Parliament And World War One
by Dick Barry
Compulsory Military Service
Last month’s Labour Affairs carried contributions on the subject of compulsory military service from Liberal Member Captain Guest and Labour’s J.H. (Jimmy) Thomas. On 15 September 1915, John Dillon, Irish Nationalist Member for East Mayo, offered another perspective on an issue that engendered fierce debate for the remainder of the year.
The following is a truncated account of the life of John Dillon. It covers the early part of his life and the period from 1914 to 1918. The information is derived from Wikipedia.
John Dillon was born in Blackrock, Dublin, on 4 September 1851, the son of the former “Young Irelander” John Blake Dillon. He was educated at Catholic University School, at Trinity College, Dublin and at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. He afterwards studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, then ceased active involvement in medicine after he joined Isaac Butt’s Home Rule League in 1873. He became a Member of the UK Parliament in 1880 as member for County Tipperary. He travelled to the United States with Charles Stewart Parnell on a fund-raising mission for the Land League of which he was a member of the original committee. On his return he denounced Gladstone’s Land Act of 1881 as achieving nothing for small farmers. His views on agrarian reform and on Home Rule resulted in being branded an extremist and he was arrested from May until August 1881 under the Irish Coercion Act.
Imprisoned for agitation in October 1881 together with Parnell, William O’Brien and others in Kilmainham Gaol, he signed the No Rent Manifesto in solidarity although not fully in agreement with it. Parnell sought to end the Land War by agreeing the Kilmainham treaty after which they were released from prison in May 1882. Unhappy withy Parnell’s “New Departure” and because his health had suffered, he resigned his seat in Parliament on 6 March 1883, and retired from politics to Colorado in the US where his brother lived. Returning in 1885, Parnell nominated him as the Irish Parliamentary candidate for East Mayo in the general election in November 1885, where he was returned unopposed. He represented the constituency without a break until 1918.
With the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 Dillion accepted Redmond’s decision to follow Britain’s support of the Allied war effort, but he abstained from recruiting for the Irish divisions. The 1916 Rising took the Irish Party by surprise. He intervened with Lloyd George to halt the 90 sentences of execution pronounced by “field court-martial” (in camera without defence or jury) under martial law by General Maxwell after he declared the rebellion “treason in time of war”. He was involved in May 1916 with Lloyd George’s futile attempt to implement Home Rule after the Rising. After Redmond’s death on 6 March 1918, Dillon followed him as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. When the allied armies on the Western Front collapsed in the wake of the German Spring Offensive and decimated the 10th and 16th Irish divisions, the Government attempted a month later to extend conscription to Ireland, which Dillon opposed with tenacity and in protest withdrew all Irish Members from the House of Commons.
It was left to Dillon to fight a last campaign in the general election of December 1918. After a failure to reach a pact with Sinn Fein, his Party was swept into oblivion. He was defeated in East Mayo by Eamon de Valera’s 8975 votes to his 4514. He died in a London nursing home at the age of 76, on 4 August 1927, and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin.
The speech just delivered is one of the gravest to which I have listened in this House for many a long day. That speech, the speech of the hon. Member for South Birmingham (Mr Amery), and the whole course of the Debate, have made it clear beyond all question that those who are championing the cause of Conscription, of compulsory military service, and, as I understood them, of compulsory labour in this country, are determined not to allow that cause to rest for a moment, but to press it with all their energy and with all their earnestness, which I fully recognise, upon the attention of the House and of the country. They are determined—I do not quarrel with them, I fully recognise their right—not in any degree to listen to the appeal addressed to them by the Prime Minister at the opening of the Debate. I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman did not misunderstand what I said yesterday. I do not know whether he meant any of his observations to apply to what I said; but I never for a single moment hinted at, or questioned his right, or the right of any gallant officer on active service who is a Member of this House, to address this House and to give us in the fullest and frankest way his opinions on the War. What I did find fault with, and what I still find fault with, is the publication in the newspapers of a manifesto signed by men who specifically declare themselves to be officers on active service, in such a form as is calculated to convey to the people of this country—and is meant to convey!—that they come with a mandate from the Army, and are speaking on behalf of the Army to the public. I say that the publication of that on the eve of the meeting of this House was evidently with the intention of overawing its Debates, or, at any rate, of making a strong appeal to the House to pass a certain law. That is, I think, a clear violation of the words of—
There seems a misunderstanding between the hon. Gentleman and myself. I was only anxious to dissociate our movement from any manifesto that has appeared.
