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Macedonia (Distress)

Volume 52: debated on Thursday 24 April 1913

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I desire to draw the attention of the House to the appalling condition of helplessness and destitution and famine of the Moslems of Macedonia and Albania, but, firstly, I should like to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the sympathetic answer which he gave to my question of last Thursday, and, if I may, respectfully say that we who have been anxious to do what was possible for these most unhappy people must fully recognise how glad the Foreign Secretary would be to be the means, were it possible, of saving a multitude of lives. And perhaps I may be allowed to say that humanity owes a very great debt to the representatives of His Majesty's Govern- ment in the Near East, who have not only co-operated with every endeavour to save life, but have constantly taken the initiative in this most Christian work. There are no politics in this discussion, and it cannot open any controversial door. There cannot be anything of politics when it is a question of saving one man from drowning or half a million people from starving. Here are some of the figures I have received. In Adrianople a few days ago there were anything between 20,000 and 40,000 men starving. When Colonel Delmé Radcliffe was at Salonika a few months ago, there were 50,000 refugees, the majority lacking roofs, adequate clothing and food. The number must be greatly increased now. The Government is better informed than we can be of the figures of the destitution in Macedonia. It has had the information of Mr. Consul-General Lamb, and other Consuls there. They must know the thousands of men, women, and children who are dying, within reach of life, night and day at Dedeagatch, Monastir, Uskub, Kavalla, and Northern Albania. Where they exist the foreign communities have distinguished themselves by their generous sacrifice, by their whole-hearted help. There are women who are fit sisters of Florence Nightingale, there are men who ought to rank with Father Damian. In Macedonia, the Macedonia Relief Fund, the Red Cross Society, the British Red Crescent Society have worked heroically. In Constantinople Lady Lowther's Committee have done magnificent work. But all these societies put together are inadequate to deal with the whole wide field of suffering.

The truth of the matter is practically this: that the extent of this calamity is not realised in this country because the people who are dying cannot advertise their suffering. They are dying in silence, and because they do not complain, people believe that they do not suffer. When a colliery disaster occurs in Germany, and the world knows it, money pours in. A dam bursts in America, and there is ready sympathy from every civilised State. A hundred thousand people starve in Macedonia, and because there are none to proclaim it from the housetops they are left to their fate. I remember talking to one man of a long line of refugees, who was driving an open wagon, in which he had his wife and two children. He told me a story, in an even, callous voice, how he had lost practically all that he had, and how two of his children had died from exposure on the journey, and, hearing his voice, I thought that if he could bear his misfortunes so equably it was not for a foreigner to be distressed. But when I saw his face, with the tears running down, I realised that these people have the feelings which we have, though they may not express them in the same way. What I am asking the Government to do is very little. We cannot purvey food to the fastnesses of Albania, and in many places disease and famine have done their irrevocable work. Let the dying die, but, if you can, save some remnant of the living. If I am asked how, I have an answer. You can send a man-of-war with flour to Salonika. The machinery for distributing it exists. Or the Government, if they choose to charter a couple of cargo boats at Malta, can send them with grain to the Ægean coast. And lastly, and perhaps best, because it would be the quickest, you can vote a small credit, fractional in its fiscal effect.

It may be of interest to the House to know that it only cost 2d. to keep one man alive one day out there. One of the objections which will be urged against my proposal is that we have never done this for our own starving people in this country. But this country has never been through a calamity like that, and if it ever had to do so we would give money to our own people. Our people are rich enough and generous enough to deal with these things as they arise. It will probably be objected that for the proposal I make there is no precedent. The condition of Thrace, Macedonia, and Albania, and life is not completely governed by precedents to-day. Nobody would have objected to giving old age pensions on the ground that there was no precedent; and if there is no precedent, I hope the British Government will be the first to make such a precedent, of which any nation, any Christian Government, can be proud. In another place it was stated that the case of Messina afforded no analogy, but to my mind it seems irrelevant whether a tragedy occurs at the hands of Nature or at the hands of man. In the case of Messina there unquestionably was intervention by foreign Powers. There was an international fleet which gave every assistance to those who had lost their homes. One of our boats, the "Exmouth," was sent from Gibraltar with 500 tons of fine flour. The argument that this would be a breach of neutrality no longer exists. The war is over. The battle has been fought and the victory won. The sword has done its work; fire has been their master; they have been at the mercy of the Balkan winter; they have had plague amongst them; they have lost what was theirs generally without the possibility of regaining it, and now famine has come to crush out the last spark of life. If you can save a number of these people at a cost of two pence a day surely it is worth while breaking a rule to do it, and surely if you do this House of Commons will go down to history as having originated one of the finest principles that have ever been known to mankind. You cannot be touching neutrality in helping these people. All you are doing is just saving lives that otherwise would be lost. Everybody knows that if a man-of-war had been near the "Titanic" when it was sinking that man-of-war would not have waited for orders from the Admiralty to save the drowning. What is the difference between drowning in the Atlantic and starving in the Balkans?

