2018 07 – Parliament And World War One

Parliament And World War One

by Dick Barry


Mr. OUTHWAITE asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether, at the time, a year ago, of the refusal of the British Government to consider peace negotiations, and in particular the proposals of the Kerensky Government, he was aware that President Poincaré was in possession of a letter from the Emperor Karl of Austria stating that he would support, by every means and use all his personal influence with his Allies, the French just claims regarding Alsace-Lorraine, and affirming that the sovereignty of Belgium should be restored, as also that of Serbia with an outlet to the sea provided?

The SECRETARY of STATE for FOREIGN AFFAIRS (Mr. Balfour) We have given the most careful consideration in our power to this question and to others on the same subject which appear on the Paper, and have come to the deliberate conclusion that, for the present at least, the public interests would not be served by discussion in this House, whether by way of question and answer or otherwise. I hope, therefore, that hon. Members will not press me further on the matter.



Mr. PONSONBY asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether the letter from the Emperor of Austria making suggestions for a peace settlement in March, 1917, and the correspondence which followed were submitted to the Prime Minister; whether the Prime Minister informed his colleagues; whether all information as to the negotiations which were being carried on with Austria was withheld from the Governments of Russia, Belgium, and the United States; whether an investigation into these secret negotiations is now being conducted by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the French Chamber; and what opportunity will be afforded to this House to elicit the facts?

Mr. HARRIS I would refer the hon. Member to the reply returned on this subject to the hon. Member for Hanley on 15th April, and to that which the Secretary of State gave yesterday to the hon. Member for the Hexham Division, to which, I am afraid, I can add nothing.

Mr. PONSONBY Would the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether, in addition to the declaration of the French Chamber, which he informed the House yesterday would be communicated to this House, he would also give a report of the action of His Majesty’s Government towards the negotiations initiated by the Emperor Karl, all of which were communicated to the Prime Minister?

Mr. HARRIS I will certainly ask my right hon. Friend.

Mr. LEES-SMITH Would the right hon. Gentleman also ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he intends to adhere to the reply to the hon. Member for Hanley, that he will make no statement on this subject, in view of the fact that the letter of the Emperor Charles is only the latest indication that a year ago the Government had the basis of a just and an honourable peace, and that millions of men are dying?

Mr. OUTHWAITE Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether the Prime Minister settled the matter of peace or war without reference to him, at the cost of a million of lives?



Mr. LEES-SMITH asked the Secretary for Foreign Affairs (1) whether the letter of the Emperor Charles of Austria of 21st March, 1917, containing proposals for peace on the basis of the restoration and compensation of Belgium, the re-establishment of Serbia with an outlet on the Adriatic, and the support of the just claims of France in Alsace-Lorraine, was communicated by the Allies to the Governments of the United States or Belgium or Russia before it was rejected; (2) whether he will make a statement as to the reports that the Emperor Charles of Austria followed up his letter of 31st March, 1917, with a second letter in which he stated that he was convinced that he could induce Germany to make peace provided that the territorial demands of the Allies were restricted to Alsace-Lorraine, and that the Prime Minister of this country was favourably inclined to further negotiations, but that these were rejected on account of the opposition of Italy and France?

Mr. OUTHWAITE asked the Secretary for Foreign Affairs (1) whether his attention has been called to the fact that the documents submitted by M. Clemenceau to the committees of the French Parliament in connection with the rejection of the peace proposals made by the Emperor Karl included a letter from M. Poincaré to Prince Sixte in which the President demanded that France should not only have Alsace-Lorraine, but the frontier of 1814, and a guarantee in regard to the left bank of the Rhine; in view of the fact that he has stigmatised as a mare’s nest the suggestion that France was making these annexationist claims, will he make a statement on the subject; (2) whether his attention has been called to the fact that the documents communicated to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the French Parliament disclose that the Prime Minister at the time of the peace proposals made by the Emperor Karl contended that they should be considered; why, under the circumstances, the Government has sought to create the belief in the public mind that no opportunity for the opening up of negotiations in conformity with British war aims has yet been presented; (3) whether he can state the annexationist claims made by Baron Sonnino which were the main cause of the rejection of the proposal for the opening up of negotiations made by the Emperor Karl; (4) asked the Prime Minister whether his attention has been drawn to the fact that M. Clemenceau has submitted to the Foreign Affairs Committee and to the Army and Navy Committee of the French Parliament the documents relating to the proposals for peace negotiations made by the Emperor Karl of Austria; and will he immediately submit these documents to the House of Commons in open or secret Session?

