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Karachi Troop Train Incident

Volume 40: debated on Tuesday 18 May 1920

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rose to ask His Majesty's Government, in regard to the so-called "Karachi troop train incident" of the 5th June, 1916, whether it is now possible to exonerate Major-General D. Shaw from the blame which was imputed to him in view of the facts—

  • 1. That the first telegram from the Government of India declared that all measures for the comfort and protection of the troops which were within the competence of the military authorities at Karachi were actually taken;
  • 2. That that statement has not been controverted by any official inquiry;
  • 3. That no charge has been brought against Major-General D. Shaw;
  • 4. That the present Secretary of State for India has stated in the presence of witnesses that in his opinion Major-General D. Shaw had "been most unjustly treated"; and that
  • 5. The late Secretary of State for India actually invited Major-General D. Shaw to memorialise him.
  • The noble Lord said: My Lords, my object in putting to His Majesty's Government the Question which stands upon the Notice Paper is to afford an opportunity for a necessary act of reparation, to give His Majesty's Government an opportunity of repairing a cruel injustice which has been done to an honourable gentleman and a gallant soldier. I need say only a few words in explanation. I shall endeavour to state the facts of the case in an entirely dispassionate manner, as my only object is the one I have stated. In earnest of my good faith, I have refrained from putting down a Motion for Papers which, in accordance with the custom of this House, would give me the right, of reply.

    Some of your Lordships may remember the facts of the case. On June 5, 1916, the transport "Ballarat" arrived at Karachi with reinforcements. Those reinforcements were ordered up country, and in crossing the Sind Desert at that terribly hot time of the year it unhappily came about that there were nineteen fatal cases of heat-stroke. That was by no means an unprecedented incident. There had been previous cases of heat-stroke since the beginning of the war, not only on the railways of India but also on ships at sea, but they had not come to the knowledge of the public. To give a specific instance, there was one case of the Connaught Rangers, in the previous year I think, who had a few fatal cases of heat-stroke.

    But this particular case got into the newspapers and, not unnaturally, excited a great deal of indignation in this country. Explanations were demanded, and the Secretary of State for India—at that time Mr. Austen Chamberlain—read out a telegram in the House of Commons on July 20, 1916, from the Government of India. The effect of the telegram was that everything possible that could be done for the comfort and welfare of the troops had been done, that the train was not overcrowded, that there were a plentiful supply of ice, a coffee-shop and large supplies of mineral waters, and so on.

    But the public and the House of Commons were not satisfied. They demanded that the responsibility for having sent the troops up-country at that time of year and for the consequences of the decision should be brought home to somebody, that the blame should be fixed and the responsible person punished. It is obvious that the responsibility rested with the Government of India, and the Government of India alone. The diversion of the "Ballarat" from Bombay to Karachi could only have been an order from Army Headquarters in India. Anybody who knows anything at all about the Army will know that this is an order which must come from Army Headquarters. Similarly, the order for troops to proceed up-country must have come from Army Headquarters. It is also sufficiently well known that the orders for the railway transport of troops are invariably, must inevitably be, centralised, and, as a matter of fact, in India there are very definite Regulations as to the railway transport of troops, which are laid down in the Indian Army Regulations, volume X; and from which no officer, whatever his rank may be, can possibly depart without a grave breach of discipline.

    It follows, therefore, that Army Headquarters—that is to say, the Government of India—were responsible for this order, and I can tell your Lordships exactly how it came about that the transport was diverted from Bombay, which was the proper port at which it should have landed the troops, to Karachi. It happened that the Secretary of State, when asked for reinforcements for India, was very anxious about the possible consequences of landing unseasoned and very youthful reinforcements of British troops in India at that time of year. He asked the Government of India to be particularly careful about their treatment and also to see that they were landed at Bombay, at which place there are better facilities for landing and taking care of troops than there are at the port of Karachi. It so happened that the Commander-in-Chief in India at that time resented this advice, this entirely proper advice. What happened was that when the next reinforcements came this ship was diverted from Bombay. The actual reason why it was diverted—the Departmental reason—was that the ship contained motorcars which could not be sent on the railway from Bombay and could be more conveniently landed at Karachi. That is the fact, and the person responsible for the detailed orders of the train did not think of the troops but only thought of the motorcars. These orders ought to have been examined by other authorities in Army Headquarters who ought to have given very special instructions for the care of the troops. Indeed, they ought never to have allowed the troops to be disembarked at Karachi. They should have landed them at Bombay, and sent the motor-cars to Karachi. That was the obvious thing to do, but it was not done.