Then I will say no more about that. I only wanted it to be quite clear in the mind of the hon. and gallant Member that nothing I said yesterday amounted to a challenge to his right, whatever the regulations laid down, at a time like this, to speak to the House of Commons in the frankest possible way. He has spoken frankly and very gravely. I regret that in the concluding passages of his speech he undoubtedly meant to convey the impression that he distinctly spoke on behalf of the Army. He said, and I deeply regret it, and let me remind him before he corrects me, and then I will give way to him if he likes, he said if we did not change our methods and put ourselves—the very words he used—if the country and this House did not throw their full energy into the new methods recommended, that the Army would be bitterly disappointed. Is that not speaking for the Army? (“An HON. MEMBER: “What about the others?”) Ah, yes, but many of us are not officers on active service come straight from the Army; that makes a great difference. I think it would have been better not to have made that observation.
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me. I merely said it was my opinion.
That was not the form of the hon. and gallant Gentleman’s statement. But let me draw attention to the points of the speech of the hon. and gallant Gentleman. He commenced by a criticism of the Prime Minister. He said, as I understood him, that he was distressed by the fact which he had observed, that on another occasion a large section of this House had been soothed by the statement of the Prime Minister—soothed into placidity, or something of that sort. He went on to recite a number of causes which, in his judgement, were the causes for uneasiness. It was a most singular thing, which I recommend most earnestly to the attention of the Labour party, who will have to take a part in these Debates in future. What is the first cause for uneasiness that the hon. and gallant Gentleman submitted to this House for their consideration? The high wages paid to munitions workers, which interfered with the operations of agriculturists in this country. What has that got to do with compulsion, unless the purpose of the hon. and gallant Gentleman is to use compulsion to make these men work for lower wages? Does anybody doubt that that is one of the first uses of compulsion?
No, no! I cannot let that pass, but the Government is paying in some of these districts wages three times in excess of the wages paid normally. I did not ask for less wages.
I did not say—for I want to be perfectly fair—that the hon. and gallant Gentleman recommended the lowering of wages, but I said he commenced his long catalogue of causes of uneasiness by stating the higher wages which were being paid to munitions workers. Who is responsible for the wages of munitions workers? That is an indictment of the Minister for Munitions. (An HON MEMBER: “No!”) Yes, because the Minister of Munitions gets a free hand in his own Department, and acts, I have no doubt, according to the best of his judgement in very strenuous and difficult circumstances, and in endeavouring to administer the very difficult task with which he has been entrusted. I have some reason to know the nature of the work the right hon. Gentleman has undertaken. That is the first cause. What is the second cause for uneasiness? Let us note it. The hon. and gallant Gentleman cannot get out of it. These are the causes for uneasiness which he gave us to understand, by the method of his delivery, were the causes of uneasiness in the ranks of the Army. The second cause is the surrender to the trade unions. That, too, is a rather sinister indication of what we have before us. I shall endeavour, as briefly as possible, to bring home to hon. Members of this House that we are engaged in debating one of the widest, most far-reaching, and vital subjects that ever have been discussed. Now that hon. Members have insisted on bringing this subject to the tribunal of debate in this House, and have distinctly refused to leave it to the Government and Lord Kitchener, I say to the Government by all means let the subject be debated, and fully debated. They have told us that in this matter they will not trust the Government; therefore it must be debated fully, because it is a subject of the most deep and far-reaching importance.
