Skip to main content

The Naval Position

Volume 18: debated on Thursday 7 January 1915

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


My Lords, would ask you to observe the form of my Notice—

To ask His Majesty's Government whether they will make a statement on recent naval operations and on time present naval position.
I am obliged to put the Notice in that form because there is still no representative of the Admiralty on the Front Ministerial Bench. I must say I think this persistent refusal of His Majesty's Government to appoint a representative of the Admiralty here is gross discourtesy to your Lordships' House and a real public inconvenience. I am sure that the noble Marquess who leads the House will, with his usual courtesy, endeavour to put the information given to him by the Admiralty into the form most interesting to your Lordships' House. He knows that in asking him to do that we on this side do not for one moment wish to press him to tell us anything that could by any possibility be against the national interest. But for whatever he can say we shall be most grateful. The nation follows the doings of the Fleet with just as great an interest and pride as it follows the doings of the Army; and my noble friend who sits behind ale (Lord Curzon) only refrained from alluding to the doings of the Fleet yesterday because he knew that I was going to have an opportunity of speaking for my Party to-day.

I do not know how far the noble Marquess will be able to take up the points on which I shall touch in turn, but I should not like to sit down without taking note of some of the occurrences of the past few months for which the Admiralty or the Navy have been responsible. I shall not again go into the question of the naval expedition to Antwerp. The time will come when we shall have to thresh it oat to the bottom on the floor of this House. All I will say now is that the more I have learned of that expedition the more sure I am that it ought not to have been entrusted to the Admiralty and that the Naval Brigade was not the force that ought to have been used.

Turning to the battle off the Falkland Islands, there we have every reason to congratulate the Admiralty on the strategical conception which made that victory possible and the Admiral and his squadron on the mariner in which that victory was achieved. The Admiralty acted on one of Nelson's great maxims, that the best thing to do was to annihilate the enemy. I. hope all our countrymen understand that so thoroughly was that maxim carried out that it is not going too far to say that Admiral Von Spec and his German squadron had no chance whatever, humanly speaking, against Admiral Sturdee and his British squadron, just as Admiral Cradock in his turn had no chance whatever with his squadron against Admiral Von Spec, and his squadron. The measure of Admiral Sturdee's success off the Falkland Islands is the measure of the blunder that the Admiralty made in furnishing Admiral Cradock with a squadron so wholly incompetent for the task that he was set to carry out in the Pacific. The moment has not vet come to follow that matter out either. We shall have to follow it out in time; but it is almost inconceivable that it should have been the same authority that armed Admiral Sturdee with his squadron and that armed Admiral Cradock with his squadron, both to perform the same task.

I do not know whether the noble Marquess will be able to tell us anything about the loss of the "Bulwark" or the "Formidable." So far as the public know, the "Bulwark" was lost by an explosion in the magazine. I do not think we have been told whether that explosion was due to an accident or whether it could possibly have been due to what I know has often been a source of anxiety in all Navies, and that is the chemical decomposition of powder. So far as we know, the "Formidable" was lost by submarine attack somewhere in the Channel. I do not know whether the noble Marquess will be able to tell us anything about that. I have heard a rumour, to which I do not personally attach any credence, that she was not torpedoed but that she also was lost by an explosion in her magazine. Personally I do not believe that, but as the rumour exists I mention it in order to give the noble Marquess an opportunity of dealing with it if he is able.

I pass to the raid by our cruisers, submarines, destroyers, and airships on the German harbour of Cuxhaven. I do not ask to be told anything about that raid—either its object or its success or otherwise—which is not entirely in harmony with national interests; but I should not like to sit down without expressing the extraordinary admiration I feel, not only for the individual skill and daring of the men engaged on the water, under the water, and in the air, but also for the professional skill with which all their operations were co-ordinated and made part of one whole.

Then I pass to the East Coast raid. Lord Durham has told us to-night that there was no sort of panic. Well, I do not think any of us who knew our countrymen thought that there would be a panic. I hope that the Government will take that lesson to heart and believe that our people are not given to panic, that our people are worthy of being thoroughly trusted, and that it is the worst possible policy to base any tactical or political action on the supposition that our people could be frightened into panic. All they want to know is the whole truth about everything, however unpleasant that truth may be. The more His Majesty's Government take them into their confidence the more resolute they will be in their support. But I have seen an old heresy awakened from the dead by this raid, and that is that the proper place for Sir John Jellicoe's Fleet is doing a sort of patrolling work up and down our coast. Nothing could be worse policy, or more dangerous, or more suicidal. I do not know where Sir John Jellicoe and his Fleet are, and I do not want to know; but I do know that his, only and sole task is to destroy the German Fleet if it ever comes out. It is not his business to try and prevent a raid of this kind.

