2019 04 – Parliament And World War One

Parliament And World War One

Dick Barry

Prime Minister’s Review

07 August 1918 Part Three

Herbert Louis Samuel (Viscount Samuel) was born in Liverpool on 6 November 1870. He was raised as a practising Jew but while at Oxford in 1892 he rejected all religious belief. Samuel was elected as Liberal member for the Cleveland division of Yorkshire in 1902 and was appointed to the cabinet by Prime Minister Asquith in 1909. In 1915 he put forward the idea of establishing a British protectorate over Palestine. His ideas influenced the Balfour declaration of 1917. Samuel resigned as Home Secretary when Lloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister in 1916. He died on 5 February 1963.

Mr. HERBERT SAMUEL The whole House has been deeply interested in the Prime Minister’s wide survey of the naval, military, and political situation. It has been an encouraging survey. He has wisely warned us not to be unduly optimistic It is plain that we are still far from a decision, but the fact remains that at this moment the prospects of the Allied cause are bright. The House has been grateful, and I think the country will be grateful, for the items of new information which the right hon. Gentleman has given us with respect to the naval and military position. After all, this is the nation’s war. It is not the Government’s war. It is not Parliament’s war. It is the war of the whole people, and the more fully and the more frequently the Government can place the nation in possession of the facts relating to the situation, the more they will be able to maintain the interest and the enthusiasm both of the people at home and of the troops in the field.

There are two points arising in the right hon. Gentleman’s speech which, I think, are likely, though they were mentioned incidentally, to attract very considerable attention. The first was the statement that at the time we entered this War we had a compact with France which required us to come to her assistance if she were wantonly attacked. I think the Prime Minister, if he reviews the facts, will find that his memory has deceived him as to that. Our hands were entirely free. The matter was made perfectly clear by my Noble Friend Lord Grey in his speech which he made in this House on the fateful 3rd August, in which he dealt specifically with that point, and as the point is one of very great importance, first, for the sake of the accuracy of historical record, and, secondly, to prevent misunderstanding with regard to our relations, not only with France but also with Belgium, I think it is necessary to read one or two passages: I come first, now, to the question of British obligations. I have assured the House, and the Prime Minister has assured the House more than once, that if any crisis such as this arose we should come before the House of Commons and be able to say to the House that it was free to decide what the British attitude should be, that we would have no secret engagement which we should spring upon the House and tell the House that because we had entered into that engagement there was an obligation of honour upon the country.

Further, he said: In this present crisis, up till yesterday, we have given no promise of anything more than diplomatic support. Further, he said the French Government earlier had said: ‘If you think it possible that the public opinion of Great Britain might, should a sudden crisis arise, justify you in giving to France the armed support which you cannot promise in advance you will not be able to give that support, even if you wish to give it, when the time comes unless some conversations have already taken place between naval and military experts.’ There was force in that. I agreed to it and authorised those conversations to take place, but on the distinct understanding that nothing which passed between military or naval experts should bind either Government or restrict in any way their freedom to make a decision as to whether or not they would give that support when the time arose.”—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd August, 1914, col. 1812, Vol. 65.]

Then he quoted the correspondence which had taken place between the two Governments which was afterwards presented to Parliament in a White Paper at the beginning of the War which substantiated that statement. The remark into which the Prime Minister was led may, I fear, give rise to a somewhat false impression. It is essential that the country should not think there was anything in the nature of a secret treaty or any private compact which obliged us at the beginning of August, 1914, to enter this War. It was our sense of duty, our obligation under the treaty that safeguarded the independence of Belgium, and our sense of duty to safeguard the reign of public law and the freedom of Europe against the wanton aggression of the moment, and that alone, and no specific contract with the French Government which required us at that time to enter this War.

The second point to which I think special reference should be made was the statement of the Prime Minister that the reverse of 21st March was due to the fact that unity of command had not been established and that the reserves were not ready. That was a very grave statement.

The PRIME MINISTER I made a series of statements. The right hon. Gentleman has overlooked them. I gave three or four reasons why the Germans were in a superior position. The first was the fact that they had had rest and training, and that they had been able to bring back troops from Russia. That was the first, and I gave two or three others. I only put that among the number.

Mr. SAMUEL But the right hon. Gentleman agreed that it was among them.

The PRIME MINISTER I know. But there is a great difference between saying it was attributable to lack of unity of command, and saying that was one of the reasons.