I was astonished to hear the hon. and Gallant Gentleman’s distinction. He had experience of civil life before he went on active service. Then the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr Amery) delivered a most powerful speech if he will permit me to say so, though I differ from him intensely. I have listened to the whole of this Debate and I am amazed to hear these hon. Members debating this subject in so superficial a manner, and without any consideration for the historical or wide-reaching complications which surround it. The hon. and Gallant Gentleman went on to draw a picture of what the soldier seemed to see in England. He spoke for the soldiers, not for the officers. The soldiers, he said, seemed to see capital entrenched behind complicated company rules, amassing millions, and strikes on all hands on the part of the workmen for higher wages. He drew a most lurid picture, giving us to understand that the Army was in a state of discontent at the lack of support it was receiving from home. I do not think that it is just to the people of this country. I know something of the sentiments of the common people of this country, and I do say that there was never an Army in the history of the world which had more the heart of the country behind them, and which was better cared for.
Why, my God, was ever there an Army—did ever anybody read in history of an Army—which was fed, clothed, attended to medically as is this Army? I know what the Duke of Wellington would have said if he could have seen the present time. What would he have given in the Peninsula if he could have got from his countrymen at home, I will not say the same, but one-tenth part of the consideration and generosity with which the people of this country have met all the demands of the Army? Is it a generous and a fair thing to the Army itself to attempt to tell us of their feeling here in this House today? Is it a fair thing to this House, which has never for a single moment found fault with any one of the millions which have been voted, or has criticised in any way the call of the Executive in support of this Army in every particular from the beginning of the War down to now? I have met a good many soldiers home from the trenches—I refer now to the rank and file and to non-commissioned officers—and I never heard any difference of opinion in their declaration of belief that there has never been an Army cared for like this one. Yet the hon. and Gallant Gentleman comes here, from the Army, and draws a picture of the feeling there of the men.
Sir F. Banbury:
Their feelings against strikes!
No, no! I am speaking now of the picture the hon. and Gallant Gentleman drew of the feeling of the soldiers. Might he not, when he was drawing that picture for this House, have said something of their feelings as to the interest and care—I might almost say loving care—of the people of this country. (An HON. MEMBER: “Oh!”) Is it not true? Who said it was not? Does anybody in this House doubt what I am saying, that the people of this country and this House have done everything they can for the Army? I did not say that we were not bound to do everything we could for the Army, but I do say that this country and the House are entitled to the credit for what they have done; that they have treated the Army better than the army of the Duke of Wellington was ever treated, or any other army, and it ought to be known. The hon. and Gallant Gentleman, coming to the conclusion of his speech, repeated a formula to which I have listened in this House and read in the newspapers ad nauseam—we need more men! There is a certain class of gentleman in this country who appear to think that they have given us the sum total of wisdom when they point out that we need more men. (An HON. MEMBER: “So we do!”) Of course we do. If we could put ten millions of men into the field tomorrow the War would be at an end, and our troubles would be over. The absurdity of putting it that way, of saying we need more men, as if that were everything! These gentlemen seem to forget a good old homely maxim, that we must cut our coat according to our cloth. We need more men.
An HON. MEMBER made an observation inaudible in the Press Gallery.
That is a very long question, and I do not propose to go into it to-day. I trust we shall have a full opportunity of debating that important question later. With all his military knowledge and having come straight from the front, the hon. and gallant Gentleman’s observations as I understand him were inconsistent. But we all we endeavour to get as much information as possible. I listened with strained attention to his speech, and I understood him to say, first of all, that he would avoid giving the mileage of the British front. He spoke of 125 miles, and he based his calculation as to the number of men needed in the field in the immediate future on that front of 125 miles. That is a large extension, because thirty-five miles was what we heard of when the matter was last revealed to the public. But accepting the 125 miles, the hon. and gallant Gentleman went on to say that according to his calculation, and in order to be ready to make an advance in the spring, to carry out what he was pleased to describe as our treaty obligations—that is, to hurl the Germans out of Belgium and to restore Belgium uninjured to the Belgians— a very difficult task—we should require 5,000,000 men. That gives one an idea of what comes of trusting yourselves without reserve to military men. Five millions of men! It is very easy to talk about five millions of men, but I think if you undertook to produce an Army of five millions of men by conscription in this country you would find you were up against a very large proposition.