I want to say something about the possibility of preventing a raid of this kind. Given a German squadron of fast powerful ships which leaves Wilhelmshaven secretly after dark one night and arrives at a spot on our coast chosen by itself, which, as we know, may have no military significance whatever, and arrives at that spot before dawn and leaves with the utmost speed on its return journey within less than an hour after dawn—then I say that it can only be by a fluke if that raiding party be intercepted on its way back; and I hope the British public will understand that. It is no kind of reflection on Sir John Jellicoe, or on the Admiralty, or on any of the Admirals acting under the Admiralty and not under the orders of Sir John Jellicoe, that such a raid as this is possible.

I pass to an incident which occurred much earlier in the history of the war—I mean the escape of the "Goeben" and the "Breslau" from the Straits of Messina, with all the political consequences which have ensued. I do not think, so far as we can see, that those political consequences are going to be particularly grievous for the Allies, though I think they may be very fatal for some friends of Germany. Still there is no doubt that that escape was an incident of real naval and political importance. The Admiralty have evidently thought so too, because we have been told in the newspapers that in the first place they held a Court of Inquiry into the conduct of the British Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, Sir Berkeley Milne, and that he was completely exonerated. Subsequently a Court-Martial was held on Admiral Troubridge, and he in his turn was acquitted with honour by his fellow-officers who sat on that Court-Martial. Now it is quite clear that the Admiralty would not have ordered the inquiry into Sir Berkeley Milne's conduct in the first place, and the Court-Martial on Admiral Troubridge in the other, if they did not think that there was something that required explanation, and unless something had happened which in their opinion ought not to have happened. Now we know that the one distinguished officer has been exonerated by the Admiralty itself, and the other completely acquitted by a Court-Martial. I do not think the Government can leave the question there. I should like to know, even now, something more about it. I am quite sure that the time will come when we shall have to go into that matter even if the Government are not able to help us in going into it now.

That leads me to another point to which I specially wish to draw the noble Marquess's attention, and I confess it is one to which I attach very special importance. I always understood when I was at the Admiralty, and I am told now, that it has been an invariable practice of the Navy that if ever one of His Majesty's ships has been lost, either in peace or in war, a Court-Martial has been held on the surviving officers of that ship. If the captain survived the Court-Martial was on the captain; if the captain was lost the Court-Martial was on the other officers if there were any survivors, and even on the crew. Now in this war we have lost, among ships of importance, the "Cressy," the "Aboukir," the "Hogue," the "Hawke." the "Monmouth," the "Good Hope," and the "Formidable." In the case of the "Monmouth" and the "Good Hope" there could be no Court-Martial because we lost every officer and man; but there have been survivors—I am thankful to say many survivors—in the case of the "Cressy," the "Hogue," the "Aboukir," the "Formidable" and the Hawke." Perhaps the "Formidable" is too recent a case for me to use as an illustration, but not so the "Cressy," the "Hogue," and the "Aboukir." I have seen nothing of any Court-Martial on the surviving officers or men of those cruisers. Why? Why should a practice which I believe has never been suspended, which has been invariable during two or three centuries—why should that suddenly be suspended in this war? I think the practice was most salutary and most fair to the naval officers and men themselves, most helpful for the maintenance of the high tradition of the Naval Service, most useful to the nation in order that in each case it might know why one of His Majesty's ships had been lost. Therefore I ask, and shall press hereafter if not now, for an explanation why a Court-Martial has not been held in these cases. Of course, nothing would satisfy me more than to hear that those Courts-Martial are going to be held. If they are, I rather regret the delay, but I am very glad of the decision.

