses are very great, and our reserves have been called upon to a considerable extent, to make up the wastage and refit the units. And if the battle continues on this scale, the drain on the resources of our reserves of man-power must cause the deepest anxiety, unless we take immediate steps to replenish it. The immediate necessity is relieved by the splendid and generous way and promptitude in which America has come to our aid. But the American troops are simply lent to receive their training, with a view to their incorporation, at the first suitable moment, in an American Army in France; and even if they remain with the British right through the battle, the time will come when we shall need large reinforcements, should this battle continue.

I want the House to consider for a moment what the plans of the enemy may be as they are now revealed. It was never certain that he would take this plunge, because he must know what it means if it fail, but he has taken it. The battle proves that the enemy has definitely decided to seek a military decision this year, whatever the consequences to himself. There is no doubt he has overwhelming reasons. There is the economic condition of his country and the critical economic condition of his Allies. He is now at the height of his power, and Russia is at its lowest, while America has not come in yet in its strength. So that this year the enemy may put forth something which approaches his full strength. But soon he will grow feebler and weaker in comparison with the Allied Forces. Everything, therefore, points to the definite determination of Germany to put the whole of her resources into seeking a military decision this year, and this means a prolonged battle from the North Sea to the Adriatic, with Germany and Austria throwing in the whole of their strength. There are still seven or eight months during which the fighting can continue, and everything depends upon keeping our strength right to the end, whatever may be the strain upon our resources. With American aid, we can do it, but even with American help we cannot feel secure unless we are prepared ourselves to make even greater sacrifices than we have made hitherto.