Mr. BALFOUR I have already stated that, in the opinion of His Majesty’s Government, it is inconsistent with the public interest to discuss this subject by question and answer; but I have also promised to put the House in immediate possession of any official statement issued by the French Government, which is now considering the whole matter, and which is the Government primarily concerned.

Mr. LEES-SMITH Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that any official statement issued by the French Government will in any case be published in the newspapers?

Mr. BALFOUR If that is so, perhaps the hon. Member will be content.

Mr. LEES-SMITH In regard to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s answer, does he mean to say that the people of this country have no right to any information as to the reasons for a decision which is leading to the loss of millions of lives?

Mr. BALFOUR No. What I said was that in my opinion it was inconsistent with the public interest to discuss the subject by question and answer.

Mr. OUTHWAITE Can the right hon. Gentleman affirm or deny the statement in the French Press, published in this country, that the Prime Minister supported the proposals made by the Emperor Karl giving a prospect of the opening of peace negotiations?

Mr. BALFOUR I say it is inconsistent with the public interest to discuss this by question and answer.

Mr. OUTHWAITE Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this statement has appeared in the French Press on the authority of M. Ribot, the late Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and why should not this country be informed, as the French public are, as to the attitude of the Prime Minister?

Mr. BALFOUR The hon. Member says it has appeared in the Press. If it appeared in the public Press that was all that was required.

Mr. PRINGLE Can the right hon. Gentleman not make a statement as to this intimation which has appeared also in British newspapers?

Mr. BALFOUR I cannot lay down what on some future occasion may be discussed in Debate; but I do say, and say quite distinctly, that I do not think the public interest is served by dealing with this very difficult and delicate matter by question and answer.

Mr. OUTHWAITE In regard to Question 20, has the right hon. Gentleman’s attention been drawn to the statement made in the French Press and repeated here that the Prime Minister supported the proposal made by the Emperor Karl, and that M. Sonnino opposed it on the ground of not fulfilling the annexationist claims of Italy? Can he say what are these claims which stand in the way of making peace?

Mr. SPEAKER That question is covered by the right hon. Gentleman’s original answer.



Mr. HOLT asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will communicate the information regarding the Emperor of Austria’s letter and the proceedings consequent thereto which was laid before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the French Chamber, or so much thereof as can be made public, to the House in time for debate on Thursday next?

Mr. BALFOUR I have already informed the House that I shall be glad to put the House in possession of anything which the French Government may think it proper to publish on this subject. I cannot, I fear, go further.

Mr. OUTHWAITE Has the right hon. Gentleman seen that the French Government has thought it proper to refer these documents to the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Navy and Army Committee, and is he just hushing it up because these documents reveal that the Prime Minister was contending for the making of peace at this juncture whilst this Government is attacking those who say the opportunity has arisen?

Mr. BALFOUR The hon. Gentleman is entering into argument on this question. The documents to which he refers were laid, as I understand it, by the French Government before a secret committee. I do not even know what the documents were.

Mr. OUTHWAITE Has the right hon. Gentleman not been informed by the French Government that documents relating to the making of peace were submitted to the Foreign Affairs Committee?

Mr. BALFOUR It is not the practice of the French Government to tell us what documents they choose to lay before a secret committee of their own Chamber.

Mr. SNOWDEN Was not the Foreign Office or the British Foreign Secretary made aware of the negotiations which are now the subject of inquiry in the French Foreign Affairs Committee?

Mr. D. MASON Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that it would allay a considerable amount of unrest in this country if he would lay Papers?

Mr. SNOWDEN May I have an answer to my question? Is not the British Foreign Office as fully aware of the circumstances connected with these peace offers as the French Government; and, if so, why cannot this House be informed as the French Parliament has been informed?

Mr. BALFOUR I am asked whether I can lay certain documents. I do not know what the documents referred to were.