Mr. SAMUEL The right hon. Gentleman said it was partly attributable to the lack of unity of command, and to the fact that reserves were not ready to be thrown into the field at the strategic point at which they were necessary. The House of Commons, which will remember the Debates which took place last November, will have heard that with much surprise, for at that time the Prime Minister assured the House that the arrangements which he had made at Versailles were such as to secure adequate co-ordination of the forces of the Allies and to ensure that, should any dangerous blow be struck, it would be effectively parried by the forces which were available in the country. While we rejoice that it was possible to send from this country 268,000 men at such short notice, and while we cordially congratulate the Government and the War Office on the rapidity with which they were thrown across the Channel at the crucial moment, the House will feel that if those large forces had been available on the spot and had already been dispatched in anticipation of a blow being struck, the battle might have taken a different course.

The PRIME MINISTER They were drafts.

Mr. SAMUEL If they were available and were not sent across, why were they not sent across?

The PRIME MINISTER Had the right hon. Gentleman known something about it, he would not have made that statement These were drafts to fill up gaps in divisions which were already in existence.

Mr. SAMUEL Were there no fresh divisions?

The PRIME MINISTER They were kept there as drafts in order to fill up gaps

Mr. SAMUEL Were there not a considerable number of units which were sent over? The right hon. Gentleman suggests that I do not know very much about armies. But I had the advantage of sitting as chairman of a Sub-committee on expenditure at the War Office for several months, and in that connection we repeatedly had drawn to our attention the very large forces which were being kept in this country, and we drew the attention of the House to the matter on more than one occasion in our Reports.

The House will, I am sure, join with the Prime Minister in his expression of profound admiration for the really wonderful achievement of the American Government and people in sending over in so brief a space a million and a third of men across the Atlantic, in spite of difficulties of shipping, in spite of the, perils of the submarine. It is the most marvellous achievement in transportation. I suppose no such large proportion of the human family has ever been transported by water in so short a space of time since the Flood. The American Army through its numbers, through the bravery of its troops, and the skill of its leaders, is likely to prove the decisive factor in this War. The right hon. Gentleman, and the House will join with him, has expressed the admiration we all feel for the gallantry of the armies of France which, after cruel losses and in the midst of a terrible strain, showing all the vigour of the first days of war, with their capital in danger, have repelled the dangerous blow directed against them. Italy is also entitled to our congratulations for her striking success on the Piave.

A few days ago the Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking on questions relating to Italy, said that the Italian Minister of Finance had expressed some regret that the opinion seemed to be prevalent in some quarters in this country that Italy was animated by Imperialistic ambitions in her participation in this War. If such views are held, I am certain they are held by a small proportion of our people. To suggest that Italy, in desiring to re-unite to herself the Italian population at present under foreign domination, is animated by a spirit of aggression and a spirit of annexation is, I think, as unreasonable as it would have been to suggest that Garibaldi was an Imperialist or Mazzini an annexationist in the days when they were seeking to unite with Italy the plains of Lombardy then under Austrian domination. The House views with satisfaction the fact that the Italian Government has been able to unite her policy with that of the Jugo-Slavs with whose aims and desires we cordially sympathise.

If, after the War, we are to see established a new world order under the auspices of a League of Nations, I, for one, feel perfectly convinced that we cannot leave these questions of nationality unsettled. The difficulties which stand in the way of a League of Nations are indeed great, but they will merge into impossibilities if these territorial matters are left unsettled or if they are settled wrongly. If peace comes, still leaving large bodies of Frenchmen under the rule of Germans or of Italians under Austrians, of Czechs and other nationalities deprived of the right of choosing their own governments, then a League of Nations, which will be required to keep the peace of the world under those conditions, would be very little better than the Holy Alliance of a hundred years ago under another name. It is only by removing old wrongs that you will be able to lay broad and firm the foundations of new rights. And with what the Foreign Secretary on that point said when in dealing in a recent Debate with a League of Nations I wholly agree.

But the House felt some disappointment with the Foreign Secretary’s speech on that occasion. He dwelt at considerable length with all the difficulties, and we know there are difficulties, which stand in the way of a League of Nations, and at the end of his speech he declared himself one of its enthusiastic advocates. It was a negative speech with a positive peroration, and I fear that the longer and more negative part is likely to attract more attention than the concluding words. We were gratified to hear from the Prime Minister that he is a believer in the League of Nations. I could wish that he, on behalf of the Government, would strike a clearer note in that connection. Many of the speeches made by members of the Government give an impression that there is, if not a division of opinion, at least no great driving power behind this movement to establish a League of Nations. The tones which ring from Washington sound very differently from those which come from Downing Street, and I could wish that the Prime Minister and others would declare in unmistakable language that they, too, regard the establishment of a League of Nations, next to the winning of the War itself, as the greatest and highest task that lies before the statesmen and the peoples of the world.