I want to emphasise what is the programme put before us. If we were to produce an Army of 5,000,000 men this winter, we should be in the position we were in a few months ago: most of them would be going about with wooden sticks on their shoulders and without uniforms. Why, within the last few months— I think I am right in saying the last few weeks—it is perfectly notorious that you had splendid units without rifles at the time these champions of compulsory service were clamouring for more men. It may be very funny, but it is a fact. Let me turn for a moment to the other right hon. Gentleman, who exhibited a most extraordinary ferocity of patriotism. I was not aware until I came back to this House that he had become a compulsory service man. When last I knew the House he took up a quite different attitude, and in that direction went far beyond anything I myself had ever ventured upon.
Sir F. BANBURY:
He has seen the error of his ways.
We all know the zeal of converts puts believers to shame very often. He was historical. He said that we know all about this: Conscription is no new thing in England; Pitt tried it during the Napoleonic Wars, and, therefore, without going very minutely or microscopically into history, he argued from that proposition that therefore we ought to go through it again. Yes, Pitt tried it in the Napoleonic Wars, and I have here a very interesting record of some of the results of Pitt’s experiments. I will read from the famous Memorandum prepared for the War Office in 1870 on the Militia Ballot by one of your greatest Generals, Sir Henry Havelock. I trust the Government, before the next debate, will reprint this Paper. It is an invaluable Paper. It gives on the highest military authority the whole history of the Conscription experiments made in England, and they are extraordinarily interesting and valuable, and it would be madness for this country to commence over again this experiment of Conscription before the House and the country are thoroughly informed of the history of this matter in England. It is true, as the right hon. Gentleman told the House, that England is no stranger to Conscription. It is true that she has tried it more than once; but it is true that with full knowledge, and after full trial, this country turned down Conscription and resolved to have nothing to do with it, as being wholly and absolutely impossible in the conditions of this land. In that judgement she was led by the opinion of all her greatest military experts.
Conscription was tried by Pitt, but here is one of the paragraphs in this report:—”This Militia scheme met with no favour in the country. The people rose against the conscription, and their hostility proceeded to such an extremity in the north of England that at the York Spring Assizes for 1758 four persons obstructing the Militia Acts were convicted and some of them executed for high treason.” Is England less democratic now than in 1758? But they tried it again under Pitt at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and it had no better effect. I have here the opinion of the Duke of Wellington himself. There are many other opinions which I might quote, but I cannot give a higher authority. This is what he said:—”It is quite clear that the British Regular Army cannot be raised by conscription nor ballot. The right of the country to the services of all its subjects for its defence can be well understood. It is on the principle of defence that the seafaring man is liable to be impressed for service in the King’s ships. But the force called the Regular Army, which is liable to be sent to any part of the world, not for the defence of the land of England”—(HON MEMBERS: “Oh!”) The meaning is quite clear. was not Wellington defending England in the Peninsular just as much as you are defending England now in Flanders? Does any hon. Gentleman mean to tell me Wellington was not defending England in the Peninsular? It was based on his experience in the Peninsular that he used this language: “not for the defence of the land of England, but of a colony or a settlement, or for the conquest of a colony or a settlement, or for the defence or for the conquest of any foreign territory, cannot be considered in the same light. Men cannot, with justice, be taken from their families and from their ordinary occupations and pursuits, for such objects. The recruits for the Regular British Army must be volunteers.”
Lord Palmerston and all the great Ministers of that day endorsed that opinion, and it is there recorded—Lord Palmerston’s own words that Conscription or forced military was wholly unsuitable to the circumstances of England. They gave reasons and they compared it with the military conscription of the Continent and said that, while that system might work very well in foreign lands, it was wholly unsuited for England. Now those hon. Members and gentlemen outside in the Press, without reference to the history of this country, without, as I have contented, making any real well-considered case of necessity or even expediency, propose lightly that we should plunge into one of the most tremendous revolutions ever attempted in the history of England.
