2017 04 – Parliament And World War One

Parliament And World War One

Dick Barry



Sir ARCHIBALD WILLIAMSON (by Private Notice) asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether, in view of conflicting reports concerning the battle on the frontier of Palestine, near to Gaza, he can now give to the House fuller information than he was able to give last week regarding the results of the operations and the number of British casualties?

Mr. BONAR LAW Further report has been received from the Commander-in-Chief, Egypt, describing the action south of Gaza on the 26th and 27th March. The report is dated 1st April.

The primary object of the operation was to seize the Wadi Guzzee, so as to cover the advance of our railway. The Wadi was occupied without a fight, under cover of advanced troops pushed forward in the direction of Gaza. It appeared to Lieut.-General Sir Charles Dobell, who was in command, that the enemy might retire without fighting, and, in order to force them to stand, he decided to attempt to capture Gaza by a coup de main.

On the morning of the 26th a dense fog delayed operations, and it was not possible to attack the Gaza position until the later afternoon, when the enemy first line trenches were captured, and more than 700 prisoners were taken. The German Commander, Von Kress, meanwhile moved up three columns towards Gaza to support his troops there. These columns were admirably delayed by our mounted troops and armoured cars, and heavy losses were inflicted upon the enemy, at slight cost to ourselves. The Commander and staff of the 53rd Division were captured during this fighting.

The time during which the operation could be carried out was limited by the supply of water available for the troops, the Infantry being dependent upon what they could carry with them. Owing to the delay caused by the morning fog, the supply of water with the troops proved insufficient to allow the attack to be continued, and our troops took up a defensive position from a point just south of Gaza towards the Wadi Guzzee. This position was attacked on the 27th by the Turks, who were everywhere repulsed, with heavy losses, our Camel Corps completely defeating the Turkish Cavalry Division. On the 28th our Infantry were withdrawn to the Wadi Guzzee, our Cavalry remaining in contact with the enemy’s main position, the enemy showing no desire to resume the offensive. Our troops remain in occupation of the Wadi Guzzee. The enemy’s total casualties are estimated by the General Officer Commanding in Chief to be 8,000, and, as already reported, we captured 950 prisoners and two Austrian howitzers. Our total killed amounted to less than 400. Some small parties of our men, numbering less than 200 in all, who are believed to have fought their way into Gaza and been cut off, are missing.

Finally, Sir Archibald Murray reports: The operation was most successful, and owing to the fog and waterless nature of the country round Gaza just fell short of a complete disaster to the enemy. Our troops are in the highest possible spirits, and I am delighted with their enterprise, endurance, skill and leading. None of our troops were at any time harassed or hard pressed. In the account of the operations given by the enemy, it is stated that over 3,000 British dead were found on the field, and from the report which I have just read it will be seen how much reliance is to be placed on their accounts. I may add that the communication which I gave to the House last week was the only report received until that which I have just read. No doubt the difficulty of communicating in such a position is very great.


Sir H. DALZIEL I am glad to see the Leader of the House in his place, because I desire to refer for a single moment only to a matter which was raised at Question Time this afternoon. I refer to the question which stood in my name to-day, and which asked the Prime Minister whether he was yet in a position to inform the House when it is proposed to make a statement on the result of the Government’s efforts to effect an Irish settlement. When that question was called, I asked leave to postpone it till Tuesday. Since that time I have ascertained from Members in different parts of the House that they interpreted my postponement of the question as meaning that there was something indefinite about the time at which the Government contemplated being able to make the statement, and that the matter was likely to be indefinitely delayed. Let me say that that was certainly not my view of the proceedings. The facts are that I had an opportunity of discussing this question with the Prime Minister previous to the meeting of the House to-day, and it was at his request that I refrained from addressing the question to the Leader of the House, as I intended to do this afternoon; but I understood the reason for the suggested postponement, was that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House were reluctant to commit themselves to a definite day until they were quite certain that it would not be necessary to have another postponement; and, as far as I was concerned, I postponed it till Tuesday, in the hope and expectation that they would be able then to fix a definite day for a statement to be made on Irish policy on behalf of the Government.

I take this opportunity, therefore, in view of the misapprehension which obviously has arisen in different parts of the House, of asking the Leader of the House to say whether he can in any way be more definite than was the case early to-day. The question I desire to ask him is whether he can hold out hope, or whether he can even go further than that, and say that the policy of the Government may be given to the House, if possible, not later than next week. Let me say that, so far as I am concerned, I have no desire unnecessarily to harass him at this very difficult time, but I am sure my right hon. Friend will give due credit to the fact that this question now has been in possession of the House, so to speak, for some considerable time. I know the Government are very fully occupied with other and very important matters, and I certainly know that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House have been giving their constant attention to the difficult matter which I am now bringing to my right hon. Friend’s attention. These are critical days both for Ireland and for the Empire. I am sure my right hon. Friend would be the first to admit that the representatives of Nationalist Ireland have, at all events, been very patient in regard to this matter, and not only the Irish representatives but the Irish people. They have been patient almost to the point of despair. Therefore, I think, it is in the interests of the good government of Ireland, as well as in the interests of the Government itself, that a statement should be made, and I feel sure it is the intention of the Government to make such a statement at the earliest possible moment.