There are some, and the Prime Minister referred to them in the concluding passages of his speech, who consider that the moment has already come when we might possibly enter into negotiations with our enemy for the conclusion of this prolonged struggle, that if our war aims were restated and if steps were taken to enter, at all events into informal conversations, there is a prospect of a speedy ending of the War. Let the House recall what the facts are. In January last the Prime Minister made a statement, clear and specific, of the war aims of this country and its Allies. It previously had been shown to and approved by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Fife and Lord Grey. It was soon afterwards followed by a statement not dissimilar in terms by the Labour party of this country and then by another from President Wilson. To all those there has been from Germany no response—a few generalities, but no specific statement on general lines of the war aims of Germany and the conditions upon which she would be prepared to enter into peace. On the contrary, as the Prime Minister has reminded us, there have been, first, the treaties at Brest-Litovsk and with Roumania in which they trampled underfoot all the great principles for which this country entered the War; and there was another significant incident when the German Foreign Minister, who ventured to suggest that the War would not be ended only by the sword, was dismissed from office, and his place taken by an uncompromising German militarist. It appears to me, speaking for myself alone, that Lord Lansdowne and those who think with him carry us no further by declarations such as those which have recently come from that quarter.

The spirit which has plunged the world into this catastrophe is still dominant in Germany, and it is clear that the prospects of an early peace are not bright. In this connection, I would like to call the Prime Minister’s attention to a speech delivered in the last two or three days by his colleague in the War Cabinet, the right hon. Member for Blackfriars. It was an interesting address to a gathering in Cambridge, in the course of which he used these very significant words. And the context shows that he means that it is a proposal for the present time: I should like to see an International Hague Conference arranged by the Entente Powers at which there should be representatives not only of Governments but of peoples. I should like to see at such a conference representatives of organised labour, religion and commerce drawn from America, France, Great Britain, Italy and the Allied countries generally. At that conference the Governments might revise their peace aims. I should like to ask the Prime Minister, or any of his colleagues who may speak later in the Debate, whether that statement made by a member of the War Cabinet, not a Departmental Minister, represents the considered opinion of the Government, whether it was made with full Cabinet responsibility, and whether it is the policy of the Government to summon such a conference at an early date, and, if so, whether it is intended at that conference to revise the war aims of the Allies?

I believe that the Resolution of this House and the people with regard to the prosecution of the War remains the same as it was four years ago, but that is because our war aims remain in all essentials at the same high level that they were on when we entered into conflict. Anything which tends to lower them, to make it appear to the nation and the world that we are engaged in a struggle which essentially is an economic struggle, and that the settlement that we wish to see is a settlement which must deal primarily or largely with trade questions—any such tendency as that would degrade the whole conflict on to a lower level, and would, I believe, lessen the unity of the Allies and decrease the enthusiasm of our Armies. When we ourselves invest in War Bonds and ask others to do so, or pay our taxes, we are accustomed to say, “What, after all, is wealth compared to the lives of our men? When they are risking their very existence it would be a shame for any at home to refuse to give all their goods, if need were, in order to carry through the cause for which that great sacrifice is made.” But the converse has also to be taken into account. What is wealth compared with lives? Nothing! What are lives compared with wealth? Everything! I do not think the nation would be prepared to prolong this struggle for any purposes of trade advantage. Germany makes it the object of her propaganda continually to represent the British Empire and America as being engaged in a mercenary struggle, that our real purpose is to destroy Germany’s economic power and to make ourselves the trade masters of the world. It is absolutely untrue. Those who really know the spirit of these two countries are well aware that this is a calumny, but let our public men beware that they do not give colour and substance to that propaganda by the speeches and declarations that they make.

I, for one, agree that if at the end of the War we are faced by a Germany still militarist, still aggressive, still formidable, then it may be necessary to use every economic weapon in our power in order to prevent her recovering her strength. But that would mean that we had in essence lost the War, that we had failed to achieve the objects which we set out to attain. Our trade measures then would not be economic measures, but measures of defence. They would not be regarded from the standpoint of national wealth, but from the standpoint of national security. There are those who put in the forefront those questions of economic warfare after the War to be carried out regardless of the terms of peace, and whether we have achieved or not achieved our war aims, and the most vehement advocate in this country at the present time of what I regard as the counsel of despair is the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Hughes. Any man is, of course, entitled to enter the arena of political controversy in this country, and to make violent attacks upon political parties here and upon political leaders, but I would venture to suggest that before Mr. Hughes did so he ought properly to have divested himself of his character of Prime Minister of Australia. The whole nation, irrespective of party or of opinion, would wish to treat with profound respect and deference anyone who speaks here as the representative of one of our great Dominions. All the more necessary is it that he should not advance in such terms, a policy which, by a very large proportion, and many of us think the majority, of the nation, is regarded as being calculated to keep the world in a state of continual animosity and armed conflict—above all, he should not, speaking with the character and in the position he occupies, accuse those who disagree with him as being consciously or unconsciously agents of Germany.