    The point is that the responsibility rested with the Government of India. However, people in this country were not satisfied. They wanted some one to blame, and the Government of India were asked to fix the responsibility. On August 1, 1916, the Secretary of State for India read another telegram in the House of Commons which absolutely contradicted the first telegram. I can give it to your Lordships, but I do not want to take up your time. The telegram, after contradicting all that had been said in the previous telegram, wound up by saying that the Government of India proposed to remove General Shaw from his appointment. The Secretary of State for India acquiesced in this decision of the Government of India without any further inquiry and without even waiting for the Report of the ordinary Court of Inquiry on which the decision of the Government of India was supposed to be based. General Shaw—I am merely stating the facts—General Shaw was removed from his appointment at a moment's notice, without being informed why he was removed, and in circumstances which involved humiliation and disgrace in the eves of his troops and the people of Karachi. It was not till October, 1916, when General Shaw returned home, that he heard at all or that he had the slightest idea that he had been made a scapegoat by the Government of India, that he had been held up to odium in both Houses of Parliament and that his character as a man and a soldier had been blasted in the eyes of the whole English-speaking world. He immediately went to the Secretary of State and asked for redress. I understand that Mr. Chamberlain received him in a sympathetic manner and declared that he was not satisfied; in fact, showed that he thought General Shaw had not had fair treatment and invited him to submit a memorial. General Shaw did this. He submitted a memorial to the Secretary of State, who had promised that this memorial should go out to the Government of India for their remarks. Nothing has been heard of that memorial, or of the reply of the Government of India, although it was drawn up three years ago. Meanwhile, Mr. Chamberlain left the India Office in connection with the situation which had arisen in Mesopotamia and was succeeded by Mr. Montagu.

    These are just the bare facts. What I want to impress upon your Lordships at this stage is that no charge of any kind has ever been brought against General Shaw in regard to this matter, and that he has not been cersured by the Government of India in an official and formal manner on account of his management of affairs at Karachi. I also want to tell your Lordships that never at any time during his thirty-six years of military service has he had an adverse Report concerning himself, unless—and I make this exception—such Report, contrary to the Army Act and contrary to the King's Regulations, has been kept from his knowledge. General Shaw has never seen or heard of any adverse report affecting himself. I hope you will not be told what the other House was told on the several occasions when this question was raised, that the present Secretary of State had offered General Shaw an inquiry and that General Shaw had refused it. That sounds a fair offer, but it is not so if you know the actual details. What was offered to General Shaw was an inquiry in India. That is to say, that the Government of India were to be made the judges in their own case, that they were to be asked to inquire into, and pronounce upon, their own conduct. General Shaw's appeal is, of course, against the Government of India which unjustly condemned him. But General Shaw has not refused this inquiry.

    What General Shaw has said is this—"Before you hold any further inquiry—and you can hold any inquiry you like—as to my responsibility, remove the stigma on my name. Otherwise, I have to appear before any Court which yon may institute as a condemned man." That is all I am asking for on behalf of General Shaw. I am asking that the stigma which has been unjustly placed upon his name may be removed. No inquiry is necessary for that purpose. The facts are there on the official record. You have them from the Government of India, and there is ample corroboration. Nor do I want to drag any one else into the matter or get any one else condemned or blamed or punished. All that is needed is a statement on the high authority of the Secretary of State that according to the information which has been received General Shaw was blameless in regard to the Karachi troop train incident. As a matter of fact General Shaw not only did everything he ought to have done, and prescribed by Regulations, but he actually took the responsibility of exceeding those Regulations in order to do everything he humanly could for the comfort and safety of the troops. That is the fact. I want a statement to that effect; a statement which would show that General Shaw was blameless in the matter. If that is made the natural sequence would be that General Shaw would be reinstated and would then be free to retire immediately from the Army without a stain upon his honour.

