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A Personal Explanation

Volume 180: debated on Wednesday 7 August 1907

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

asked the indulgence of the House while he made a personal explanation with reference to an incident which occurred at Question time on 29th July.† On that date he asked the Secretary to the Admiralty whether it was the established practice of the Navy to hold a public court-martial on every officer who lost or surrendered his ship; and, if so, why this rule had not been enforced in the case of his Majesty's ship "Ariel," which was lost on Malta Breakwater on 19th April. His motive in asking the Question had absolutely nothing to do with the officer in command of the "Ariel"; the Question was based on broad grounds of administrative policy. It was, he submitted, a perfectly legitimate Question, and one asked in the highest interests of the Navy, with no sort of arrière pensée. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy Burghs, in a supplementary Question, described the Question as ungenerous, and proceeded) to insinuate that at one time five years ago he (Mr. Bellairs) had been in a similar position and liable to court-martial. To that statement he gave an unqualified denial. The Secretary of the Admiralty asked for notice of the Question of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy, and having waited twenty-four hours for such a Question to be put down, he wrote to the hon. Member the following letter setting out the incident as reported in Hansard, which was word for word identical with The Times report, and asking for the name of the hon. Member's informant—

"30th July, 1907.

"Dear SIR,

"On Monday, 29th July, I asked a question in the House as to whether it was the

† See (4) Debates, cIxxix., 461.

established practice of the Navy to hold a public court-martial on every officer who lost or surrendered his ship; and if so, I proceeded to ask why the rule had not been enforced in the case of H.M.S. "Ariel," lost on Malta Breakwater, on 19th April. It was a perfectly legitimate Question and one asked in the highest interests of the Navy, with no sort of arrière pensée. I believe that public trial is better than a secret court of inquiry, but the foundation of my question lay in a deep-rooted love for the traditions of a service which Gladstone once described as 'the noblest profession in the world.' It is one of the glories of the Navy that under any circumstances in which an officer loses the ship confided to his charge, be the odds even or a thousand to one against him, he faces a trial by court-martial. The fact of the rule being invariable, as I believe it to have been, prevents any suspicion of disgrace attaching to being brought to trial, and it absolutely shuts the door on favouritism. Had you given me the slightest notice of your intended supplementary Question I might have explained these matters to you, and so prevented the House being troubled with the following unedifying personal wrangle.

'"Mr. DALZIEL asked whether the procedure differed from that which was followed five years ago in the case of the hon. Member who put this somewhat ungenerous Question.

"' Mr. BELLAIRS asked whether it was ungenerous to ask such a Question when, where a court-martial was held, the sword of an officer was returned to him with honour where there was no fault on his part. That was the reason why he put the Question.

"'Mr. DALZIEL: May I ask for an Answer to my Question?

"' Mr. EDMUND ROBERTSON requested the hon. Member to put down notice of his Question.

'"Mr. BELLAIRS asked what was the insinuation which the hon. Member desired to make against him.

"' Mr. DALZIEL: The only explanation I desire to make—

"MR. SPEAKER stopped further remark by [ruling that these interventions were irregular.

"As no notice of a Question has been placed on the Order Paper, you appear to be content to let the matter rest there, having succeeded in insinuating that some incident in my career rendered me liable to a court-martial five years ago for the loss of my ship. I now ask for particulars, and when I have shown you that the story is untrue, I feel sure that you will see that the proper course to be followed is to give me the name of your informant who appears for his own reasons to have selected this date of five years ago as being the one which coincided with my retirement from the Navy. I am sure you would not have made this charge unless you believed yourself to be in full possession of the facts, and you will therefore have no difficulty in complying with my natural desire for an immediate reply.

"Yours faithfully,

"CARLYON BELLAIRS.

"James H. Dalziel, Esq., M. P."

On the preceding day he (Mr. Bellairs) received the following letter:—

"The Reform Club,

"3rd August, 1907.

"Dear SIR,

"I am in receipt of your favour of the 30th, which unfortunately—through no fault of yours—was forwarded to ray country address, and consequently reached me later than would otherwise have been the case.

"I have some difficulty in ascertaining from your letter what you really wish me to reply to. I thought the Question you put in the House—to which you allude—an exceedingly ungenerous one, more especially having been addressed by one who at one time held a commission in His Majesty's Navy. I still think so.

"The supplementary Question I asked sought to obtain information as to whether the procedure of which you' complained had not been similar to that followed in reference to an incident—the full particulars of which you are, of course, fully cognisant—in which your own conduct was the subject of inquiry.

"The Secretary to the Admiralty was unable without notice being given to provide me with the information. Perhaps you will do so.

"Awaiting the favour of a reply.

"I am,

"Yours faithfully,

(Signed) J. H. DALZIEL.

"Carlyon Bellairs, Esq., M. P."

To this he replied:—

"August 6th, 1907.