The Prime Minister’s survey dealt mainly, indeed entirely, with the issues of the War. He did not touch upon matters of domestic policy, but I cannot refrain from reminding him that the one weakness in our position in this country arises from the condition of Ireland. I do not think this House should separate for the Recess without a word of warning, and a very earnest warning, being addressed to the Government in respect to the measures they might take in October, possibly before the House meets, with respect to military service in Ireland. I do not propose to dwell upon this matter, but I cannot refrain from recalling the words used very wisely by the Chief Secretary a few days ago when he said: The Germans want trouble in Ireland. They want that species of trouble which will keep our troops in Ireland instead of sending them to the front. That is very true, and I would ask him to bear in mind his own words before he comes to decide with his colleagues the course to be adopted in regard to enforcing compulsory military service upon the Irish people against their declared will. We have, in regard to Ireland, thrown away a powerful resource of military and moral strength by our handling of the Irish situation, which I do not say by this Government, but by all Governments during the War has been the greatest failure of British statesmanship during the course of this straggle.

There is another very important matter to which I sincerely trust the Government will give their earnest attention in the Recess, and that is the position in regard to shipbuilding, which remains disappointing. I am sure the House in all quarters is very dissatisfied at the results that have so far been obtained in respect to British shipbuilding. The amount of British tonnage which is available for all the purposes upon which the War makes great call is still declining. Although the sinking have decreased, and the building has increased, the fact remains that in the first half of this year the tonnage of British shipping has decreased by half a million tons. That is a loss which we can very ill afford. Although the month of June shows better figures, our mercantile tonnage is still decreasing at the rate of 300,000 tons a year. It is the case, as we gratefully acknowledge, that the stupendous efforts of the American shipbuilders are increasing very largely the tonnage of the Allies, but I believe it is the case that whatever new tonnage they can put into the water will be needed to feed and supply the immense increases of American troops that are being sent, happily, month after month to France. The policy in regard to the national shipyards has been a deep disappointment. It has involved so far vast expenditure with no ships, and I feel certain that when we come back again in October one of the first matters to which the House will direct its attention will be this vital question of shipbuilding, and there will be deep disappointment if the figures in the meantime do not show a great improvement. I should like to refer to two other matters of domestic policy. One is the Ministry of Health, in which many of us are keenly interested. There is disappointment in regard to that matter. We have had promises month after month and week after week that the Bill, which has been long under deliberation, will at once be produced.

The PRIME MINISTER I did not enter into this question, because I did not know that it would be in order to discuss questions of legislation. If it be so, I must invite some of my colleagues who are in charge of these various matters to address the House.

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. Whitley) I do not think it will be in order to refer to matters which require legislation.

Mr. SAMUEL I was not criticising the right hon. Gentleman for not having dealt with this matter. I said no word of criticism because I did not expect him to do so. I was not in order in referring to the Ministry of Health because that does require legislation, and it is not in order on this occasion. This is the first time I have fallen into that slip during the sixteen years I have been a Member of this House. There is another matter which I think it is necessary to deal with to-day because this is the only opportunity we shall have of doing so, and it is one of urgency; I refer to the question of the plans of the Government for dealing after the War with problems of housing—a very urgent matter and one of profound national importance. There are some of us, Members of all parties of both Houses, who have been meeting together for some weeks past to examine the Government’s proposals in regard to housing, and we have come deliberately to the conclusion that they are inadequate. I think that most Members who have taken a close interest in this matter are of the opinion that the proposals of the Local Government Board and the Government with regard to housing after the War are not satisfactory. The terms are not such as to secure the building of houses upon an adequate scale, there are no measures to secure the enlistment of the assistance of public utility societies and private enterprise; and there is insufficient security for economic building and management. In fact, the Government have not taken hold of this question with big enough grip. I suggest to the Prime Minister, who has done me the honour to listen to my speech, that the Government ought to deal with the question of housing with something of the spirit and something of the grasp with which he dealt with the question of munitions of war, and that they should take steps to provide the nation with the building materials necessary and with the houses essential for the people with something of the same energy with which they provided themselves with munitions of war; but with a somewhat closer regard to financial control. On that depends the health of the people, temperance, industrial efficiency, agricultural development and social contentedness. All these things are bound up with the housing question, and those of us who are specially interested in this subject desire to warn the House and Government in time. We believe that unless they change their present policy there will be grave disappointment, and that the measures which they take will not be adequate for the after-war conditions. Unless these steps are taken now we believe it will be too late to take them later. In conclusion, let me say that the House will disperse for the Recess much cheered and encouraged by the Prime Minister’s survey of the War situation.