    I should like to tell your Lordships, and it is a very significant and incomprehensible fact, that for three years General Shaw was kept on unemployed pay for the admitted purpose of keeping his lips sealed. Whenever he made a move in this matter he was told to remember that he was amenable to military discipline. That was the answer he got from the India Office. It was hardly fair. Of the two other people who were dismissed at the same time, and made to share his responsibility, one of them was immediately promoted and subsequently rewarded and the other was allowed to retire on a pension. There only remains General Shaw, and I hope that the noble Lord the Under-Secretary of State has received instructions which will enable him to make this tardy and highly necessary act of reparation.

    My Lords, I hardly think the noble Lord expects me to make what he calls "reparation" to General Shaw in the matter about which complaint has been made, because on more than one occasion, as the noble Lord indicated in his speech, the Secretary of State in another place has indicated all that it was possible for him to do in regard to General Shaw's grievance. The facts as stated by the noble Lord are, perhaps, sufficient for present purposes, but I should like to emphasise a little more than he did that it is not a usual occurrence for there to be 150 cases of sunstroke resulting in fifteen deaths of gallant soldiers in India during the drought season or at any other time. It was a most unprecedented thing, I believe a particularly unusual thing, which occurred in June, 1916—when these new troops freshly arrived were sent from Karachi a distance of nearly 1,000 miles through the desert of Sind with what certainly appeared afterwards to be insufficient accommodation in practically every respect.

    One of the reasons which Lord Ampthill suggests should induce the Secretary of State to exonerate General Shaw is that the first telegram from the Government of India, dated June 15, read by Mr. Chamberlain in the House of Commons on July 20, declared that all measures for the comfort and protection of troops which were within the competence of the military authorities at Karachi were actually taken. No doubt the telegram said that; but I do not know whether the noble Lord is aware that that telegram was practically a reproduction—it was sent after the occurrence, on June 15, the incident happening between June 5 and 9—of the telegram which General Shaw had himself sent to the Government of India in answer to inquiries. Afterwards the Government of India, of their own motion as well as by virtue of a request from the Secretary of State, appointed a Committee to inquire into the whole occurrence, and as a result of the Report of that Committee sent a telegram, which was read by Mr. Chamberlain in the House of Commons, in which they said that their considered opinion on the Report of the Committee which had gone thoroughly into the matter was that adequate steps had not been taken for the protection of these troops. Apparently the noble Lord desires that the Secretary of State should now say that the second telegram, based on the Report of the Committee, was wrong, and that the first telegram, practically reproducing General Shaw's own statement, should now be accepted as absolutely correct.

    May I interrupt for a moment? The second telegram was not based on the Report of the Committee. In no way is it borne out by it.

    I beg the noble Lord's pardon. I rather think he is wrong with regard to the facts, because in the second telegram, dated July 30, the Government of India said that this was their considered opinion after having studied the Report of the Committee which had investigated the facts. The noble Lord will find that I am correct with regard to that.

    The noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting again. The telegram of July 30 is not in any way supported by the evidence of the Committee of Inquiry.

    That is quite a different matter. The Government of India based their second telegram on the Report of the Committee, and said that after carefully studying that Report they came to the considered conclusion that sufficient steps had not been taken for the protection of these troops. It is now admitted that adequate steps had not been taken. The train was unsuitable, and perhaps ought never to have left in June, proceeding through the desert of Sind such a long distance to Rawal Pindi.