Every hour brings fresh reasons why the Government should not only make an early settlement, but, if I may say so, a hopeful and satisfactory settlement with regard to this all-important question. Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to the latest phase of the matter cannot be too optimistic about the result. It is difficult in every way in which the Government may have to turn, but I think this House is determined that there shall not be failure to do everything it can in order, if possible, to rescue the negotiations from such a calamity. Further, within the last few days, we have had the declaration of America in regard to the War. That is an epoch-making event. My right hon. Friend will, I am sure, agree with me that that makes an additional reason why we should endeavour to settle the Irish question with the least possible delay. It is better to have the enthusiasm of the Irish in America than to have their aloofness in this great struggle in which the American Government is now taking part. We have had also this afternoon a declaration from the Leader of the House on behalf of the Government, which was received with enthusiasm. It was to the effect that Poland at last is going to get a free government, and that the opinion of the British Government was that that would add happiness to the people and prosperity to the country. If Poland and Finland are going to get self-government, and Russia is now going to be free, these things should operate for a determined effort to be made on our part to settle the Irish question. I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to give us some assurance: first that there is not going to be an indefinite delay and, secondly, if he can, that a statement may be made, if possible, during next week.

The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law) My right hon. Friend has accurately described the motive which induced the Prime Minister to ask him not to put his question to-day. As my right hon. Friend has said, both the Irish Members and the other Members of this House have been very patient, and for that reason we desire, if possible, to avoid making another statement until we can say definitely when the policy of the Government will be announced upon the subject. I can assure my right hon. Friend and the House that there has been no delay which we could have avoided. The delay has been partly due, as I am sure the House will understand, to the very exacting nature of the day-to-day duties in connection with the War in which the Government have been engaged. But it has been also due to the inherent difficulties of the subject with which we are dealing. The House will remember that after a great deal of deliberation the Government definitely decided that they would make an attempt to deal with this question. I appealed to the House at that time not to press us unduly, but at all events to allow us as much time as we thought necessary. Well, Sir, it has not got easier as we go on, but I can say this much: Had we abandoned all hope, there would not have been any delay in making a statement. We still have hopes that, with the good will which is felt, certainly both in the Government and in the House, to make solution possible. As regards the request for a definite statement which has just been made, I can only say this: I discussed the subject with the Prime Minister this morning—as, indeed, I have been doing every day—and he authorised me to say that he had every expectation that next week it will be possible to make a statement on the subject. Of course, I need not point out that this must to some extent depend upon the nature of the calls which day by day arise upon the Prime Minister in connection with the War.

Mr. DILLON This is no occasion on which the House should desire to raise the Irish question in Debate. I do, however, desire, and I want to press upon the Leader of the House, that I think we who represent the Irish people at a time of  terrible crisis are entitled to know, and that without further delay, where we stand? The Leader of the House, in the speech just now, told us that all sections of the House, including the Irish Members, had treated the Government with great patience. What has been the history of this question? We had a Debate inaugurated by Irish Members, and the Government took up an attitude such as obliged us to go into open opposition to them. We concluded that at that time they had shut and barred the door in our face. We then knew where we stood and where our people stood. Subsequently, however, not upon our Motion or our initiative in any respect, directly or indirectly, an English Member on the Back Benches raised this question.

An HON MEMBER A Scottish Member!

Mr. DILLON And the hon. Member who raised the question was joined in that Debate from the Back Benches by Members of all parties in this House except the Irish Nationalist party. A most remarkable and historical Debate took place in the House, with the result that the Government, on their own initiative, and without any pressure from us, announced that they intended again to approach this question, and on their own responsibility to attempt a solution. Subsequent to that, two or three days after, a Debate took place, in which I took the opportunity of warning the Government, with all the solemnity I could command, that now they had taken that responsibility upon their own initiative, without any pressure from us, that delay was dangerous. I said that the Irish people had been exasperated by what they conceived to be a series of breaches of faith, of postponements, of playing with them, and of dallying with them. The results were visible! Those results were the exasperation of the Irish people, and—a very much minor consideration—in making our own position as representatives of the Irish people almost impossible. I said all this to the Leader of the House and asked him to convey to the Prime Minister that while we were willing, under the circumstances of extraordinary strain and pressure, to exercise the greatest possible amount of patience, and that we were entitled to demand that at the earliest possible moment the Government should let us know their policy. We were prepared on the one hand to meet them if they were prepared to act in a generous spirit, and on the other hand we were prepared to fight them if we had to fight them.