Herbert Samuel (6/11/1870-5/2/1963). Elected as Liberal MP for Cleveland in 1902 by-election. Appointed to cabinet by Prime Minister Asquith in 1909, eventually becoming Home Secretary from January to December 1916. Resigned as Home Secretary when Lloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister.

 Mr SAMUEL There are some observations which I wish to make on the present political situation in this country, and in this House, and in its bearing to the war position. It is contended that the criticisms which have been directed against certain authorities in the Government indicates a weakening of the determination of those who are responsible for those criticisms to carry the War to a successful issue. It has been suggested in many quarters that the controversy of last Thursday was really an issue for or against the vigorous prosecution of the War. One would be inclined to ignore assertion of that kind, if they did not come from authoritative quarters, and have recently apparently received, at all events, to some extent, the endorsement of so distinguished a statesman as Lord Curzon. There have been criticisms of the Government. They have been mainly on three lines. In the first place, it has been said there have been several defects in their administration of domestic affairs; that the problem of man-power was, in effect, neglected all through the critical year 1917; that there has been a comparative failure, which still continues, in the shipbuilding programme—a most vital matter; that there is frequently conflict and competition between the various Departments of the State; that our expenditure has increased from £2,000,000,000 to £3,000,000,000 per year within a period of eighteen months; that there are prolonged delays in dealing with many of the problems relating to food control, and other matters.

Those of us who have made these criticisms have gone on to point out what we regard as their cause, and the possible remedy for these defects. We consider that the War Cabinet has assumed a burden of work that is beyond the capacity of any so small a group of men to carry, not through any lack of capacity or application on the part of those Members, but because they have undertaken a burden which is in itself too heavy to bear. Engaged as they are in supervising the whole operations of the War by sea and land, our relations with our Allies and our Dominions, with India, with neutrals, attending, as many of them have to do frequently, international conferences, busy with the immense volume of work that attaches to these large matters that come before them, they have, nevertheless, undertaken to deal with all domestic problems as well —labour problems, Ireland, food, manpower, domestic legislation of every kind. Is it to be wondered at that there is a continual and extreme congestion of business? Only last week we were told, in answer to a question in this House, that there had been submitted to this body the question of whether or not a limited amount of flour should be released for the purpose of making dog biscuits, and, on the same day, we were told that the War Cabinet had not yet given its decision on the matter of whether or not horse-racing should be discontinued. Of course they have not. How could they be expected to divert their attention from these large matters of vital importance to read the papers and come to their conclusions on horse racing or dog biscuits? We have urged that the machinery of government is working badly because it is not complete, that in addition to the War Cabinet you ought to have something in the nature of a Home Cabinet to deal with these comparatively minor matters. Having come to that conclusion, whether right or wrong, I submit it is our duty to state those views to the House, because good administration at home, frugal finance, an effective management of such problems as shipbuilding and man-power, are essential to the effective prosecution of the War.

The second line of criticism which has developed in recent weeks has relation to Conscription in Ireland. I do not propose to argue that subject now. I have dealt with it before, and I dare say I may have an opportunity of speaking on it again when it comes in concrete and immediate form before the House. We believe the Government, in dealing with this matter, are on the wrong lines, that the course they have taken is not likely to add to the number of our Armies available for service at the front, but is calculated, so far as one can at present foresee, to reduce the numbers available. We hold, more important than that, that it injures profoundly our moral position in the face of the world, and that if the Government adopt in Ireland Austrian methods they will find our moral international position tends to be reduced to something approaching the Austrian level. Above all, the action which they seem likely to take in Ireland does run directly counter to the supreme principle on behalf of which we are waging this War, the necessity that people should be governed according to their own desires. Again we may be right, again we may be wrong; but I submit to hon. Members of all shades of political opinion that if we hold sincerely this view we should be doing less than our duty if we did not take such opportunities as are offered to impress it on this House.