    That was precisely what the Committee of Inqury was directed to investigate. They went into the conduct of each particular officer concerned with the whole of that matter from start to finish, and there is no question but that the Committee decided that some portion of the blame at any rate rested upon Major-General Shaw. That is what the Government of India stated to the Secretary of State in their telegram of July 30, 1916. It is perfectly true that no charge was brought against General Shaw. It is perfectly true that there were certain irregularities. General Shaw was not asked to cross-examine other witnesses—he was a witness himself before the Committee—as he would have been if there was a definite charge against him. It was by virtue of these irregularities and because the Secretary of State, first Mr. Chamberlain and then Mr. Montagu, thought that General Shaw had some cause of grievance that he was offered another inquiry, and all difficulties that were suggested in the way of this inquiry the Secretary of State offered to do his best to obviate. That was done not once but twice. It was done more than two years ago, and was repeated as late as December last year, and the offer was kept open for another week after it was made in December, but General Shaw has not thought fit to accept it. He has insisted that the inquiry must be preceded by a full retraction of the censure which the Govern- ment of India, as a result of the investigation of the Committee of Inquiry, thought fit to pass upon him. The Secretary of State has said more than once in the House of Commons that it is impossible for him to constitute himself a Court of Inquiry; that he is not competent to do so; that all the facts cannot be investigated by him in the same manner as by a Court of Inquiry; but that so far as General Shaw has a grievance, and so far as it is possible for him to redress it, he will give General Shaw every opportunity of vindicating his character as an officer before another Court of Inquiry. In those circumstances I submit that your Lordships will not think that the Secretary of State has in any way dealt harshly or hardly with General Shaw.

    I notice that in the Question put by the noble Lord there is one statement made, "that the Secretary of State for India has stated in the presence of witnesses that in his opinion Major-General D. Shaw had 'been most unjustly treated.'" I do not think I can let that pass without informing your Lordships as to what the Secretary of State authorises me to tell you—namely, that he does not accept the statement that he at any time said that Major-General Shaw had been most unjustly treated. What he did say—I am not trying to reproduce his words—was that General Shaw may have a grievance by reason of the irregularities that I have mentioned, and that so far as he could he would remedy that, and give him redress by constituting another Court of Inquiry; that he would pay all the expenses of the witnesses that General Shaw wanted to be examined in India, if they were in this country; and that he would give every facility for General Shaw being able to call all the evidence he wanted to call. In those circumstances I submit to your Lordships that the Secretary of State could not pursue any course other than he did; that he cannot, I submit with confidence, withdraw the finding of the Court of Inquiry and start General Shaw, as the noble Lord presses he should, so to speak, with a clean slate. There is the finding of the Court of Inquiry, and if General Shaw says it is not binding upon him, he was at any rate told that he was welcome until December to another Court of Inquiry. If he chose not to accept that offer, I venture to submit that it does not lie in his mouth now to complain of injustice or hardship.

    I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but it was the India Office who said that the Court of Inquiry did not inquire, and was not constituted to inquire, into the conduct of General Shaw.

    I cannot agree with the noble Lord as to that being the statement of the India Office. The Court of inquiry was constituted for the purpose of investigating this occurrence, and to consider and report who, if anybody, was responsible for its result. That the result was most deplorable no one will deny. There were 130 cases of sun-stroke, resulting in fifteen deaths. It is quite clear now that, whoever was to blame, adequate steps had not been taken. The Court of Inquiry, with the evidence before it, came to the conclusion that General Roe was one of the persons responsible, and he was punished. General Shaw was another, and the medical adviser was also dealt with.

    He obtained some other employment of a technical character, but was relieved of his administrative charge, and never obtained an administration charge from that time. As regards the medical adviser, he has agreed to have a fresh Court of Inquiry, and the Secretary of State has promised to give all the assistance he can in constituting such a fresh Court.

    My Lords, before this debate comes to a termination I should like to say one or two words, because in an article written by my noble friend some months ago dealing with this question in the National Review he brought the charge against me, along with other Ministers who have been successively in the India Office, that we had been unjust to General Shaw. Had I considered myself guilty of an injustice I should most certainly have responded to my noble friend's invitation to offer a public apology and make whatever reparation lay in my power. It is because I do not feel that I have anything to make in the nature of reparation in regard to that extent to which I was connected with this question that I would like to make one or two very brief observations.