I should not like to sit down without briefly reviewing the work of the Fleet since the war began. It is a review which will be very short though the field it will cover is not less than immense. The doings of the Army are constantly before the public. It is only now and again that the doings of the Navy similarly appear. Yet, my Lords, I believe the death-roll of the Navy is very nearly as high as the death-roll of the Army. Of course, the number of wounded in the Army is enormously greater than the number of wounded in the Navy, but it has been the melancholy, and I believe unforeseen, experience of the Navy in this war that when a ship has been lost the greater proportion of her crew has been lost too. The Navy has kept the people of these islands and of the whole Empire at work and with food in their cupboards. The fact that the war has only partially interrupted the normal life of industry and of the family wherever the British flag flies is due to the work of the Navy. It is due to the Navy that greater movements of troops have taken place under the British flag in connection with this war than I think have ever taken place before in the history of this country or in the history of the world; and, as far as we know, those movements of troops have taken place not only without the loss of a single ship but without the loss of a single life. All that is due to the Navy. It is due to our Fleet also that the only thing the German Navy has been able to do in the way of a raid has been this killing of civilians in the coast towns of Durham and Yorkshire, a feat which never could have had any possibility of any military value whatever. The German object could only have been one of two—either to create a panic in this country, which is a very likely idea on their part as they clearly know nothing whatever about the character of our people; or they may have thought it necessary to keep up the spirits of their own population by the exhibition of this naval activity. Of that no doubt they will be the best judges. But if that really was their object, then so far as we are concerned it is a hopeful sign.

Our position as an Opposition, as my noble friend said last night, is a peculiar one; and we cannot lay aside all responsibility because we represent a very large body of opinion in the country who want to know from time to time why it is that we give such whole-hearted support to the Government. My noble friend answered that question in part last night. I would supplement what he said by saying to our friends that one of the reasons why we support the Government is that we know that the Government are giving the whole of their support to the Board of Admiralty and to Sir John Jellicoe and the officers and men of the Fleet in the performance of the great task that lies before them. Not that we associate ourselves unreservedly with all the doings of the Admiralty. I have already made my reservations in respect of the expedition to Antwerp and the composition of Admiral Cradock's squadron; and I confess that I think that the private war of words which the First Lord delights in carrying on on his own account against the Germans is simply deplorable, and I cannot understand how his colleagues in the Cabinet can tolerate it. I certainly dissociate myself from that altogether. But to the Board of Admiralty as a Board we give our wholehearted support, and to Lord Fisher in his very special and immense responsibility. Above all, let me say on behalf of all the Party for which I speak that we have the most supreme and unwavering confidence in Sir John Jellicoe and the officers and men of the Grand Fleet, and not only in those officers and men but in the officers and men of the squadrons or flotillas not under his command, whether in British seas or in foreign waters.


My Lords, we cannot, I think, but be glad that the noble Earl opposite, who as a former First Lord of the Admiralty speaks with authority and experience, has been able, even in so thinly an attended House as this, to bring forward the subject of the Navy. One would have hoped that a large number of the noble Earl's supporters would attend to listen to his eloquent statement. The fact that at this moment the subject of the Navy in a debate in Parliament does not arouse precisely the same immediate interest as that of a debate on the Army is due entirely to the fact which was mentioned by the noble Earl and on which I will say a word in a moment—that the immediate doings of the Navy have been on a less dramatic scale than those of the Army. I have no doubt that to-morrow when the noble Viscount opposite brings forward his Motion on recruiting for the Army a far larger attendance will adorn the Benches opposite than I see at this moment.

The noble Earl repeated the complaint that has been made that there is no representative of the Admiralty in this House. For more reasons than one I share the regret of the noble Earl. Speaking generally, I think it is desirable that all the important Departments of State should have a representative in your Lordships' House, although, as I believe I pointed out when this question was under discussion before, there have been cases when the Party opposite was in power when no representative of the Admiralty has been in this House. I might, perhaps, mention this further point as an excuse on my own behalf for venturing to reply to the noble Earl. Since the institution of the Committee of Imperial Defence those who regularly sit on it, as I have now for a great number of years, obtain a certain general knowledge both of the Army and of the Navy in their technical aspects which Ministers before the institution of that body who did not fill either of the two actual appointments were not in a position to acquire.