There is one thing I want to impress clearly on the Members of this House. I have noticed quite lately for the first time that, under the stress of debate, hon. Members who are eager for this compulsory service have got into the habit of speaking “for the War only.” They used not to say so at the beginning. It is only lately, when they find the strength of the opposition to compulsion, that they speak of the War only. Does any sane man believe that if the Conscriptionists succeed in fixing this yoke on the neck of England, you will shake it off without something approaching a revolution? I do not say it of Members of this House, but I say deliberately with regard to some of the men who are engineering this thing outside, and who are far more formidable than any hon. Members sitting in this House, that they are engineering it for ulterior and sinister objects. They are not calling for compulsory service because they honestly believe it is necessary. They are not looking for compulsory military service and compulsory service in the workshops because they think the War can only be ended in that way. It is impossible to dismiss from your mind, after reading some of their articles, that they would be deeply mortified if the War was won without compulsory service. That is the impression conveyed to my mind. I have never said a single word that I attribute such motives to any man in this House. Everyone knows to whom I attribute it—(An HON. MEMBER: “Who is the traitor?”)—and I say this is, in my opinion, one of the most sinister and abominable campaigns ever instituted.
Take this one illustration of the nature of this campaign, and to a certain extent a justification of what I have said. Will it be denied that this particular Press has done everything in its power to obstruct voluntary enlistment? Many men in Ireland have been rent to gaol for less than Lord Northcliffe has done. Many newspapers in Ireland have been suppressed without protest from us for far less than the “Daily Mail” has done. I say that by every foul means, by openly and audaciously refusing to print Lord Kitchener’s appeal, by pouring ridicule on every attempt of recruiting sergeants, by open, ill-concealed incitements to men to refuse to enlist until they are fetched, over and over again they have done their very best to break up the voluntary system, and if it were not for the connections and power of Lord Northcliffe he would have been in gaol long ago. (HON. MEMBERS: “He ought to be!”) We who are opposed to conscription—and I have never in the course of this controversy, and I do not think I have ever in my life, committed myself to the principle of National Service one way or the other—to me it is a question of expediency, and of all the circumstances I have never committed myself on the principle. If I were a Frenchman, or German or Russian, I dare say I should be a strong supporter of National Service. It is not a question of final principle, but a question of its suitability to the conditions of this country, and a question of its suitability to the present circumstances of this country. I am convinced in my heart and soul that it is unsuited to them, and that you will commit one of the greatest blunders in history if you abandon the voluntary system, which has done miracles for us and surpassed the wildest anticipations of all the people of this country and of the world.
Let me say one word of remonstrance, and I do so without any bitterness, against one passage in the speech of the hon., Member for South Birmingham. So great was his zeal in his opening speech that, in drawing a picture of the present personnel of the Army, he said that the halt, the lame, and the blind, now mainly composed the New Army, and that the officers in France were throwing them out and sending them home as totally unfit. All I can say, if that is said of the English troops, I do not believe it. I do not believe that you ever had a finer Army in Europe. In fact, I do not believe that any nation in the world ever has a finer Army. If that is true of the English troops I know it is true of the Irish troops, because a finer body of men I never saw. Really I think it is an example of the kind of spirit with which this controversy is carried on when men like the hon. Member for South Birmingham (Mr Amery), to whom I give credit for absolute zeal and deep conviction, are so blinded by their zeal for this cause that they pour scorn and contempt on the Army.
Mr Ronald McNeill:
The hon. Member is entirely misquoting my hon. Friend the Member for South Birmingham, who simply read from a letter which he had received from a commanding officer at the front, and did not give what he quoted as his own opinion.