    Lord Sinha has stated the case so clearly and fully that there appears to me to be no reason for going over it again. I do not propose to enter into the merits of the case. I think it would be improper on my part to do so. I did not feel myself qualified, when Under-Secretary of State in 1916, and later on when acting in the capacity of Secretary of State during Mr. Montagu's absence in India, to form and much less to express an opinion as to whether and to what extent, if at all, General Shaw was to blame in this matter. In regard to the Court of Inquiry which investigated this unhappy incident, when the findings of the Court came before our consideration and attention in the India Office, we most carefully examined the whole of the proceedings of that Court, and certainly I formed the opinion, and I think all my colleagues in the India Office formed the opinion, that the sentence passed upon General Shaw was of a character that the evidence before that Court did not fairly justify, in his interest. Therefore, with the full consent of the Secretary of State in Council, the Government of India was urged to institute a further Inquiry. As a result of that an Inquiry was offered to General Shaw.

    My noble friend pours scorn upon the Inquiry which was offered to General Shaw, and that I cannot understand. An inquiry was offered to General Shaw on the only lines and in accordance with the only military procedure that could be offered to him—namely, in the country in which he was serving, and in regard to the military jurisdiction under which he was serving. It could not be held in this country. I understand that it would not have been in accordance with military procedure that it should be. But quite apart from that, I would like to bring this important aspect of it before your Lordships' attention. This inquiry was offered to General Shaw—I think it was in the latter part of 1917; anyhow it was at a period when the war had reached its most grave and critical stage and when India was having to play its most important and critical part in that stage—and if, as General Shaw asked, an inquiry had been instituted at that period in England, it would have necessitated the bringing over to this country of quite a large number of witnesses, including officers of high standing who occupied at that time most responsible positions. It is unnecessary for me to dwell on the point further. It would be quite unthinkable at that stage of the proceedings—with trouble on the Frontiers and with a Mesopotamia campaign which was being very largely borne by India—to dislocate the whole military machinery by bringing home, merely for the convenience of General Shaw, witnesses who were holding responsible positions out there. Therefore I do not think there is any cause for complaint, and there can be no cause for complaint in regard to the inquiry being offered to General Shaw in India.

    But there is one other aspect of this question which has not been alluded to in the debate, and it is one, I venture to say, of not inconsiderable importance. The first rule, which I understand has never been broken in the Army, is that no officer has any right to claim a Court of Inquiry or a Court-Martial. There is a very prevalent idea even among Regular soldiers that they have the right to a Court of Inquiry to clear their character. As a matter of fact I am given to understand, and I believe it to be quite correct, that they have not. There is also a very prevalent misconception on the part of civilians as to the difference between efficiency and discipline, which I will not go into now. The fact remains that no officer has the right of an Inquiry. Many officers have applied for one. I understand that scores of officers have asked for an Inquiry because they have been removed from their command during the last five years of the war, and in the great majority if not all of those cases that application has been refused. That to my mind is a very important aspect of this question, and I would ask my noble friend to take it into full consideration.

    Are you suggesting that General Shaw has claimed a Court of Inquiry? because just now you said he refused one.

    I am suggesting this—that General Shaw came and made repeated complaints, as my noble friend perfectly well knows, to the Secretary of State and to the authorities in the India Office, and as a result of those complaints, coupled with the examination in India, an Inquiry was offered by the Secretary of State to General Shaw. What I am trying to point out now is that in making that offer to General Shaw a very exceptional concession was granted to him, a concession which has been denied to a great many other officers in the Army, and a concession which the authorities both in India and in the India Office would have been perfectly within their rights had they refused in the case of General Shaw. Therefore whilst I have deep sympathy with the feelings of General Shaw, as all of us would have, if he feels he has suffered a humiliation I cannot help thinking that he really has no cause for complaint, for the India Office—and I would say this, against the expressed opinion of the Commander-in-Chief at the time—ordered the assembly of a Court of Inquiry, which I very much doubt would ever have been done had a similar case been brought before the authorities of the War Office in this country. This gave General Shaw every opportunity to have his case fully examined into, and for him to be exonerated if blame did not unduly attach to his action at Karachi. He has had an opportunity—and the only opportunity that could be afforded to him—of stating his case. While I have sympathy with General Shaw, I feel that whatever humiliation he has suffered to-day is really due to the fact that he refused the opportunity that was afforded to him to clear himself in the Inquiry.