"Dear SIR,

"I received your letter this morning. You repeat, but do not explain why, it is 'exceedingly ungenerous' to ask a question as to the reasons for the Admiralty departing from the accepted practice of holding a public court-martial when a ship is lost. The fact that I have been a naval officer is the very reason why I should ask the Question, and I am not disposed to defer to you on a matter of taste. In answer to my request for particulars about the untrue statement you made that I was in a similar position and liable to a court-martial five years ago, or in 1902, when I retired from the Navy, you have the assurance to ask me for information about an event which never occurred. The suggestion that I was under a cloud in 1902 is unworthy. So far from having anything to be ashamed of in leaving the Navy, your course compels me now to state that I received letters from the Admiralty in 1902 expressing great regret that I should feel that the state of my eyesight necessitated leaving the Navy. Lord Selborne personally sent for me and expressed his regret, and the Board spontaneously wrote stating that their desire was to give me special promotion on retirement, but that the age regulations precluded them from doing so until I reached a certain age.

"Finally, let me state that I have never rendered myself liable to a court-martial; I have never on any occasion lost a ship or been in a ship which was lost, and my 'conduct' has never been the subject of an inquiry.

"Yours faithfully,

"CARLYON BELLAIRS.

"J. H Dalziel, Esq., M. P."

The final letter which passed was as follows—

"August 7th, 1907.

"Carlyon Bellairs, Esq., M. P."

"House of Commons.

"Dear SIR,

"I have received your letter of the 6th, and also an accompanying letter in which you state your intention of making a personal explanation on the subject in the House of Commons.

"Had you awaited my reply to yours of yesterday's date, you probably would not have considered it necessary to trouble the House in the matter, but as you have thought fit to decide on this course without awaiting my further reply, it only remains for me to state that I shall be in my place in the House at the time you mention.

"Yours faithfully,

"J. H. DALZIEL."

He had informed the House that he asked the Question on broad grounds of administrative policy. Article 91 of the Naval Discipline Act, under which the Admiralty acted, laid down that if a vessel is lost she shall be deemed to remain in commission until a court-martial shall have been held, pursuant to the custom of the service. That Article was conclusive that he was right I in asking his Question, because it amounted to this, that the Admiralty were not complying with the Articles of War. He thought the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy Burghs was wrong in importing prejudice into the case by insinuating that he (Mr. Bellairs) was personally interested, and had rendered himself liable to court-martial in a precisely similar way.

MR. DALZIEL (Kirkcaldy Burghs) said he would only take up the time of the House a few minutes in explaining the circumstances in which he asked the supplementary Question. Between the time the hon. Member's Question ap- peared on the Paper and the time when it was asked it had been represented to him by friends who knew all the circumstances of the case that it was an exceedingly ungenerous and exceedingly cruel action on the part of the hon. Member, having been a naval officer himself, to reopen an incident which had been closed some months back, and to suggest that some more severe punishment should be inflicted on the offender.

May I contradict that statement? The contrary is the case. The court-martial might have given a less punishment, and it was, besides, a public and not a secret body.

MR. DALZIEL said he would, of course, accept the interruption of the hon. Member. But in any case the incident had been closed, and the person affected, having accepted the decision, had a right to believe that the whole matter was at an end. To the lay mind, however, the fact that the hon. Member suggested that a court-martial should have been held was in his view equivalent to the suggestion that the punishment was not so severe as it might have been. While an officer against whom a charge was made had a right to demand a court-martial he entirely demurred to the suggestion that this was the invariable course adopted with regard to a lost ship, and he could give instances in which no court-martial had been held. As to the supplementary Question he was not responsible for the interpretations put by the hon. Member. He entered the House at the moment that the hon. Member was putting his Question, and he had in his mind the representations which had been made to him. His supplementary Question was whether the procedure followed in this case was not the same as that followed in the case in which the hon. Member was concerned some years ago. Two newspapers said "five years," which was not correct; and if the hon. Member construed his suggestion as meaning that there was a cloud over him and that he retired from the Navy on that account, he willingly withdrew such a suggestion. Such a thought never entered his mind, for he did not know how long it was since the hon. Member retired from the Navy. He maintained, however, that he was justified in asking the Question, and he demurred to the statement of the hon. Member denying his justification. He accepted the responsibility of stating now as a Member of the House that the hon. Member was himself concerned in a case in which the procedure was exactly the same as that followed in the case under discussion, and that the hon. Member was liable to a court-martial if the commander had ordered it. He asserted that the conduct of the hon. Member had been the subject of inquiry. On August 9th, 1895, torpedo boat No. 80, of which the hon. Member was in charge, came into collision with torpedo boat No. 72. A court of inquiry was held, and it found that the organisation of the torpedo boat was inefficient in respect of navigation, and Rear-Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson said that the collision was due to the faulty arrangements of Lieutenant and Commander Bellairs for the command of his boat. The Admiralty officials concurred in the view here expressed. He maintained that this finding amounted to censure on the hon. Member, and as such he still thought that it stood against him to-day.

observed that the incident referred to occurred twelve years ago, but the inquiry held was not into his conduct. Such inquiries as these were held almost from day to day, and there was scarcely an officer in the service who had not undergone the ordeal of such an inquiry. The order that led to the collision had not been given by him, and he was not present when it was given. The order was given by a sub-lieutenant through the voice tube, and he took the responsibility of it in order to prevent the promotion of the sub-lieutenant from being interfered with. He had given strict injunctions that the voice tube was never to be used to communicate with the helmsman, owing to the fact that it might lead to an accident, but the sub-lieutenant on that occasion neglected his order. At the time he thought it right to take the whole of the blame upon himself, and he willingly did so. There was no inquiry into his conduct, but, only into the cause of the collision. This accident in no way resembled in the slightest degree the subject of the Question he had put on the Paper.