The third line of criticism relates to the relations of the Government to their military and naval advisers. There have been a series of controversies, misunderstandings, explanations, resignations, dismissals, which have given rise to a widespread uneasiness in very many quarters, and not least among military men. On each of these occasions it may well be that the action of the Government was fully justified, and I should be very far indeed from saying that any distinguished general or admiral has a freehold of his office. Of course changes may often be necessary, and may frequently be very salutary. The fact remains that the way in which these questions have been handled one by one has done something to sap confidence. The matter came prominently before this House a week ago, in consequence of the letter written to the Press by General Maurice. I cannot conceal my own opinion that that letter ought never to have been written, but, having been written, the House of Commons was, I think, bound to take cognisance of it. It is exceedingly unfair and unjust to suggest that in bringing the matter before this House those who did so were actuated by any irresolution with regard to the conduct of the War or any desire to weaken its prosecution. The “Times,”‘ which will not be suspected of tendencies of that kind, speaking of this matter, said: That is a challenge, coming from such a quarter, which no Government can afford to ignore or merely to rebut. Unless and until it is impartially investigated and disproved it will profoundly shake the public confidence in every statement made from the Treasury Bench. What is more, it will revive for that period all those mischievous controversies of last winter, which, whatever their merits, were themselves the greatest stumbling-block in our preparations for the German offensive.

The same article further down went on: Least of all can they be settled finally by any ex-parte statement, however apparently convincing, from the Prime Minister himself. Mr. Lloyd George should be under no illusions whatever on that point. He has, we believe, an unanswerable case in his instinctive zeal and pressure for what we have called the Allied point of view. For all we know, he may have an equally unanswerable case against General Maurice’s specific charges. But the inevitable restrictions of a speech on military dispositions, the growing public distrust of all official statements (whether by generals or by Ministers).

I will omit some words which are perhaps unduly critical of the Prime Minister— all this makes it hopeless that there should be any end of this controversy except through an entirely disinterested inquiry.

What occurred? On Tuesday the Government came to the House and declared that an inquiry was desirable. On Thursday they held that any question of an inquiry was something in the nature of treason to the vigorous prosecution of the War. On Tuesday my right hon. Friend told us all that the matter could only be decided by a reference to documents so secret that they could not be disclosed even to a Select Committee of this House. Two days later the House as a whole was asked to judge the matter without any documents before them at all. [HON. MEMBERS: “No!”] We had no opportunity of seeing documents. We were told that there could not be found in this House five righteous men—worse even than the City of Sodom—and yet the whole House was asked to judge the issue in open Debate on a Motion which was declared, although its movers did not intend it, to be a vote of censure, the Government Whips telling in the Lobby.


The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law) And the Opposition Whips.

Mr. SAMUEL The Opposition Whips told also, but we should have been very glad to have taken them off if you had done the same and left it open to the House. Not only that, but one very large section of the House met in conference on the day previous to the Debate, and decided to support the Government, not only without probing the charges that had been made, but without even waiting to hear what the Government answer might be, and the newspapers on the morning of the Debate declared, quite truly, that the Government majority was assured before any answer had been offered. I have never known a case in which a matter of this gravity and importance has been more unsatisfactorily handled. Those are the three main lines of criticism which have been addressed against the Government in recent weeks. It has been suggested that the Division on Thursday was intended to secure, or might have the effect of securing, the installation in power of a Government less resolute than the present Government in the prosecution of the War, who would hasten to make peace on such terms as the Germans and Austrians might now be likely to offer us. If that had been the outcome of that Debate or Division, or if that had been likely to become the outcome of that Debate or Division, I can assure the House that not one of us would have made one step towards the Lobby in order to secure such a result. If the outcome of it should be that we should make peace with our present enemies on such lines that they who have been guilty of this great aggression against the peace of the world, which has resulted in deluging Europe with blood and bringing agonies of sorrow to millions of homes—if the outcome of it should be that those powers should not be penalised for this aggression, but should be aggrandised and regarded—if the outcome should be that militarism could claim to be justified by its proofs, then, I say, those who were responsible for such as that would be guilty of the greatest crime. For my own part, I am profoundly convinced that no Government of that kind could be formed in this country at the present time, and, if it could be formed, this House would eject it from office in a week, and, if this House neglected to perform that clear duty, an indignant public opinion would sweep it aside. Is it a service to the country to represent that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Fife and his colleagues and the great central body of Liberalism are careless in these matters, and are willing to make a peace of that character? The Germans are carefully watching what we say and do, and I think it is a grave disservice to our State to give their propaganda material of that character and quite falsely to represent that the only unity which has prevailed and, I say, still prevails, in the country on the essential purposes is now essential purposes is now in danger of disappearing.