Like the noble Earl, I do not propose in any way to argue the question of the expedition for the support of the besieged city of Antwerp. That is a question which, as he says, may very possibly become the subject of a more detailed discussion on a later date. Nor do I propose on the present occasion to add anything to what has already been said about the action off the Coast of Chile, which, as we know, resulted in the lamentable loss of important vessels of His Majesty's Navy. On the last occasion on which any public statement was made about the Navy it was made by my right hon. colleague the First Lord in another place on November 27, and since that statement the most noteworthy event that has occurred is that to which the noble Earl alluded, among others—namely, the action off the Falkland Islands. The circumstances of that action have been stated with a tolerable degree of freedom, and I need not supplement what was said by the noble Earl, except, of course, to add my congratulations to the Admiral for his brilliant performance. The noble Earl also alluded to the not less brilliant achievement of the Fleet and of the officers and men in various branches of the Naval Service in the raid on Cuxhaven. The more one considers and studies the actual feats of daring and skill which were performed in that raid the more profound does one's admiration become of the individual officers and men who took part in it.

The result of Admiral Sturdee's victory off the Falkland Islands is that only two German cruisers—the "Dresden" and the "Karlsruhe"—are left to carry out their commerce-destroying raids, and also two armed merchant vessels. Those are the only enemy ships now on the ocean, and without attempting to boast or to make any too sanguine a forecast, I think it is safe to say that their ultimate end is certain. The difficulties which confront ships of that kind in obtaining supplies and in particular in coaling are so marked that it is impossible to suppose, although they may be able to do a certain amount of damage to individual ships in the interval, that they can for long escape the fate of other ships of the same kind that have paid the penalty. It is a point to which notice cannot be drawn too often in connection with what the noble Earl said about the recognition dude to the Navy, how complete now is our maritime control over the whole world. I fancy that students of history would be unanimous in saying that there never has been a naval war in which the supremacy of the British Fleet all over the world has been obtained so rapidly and at such small cost as supremacy has been obtained in this instance.

Various events have recently made us think of the war against the United States which began in 1812, the last serious naval war in which this country was engaged. That followed the great series of successes of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th—all those marvellous victories which gave us the command of the sea. But, as the noble Earl very well knows, when it came to 1812 we encountered something of a serious setback. The Americans produced a class of frigate superior and more powerful than our own; and not only in a series of untoward naval actions, but also in the effect on trade in the country, our Navy for a considerable period was not predominant. Now, as I say, in an incredibly short space of time we have almost succeeded in obtaining that command and it is impossible to thank the Navy too heartily for what it has achieved in that respect. At the same time we must not forget, in the first place, to mention the ships of the Australian Navy, nor omit to note the assistance rendered both by French and by Russian cruisers, and also in the Pacific to such an extent by the fine Navy of Japan. Those are points which we certainly must not pass by.

As I was saying, the noble Earl—and I was grateful to him for it—drew attention to the vast silent service which is rendered by the Navy, and which in the press of the observation of other events we may be sometimes apt to forget for a moment, in securing the great flow of trade backwards and forwards and also in securing the sanctity of these shores. And it is important to remember one great naval revolution which the progress of science and invention has brought about—namely, that close naval blockade has now become a thing of the past. In all those great naval wars of the past the Fleet that had the command of the sea could blockade a port, leave its ships at a reasonable distance from that port, and thereby intern the inferior hostile fleet and command the naval situation. The invention of submarines has put a stop to all that. No such thing as a close naval blockade is any longer possible; and we have further to remember the most important fact that a flotilla, of submarines cannot be countered by the possession of a superior force of submarines of our own. A squadron of battleships is liable to be defeated and destroyed by a superior squadron; the same with cruisers, and the same even with destroyers. But when you come to submarines the mere fact that you possess a large number yourself does not, in fact, seriously limit the possibilities of danger arising from the hostile flotilla.

I was grateful to the noble Earl, speaking with the authority he does, for making it so clear that the kind of naval raid which was made upon our coast the other day cannot in existing circumstances be rendered impossible by any naval means. He stated that with the utmost clearness and with a conviction for which I was grateful, because it has apparently sometimes been hinted that something might have been done which would render a raid of that kind impossible. Perhaps I ought to apologise for using the word "raid," which has become something of a term of art in our recent discussions. A raid has of late been taken technically to mean a landing of a moderate number, say 10,000, or at the most 15,000, men on these shores; and according to the technical use of the word that term ought not to be applied to a naval bombardment such as that which took place the other day. But, on the other hand, we have heard the phrase used in this connection, and perhaps it is as good as any other. It has to be realised that there are no known methods of making an attack of this kind altogether impossible. If the enemy are prepared to go on making attacks on undefended towns it is impossible to say for certainty that they may not make them again.