I said then, as I say now, that a more deplorable and disastrous result, both for our people and for the Empire, could not be conceived than that we should be driven into such a position—perhaps I should rather say, forced to maintain such a position. We were led to believe, and we were under the impression—we put no pressure on the Government, we left it in the hands of the English Members, who had taken it out of our hands—we were led to believe—it will be in the recollection of every Member of the House when I say this—that before the Easter Recess we would be put in possession of the decision of the Government. We waited patiently. We were told at the last moment that this thing should stand over until after the Easter Vacation. We said nothing, but we fully expected when we came back after the Easter Recess, and the Government had the opportunity afforded them by the cessation of the sittings of the House, that we should then immediately receive the decision of the Government; but still we put no pressure on them, and then we were given to understand that the statement would be made to-day. When we saw the question of the right hon. Gentleman on the Paper to-day we concluded that, knowing his position, it was put on the Paper in privity with the Prime Minister and Leaders of the Government and that a definite date would be mentioned on which a statement would be made. But I deeply regret to say the statement to which we have listened from the Leader of the House to-night leaves us wholly in doubt whether even next week a statement will be made.

Mr. BONAR LAW It is in doubt to this extent, that it may be impossible to make it. But I did say clearly that it is our intention to make it next week unless something entirely unforeseen happens.

Mr. DILLON That is better. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will convey to the Prime Minister the desirability of making a definite statement next week. I do not propose to say any more except that, so far as the situation in America is concerned, as the Leader of the House probably knows better than anyone in the House knows, it is extremely exasperated by the action of the Government, and, so far as the position of Ireland is concerned, these delays are dangerous. Therefore, I do hope that next week the representatives of the Irish people will be put in a position in which I think they are entitled to demand that we should know where we stand, whether we are to be friends of this country and this Government or whether we are to be driven back to another long fight for Irish rights.

Note: The House of Commons rose on 27 April and returned on 5 June. No statement was therefore issued on the future of Ireland until 11 June when it was announced that a Convention of all interested parties would be held. The debate on this will appear in the next (May) Labour Affairs.

RUSSIA AND POLAND. 26 April 1917

Mr. ASQUITH asked the Prime Minister whether His Majesty’s Government is now in a position to make any statement in regard to Poland?

The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law) As the House is aware, one of the first acts of the Provisional Russian Government was to issue a Proclamation to the Poles, recognising their right to decide their own destiny, and stating that the creation of an independent Polish State would be a sure guarantee of durable peace in Europe. I am confident that I rightly interpret the feeling of this House when I say that we welcome that declaration and look forward to the time when, thanks to the liberal and statesmanlike action of the Provisional Russian Government, Poland will appear again in international life and take her share with other nations, in working together for the common good of civilisation. Our efforts in the War will be directed towards helping Poland to realise her unity on the lines described in the Russian Proclamation, that is to say, under conditions which will make her strong and independent. We hope that after the War Great Britain will remain united to Poland in bonds of close friendship. [See OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd May, 1917, col. 342, Vol. XCIII.]

Mr. DILLON May I ask whether the Provisional Government in Russia, in issuing that Proclamation, and the British Government, in giving their assent to it, have inserted in that Proclamation any provision giving a veto on the independence of Poland to the large number of German residents in that country?

Mr. BONAR LAW I do not know that there is any such condition, but there is certainly no part of Poland where the conditions are the same as in the district of Ireland to which the hon. Member refers.

Mr. KILBRIDE How far is Poland from London?

Commander WEDGWOOD asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any information from Russia as to the wishes or intentions of the Provisional Government as to including in the conditions of peace the reuniting of Poland, including the territories of Posen and Cracow, in the free Poland of the future?

Lord R. CECIL I have no information beyond the Proclamation issued by the Provisional Russian Government to the Poles.

Commander WEDGWOOD Has the Noble Lord no information as to the attitude of the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Union on this point?

Lord R. CECIL I have no reason whatever to think that there is any difference of opinion among those in power in Russia on the subject.

Commander WEDGWOOD Or the question of reuniting Poland?

Lord R. CECIL I have no reason to suppose so.

Mr. MacCALLUM SCOTT Has the Foreign Office entered into communication with any organisation in Russia besides the Provisional Government?

Lord R. CECIL No, of course not; but a question is to be answered later in the day by the Leader of the House.