The hon. Member’s interruption makes the case much worse. If you quote from a letter and refuse to give the name of the writer, you adopt his opinions. You should not quote from a letter unless you think it contains an opinion which ought to be known, and which gives a fair view of the facts of the case. In conclusion, I want to say this word of warning. Some months ago I got into rather hot water by taking a very limited part in the discussion upon the Munitions Bill, and I incurred the anger of some of my greatest friends in this House for some of the things which I said about the Compulsory Clauses in that measure. Those clauses were afterwards modified and redrafted, but even as they now stand, I ask, have they been an unqualified success? I ask the Labour Members themselves how they like the Munitions bill? Have they no grievances already under that Bill, and have they not had already on more than occasion a sample of the spirit which officials inevitably will adopt when armed with such complete powers. With regard to those compulsory Clauses, I have had cases of gross grievances brought to my notice under the Clause which forbids a man to leave his employment. If you had compulsion, how do you know what state the labour of this country would be in before long? Believe me, if we go in for compulsion, and submit to compulsion—I understand the hon. Member for Birmingham and the hon. and gallant Member opposite attach equal importance to naval compulsion as to military compulsion—(HON. MEMBERS: “Yes”)—remember the proposition: it is not alone military but it is labour compulsion, and if you submit to that in this country I warn the working men of England that they will have to begin again at the bottom of the ladder and fight their way up all over again.
Later in the debate, Dillon clashed with Commander Wedgewood over compulsory service in Ireland. Wedgewood made references to compulsory service in Ireland to which Dillon responded.
Commander Wedgewood was born Josiah Clement Wedgewood on 16 March 1872. He was the great great grandson of the famous potter Josiah Wedgewood. He represented Newcastle-under- Lyme as a Liberal from 1906 to 1919. In that year he switched to Labour and continued to represent the constituency until 1942. He died on 26 July 1943.
I sometimes think that we in this House are the best set of actors imaginable. I listened to the speech of my hon. friend the Member for East Mayo (Mr Dillon). A very able and fiery speech it was, but it seemed to me like nothing so much as the speech of the hon. Member for Dublin University (Sir E. Carson) in opposition to Home Rule. There was the same exaggeration, the same fire, and the same air that the world was coming to an end should this contemptible measure pass into law. Then, fortunately, there was at the end of his speech the able statement that should circumstances demand compulsion he had no objection to it in principle, and therefore directly the Government said they wanted compulsion, compulsion there should be. That was a complete change in tone. I think it would be of advantage if we could discuss this subject, not from the point of view of a play actor opposing a horrible crime about to be perpetrated—
Do I understand the hon. Member to be alluding to what I said?
He is absolutely wrong.
I was referring to the statement that you had no opposition to the principle.
You put into my mouth the words that I had no objection to Conscription in principle, and that if the Government said they were in favour of it I would support it. I never said anything of the kind. I said that if I were a Frenchman, German or Russian I should no doubt be in favour of National Service, but that I thought that for this country it was wholly unsuitable.
It was unsuitable from the point of view of expediency.
That is the objection of an Irishman to Conscription in England.
It has not been proposed in Ireland.
The Irish people can govern themselves, and they have decided against it. I am a little surprised at the fiery opposition raised by an Irishman to Conscription in England. I recollect that at the beginning of this War, when I still thought that peace might possibly be preserved, I made a speech from this bench which was howled down by Members of the Irish Party because they wanted the War. I do not know how much they want the War still; whether they are getting tired of it or whether they still intend to prosecute the War to a successful conclusion. I am sorry to say that I think a great deal of the opposition to compulsory service comes from a gradual slackening in the sprit of this country and a gradual slackening of its determination to bring this War to a successful conclusion. (HON. MEMBERS: “No, no!”)
That will be printed in the German papers.
That is the same old game.
That is exactly what is printed.
It is the game of the ostrich—never speak the truth for fear the Germans will repeat it.
I do not call that the truth.
Do you not think you had better leave the Germans to pick and choose—leave them to print what they like, and at the same time in this House to voice our views and to explain exactly how determined we are to see this War through.