As regards the information which we so freely hear is conveyed to the enemy from our shores, I can only say that if that information included statements that either Scarborough or Whitby was in any sense a defended town, as we have seen stated in some German publications, it was, as we know, of an altogether erroneous character. And perhaps I might say, in passing—and I say this with the most absolute confidence—that I am quite certain that no activities of German spies or any aliens had any bearing whatever upon this naval attack on Whitby, Scarborough, and the Hartlepools; and although I am not able to give my reasons for making that statement, I regard it as a matter of proved certainty. As regards the attack upon those towns reported to be justified in the case of Scarborough—or was it Whitby?—by the existence of a wireless station, all I can say is that that argument would make it justifiable for any of the forces of the Allies who entered Germany to deliver over to the fate of Magdeburg any German watering places which possess a: telegraph office or in which a soldier in uniform could be found. We know that nothing of the kind is likely to happen. Breaches of the conventions and proprieties of warfare by the enemy may be countered in some cases by severe dealing with individuals, but they are not to be countered, and certainly will not be countered by us, by anything in the nature of indiscriminate reprisals. But we can say with certainty, just as we believe it to be the case in the matter of the Belgian outrages, that such acts will recoil in the long run on the State that perpetrates them.

I should like to add my testimony, and I know- I can also add that of the Admiralty, to what has been said of the admiration to be felt for the calmness and courage with which the inhabitants of those bombarded places met the unexpected experience to which they were subject. It so happens that I have the testimony of a friend who visited Hartlepool immediately after the bombardment., who was full of admiration of the complete calmness with which the inhabitants of that town behaved. Before leaving this branch of the subject I desire to say that I heard with peculiar satisfaction the observation which was made by the noble Earl, again speaking with all the authority of his experience, that events such as these ought not to be allowed, and cannot be allowed, to interfere in any way with the main scheme of the naval defence of this country. Any suggestion of pinning the main Fleet to the coast in consequence of attacks or outrages of this kind would be in the highest degree unwise, and perhaps might be almost suicidal. And when the noble Earl says that he does not know where the Grand Fleet is, I can assure him that I am in precisely the same position. It is a question which I never ask, and I am inclined to think that none of my colleagues outside the Admiralty are any wiser than I am.

Perhaps I might say a word upon the steady growth which is taking place in our general naval preponderance. When the First Lord made his statement at the end of November he entered into some detail on this subject, and I have no wish to repeat in any way what he then said. Every month our Fleet in all its branches goes on getting relatively stronger, and that is a process which will steadily continue. It is also, I think, desirable to point out that the manning of the Fleet in all its different branches has been conducted with ease and with success in spite of the formation of the body to which the noble Earl alluded with some deprecation—namely, the Naval Brigade. When war broke out there were a large number of men available in the depots. We were therefore able not merely to make up the reserves of the nucleus crews but to man with first-rate skilled complements the ships which were building for foreign Powers which were taken over, as the House knows, in a great hurry when war broke out; and all the great forthcoming deliveries of new ships of all kinds, including monitors—a special kind of craft useful for particular purposes of warfare, as the House knows—the manning of all those is completely provided for as far ahead as it is necessary to consider. And in the last resort there remains the Naval Division, which has been used for other purposes, to which the noble Earl alluded, which so far as it is composed of seafaring inert can be utilised as another reserve.

The noble Earl spoke of certain losses which had taken place in the Fleet of late. He alluded, in the first place, to the lamentable explosion on board the "Bulwark." Although I do not know that it can ever be absolutely proved what the cause of that explosion was, the most generally held opinion is that it was the result of an accident and not a deterioration in the explosives; but I am only there giving a general impression of what I believe to be the best instructed belief. The noble Earl also mentioned the "Formidable" the loss of which we all so profoundly regret; and he mentioned a rumour which he said was prevalent in some quarters that that battleship had been destroyed not by a torpedo but by an internal explosion. The definite opinion of the Admiralty is that the "Formidable" was sunk by two torpedoes fired from a submarine; and I should like to tell the House that after the ship had been struck the captain signalled to another ship which was in the neighbourhood not to stand by but to keep off because he believed there was a submarine in the neighbourhood. That was a very gallant act, and worthy of the finest traditions of the British Navy; and I am sure it must be a consolation to those whose relatives were lost on that ship to know that they went down like heroes with their last thought for their comrades in the Fleet. We ought not to forget also to pay a tribute to the gallant conduct of those who assisted in the rescue of sonic of those who happily survived from the "Formidable," the fishermen who took on board some men from the ship's boats, a work of the greatest difficulty and carried out with the finest gallantry.