May I add one word in support of my hon. Friend's appeal. I am only entitled to do so, because, as representing some of those who have subscribed for relief in the Balkans, I had occasion to see the manner in which this distress arose to which my hon. Friend has alluded. Riding through the country in Thrace and Macedonia, one saw this kind of thing: Village after village either burned or vacant, no living beast in the village except occasionally a lean dog existing upon the remains of horses or buffaloes killed in the war. There has been raised this objection to the sending of relief from this country; that these things are the result of some criminality on the part of one section of the population. I wish to urge that they are nothing of the sort. They have arisen in the normal course of war. Necessarily the retreating or advancing troops have seen occasion to destroy villages. In the case of Mahomedan villages—and the refugees are both Christian and Mahomedan—there was universal belief that it was dangerous to stay when the armies of the Allies were advancing. We have at the Relief Committee reports from His Majesty's Consuls, who have done such splendid work in administering relief, that this fear was entirely justified, and it was in a way gratuitously that the population fled from these villages. In enormous numbers the villagers did fly. Their men had already gone into service and the old men and women and children who remained put such goods as they could collect upon the family ox-waggon, which was left—and the best oxen always had been requisitioned for war—and they trekked away towards the sea. Some of them were lucky enough to find shiping at Rodosto and other places, but in the case of thousands they remained crowded into barns or sleeping in the open air; and nothing can be more terrible than to see the miserable plight in which, after weeks and months, they have been left absolutely without the necessities of life, unless they are supplied from charitable sources outside. I do not think that blame attaches to the military authorities, whose task has been hard enough to find food for the troops, suffering intensely as they were very often themselves. It is not for me to elaborate the urgency of the appeal that has already so eloquently been made. I would only venture to point out that the urgency of the claim has been established by authorities we all recognise. I will read one line from the Archbishop of Canterbury:—

"It is my earnest hope, when the actual needs have now been made clear by the exertions of those best entitled to speak, the British public will realise the grievous urgency."
The Lord Mayor has opened a fund which distributes what can be collected amongst those committees who are directly administering the relief. In support of my hon. Friend's appeal I would just state this: The British public, the charitable public, has done its best, and it has done exceedingly well, but the magnitude of the need is beyond what I may say are the reasonable means and duties of the charitable British public. There remains an immense need. There are, as we know only too well, deaths occurring every day from starvation, and the reason why so much money has been given is that, without reflection upon any action in the past, it is felt that the responsibility of England is a special one in this regard. Historically speaking, it is very largely, in the view of the public who have given, the result of English policy in the past, in the long past, that the war has now occurred and the distress resulting has also occurred. It is not a question of reflection at all, but mere historical fact, and that is the reason why so much has already been given. But it is not enough. I would urge, in support of my hon. Friend, that we must all feel, in view of the responsibility which the charitable public realise, that no generosity could be too great to meet the debt which is owing, in morals and in charity, to the victims of misfortune, which is quite unique and which, thank heaven, will never occur again.

May I begin by thanking from the bottom of my heart both the Members who have spoken, for their very interesting speeches. I am very glad they have brought this subject before the House, and before the attention of the country. The question that they raise divides itself into two parts—first, what has been done, what is being done, and the need for the continuance of what has been done; and, secondly, whether and in what way the Government can help or promote it. A very considerable amount has been done. I have been making inquiries and I find that no less than eleven different funds have been at work in different places under separate organisations. No doubt they often overlap, but still much splendid work is being done. The hon. Members who have spoken have borne witness to the fact that His Majesty's Consuls have helped the organisations in the distribution of these funds. I need only refer to the Consuls at Phillip-polis, Monastir, and Adrianople, who have organised hospitals during the siege, and are taking a leading part in the relief, now that the siege is over. Although a great deal has been done, and many thousands of pounds spent—everybody will say wisely spent—and although I am thankful to say that it is this nation which has taken far and away the leading part in relieving distress, there is no doubt, whatever may be the immediate future in the Balkan territories, that the distress will continue for some considerable number of months to come. It may be that the war now, as we hope, stops, and that clouds which now cover the horizon may disappear; but taking it as it is thousands of men who have fled to places of comparative safety in the large towns and have been relieved by the administration which was on the spot, and have been kept alive during the war, will now be trying to get back to their villages. What will they find? They will find simply—because of the ordinary events and terrible happenings of war—that their villages have been laid waste and no crops have been planted and no prospect of any harvest coming up, which is what they would normally have relied on during the year which lies before them. There is not only the demand which has been considerably met to keep the refugees alive in the towns to which they have fled, but there will be the equally urgent necessity of providing food and sustenance during this summer for many thousands who will find their fields and houses have been laid waste by the inevitable operations of the war. That will, I hope, be enough to suggest to the people of England, who have already done so well, that there is still enormous need for their continuing their help so far as they are able to give it, in order that the terrible scenes and events of war may be blotted out and prosperity again restored to these countries. I come now to the action of the Government. Hitherto we have not given definite Government relief, and it is a fact, so far as relief in disasters in foreign countries goes, that precedents are against the hon. Member, as he said. We gave nothing in the case of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, and no grant of money after the Siege of Paris, and so on. I could go through a lot of other instances, and I think that there has been sufficient reason why hither-to it has not been desirable to propose a Government Grant, and that is that it is very difficult to give or administer a Grant of that kind within the obligations of neutrality, which the continuance of warlike operations imposes upon any Government which may try to take any action of this. But I would say that if, as we hope, the clouds roll entirely away, and if the Powers who enter into possession of these new territories were to make an appeal to the civilised nations of the world to help in obliterating the distress caused by the war, that would, of course, create a new situation which has not hitherto been before the Government, and the question of neutrality would not then come in, because peace would have been restored. That would create a new situation, and, although I am not in a position to make any authoritative statement on that matter, the Government would be bound to consider that as a new situation, and to consider whether they ought not to join with other countries in doing what they can to make good the terrible devastation which this war has inevitably caused. That is as far as I can go, and as far, perhaps, as my hon. Friend will expect me to go to-night, and I hope he will take it as an interim reply to the question which he has raised.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes after Eleven o'clock.