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Mr Churchill And The Press

Volume 65: debated on Friday 7 August 1914

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May I ask the First Lord of the Admiralty if he has any news that he can give to the House, and will he at the same time say what the course of business is to be?

The House will have read with sorrow of the loss of His Majesty's ship "Amphion" yesterday. The day before yesterday the flotilla of destroyers patrolling in the approaches of the Channel, found the German mine-laying ship "Koningen Luise" and sunk her. About fifty members of the crew—which I am informed was probably 120 or 130 in all—were humanely saved by the flotilla. The "Amphion" continued to scout with the flotilla, and on her return journey was blown up by a mine. The greater part of the officers and men were rescued by boats, but as I have already informed the Press, through a communication issued from the Admiralty, nearly 130 persons were killed outright by the explosion, and in addition to that twenty of the prisoners confined in the fore part of the ship. There are no other losses of any kind. There has been no other fighting so far as we are aware.

The indiscriminate use of mines, not in connection with military harbours or strategic positions—the indiscriminate scattering of contact mines about the seas, which may, of course, destroy not merely enemy vessels or warships, but peaceful merchantmen passing under neutral flags and possibly carrying supplies to neutral countries—this use of mines is new in warfare, and it deserves, at any rate, to be considered attentively, not only by us, who are, of course, engaged in the war, and who may naturally be prone to hasty judgment in such matters, but deserving also to be attentively considered by the nations of a civilised world. The Admiralty are not at all alarmed or disconcerted by such an incident. We have expected a certain number, and we continue to expect a certain number of such incidents, and our arrangements provide for reducing such occurrences to the minimum possible. But I should like to say there are a great many very disconcerting rumours spread about. These rumours arise from the fact that the censorship of the Press at present is of a very strict kind from the point of view of saying aye or no to any particular piece of military information, and I think one consequence of that is that newspapers, in default of facts, are rather inclined to fill up their columns with gossip which reaches them from irresponsible quarters along the coast, where no doubt a great deal of apprehension may in the minds of nervous individuals prevail.

We are establishing to-day a Press bureau, and I am very glad to say that the right hon. and learned Member for the Walton Division of Liverpool (Mr. F. E. Smith) will preside over it. From that bureau a steady stream of trustworthy information supplied both by the War Office and the Admiralty can be given to the Press, which, without endangering military or naval interests, will serve to keep the country properly and truthfully informed from day to day of what can be told, and what is fair and reasonable; and thus, by providing as much truth as possible, exclude the growth of irresponsible rumours.

With the indulgence of the House, perhaps I may be allowed to say that we owe a very great debt to the Press of this country. During the precautionary period when we had no legal means of controlling them the proprietors and editors of the great newspapers, irrespective of class, or the party to which they belong, all combined together to take no notice of questions which the Admiralty and the War Office did not want referred to, and it was through that that our preparations were expeditiously and discreetly completed, without undue alarm being caused in this country at a time when no explanation could have been given. We wish to deal with the newspaper Press in such a way as to enable the people of this country to follow what is taking place reasonably and intelligibly. It is on information of that kind that panic and unnecessary alarm can best be avoided.

In regard to the business, the Government arrangements for the conclusion of the Session are not at this moment finally determined, and the House will meet on Monday at the usual time. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Illingworth) informs me that on Monday a Motion will be made to adjourn the House until Tuesday, 25th August.