Then the noble Earl concluded his speech by touching on a subject of some difficulty, and one upon which I fully admit difference of opinion may easily exist. He inquired as to the holding of Courts of Inquiry and Courts-Martial in cases of the loss of ships. He asked whether, so far as possible, the result of such Courts might not be made known to the public, and he also desired that it should be laid down as an invariable rule that in all cases in which a ship was lost a Court-Martial should necessarily be held.

I think I put it this way—What is the reason why the invariable rule has been departed from?

I am speaking, of course, without special technical knowledge, and I am subject to the contradiction of the noble Earl, or of any other noble Lord who is better informed than I am; but I confess it is a suggestion entirely new to me that during the whole of the naval history of this country, where a ship has been sunk in the course of a naval battle, a Court-Martial has been always held. I should like to ask the noble Earl—I do not press him for an answer at this moment—whether, if that is so, the holding of the Court-Martial has been confined to those actually on board the ship that was sunk, or whether it was held on the Admiral commanding the squadron or Fleet, as the case might be, to which the ship that was lost belonged? I am speaking, of course, of a naval action in which the ship is sunk by gunfire, as was the only way of sinking a ship in the past. If that is so, I can only say it is a surprise to me to be told, say in the case of a great victory when one or two ships were lost, that either the captains or Admirals of those particular ships were tried by Court-Martial; and whether that is so or not, I should like to point out that in the case of a ship which is sunk by a submarine, or even I think it may be said of one which is sunk by a mine, a ship of that kind is lost in an operation of warfare and therefore is not in pari materia with losses which occur in peace time by a ship being cast away or run aground, or by some mishap of that sort. I certainly had believed, and it appears to me to be a rational distinction, that a difference had been made in the past between the loss of ships by operations of warfare and losses which occurred through accident or mishap for which the commanding officer of the ship might presumably be to blame.

I do not think any one thought of holding a Court-Martial on the captain of a ship sunk in a naval victory such as was Trafalgar; but if there had been a naval reverse, I think a Court-Martial would have been held on the Admiral. In the case of a single frigate action the captain was held responsible, and that corresponds with the loss of a ship by a submarine or mine now.

That, no doubt, is a matter which the Admiralty will take into careful consideration. I am not able to tell the noble Earl precisely in what cases Courts-Martial have or have not been held, although, as he knows, some Courts of Inquiry and Courts-Martial have been held; the noble Earl alluded in particular to the escape of the "Goeben" and the inquiry which took place at which the conduct of two Admirals was inquired into. The "Hawke" was under the command of the Admiral commanding the Grand Fleet. What happened to the "Hawke" was not the result of independent action on the part of her commander; therefore the question as to who ought to be put on his trial would arise, I have no doubt, in each particular case. But, apart from that, there is the further question of what degree of publication ought to take place in cases where Courts of Inquiry or Courts-Martial are held. The view which the Admiralty take of that argument of the noble Earl is that during the progress of the war it is not expedient to publish the results of Courts of Inquiry; and I conceive that they founded their view largely upon this consideration—namely, that in time of war there are all manner of circumstances, some of which are almost certain to be involved in the evidence given for or against the particular officer, which, for reasons of public policy, cannot properly be published.