    My Lords, I have no first-hand knowledge of this case, because I am pleased to say I left the India Office before this unhappy incident and various other unhappy incidents with which that Office was concerned took place. I do not know General Shaw. I have never, so far as I know, met him. Therefore I am completely without bias of any kind either in his favour or against him. At the same time, having heard the statement of the noble Lord and having read his article in a magazine of last month, I cannot feel that the official statement is from the point of view of abstract fairness entirely satisfactory, although I hasten to say at once that I am quite sure that both Secretaries of State—Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Montagu—and my noble friend the Under-Secretary and his predecessor Lord Islington have done everything that they possibly could within the limits of official practice to secure that no injustice should be inflicted on this officer.

    It may be, as I think Lord Islington has implied, that General Shaw is the victim, if he is a victim at all, of circumstances rather than of official action, and to a certain extent this may be so, as I think I can show in a moment. But there are one or two points upon which one has to be clear. I understand that nobody suggests that General Shaw was in any way responsible for sending these troops from Karachi through the Sind desert. That, I take it, was the act of Army Headquarters. It is quite clear that a General officer who is in charge of embarkation at a port has no voice in the question whether a particular consignment of troops should be sent on a particular route. If such an officer, when receiving an order to send troops to a certain destination at a certain time, were to ask in return the question, "Are you sure that is a wise thing to do?" his position would not in all probability be an enviable one in the future; and one must assume that so far as the actual dispatch of these troops is concerned General Shaw is no more responsible than all the other officers of similar rank in India or elsewhere. Of course, he may have been responsible for the mode of conveyance or the provision of comforts. I understand at any rate that the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, asserts that so far as the facts are concerned General Shaw is not to lie found to blame; that he is assumed, according to the statement of the noble Lord, to have done everything he could in the way of the provision of comforts and so on, even over and above what the regulations sanction. Those, of course, are questions of fact, and not baying seen the evidence of the Court of Inquiry, I am, of course, in no position to state what those facts are, or how they affected the terms of the second telegram, the condemnatory telegram, of which we have heard.

    It certainly would be more satisfactory, if a case of this kind is to be brought before Parliament at all, that there should be some means of following more closely the chain of events which led to the singular change in the terms of the two telegrams. These personal questions are, after all, of first-rate importance. It has always been, I confess, my practice in the various offices which I have had the honour of filling to regard these questions affecting the fate of persons as very often of more real importance than matters of high policy with which a Minister is assumed solely to concern himself. I trust, therefore, and indeed believe, that the authorities of the India Office will have given their best attention to the whole history of this case, and have reached their conclusion after giving the utmost care to all the circumstances.

    I only wish to make one more point about the Court of Inquiry. I confess that I am not altogether surprised that General Shaw was not attracted by the offer of a second Court of Inquiry. It is very difficult in a case of this kind to conduct a Court of Inquiry on the regular lines of Military Courts of Inquiry in a manner which will bring out all the facts to the satisfaction of the public. Remember that this event is precisely of the same character—it is on a smaller scale, and therefore it could not be treated in the same way—but it is precisely of the same character as those events which produced the Mesopotamian Commission. Nobody thought that the tragedies of the Mesopotamian Expedition could be dealt with by an ordinary Court of Inquiry, and precisely the reasons which made that procedure undesirable also apply in this instance. I confess I do not believe that the procedure of an ordinary Court of Inquiry in India into a case of this kind could be in essence satisfactory. I think the circumstances were such, involving the responsibility of Simla in so many different ways, that it is hardly conceivable that a Court of Inquiry could bring out all the facts and all the deductions in the way, for instance, that the Mesopotamian Commission brought out all the facts connected with a very parallel set of circumstances.

    And for that reason I am not altogether surprised that General Shaw was not attracted by the idea of a second Court of Inquiry in India. I do not claim to know how the first was composed, and who sat upon it, and how far it could be regarded as an independent tribunal. But I am not altogether surprised. It may be that it is General Shaw's misfortune that he did not care to take that particular method of obtaining what he considered to be redress, and that there was no other opening. That may be. I am not prepared to say that there was, unless the representatives of His Majesty's Government are prepared to acquit him off-hand; but, if so, I think he is a person greatly to be pitied, because the little that I know of the circumstances leads me to believe that the ordinary official or military methods of inquiry do not, in fact, meet the case fully in this instance.