I feel pretty certain that so far as the particular case of the "Goeben" is concerned, although certain facts connected with the escape of that vessel might be published, it would not be possible in the public interest to publish everything which might come out at the Court of Inquiry. If that is so it is clearly not fair to the officers, or indeed to the public, that a truncated story should be told; and that, I think, is the main argument which causes the Admiralty to ask noble Lords and others who desire to be furnished with these details not to press for them during the progress of the war. There obviously can be no object in not publishing anything which in ordinary times would be published—the proceedings of a Court of Inquiry relating to the loss of a ship—except the fact that some damage may be done to the public interest thereby; and if a rule can be made and maintained that so long as, at any rate, the war at sea lasts there should be no publication of the details of these inquiries I believe that it would prove to be to the public interest and that no other interests would be prejudiced thereby. It is, of course, open to a particular officer who feels that a complete silence about a case is damaging him to make an appeal to have certain facts published, and I have no doubt that any appeal of that kind would be most carefully considered by the authorities. But the general rule is one which I venture to think it is reasonable should be made and maintained.

As I said when I entered on this subject, it is one on which there is, no doubt, much to be said on both sides. I dare say there is much to be said for the noble Earl's desire to try somebody by Court-Martial in all cases of loss. On the other hand, I think it might be argued that the effect upon officers—although I do not believe, knowing the spirit and temper of the Navy, that it is an effect which would be in itself formidable—of putting upon trial every man who meets with a mishap would be, except for that wonderfully bold temper of the Navy to which I was alluding, rather to encourage them not to take the kind of risks which are freely taken and ought to be taken in warfare, but which are sometimes taken in peace when they ought not to be taken. That is an argument which I confess I think has some importance. But I have no doubt that: the Admiralty will attach every weight to the arguments which have been used by the noble Earl on this subject, and if he desires to develop them to me or to any of the naval authorities privately I shall be very glad, I need not say, to convey them to the proper quarter—namely, to the notice of the Board of Admiralty. Whatever may be said about the representation of the Board of Admiralty in this House there is one respect in which the Navy always rather suffers in comparison with the Army in this Assembly. There are always a number of noble Lords in this House who have held high military positions and have seen a great deal of military service. It is only every now and then that we are similarly favoured among the non-official Peers in respect of the Navy. There have been times when there have been eminent Admirals in this House, but a debate of this kind does not now enjoy quite the same advantage which a general military debate does in your Lordships' House. I repeat that I am very glad that the noble Earl has opened up this subject, and I am quite certain that his observations will be appreciated not merely by the House but by the country, and I am glad to have had an opportunity of replying as well as I could to them.


My Lords, there are three observations only that I will make. The first is that it must have been a great strain upon the noble Marquess, although it has been a great pleasure to us, that he should be willing to deliver to us the interesting remarks to which we have just listened about the Navy. But it really is not fair that the noble Marquess, who is the most devoted and self-sacrificing pluralist I have ever known, should be called upon, in the space of two or three afternoons, to represent nearly every Government Department in this House, Willing as he is to do it, and willing as we are to listen to him, I do ask him to see whether he cannot get us a representative of the Admiralty in this House. There was a time, a few years ago, when the Master of the Horse occupied that position. No such discreditable anomaly, I hope, will be repeated. I am certain that among his colleagues, either in the other House or in this, the noble Marquess can find some one to represent the Admiralty here.

My second observation is that with the general spirit of what the noble Marquess said about Courts-Martial in naval cases we shall all agree; but I think that it would be going too far if he expected us on this side, during the progress of the war, to give an absolute pledge that in no case would we ask for the publication of the result of a Court-Martial in a case where a ship was lost. Be it remembered that a Court-Martial on the loss of a ship is a procedure from which the Navy is not averse. Rather is it one to which it is habituated, and any departure therefrom is more likely to be resented than approved of by the Navy.

My third point is about the "Goeben" and the "Breslau." The noble Marquess did not quite appreciate, perhaps, the point of my noble friend who sits behind me. My noble friend pointed out that the escape of these two ships with its vital and momentous consequences in the progress of the war was evidently regarded by the Admiralty as due to an error on the part of some one or another. Accordingly the conduct of two Admirals was investigated. Both of these Admirals have been acquitted, I believe on the ground that they were merely carrying out the instructions of the Admiralty. The implication therefore is that the blame, if blame there is, rests with the Board of Admiralty itself. That is a conclusion which is very widely drawn, and one of the reasons why my noble friend pressed for information was in order to give the noble Marquess an opportunity of dispelling any doubt. That opportunity he has not taken. But perhaps he may be able to tell us in a sentence if my version of the official procedure is correct—whether the verdict of the Court-Martial which acquitted Admiral Troubridge has been confirmed or not by the Board of Admiralty?